Sponsored by Wilmington & Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau
My favorite moment each year is the instant joy I feel when those tiny white and pink buds start popping on the trees in Raleigh. That’s my signal to start packing our bags for a spring vacation and celebrate the return of warmer months.
It’s not unusual for us to head straight to the Wilmington and Beaches region of North Carolina, as it’s our favorite NC coastal destination. It is easy to get to from Raleigh, has fewer crowds, flowers bursting with spring colors, and warm temperatures.
Wilmington, NC offers a rare combination of historic architecture, a beautiful riverfront, and a close location to some of the best beaches in North Carolina, if not America!
We’ve always said, it’s a smaller version of Charleston or Savannah – oodles of Southern Charm with a vibrant, unique North Carolina personality and plenty to do.
Plus, it’s the home of Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill – two very popular TV shows filmed in Wilmington – the Hollywood of the East.
Our spring vacation to visit Wilmington happened in partnership with Wilmington and Beaches, and you can find more spring ideas from them here!
During our weekend getaway, we focused on exploring Downtown Wilmington. Can you believe it’s the first time we’ve written about Wilmington, North Carolina on our website after years of visiting and living in Raleigh?
This is just some guidance for your Wilmington trip. Feel free to swap around attractions and activities to suit the weather during your trip, your schedule, hotel location, and particular style of travel.
NOTE: we arrived on a Friday evening, and left on Sunday afternoon. If you visit mid-week, adjust accordingly to the opening hours of businesses.
We grabbed a quick dinner in town on Friday evening, choosing to have an early night, so we’d be ready for our two big days of exploring.
Consider Rooster & The Crow, the Seabird or Front St Brewery as dinner options. Indochine Wilmington is also another incredible option just outside of downtown, but as one of the most popular restaurants in Wilmington it can have wait times from 1-3 hours. The gardens in this restaurant are extraordinary!
Stay: Embassy Suites by Hilton, Wilmington Riverfront
Our hotel of choice in Wilmington is usually the Embassy Suites by Hilton on the Wilmington Riverfront. It’s probably the nicest Embassy Suites I’ve stayed at and felt fresh, modern, and stylishly decorated.
With an easy 10-minute walk to downtown, its riverfront location is hard to beat!
We enjoy their spacious suites, especially welcome when traveling with kids for the extra “time out” space. If you work (or school) remotely, you’ll love the living room/office space.
Your stay at the Embassy Suites comes with a buffet breakfast that has a decent array of offerings including omelet’s made to order, pancakes, grits and pastries.
They also have afternoon happy hours, where you can get two drinks, including standard well drinks.
We were so disappointed to miss the opening of their Cloud 9 Rooftop bar for the season by one week. Sunset from here is meant to be one of the best things to do in Wilmington. It really is a prime position for a magnificent panoramic sunset view over the river with your favorite drink in hand.
We stayed at the Embassy Suites Riverfront for two nights, and would happily stay there again!
For other hotels in Wilmington, we liked the look of The Ballast Hotel a block up the river, but it was a little more expensive. The Aloft and Best Western were also next door to the Embassy and looked good – location wise at least!
Day 1: Downtown Wilmington
Park your car at the hotel, you won’t need it for this day exploring downtown Wilmington. We love destinations where we can walk everywhere.
Early AM: Riverfront Walk
Enjoy the quietness of the morning with less crowds by walking along the boardwalk that lines the Cape Fear River.
The Wilmington Riverwalk is 1.75 miles long, but we typically do the section from our hotel to the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and back. Plus, we walk along it all the time during the day to access some of the downtown area’s favorite historical shops, colorful buildings and restaurants.
You can enjoy views of the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, as well as Eagle Island and the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge – which is known as the only steel vertical-lift bridge in North Carolina.
Check Spring happenings, as events can be held along the Wilmington Riverfront, including the bustling weekend farmer’s markets.
Wilmington takes awhile to wake up, so take advantage of those early hours to have the riverfront area to yourself.
We love to stop for a coffee at Bespoke!
Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods
A friend recently told me they select cafes on their road trips based on how aesthetically pleasing they are. Bespoke, then, would be high on anyone’s list of cafes to visit.
In fact, whenever we pass through Wimington on road trips south we stop at Bespoke for a coffee break.
Not just for it’s style, but because Bespoke makes our favorite coffee in Wilmington.
The black and white modern design is refined and elegant and invites you to sit for a while, and you’ll see many locals tapping away at their mobile workstations there.
All of the coffee at Bespoke is provided by Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee and treated with the utmost care this local NC roaster deserves. They have hot chocolates and smoothies for the kids – or chai lattes for your teens!
And, Bespoke also invites you to return in the later hours to enjoy their beer and wine bar!
10am: Brunch at The Basics
High on the list of best places to eat in Wilmington is brunch at The Basics!
You’ll find a wide variety of Southern inspired breakfast dishes including crab cake benedict, and cajun shrimp and grits, but other breakfast favorites like Mediterranean scrambled eggs, and blueberry pancakes.
Brunch always pairs nicely with a delicious dragon fruit mimosa or Irish coffee!
Either reserve your table, or arrive a few minutes before the 10am opening. Thankfully, we were about third in line, which quickly grew after we arrived.
As we ate a filling brunch, we did not need to stop anywhere for lunch, which gave us even more time for exploring!
11am (ish): Horsedrawn Carriage Ride of Historic Wilmington
A relaxing way to start your trip to Wilmington with kids is to take a horse drawn carriage ride through the historic downtown neighborhood.
30 years ago this district was dilapidated and considered dangerous. You could have bought a house here for around $10,000 – but you’d need cash as no bank was willing to loan money for this run down area high on the hill near the Cape Fear River.
The people came together to call it a historic district, which then gave them access to federal money and grants to restore the buildings. It’s now an expensive and well-sought area to live, with some homes now worth a million dollars!
Black plaques on homes let you know they are over 100 years old, and anything new that now gets built in downtown Wilmington must blend in with the historic look and feel.
You’ll learn all of this and more on The horse drawn carriage ride pulled by Jeff and Jake, two rescued horses from Amish County in Philadelphia. Tour company, Springbrook Farms has saved 18 draft horses in their 35 years of business.
The horses are well cared for, given adequate rest between rides, and always pull way less than what they are capable of. Each horse only spends one week a month downtown, and two or three weeks minimum out on pasture on their farm.
The carriage ride follows eight different routes. We passed by the oldest home in Wilmington at 284 years, the childhood home of President Woodrow Wilson, and learned that the Spanish moss draping over the oaks is actually part of the pineapple family and does not harm the trees.
Reservations are not needed for the tour. They leave from the end of Market St near the water, and cost $14 for adults, $6 for kids.
NOTE: We just missed the 11:15 horse drawn carriage ride as it was full. While we waited for the 12 pm departure, we visited a few of the nearby stores.
Shopping in Downtown Wilmington
I was surprised by the good local stores in downtown Wilmington. In the spare moments between visiting Wilmington attractions, spend time browsing the stores. You’re bound to discover something for all members of your family.
Across the cobblestoned street from the riverfront walk is the small City Market, a historic landmark and retail destination since 1880. There’s a melange of specialty shops as well as art and craft galleries.
I loved City Gypsy Boutique. They sell unique art from over 30 local artisans, fair trade, and boutique items including apparel, accessories, jewelry, crystals, pottery, and home decor, and much more!
Another shopping district in downtown Wilmington is the Cotton Exchange, which is housed within eight restored buildings connected by brick walkways and open-air courtyard giving a 19th Century Port City vibe from when Cotton was King. There are 30 unique specialty shops and restaurants.
1:30pm: Sightseeing Cruise of the Cape Fear River
For a relaxing hour of seeing Wilmington from the water, board a sightseeing Cruise with Cape Fear River Boats.
We boarded the small Captain J.N. Maffit boat to cruise upriver to where the Cape Fear forks before turning back south past the pastel colored shops and historical buildings of Downtown Wilmington on your left and, the Battleship North Carolina and Eagles Island to your right.
The captain gave us a brief overview of Wilmington’s history from the early explorers to Modern day ships from all over the world.
We also learned more about the geography of the region, including the fascinating story of Eagle Island which was once filled with rice fields until river dredging turned the freshwater to salt and destroyed the industry.
Before turning around to cruise back, you’ll get a good look at the shipping industry that gives Wilmington the name, Port City.
Wondering how the Cape Fear river got its name?
Old merchants would often notice the approaching shallow cape and would turn their boats around, only to run aground on the shoals. They would list on their charts that it was a Cape to be Feared.
Ice Cream at Kilwins
The smell wafting out of Kilwins ice cream is irresistible and will pull in your children just like the witch dragged Hansel and Gretel into the Gingerbread House.
This is bound to give them all the energy they need to continue to enjoy the rest of the day.
We’ve been taking our 14 year old Kalyra to Kilwins since she was two, so it’s a very nostalgic place for us to revisit with each trip to Wilmington.
From Kilwin’s it’s only a ten minute walk to the Bellamy mansion!
3pm: Bellamy Mansion and Museum
I enjoyed touring the 10,000 sq. ft, twenty-two room Bellamy Mansion, built by primarily enslaved and free black artisans for the Bellamy family from 1859 to 1861.
I thought it was tastefully done to really tell the truth of the slave story and help develop that understanding and empathy.
The self-guided audio tour begins outside the mansion, and then immediately moves to the two-story brick, slave quarters – one of the best preservered ones in the country.
You learned more about the life of the slaves and the back breaking work they did from sunup to sundwon. That story continued as you entered the house and began on the basement level to see the work the slaves did from within the house.
You then move up the five levels of the home to see how the Bellamy family lived.
I loved the elaborate parlor room, which definitely made my welcoming room in our house feel tiny! The tour ends up in the Belvedere, the small room that was responsible for creating natural air conditioning by capturing the natural breeze and sending it down to the rest of the house.
My other favorite was the gorgeous magnolia tree at the side of the house in the small garden offering a quiet peaceful place to rest under its shady beauty.
You can also join a 90-minute guided tour of the Bellamy Mansion. It took us about an hour to tour it ourselves, and both the girls really enjoyed it.
This is a worthy family-friendly experience and one of the most popular Wilmington attractions, and we recommend adding it to your itinerary.
4pm: Flytrap Brewery
Another short walk will take you from Bellamy House to a family-friendly brewery with plenty of space in the beer garden for kids. You’ll appreciate a rest in the sun with an ice cold local brew.
Flytrap Brewing is a popular neighborhood brewery located in the booming Brooklyn Arts District of Historic Downtown Wilmington. You’ll find some local art hanging on the walls!
Flytrap specializes in American and Belgian style ales, and Craig thoroughly enjoyed his light and refreshing Belgian Blonde.
They also have unique natural wines and flavored sparkling waters for the kids. Check the website for latest events as they often have artisan markets, food trucks and live music, making it one of the best breweries in Wilmington.
6pm: Sunset on the River
One of my favorite things to do in Wilmington is to watch the sunset down by the riverfront. We’ve been doing that with our kids for years.
You can either sit at any of the Wilmington restaurants lining the boardwalk or just stand on the boardwalk to watch it. (There are also sunset cruises you can take).
The restaurants can get very busy, so try and get there early and reserve ahead. Some won’t take you in unless you are eating.
We managed to get a small cocktail table on the deck of the beautifully restored Pilot House to enjoy a sunset drink. We had to get our own drinks from the bar, which we were more than happy with if it meant they could squeeze us in for this beautiful sunset show.
You could dine at any of these riverfront restaurants. You’ll find menus filled with seafood options, and typical American fare. Prices may be a little higher given the waterfront location and popularity.
We have eaten many times at a longtime Wilmington favorite, Elijah’s Restaurant. They have a very affordable kids menu.
7pm: Dinner at Platypus and Gnome
What Australian can pass by a restaurant named after one of our favorite native animals?
What makes Platypus and Gnome a worthy place to eat in Wilmington is its unique restaurant focus which is on exotic game meats.
Meats are sourced from sustainable sources. Their can’t miss favorites are wild boar, elk and bison. I LOVED the very extensive gluten free options they had – almost every item on the menu could be adapted.
Craig and I ordered the two most popular items on the menu: The elk burger and the ostrich sandwich. Kalyra was happy with her juicy Bacon Bacon burger. There’s a kids menu – even with gluten free chicken tenders.
The smoky wild boar soup was deliciously memorable. Either have a bowl for appetizer or sub it in as your main meal’s side for an extra price.
Platypus even sometimes has kangaroo in the menu – we missed it by a week. Check out more Wilmington restaurants here.
Day 2: Downtown Wilmington to the Beach
We made use of the breakfast that came with our hotel at the Embassy Suites Wilmington Riverfront this morning.
9am: Coffee: Seabird Restaurant
We were thrilled to discover another great place for coffee in Wilmington, Seabird, a relatively new restaurant in downtown Wilmington.
It’s not just a place for great coffee, it’s a popular lunch and dinner restaurant as well. Seabird is set in a historic building and has a focus on a seasonal seafood menu with ingredients found in North Carolina.
This coastal focus is reflected in a tastefully decorated modern space with full-length subway tiles, blue toned aquatic artwork on the walls, porthole windows on the swinging doors into the kitchen, and blue upholstered chairs. I also loved the addition of a small library in the wrap-around bar area.
Seabirds is cozy and sophisticated with a warm friendly service to match. Most importantly, baristas who know how to make a proper latte.
Seabird has a limited breakfast menu that includes grits and roasted potato bowl and a fried chicken biscuit plus pastries. This could be a good alternative for a grab-and-go quick breakfast here as well as coffee.
9:30am: Tour the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA
One of the most popular things to do in Wilmington with kids is to tour the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, which was one of the first of ten battleships to join the American fleet in WWII.
During World War II, North Carolina participated in every major naval offensive in the Pacific area of operations and earned 15 battle stars.
She was considered the world’s greatest navy ship and you can wander through the ship to see the sailor’s and officer’s quarters and mess hall as well as the vast amount of artillery on the expansive deck.
With two daughters, we were unsure if they would like touring the North Carolinian battleship, but we all enjoyed it.
It was a fascinating insight into life aboard a navy vessel, helping us see the difficulties of life cramped below a steamy, smelly deck – and that’s without being stuck in the throes of a fierce battle. NO THANK YOU! It will raise the respect and admiration you have for our service men and women.
It’s unbelievable how big it is below deck – you can tour 9 different levels – and we had no idea whether we were bow, stern, starboard or port the entire time. Arrows will guide you along the self-guided trail.
We could not tour the upper decks as they were closed for renovations.
Be sure to walk around the perimeter of the boat on the SECU Memorial Walkway – you may even see an alligator or two in the murky waters! The views of Downtown Wilmington opposite the river are also beautiful from here.
The North Carolina battleship is also one of the most popular attractions in North Carolina.
We spent an hour here, but it’s common for visitors to Wilmington to spend two hours.
11am: Museum of the Bizarre
We like to visit quirky and unique museums when exploring a new destination. I thought the Museum of the Bizarre may also be interesting for Kalyra, our teen. And it was!
We had quite a laugh exploring this small museum in downtown Wilmington. You only need about 30-60 minutes but it’s well worth it, especially at such an affordable price.
This curiosity museum focuses on the strange, unusual or collectable oddity.
You’ll find life-sized movie characters, artifacts like Alexander Hamilton’s hair and Houdini’s ouija board, random scribblings from Charles Manson, shrunken heads, bizarre creatures from the Circus like the goat brothers, a cast model of Regan from the exorcist, and a real life cauldron discovered in Pennsylvania that without warning blasts out a fiery steam to make you jump.
There is also a small mirror maze and laser trail game you can do. We had fun with both of them, especially the fun music we danced away too as we slowly made our way through the confusing hall of mirrors. (You can see that in the video soon!)
This is a great Wilmington attraction for teens.
12pm Lunch: Beer Barrio
Love tacos and margaritas? Pull up a colorful table on the sidewalk and enjoy this craft-beer infused Mexican restaurant for lunch (Sundays has an all-day brunch menu as well).
You may find a southern flair in these tacos though choices like a catfish po’boy and beer braised beef tacos and pulled pork on your nachos, bowls and burritos.
The food is colorful, affordable, and unusually large for a taco! Plus, most of the ingredients are sourced locally.
Beer is the other star of this restaurant with a local brew finding its way into almost every dish!
Owners, beer Sommelier Hayley Jensen and her husband Chef Stephen Durley have worked together in some of the finest restaurants in New York City so expect big flavors and bold experiences.
They even had a delicious french toast dish on the brunch menu for our exceptionally fussy tween eater!
1pm: Head to the Wilmington NC Beaches
Since it’s spring and the weather is warming up, we recommend adding beach time to your list of things to do in Wilmington.
Wilmington is near two great North Carolina beaches: Our favorite is Wrightsville Beach, but Carolina Beach to the south is also colorful and very family-friendly. So is Kure Beach.
Each beach location has great options for food, and various beach activities you can do like paddle boarding and surfing lessons.
These posts will help you plan your time at the beach, including places to eat for dinner before you head home. Here are our tips:
We hope you have a great time visiting Wilmington NC on your spring getaway. Please leave a comment sharing any other favorite things to do in Wilmington, NC.
We’ll always be returning and love to hear your suggestions, as do all the future readers of this post!