From exploring a riverwalk and beaches to historical sites and museums, there are many diverse things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina. A coastal, southeastern city, Wilmington is steeped in history. Visit the historic downtown district, a Civil War site and plantations. Admire the gorgeous 19th-century architecture and learn about the area’s Black history. Whatever your interests, there is no shortage of fascinating things to do in Wilmington, NC.
Read on for our 10 favorite things to do in Wilmington North Carolina.
Read More: Check out the best places to visit across North Carolina.
1. Riverwalk on Cape Fear River
In the center of historic downtown Wilmington is the pretty 1.75 mile riverfront walkway. It attracts strolling couples and families, runners and dog walkers. The wooden Riverwalk, which has previously been voted “Best American Riverfront” by USA Today readers, runs alongside the bank of the Cape Fear River. Cafes, restaurants and gift shops line the walkway and make strolling even more enjoyable.
And since people-watching with the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and river view was fun, we returned several times. While we didn’t visit the Battleship North Carolina, which served in World War II, we were able to see the ship from the riverwalk. The battleship is open for tours. Tickets can be bought in person and on the website.
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2. Bellamy Mansion Museum
Touring the antebellum Bellamy Mansion, built between 1869 and 1861, is one of the most popular things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina. The imposing white mansion is a mix of Neoclassical architectural styles, including Greek Revival and Italianate, and is near the center of town.
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I appreciated that our thoughtful tour guide did not shy away from slavery, important United States history. For example, our guide showed us the quarters for enslaved people, a brick building right behind the big house. Then she pointed out there were no openings on the street side.
Similarly, the guide explained that both enslaved people and African American freedmen built the house, including the elaborate plasterwork. In fact, one enslaved man, William Gould, signed his work. And the museum displays the plaster fragment with his signature. The guide explained that William Gould later escaped, served in the Union Navy and kept a diary that his great-grandson published in 2002. The book is available for purchase at Bellamy Mansion and in some bookstores.
While we missed seeing the colonial-era Burgwin-Wright House on this trip, the historic downtown Wilmington mansion on Market Street is also open to the public. It showcases Georgian architecture and beautiful antiques from the pre-revolutionary time. Also, near Bellamy Mansion on Market Street is the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, another rainy-day option.
3. Historic District in Downtown Wilmington
The historic district is a pretty area of 19th-century buildings in compact, walkable downtown Wilmington.
In fact, one of my favorite things to do in Wilmington is to walk around the historic center to discover its gorgeous architecture and cheerfully painted locally-owned shops and terrific Wilmington restaurants (and almost no national chains!). The vibe is funky Main Street, USA.
We also enjoyed the beautiful residential neighborhood just a short walking distance from the shops. Lush gardens surround gracious 19th-century wood and brick houses. Many of Wilmington’s Bed and Breakfast inns are located in this neighborhood and we stayed in two.
4. Ghost Walking Tour
The Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington is a spooky walking tour of the historic district of downtown Wilmington. The tour took about an hour. Our guide walked us down dark creepy alleyways and to the 19th-century graveyard.
Along the way, he spun stories about ghosts that haunt this port city. Tickets are online.
5. Local Shops
Wilmington is proud of its entrepreneurs. And for good reason. Year-round, both the city and the riverwalk have fun shopping for crafts, clothes, toys and jewelry. Almost all are charming small stores that are the personal visions of their owners, a nice change of pace from big box stores.
For example, we stumbled upon a wonderful bookstore, Old Books on Front Street. This cavernous independent bookstore has used and new books of every kind. From toddlers to teens, people enjoy browsing books about fun things to do in Wilmington.
Nearby, the Cotton Exchange on Front Street has a cluster of 30 unique boutiques and restaurants located in eight historical buildings dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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6. African American Heritage Walk
We took a self-guided walking tour of the Wilmington African-American heritage sites. For example, we visited churches, schools and a monument honoring the African-Americans killed in the 1898 violent overthrow of the city’s government. Also, we saw the location of the Black newspaper burned during the 1898 massacre. Still controversial, some call it the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. But others call it a coup.
We also visited the Burnett-Eaton Museum Foundation, open by appointment. The museum is clearly a labor of love, an idiosyncratic collection of artifacts about Wilmington’s tragic and inspiring racial history. A prominent African-American doctor, Foster Burnett, once lived in the house that is now the museum. And his son-in-law, Hubert Eaton, Sr., a doctor and civil rights leader, sued to integrate a hospital, schools and other institutions.
7. Nearby Beaches
Downtown Wilmington is an easy drive to gorgeous beaches like Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach. Grab a picnic and your swimsuit and enjoy a few hours of sea air, splashing in the surf and bare feet in the sand.
8. Airlie Gardens
Another easy excursion from Wilmington, North Carolina, is the 67-acre Airlie Gardens, a serene botanical garden. The bottle house structure pays tribute to Minnie Evans, a famous Wilmington artist and former gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens.
Everyone from little kids to grandparents will be drawn to the butterfly house. Even tweens and teens will enjoy the whimsical sculpture made out of colored bottles and concrete. It’s an Instagram dream. I was especially taken by the majesty of a 450-year-old tree, the Airlie Oak.
Check out the website for special season events and displays.
9. Fort Fisher Historic Site
Fort Fisher, in Kure Beach, is a quick 25-minute drive from Wilmington NC. The ruins of a Civil War Confederate fort are part of a park with wooden walking paths and spooky trees.
In addition, there are lovely views of marshland and Cape Fear River. The on-site museum makes this a year-round and rainy-day option for visitors.
10. Poplar Grove Plantation
This North Carolina plantation is about a 20-minute drive from Wilmington.
I was struck by the museum’s thoughtful explanations of slavery’s central place in the economy of the South and of this location in particular. For example, Poplar Grove Plantation researched the lives of several people enslaved by the Foy family. They tracked down descendants of the people enslaved by the Foy family, some still named Foy. Now that oral history is a core part of the plantation museum. This thoughtful exhibit, From Civil War to Civil Rights: The African American Experience at Poplar Grove, fills a room. Guides are available, but we opted for a self-guided tour.
Unlike the urban location of the antebellum Bellamy House, Poplar Grove Plantation was a working farm. The 15-acre grounds include a wooden shack where tenant farmers lived. Now, basket weavers offer on-site lessons.
Surprisingly, the grounds also include a type of animal park. We spent a fun hour with the friendly farmer, meeting gregarious goats, sheep, pigs and turkeys now living there. This is a fun place to visit with friends and family.
Also, on a few select days in the year, you can take a paranormal ghost tour. Check the website for exact dates.