Wilmington NC is best known for its immense Battleship U.S. North Carolina, which is a memorial to the heroism of the soldiers who fought in World War II. Nearby you can find a historic district full of 20th-century architecture. The largest movie and TV production facility outside of California is also located in Wilmington. Iron Man 3 was produced in this “Dream Stage 10” studio. Take your time to explore Wilmington.
Interactive Map of 25 Things to Do in Wilmington (NC)
1. North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
Located about 15 miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is one of the state’s top attractions. Recognized by the Travel Channel as one of the best aquariums in the U.S., it offers lots of aquatic exhibits and educational opportunities. The aquarium’s most notable feature is an albino alligator named Luna.
The aquarium is highly interactive and teaches visitors about marine life through touch pools, touch-screen displays, and interactive holograms. You can engage face-to-face with a sea turtle, horseshoe crabs, and rays in the tidal pools. Visitors can also enjoy otters, sharks, jellyfish, frogs, and snakes. At the aquarium’s outdoor garden, there are daily shows and animal interactions.
2. USS North Carolina
USS North Carolina Battleship, located on the Cape Fear River, is an important historical site. It’s a memorial to the heroism of the U.S. Navy North Carolina soldiers in World War II. The ship used to be the leading ship of its class and the first vessel of such type. The construction started in 1937 and was completed in 1941.
Despite being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, the ship is very well-maintained and is available for self-guided or staff-guided tours. History buffs and those curious about the U.S. role in the war history will enjoy the memorial. You can access both upper and lower decks, and there are interpretive signs all over the site.
3. Carolina Beach Boardwalk
Carolina Beach Boardwalk truly lives up to its status as one of the country’s top ten boardwalks. It’s an ideal place for family-friendly activities and an exciting night out. There you’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options in the amusement park to explore. The area includes about 25 rides, including the arcade, the Carousel, the Ferris Wheel, and swings overlooking the majestic ocean.
The boardwalk is accessible to tourists from Memorial Day in May through Labor Day in September. The site is a popular summer hangout spot and can get quite busy later at night. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the salty ocean breeze at one of the restaurants’ outdoor patios, or try the classic American ice cream and fudge at the local fudge boat. If you come during the off-season, you might enjoy the Island of Lights Festival or the Christmas by the Sea.
4. Long Leaf Park
Known as Hugh MacRae Park, the Long Leaf Park received its current name in 2020. If you’d like to relax in the urban natural area and play some sports, this park is for you. The park features picnic spots, a lovely garden, and a pond with a romantic gazebo.
Active travelers can enjoy four baseball fields, a sand volleyball court, a full-size basketball court, a few soccer fields, and lighted tennis courts. The kids can enjoy an all-abilities playground (best for the age of 2-12) and a splash pad open in the summer. You can also take a stroll on the park’s 1,5-mile trail. Great news if you’re traveling with a pet – there’s an off-leash dog park for you and your furry friend to enjoy.
5. Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier
The North Carolina coastline is a prominent destination for fishing, and Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier is one of the best spots to enjoy saltwater fishing. Located on Wrightsville Beach, the pier extends 1,200 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re not into fishing, there are benches and picnic tables for you to enjoy the magnificent ocean views.
Built in the 1930s as a wooden pier, today, it’s a reliable concrete construction designed to withstand hurricanes. The best kinds here are king and drum fishing, for which you can rent the gear and bait on the spot. Named after a famous singer, who cared for the pier for more than 20 years, today it’s a spot with a tackle shop, a few lunch spots, a gift shop, and a small arcade.
6. The Cotton Exchange
The Cotton Exchange, located in downtown Wilmington, is not a regular American mall. This chic place is a series of eight historical buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Get a feel of the town’s history through the cobblestone courtyards connecting the buildings.
The shopping complex got its name after a business used to be the largest exporter of cotton on the east coast. Today there are four restaurants, over 20 boutique shops, and a cozy coffee house. Another exciting feature is The Wilmington Walk of Fame, located in the complex, which honors Wilmington’s hometown heroes.
7. Carolina Beach State Park
Carolina Beach State Park is 761 acres of wild territory, including the famous Carolina Beach. With miles of walking trails, the state’s best fishing spots, and Pocosin wetlands, this area is a favorite attraction for locals and visitors. If you’re looking for wildlife, here you can find white-tailed deer, raccoons, gray squirrels, foxes, and rare birds. The site’s also a prime location for Venus flytraps, one of the world’s most unique and exciting carnivorous plants.
There’s an extensive campsite with cabins for up to six people. It is close to the public restrooms and shower facilities nearby. There’s also a visitor center and a marina dock, which can accommodate up to 53 boats. You can go kayaking and boating and enjoy the less crowded beach.
8. Airlie Gardens
Airlie Gardens, located two miles west of Wrightsville Beach, is a tranquil and serene place. It’s a 67-acre public garden featuring ten acres of lakes, more than 75,000 azaleas, and lots of other plants like camellias, magnolias, and palms. There’s also a seasonal butterfly house, an engaging experience for visitors of all ages.
Created in 1886 as a private garden for a Scottish family, today, it’s a prominent destination for nature enthusiasts. It’s worth visiting to see the well-known Airlie Oak, covered in Spanish moss and dating back to 1545. The best time to explore the garden is in the summer, but the park’s decorated with lights for the holidays and is a genuinely majestic experience during the off-season.
9. Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park
Perfect for adventurous and fun family time, Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park should be on your Wilmington itinerary. The park’s mostly a water park, but it also offers lots of dry-park entertainment. You can enjoy miniature Jungle Lagoon Golf, a laser tag arena, go-karts, and bumper cars, as well as the rock climbing wall and an indoor arcade.
The water park is enormous and can be overwhelming at first, as there are plenty of exciting rides and relaxing areas. There’s a million-gallon wave pool, speed slides, a lazy river, a Volcano Mountain, and many more. The younger kids will especially enjoy the 7,000-square-feet splash pool. If you get hungry, visit the Big Splash Cafe or a Snack Shack Bar for a delicious reward.
10. Freeman Park
For some high-quality beach time, head to Freeman Park, located on the North End of Canal Drive on Carolina Beach. It’s a perfect place to sunbathe, swim in the ocean, go surfing, fishing, and crabbing. Separated from the main Carolina Beach area, it’s a far more secluded and peaceful place to enjoy the sound of waves and the ocean’s breeze.
Freeman Park allows for lovely overnight camping. To set up your tent, you’ll have to request a special permit and call in advance to make a reservation. However, the reward will come in the form of a sunset on the ocean and a heart-warming beach campfire. You can also bring your dog and keep it off the leash.
11. Tregembo Animal Park
Tregembo Animal Park, owned and run by the Tregembo family since 1952, is a fun place for visitors of all ages. It’s also Southeastern North Carolina’s oldest zoo. Considered a smaller zoo, it is home to over 100 animal species, including many animals rescued from other establishments’ poor conditions.
The zoo’s inhabitants include big animals like giraffes, lions, a white tiger, and a black panther. There are also sloths, reptiles, exotic birds, zebras, and kangaroos. Stop by at the zoo gift shop and get a bag of corn or peanuts to feed some animals. The friendliest creatures at the zoo are goats, monkeys, and ducks.
12. Museum of the Bizarre
Museum of the Bizarre, located near the waterfront in Downtown Wilmington, is a must-see attraction for curious minds. The museum hosts Justin LaNasa’s private collection of oddities. The museum opened in 2015 and has a spooky collection of strange items for a symbolic admission fee.
Some of the museum’s oddities include Alexander Hamilton’s hair, Crystal Skull of Knowledge, Harry Houdini’s ouija board, vintage medical equipment, movie memorabilia, and letters from serial killers. You can take pictures with a life-sized Freddy or get lost in the mirror maze. Each year the museum celebrates Halloween by hosting a haunted house.
13. The Arboretum: New Hanover County Co-Op Ext
Located in downtown Wilmington, The Arboretum is a 7-acre area featuring 33 seasonal gardens. The gardens, opened in 1989, offer year-round beauty at no fee. The gardens’ primary purpose is to honor the five military branches and educate people on different plants displayed there. With many roses, camellias, and water lilies, it’s a beautiful place to reflect.
One of the arboretum’s best features includes a Japanese garden with an original tea house and Japanese maples. There’s also a water garden with a red wooden bridge crossing a pond full of rare Koi fish. You can buy food at the gift shop to attract fish. The kids can play in the colorful children’s garden and explore the Mad Hatter’s house.
14. Thalian Hall
While visiting Wilmington, don’t miss an opportunity to see a show at the Thalian Hall. The theatre was built in 1858 and is the essence of the city’s cultural life. Thalian Hall is one of the oldest and prettiest theatres in the country.
There are three performance venues – The Main Stage, The Grand Ballroom, and the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre. Together they host over 500 performances every year. Those who appreciate architecture and design will find the venue quite interesting. Despite a significant renovation in 2010, most of the structure and interior features original 19th-century elements.
15. Wilmington Riverwalk
Wilmington Riverwalk is a 1,75-mile scenic boardwalk, established in the 1980s and ideal for taking a relaxing stroll along the riverfront. It is a place of unique colored shops, outdoor cafes, art galleries, and historic structures.
The riverwalk is open year-round 24/7 and allows easy access to most of the attractions in Downtown Wilmington. One of its best features is the famous Conlon Pier, a prime fishing location with beautiful water views.
16. Bellamy Mansion Museum
The Bellamy Mansion, located on Market Street in Downtown Wilmington, is one of the state’s best examples of historic antebellum architecture. Completed in 1861, it reflects on Wilmington’s daily life before the Civil War and looks into the town’s southern past. The mansion is a four-story 10,000-square-foot home with recreated outdoor gardens.
Today it is home to the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Art, which features period antiques and hosts exhibits on Civil War history and architecture. Visitors can take a self-guided smartphone tour and explore the restored slave quarters. They are one of the few such preserved quarters in the U.S.
17. Poplar Grove Plantation
Poplar Grove Plantation is a former peanut plantation located in Scotts Hill near Wilmington. The 12-room mansion, built in the 1850s, opened as a public museum in 1980. The museum hosts an exhibit showcasing the lifestyle and history of the families that used to live there. You can walk around the mansion and go on an occasional specialty event like the paranormal tour or the seasonal Christmas tour.
Today, it’s a complex offering a tenant house, a blacksmith shop, a large picnic area, a playground, and an excess to the Abbey Nature Preserve. It’s a place of a weekly farmer’s market and the famous Holiday Festival. Visitors can check out local craft and food vendors, watch farm animals and let the kids play around and enjoy the bouncy rides during this special event.
18. Greenfield Park
The 250-acre Greenfield Park is a genuine oasis within the city. If traveling with a pet, this place is an ideal outing site, considered one of the best dog-friendly spots in the area. There are five miles of walking trails along Greenfield Lake and the park’s gardens. For some quality time with your loved ones, use the park’s tennis courts, picnic tables, grills, skate park, and playground.
You can go kayaking and boating (rentals available) in the lake, but beware of the occasional alligators. While enjoying the park’s relaxing atmosphere, look for some rare birds and even turtles. A not-to-miss facility is an outdoor amphitheater, regularly hosting live concerts and shows.
19. Wilmington Railroad Museum
Wilmington Railroad Museum, set in an authentic 1880s railroad warehouse, is the city’s hidden gem. It provides an entertaining and educational experience, focusing on Wilmington’s initial industry’s history and the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.
Museum’s exhibits consist of engineers’ clothing, memorabilia from train cars, a life-size caboose, an actual boxcar, and a 100-year-old steam locomotive. To entertain the kids, the museum produced a unique Thomas the Tank Train play area. But the best and most prominent part of the experience is the model train display, proudly holding the Guinness World Record for the Longest Model Train.
20. Masonboro Island Reserve
The Masonboro Island Reserve is an 8.4-mile remote and undeveloped island area. It’s the most extended undisturbed ecosystem of such kind in the southern part of the state. It’s a habitat for many fish, birds, sea turtles, and abundant plant life, so the reserve’s primary mission is research and protection.
You can reach Masonboro Island by boat, kayak, or canoe. The starting points are Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach. Besides being perfect for fishing, beaching, and photography, it’s also one of the best shelling destinations in the Cape Fear region.
21. The Children’s Museum of Wilmington
Located in the historic downtown Wilmington, the Children’s Museum is a 17,000-square-feet facility consisting of three landmark buildings. The museum, designed primarily for kids of pre-school and elementary age, features lots of interactive exhibits. They teach science, math, and art through fun and play.
Popular programs at the museum include a Toddler Treehouse, a Wellness Way (with a dentist’s office), a Port of Call, and an Animal Alley (with giant stuffed animals). There are both permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as seasonal events. It’s a great way to entertain the kids and burn off their energy for a relaxing evening.
22. Noni Bacca Winery
Since 2007, Noni Bacca Winery has been a small family business, serving world-class wines. Toni and Ken Incorvaia (the owners) honor their roots and traditions and create European-style wines on the spot. They have won over 179 medals in the world’s largest, the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. They also serve craft beers for beer lovers.
Featured in the Wilmington film industry and local events, their most well-known wines are Chianti, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Chardonnay, and others. You can come to the winery and have a customizable wine tasting, usually led by one of the owners! They have over 60 varieties available in the winery. To enhance your experience, you can even order take-out food to the wine tasting.
23. Cameron Art Museum
The Cameron Art Museum opened in 1962 and moved to its current location in 2001. Named after Louise Wells Cameron, who volunteered at the museum for 35 years, and whose family donated 4,000,000 dollars and the land on which the facility stands. Today, there are three exhibition areas, a lecture and reception hall, a clay studio, and an arts education center. The outdoor space is a historic Civil War site.
The museum proudly displays a collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th-century art. Eight annual rotating exhibits feature local, national, and international artists. Besides the well-curated displays, there’s also a school with classes and a few interactive activities for children. The museum’s cafe is extraordinary and serves lunches from Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday brunches and dinners with live music.
24. Burgwin-Wright Museum and Gardens
Burgwin-Wright Museum and Gardens, a property built in 1770 for a government official John Burgwin, is the city’s oldest and largest historic site. It’s also the only public structure from the colonial era in the area. Outside, you’ll find a 2-acre garden featuring roses, pomegranates, and fig trees.
Visitors can take a guided tour and learn about the life of pre-revolutionary Wilmington. With 18th and 19th-century furniture and antiques, the museum is an excellent example of Georgian-style architecture. Since the building rose on former jail walls, there are jail cells in the basement and even a former slave cabin.
25. Copper Penny
Recommended by Wilmington locals, Copper Penny is a must-visit location. It’s a great place to watch a sports game and enjoy a delicious lunch or dinner. Copper Penny’s dishes were featured in television shows and on Food Network.
During the warmer season, you can enjoy your meal on the outdoor patio. The restaurant’s best dishes include pork and southwest chicken sandwiches, burgers, chicken wings, and the unbeatable onion rings (a signature dish!). Vegetarians will also find plenty of options. Make sure to pair your food with a delicious drink from the restaurant’s old-style bar.