There is no shortage of amazing things to do in Wilmington, NC. We should know best since it is the closest thing we have to home as full-time travelers. Wilmington has something for everyone, whether you stay on land or water.
Visitors flock from all over to experience the stunning North Carolina coast here. You can be as active and ocean-ready as you want when you visit Wilmington, or you can enjoy a completely relaxing trip lounging on the sand just dipping your toes in the water. One thing is for certain when you visit Wilmington, you’ll be breathing in that fresh ocean air, and life will instantly feel more complete.
It’s my favorite place in North Carolina to enjoy a little saltwater on the face and get kissed by the sun. After several years of experience, I wanted to share some of the best things to do in Wilmington, NC, fit for any time of the year.
Specifically, we’re going to take a look at:
- Where is Wilmington
- Why Wilmington is a Must Visit
- Things to do in Wilmington
- Best Restaurants in Wilmington
- How to Get to Wilmington
- How to Get Around Wilmington
- Wilmington, NC Weather
- Where to Stay in Wilmington
Where is Wilmington, North Carolina?
Wilmington, North Carolina, is a port city in New Hanover County. It’s located in southeastern North Carolina, only an hour north of the border of South Carolina.
It’s a coastal city with a large population of almost 125,000 people. It’s well known as a popular beach vacation destination in the south, with great beach destinations like Fort Fisher, Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach drawing in tourists.
It was well known as one of the largest American film and television production centers in the United States behind Los Angeles and New York City.
Best Things to do in Wilmington, NC
Go to the Beach!
Well, I can’t start this Wilmington travel guide without mentioning that you need to visit the beach while here. Let’s be honest; it’s probably the main reason you are traveling to Wilmington!
There are three main beaches in the Wilmington area to visit.
Wrightsville Beach: The most conveniently located beach to most of Wilmington. Located at the end of Causeway Drive and home to awesome landmarks like Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier. Wrightsville Beach has the most “upscale” vibe to it out of any of the beaches and is where you will find some of the higher-end hotels and restaurants in the area. It’s a fabulous beach to enjoy year round.
Carolina Beach: Carolina Beach is actually separated by Snows Cut Bridhe from Wilmington and is on an “island.” Carolina Beach is about a 30-minute drive from Market Street in Wilmington, down College Road. It sits along the Cape Fear River and is home to Carolina Beach State Park. Carolina Beach feels much more of a kitschy beach town, but I honestly love the whole ambiance of it much more than Wrightsville. It has great beach bars and restaurants and is home to an amazing boardwalk.
Kure Beach: The quietest out of all the beaches, with a little bit of an older small town beach vibe. It’s about a 10 minute drive past Carolina Beach to get to Kure Beach. Make sure to walk the Kure Beach pier and eat at Freddies when you visit!
Other beach destinations around Wilmington:
Masonboro Island: Only accessible by boat and you must plan with the tide. There are public and private boat ramps in Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach that you can access and take your own boat there. If you want you can also kayak and camp out on the island too. Masonboro Island is pretty quiet, except on holidays. Makes for a great day out!
Figure Eight Island: A private island where a booking is required. But if you can get a rental unit there you’re sure to have a great time.
Topsail Beach: About 50 minutes from Wilmington. Another quiet beach community that is mostly beach rentals for families and groups of friends.
Try Your Hand at Surfing
Plenty of people travel to the Carolinas to go surfing as it’s great for beginners! The beaches around Wilmington are a fantastic place to learn thanks to a shallow and gently sloping ocean floor. The waves are typically smaller in the summer months and there is plenty of beach to prepare for your first time! The team at Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp can get you hooked up and on the waves (good for all ages!)
Stroll Through Airlie Gardens
One of the best things to do in Wilmington, NC, is stroll through the beautiful Airlie Gardens. Airlie Gardens is a 67-acre botanical garden you can find on the way to Wrightsville Beach. If you want an easy day outside with your loved one, this is one of the most romantic things to do in Wilmington.
The gardens are filled with oaks, outdoor art, walking paths, and seasonal flowers. This makes it the perfect place to come on a beautiful sunny day for a picnic. Several events can be enjoyed on the grounds throughout the year, including an Oyster Roast and a whole summer concert series. If you are visiting around the holidays, Airlie Gardens decorates the whole property with fantastic lights, though to see this, you’ll need to purchase tickets well in advance.
For many who come to the coastal town, they have one thing on their mind – fishing. There are many ways you can go fishing in the Wilmington area. However, before you start, make sure you have a fishing license to do so legally.
There are two exceptions to a fishing license – that is, if you’re fishing from a pier that charges a fee to fish or if you’re on a charter fishing boat (both carry special commercial licenses that cover you). There are many ways you can try your hand at fishing; some include:
- Surf Fishing from the beach.
- Fish in Snow’s Cut and from Carolina Beach State Park.
- Deep-sea fishing with a charter boat from Carolina Beach or Wrightsville Beach.
- Cast a line off of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, or Johnny Mercer Pier.
- Hop on the Winner Gulf Stream Fishing cruise
- Take your own boat of course!
Enjoy a Live Event!
Being at the beach and having an excellent downtown area, Wilmington plays host to several festivals year-round. Most of the ones we love are in the spring and summer, but there is something to do almost every weekend.
A few of our favorites are the NC Azalea Festival, the Cucalorus Film Festival, and Wilmington Beer Week. If you’re looking for a weekly event, check out the farmers market at Tidal Creek Co-op or catch a concert at Greenfield Lake Amphitheatre.
Stand Up Paddleboard at Wrightsville Beach
Stand-up paddleboarding is one of the most fun things to do in Wilmington. Wrightsville Beach was my favorite beach to go to as a college student. It has an entirely different vibe at Wrightsville Beach than at Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. I find it a bit cleaner and less crowded than Carolina Beach – especially during the summer months (though everywhere is busy in July and August). However, Kure on the other hand, remains more secluded though it is quite far from the city of Wilmington.
Of course, you can travel to Wrightsville and lounge around, but Wrightsville SUP offers everyone the chance to try to stand up paddleboarding. Rentals start at $35, or you can take lessons. If you think you’ll be stand-up paddleboarding more than once, it might not hurt to invest in a stand-up paddleboard. We did, and it makes our summers that much more amazing. Take a look at the best inflatable stand-up paddleboards.
Disc Golf in Wilmington
Disc Golf is Cameron’s favorite thing to do in Wilmington when the weather is beautiful. The Wilmington area has four disc golf courses, and they’re all free to use, making it one of the best free things to do in Wilmington, NC. All you need is a disc which you can pick up for $10 at several shops around the area. Or pre-purchase your own online on Amazon.
You can find them in-store in Wilmington at Outdoor Provisions, surf shops (CB surf), and Dicks Sporting Goods.
Here are four great disc golf courses around Wilmington:
North Regional Park, Castle Hayne: This course is on the PDGA, and it’s the best course in the area. It has 18 holes and many challenging par 4 and 5 holes. It’s prone to mud when there is fresh rain, but it’s terrific on a chilly day.
Joe Eakes Park, Kure Beach: This is my favorite course because it’s a full 18 holes and has a few challenging holes. What makes it the best for me is it’s all in a coastal forest with sand fairways. The weather is reliable with plenty of water close by, but it also gets windy!