Located on the banks of the Cape Fear River, Wilmington, North Carolina allows visitors the chance to catch a glimpse of the past while exploring the present. Only twenty minutes from Carolina Beach, this destination offers something for everyone. While I went for the perfect Girlfriend Getaway, Wilmington is a wonderful spot for a family vacation or a romantic retreat. Ready to discover Wilmington for yourself? Use this Travel Guide to Wilmington, North Carolina to plan your vacation escape.
Travel Guide to Wilmington, North Carolina
History: European roots run deep in this town. Originally an English settlement, the town was named for Spencer Compton, the Earl of Wilmington. The town quickly prospered as a port city with Mariners and second and third sons of English nobility flocking to the area. During the Revolutionary War, the town was seized and occupied by the British. The rise of the railroad caused the town to continue to prosper until the Civil War. Once again the town was seized and occupied; this time by the Union army. The town continued to prosper until after World War II when the railroad moved their company headquarters. Today the town is thriving thanks to new industry and the movie industry, earning Wilmington the nickname “Hollywood East.” Fun Fact: The Alton Lennon Federal Building and Courthouse was where many of the scenes from the television series Matlock was filmed.
Must Try Activities:
Horse Drawn Carriages Wilmington, North Carolina– The story behind this business is fascinating. The owner discovered that many horses were being sold at auction and sent straight to the slaughterhouse. He wanted to change their fate and began purchasing Percheron Draft Horses. Today, the proceeds from the five available historic tours help fund their rescue and support the horses. These horses only work for one week of the month and then spend the rest of their time relaxing at their home on Springbrook Farm. During the days of work, the horses are rotated at their downtown stables to allow for rest periods. When the horses become too old to work, they are retired to the farm to live out the rest of their lives. They are truly the owner’s pets.
The historic tours highlight Wilmington’s past with stories of the town’s founding fathers, details of the architecture of the historic buildings and details of the families who once occupied the beautiful houses lining the streets of Wilmington. The costumed drivers are friendly and well versed in the history of the area. Fun fact from the tour: Wilmington has more revolutionary era and antebellum homes than Charleston, South Carolina! Private evening tours are also available with a 48-hour notice. Tours begin on Market Street, between Water and Front Street.
Wilmington Water Tours Eagle Island Cruise—See a different side of the city with a relaxing river cruise. The Eagle Island Cruise is a 50-minute eco-history cruise along the Cape Fear River. Our narrated cruise was led by Captain Mike and fell on an even hour. Even hour cruises travel North past historic downtown and toward Eagle’s Island. Odd hour cruises travel south and pass the WWII Wilmington shipyards and the State Ports. The Eagles Island cruise explains the history of the once prosperous rice plantations and provides beautiful natural views.
You can see close up glimpses of the Battleship North Carolina and learn its fascinating history as a Naval vessel in World War II. This ship was rescued from the scrap yard by a group of school children and their teacher! I was fascinated to discover why the river was lined with the remains of ships or sailing vessels and why they were not allowed to be moved. A bar is available with alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for purchase. Other cruises offered include a Full Moon Cruise, a sunset cruise, and a blackwater adventure cruise. Wilmington Water Tours is located at 212 South Water Street.
Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington— Does the ghost of a Spectral English gentleman still roam the streets? Will a young girl clad in white glide down to greet you? You’ll find the answers to these questions and more on the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington. This 90-minute walking tour, led by a costumed guide, explores the spooky side of Wilmington. Combining historical facts with stories of hauntings, you’ll learn a different side of the city’s past.
On the night of our tour, as our guide told of a storm swept night long ago, the wind began to whip wildly around us, followed by streaks of lighting. Our group gazed at the house nervously, expecting to see the spectral beings peering down at us. Alas, we did not, but the atmosphere was perfect. The tours depart from 0 Market Street. Because these tours tend to fill quickly, I suggest making reservations in advance. Looking for more ghostly fun? A 2 ½ hour Haunted Pub Crawl is also available.
The Riverwalk – Originally envisioned as a way to bring more tourism to downtown Wilmington, the Riverwalk is a mile long stroll of boardwalk featuring unique shops, attractions, and restaurants. Located directly beside the Cape Fear River, visitors can see great views of the USS North Carolina or enjoy dining on the patio at one of the many restaurants. It is also a great place to watch the sunset!
Take time to stop and glance at some of the unique statuary along the river walk, including one devoted to the Venus Flytrap. Did you know that the Venus Flytrap grows in the wild close to downtown Wilmington and the surrounding areas? You’ll also want to check out the original cobblestone and brick streets located on streets beside the Riverwalk. Plan to spend at least two hours exploring the Riverwalk. You’ll soon see why it was named “Best American Riverfront” by USA Today in 2014.
Make Time For Shopping
The Cotton Exchange– In the days when cotton was king, Wilmington was one of the largest and busiest cotton exchanges in the world. Today it is the home to a different sort of trade; 30 different specialty shops and restaurants. Housed in eight restored buildings, it’s the place to find unique gifts for the family or for yourself! The Cotton Exchange is located at 912 North Front Street.
Chandler’s Wharf- This is another unique shopping experience owned by the same family that brought about The Cotton Exchange. With only a small collection of shops, this center has an exclusive boutique feel. Shopping for mom and the kids? Try Bellies and Bambinos. Want to celebrate Christmas year round? Stop by The Christmas Shoppe. Located at 225 South Water Street, you can stroll around town and see the historic houses after shopping.
It’s Time to Eat!
Pilot House- Built in 1870 as the home of the town’s resident barrel maker, William Craig, the building was moved to its present location in 1977. In 1978 the Pilot House opened its doors. The food is a tribute to regional Southern cuisine and uses fresh local meat, poultry, and Their seafood dishes are prepared with sustainable seafood. A gluten free menu is available as well. We tried the gluten free grilled and blackened shrimp and the fried oysters. Each dish was served with a side. We opted for the fries and the house salad with homemade ranch dressing. Before our meal began we were served a basket of homemade rolls and muffins, along with a cup of whipped butter.
Because it was a lovely day we opted for the patio seating to watch the sunset. I definitely recommend the patio seating. It’s fun to watch the boats travel up and down the Cape Fear River and people watch too! Of course, no meal would be complete without dessert. The mango sorbet was our gluten free choice and it made a lovely presentation in a glass filled with fruit and sorbet. I tried the Low Country Cheesecake- a tempting concoction of true Southern favorites. The bottom layer was pecan pie, the middle layer was cheesecake and the top layer was a ganache. Yum! It was a dessert lover’s dream. Pilot House is located at 2 Ann Street.
Anne Bonny’s– Located in an old riverboat along the Riverwalk, this is a fun place to stop and have a drink while watching the ships sail along the river. Try one of their specialty menu drinks for a refreshing pick me up after an afternoon of exploring the Riverwalk. (Find name of specialty drink we purchased)
Kilwins– Need a treat to beat the heat? Stop by Kilwins and try some of their sorbet. The waitress went above and beyond to accommodate our dairy allergies, getting clean scoops to make sure none of them had touched the ice cream. Both flavors we purchased, pineapple and raspberry, were delicious. Don’t have to worry about allergies? You’ll find plenty of other goodies; fudge, chocolates, popcorn, ice cream and more. They are located at 16 Market Street.
Front Street Brewery – Not only does the Front Street Brewery offer a full menu of sandwiches and entrees, they are also a microbrewery. Each day they offer free tours and tastings at 3:15 PM and 4:15 PM. You’ll learn all about their brewing process, meet their brewers, and experience two free tastings. They are located at 9 North Front Street.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit Wilmington, North Carolina, now is the time to plan a visit. With balmy winter temperatures, activities for everyone and its close proximity to the beach, Wilmington beckons visitors to return again and again.
Have you visited Wilmington, North Carolina? What was your favorite activity?