15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Wilmington

Not as well-known to tourists as its southern sister cities of Charleston and Savannah, Wilmington, North Carolina has its own historic district of fine antebellum homes and mercantile blocks. Here, and in the area around the city, you can visit historic plantations and homes, including Bellamy House, Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, and Poplar Grove Plantation. The formerly run-down center has been revitalized, with a focus on the riverfront, which has become a center for dining, shopping, entertainment, and the arts.

The city's most attention-grabbing attraction - it's hard to miss - is the immense Battleship North Carolina, a WWII-era warship that is open to tour. Wilmington's port, sheltered on Cape Fear River, gained prosperity by shipping petroleum and pulp products, and this coast played an important part in Civil War history. Today, however, Wilmington's Fort Fisher is better known for the beautiful white beaches of the state park that surrounds it. Whether you're traveling with your whole family or looking for a romantic getaway for two, you'll find plenty of things to see and do in Wilmington.

1 Battleship North Carolina

Battleship North Carolina
Battleship North Carolina Brian Leon / photo modified

Commissioned on April 9, 1941, Battleship North Carolina was the first of ten battleships to join the American fleet in World War II. During her service, the North Carolina carried 144 commissioned Navy officers, 2,195 enlisted men, and about 100 Marines. Their stories and their lives on board the ship are much of the focus of the exhibits you'll see as you explore the nine levels of the ship, illustrated by photographs and artifacts, along with recorded oral histories.

One of the ship's attractions, especially for visiting children, is its accessibility. They can climb into the sailors' bunks, go into the massive engine room, plan strategies in the Combat Information Center, and take aim from behind the great guns (these include nine 16-inch 45-caliber guns in three turrets and 20 five-inch 38-caliber guns in 10 twin mounts).

Address: 1 Battleship Rd NE, Wilmington, North Carolina

2 Airlie Gardens

Airlie Gardens
Airlie Gardens teresaphillips1965 / photo modified

Visitors, and especially garden lovers, appreciate the beautiful scenery at these historical gardens that date back to 1886. The grounds are lush with azaleas, camellias, and the signature Airlie Oak, which is more than 400 years old. Guests can take a self-guided walking tour of the 67-acre estate to admire the formal gardens, historic buildings, sculptures, live oaks, pines, lakes, and diverse ecosystems that are habitats for a rich variety of wildlife. The 2,700-square-foot open-air butterfly house, open May 15 to October 15, is alive with hundreds of native North Carolina butterflies, including monarchs and giant swallowtails.

Address: 300 Airlie Road, Wilmington, North Carolina

Official site: http://airliegardens.org/

3 Historic District in Downtown Wilmington

Historic District in Downtown Wilmington
Historic District in Downtown Wilmington

Downtown Wilmington is home to the state's largest National Register Historic District, which includes hundreds of 19th- and early 20th-century buildings. Along with historic homes are vintage mercantile blocks, where local restaurants serve up tasty seafood, and the shops stock everything from antiques to trendy fashions. As well as attractions such as the Cape Fear Museum, the Children's Museum of Wilmington, and Battleship North Carolina just across the river, several streets are lined with beautiful old homes, many with their fascinating histories related on signs. There are several ways to enjoy the area: you can stroll its streets and browse in its shops on your own, join a walking tour, take an informative trolley tour, or ride through the historic streets in a horse-drawn carriage.

4 The Riverwalk

The Riverwalk
The Riverwalk Nathania Johnson / photo modified

One of the favorite - and free - things to do in Wilmington is stroll along the Riverwalk that borders the Cape Fear River. This mile-long boardwalk offers river views as well as access to historic buildings, shopping, dining, and arts venues. Along its route are the shops of the Cotton Exchange, launching places for boat tours of the river, public art works, cafes, shops, restaurants with riverside terraces, and benches for relaxing and enjoying the scenery. Events enliven the Riverwalk year-round, including the Saturday morning Farmers Market in the summer, the annual Riverfest, and performances by local musicians and entertainers.

5 Bellamy Mansion

Bellamy Mansion
Bellamy Mansion Michele Singer / photo modified

Bellamy Mansion, a pre-Civil War structure, is regarded as one of North Carolina's most spectacular historic antebellum homes. Slaves and free black artisans built the antebellum structure for physician, planter, and business leader John Dillard Bellamy, who lived here with his wife Eliza and their children. As you tour, their stories will unfold, along with those of their slaves, whose restored quarters are among the few to exist from urban households.

Throughout its 150-year history, the house has survived the Civil War, being commandeered by Federal troops after the fall of Fort Fisher, a state of disrepair, and a devastating fire. Outside, the recreated Victorian gardens are shaded by a magnolia tree 150 years old.

Address: 503 Market Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

6 Cape Fear Serpentarium

Cape Fear Serpentarium
Cape Fear Serpentarium

At the Cape Fear Serpentarium, visitors walk through exhibits of venomous snakes, constrictors, crocodiles, and great lizards. Reptile buffs will be impressed with the diversity of scaly residents, with some of the more intimidating species being king cobras, mambas, diamondback rattlesnakes, vipers, puff adders, Burmese pythons, and giant anacondas.

The display areas are as impressive as the collections. The building is constructed to house the reptiles in large spaces, as close as possible to their natural habitats. Five large sections house the different species of constrictors, and each of the three varieties of crocodile - Nile, Siamese, and saltwater - has its own separate habitat.

Address: 20 Orange Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

7 Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts

Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts
Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts Michele Singer / photo modified

The historic Thalian Hall, constructed in 1858, has been in almost continuous use since first opening. Designed by one of the foremost theater architects of the day, John Montague Trimble, this is the only of his works still surviving. In the 19th and early 20th centuries its stage hosted performances by celebrities that included Buffalo Bill Cody and John Philip Sousa, and in 1928 the Ziegfeld Follies.

Today, restored to its early 20th-century appearance, it is considered one of the most significant theaters in the United States. More than 400 performances and events come to its three venues each year, including theater, film, dance, lectures, and music of all genres (country, pop, and jazz, to mention just a few).

Address: 310 Chestnut Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

8 New Hanover County Arboretum

Another free thing to do in Wilmington, and a great favorite with children, is the arboretum operated by the local Cooperative Extension Service. Seven acres of land in the city center is devoted to growing plant species best suited to southeastern North Carolina and to demonstrating gardening techniques. A favorite is the Japanese Garden, with a koi pond, an arching bridge, and a tea house. A children's garden has a miniature play house, and a border of perennial flowers surrounds a water garden. A rose garden, a herb garden designed to attract butterflies, a tropical garden, and a picnic area are all fitted into this urban oasis.

Address: 6206 Oleander Drive, Midtown, Wilmington, North Carolina

9 Cape Fear Museum

Founded to house collections of Confederate objects and mementos, the cape Fear Museum has expanded over the years to hold more than 52,000 items relating to regional, national, and international history, as well as culture and science. The museum has a special focus on the environment of the Lower Cape Fear, and the Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery brings that to children with creative hands-on exhibits that allow kids to interact with nature by using their senses. Here, they can feed insects to carnivorous plants and crawl inside a beaver lodge.

The museum spills outdoors into its adjacent park, where interactive exhibits invite people to consider how they relate to the land and water around them. Gardens of native plants, activities, and hands-on exhibits in this area are always free.

Address: 814 Market Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

10 Wilmington Railroad Museum

Wilmington Railroad Museum
Wilmington Railroad Museum Jon Curnow / photo modified

Preserving an industry vital to the city for well over a century, this museum features exhibits on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. At its height in the 1840s, the railroad was the world's longest continuous rail line, stretching 161 miles. At the end of the century, it merged with other east coast companies to create the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Exhibits trace the growth of railways in Wilmington and explore the contributions of Thomas Edison, George Pullman, and others. Nearly two dozen model trains travel through miniature towns and countryside, and the museum includes rolling stock and a century-old steam locomotive. Kids will like the train-themed play area.

Address: 505 Nutt Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

Official site: http://www.wrrm.org/

11 Poplar Grove Plantation

Poplar Grove Plantation
Poplar Grove Plantation Corey Balazowich / photo modified

One of the oldest peanut plantations in North Carolina, Poplar Grove Plantation encompasses more than 15 acres and the house and outbuildings constructed for Joseph Mumford Foy in 1850. Exhibits explore the skilled construction and finish work of the three-story house by Foy family slaves, using pine, black walnut, and other materials available on the plantation. Six generations of the Foy family owned the historic house until 1971, and on the plantation is the last remaining tenant house, occupied until the 1960s by a descendent of the Foy family's slaves. Also part of the plantation are the original smokehouse, a blacksmith shop, and agricultural exhibits on the production of peanuts.

Address: 1200 US Hwy 17, Wilmington, North Carolina

12 Cameron Art Museum

Selections from the museum's permanent collection of fine arts, decorative arts, and design by local, national, and international artists include a large number of works on paper by artists that include Mary Cassatt and Ando Hiroshige. Art from these collections is not on permanent display, but selections are used as part of rotating themed exhibits. Collections are especially strong in works by North Carolina artists. Family and children's programs include music, film, literature, dance, and other arts.

Address: 3201 S 17th Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

13 Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens

Only three local houses have survived since the colonial area, and the Burgwin-Wright House is the only one open for public tours. Built in 1770, the home features Georgian architecture, 18th- and 19th-century antiques and household goods, and a separate kitchen house furnished with period utensils.

Alden Hopkins and Donald Parker, two of Colonial Williamsburg's renowned landscape architects, designed the lush gardens on the property. Covering more than half an acre, these include two terraced gardens; a rose garden; kitchen and medicinal gardens; and an orchard with pomegranate, fig, and espaliered crabapple trees. Entrance to the gardens is free.

Address: 224 Market Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

14 Children's Museum of Wilmington

Aimed at children up to age 10, the Children's Museum of Wilmington offers opportunities to explore and learn about art, science, and culture through hands-on experiences. In the Ahoy Wilmington! section, kids can board a ship, dig for treasure, and explore a "sea cave." An art studio provides inspiration and materials for drawing, painting, sculpture, weaving, and other arts. Toddlers can climb and slide safely in the Tree House, and in the grocery store, kids can fill their shopping carts and play cashier at the check-out register.

Address: 116 Orange Street, Wilmington, North Carolina

15 Cape Fear & Brunswick Islands Beaches

Cape Fear & Brunswick Islands Beaches
Cape Fear & Brunswick Islands Beaches

A total of 10 beaches border the coast and islands at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, only a few miles from Wilmington. The closest is Carolina Beach, a family-oriented beach town with one of the country's best boardwalks. At its southern border is Kure Beach, surrounded by water, with the river on one side and the Atlantic on the other, providing options for swimming, surfing, and kayaking. Kure Beach is especially known for its 700-foot-long fishing pier.

Directly south of that is the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and Historic Site, with miles of beach and undeveloped shoreline. At the historic site, visitors can walk the remaining earthworks of Fort Fisher, one of the most important Confederate strongholds in the Civil War, on an interpretive walking trail.

Where to Stay in Wilmington for Sightseeing

The best place to stay in Wilmington is right downtown, where many of the attractions are clustered along the Cape Fear River, including the Battleship North Carolina and the Railway Museum. A couple of blocks back from the riverfront, in the Historic District, are charming old character buildings, great dining, and the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts. Below are some highly-rated hotels in convenient locations:

  • Luxury Hotels: With a prime location on the riverfront in downtown, the Hilton is right in the center of the action. From the elevated patio, there are views out over the water to the Battleship North Carolina. A short drive from downtown, and four miles from the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, the Homewood Suites offers a resort-like experience, with a beautiful outdoor pool and a three-hole putting green. In the heart of the Historic District, near some of the best restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues, is the city's newest hotel, the Courtyard.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Right on the riverfront, beside the Wilmington Convention Center, is the Best Western Plus Coastline Inn. For railway buffs, the Railroad Museum is a one-minute walk away. The new SpringHill Suites, with an outdoor pool, rooms with kitchens, and complimentary breakfast, is a short drive from the city center. In the same area is the popular Staybridge Suites, offering very large rooms with kitchens and many restaurants within walking distance.
  • Budget Hotels: Budget hotels are four to five miles outside the downtown core. The popular Sleep Inn has good rooms at a fair price, and the Days Inn is basic but comfortable and offers similar amenities. Both of these have outdoor pools and are within walking distance of each other, as well as restaurants and a mall.

More Must-See Places to Visit near Wilmington

Wilmington is only one of several places worth visiting in North Carolina. In addition to the state's many romantic getaways are the vibrant city of Charlotte, the state capital of Raleigh, and Asheville, in the western part of the state and a good base for touring the Blue Ridge Parkway. To the south lies the state of South Carolina, with beautiful Charleston, historic Columbia, and the holiday haven of Myrtle Beach. To the north is Virginia, with historic Jamestown and Williamsburg and the former Confederate capital of Richmond.

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