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The port city of Wilmington and its surrounding beaches make for a perfect weekend trip: it’s perfectly doable to fit in the right amounts of culture, cuisine, surf, and sun the area has to offer in just three days.
Wilmington’s coastline—made up of small beach communities like Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure Beaches— is known for its natural beauty and its great surfing, fishing, and scuba potential—especially diving among the historic sunken shipwrecks of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The picturesque Wilmington Riverwalk, and a recent influx of hip restaurants, cocktail bars, and breweries, give Downtown Wilmington recreational appeal; the Cameron Art Museum, with its modern interactive exhibits, is definitely worth an afternoon. The Battleship North Carolina, permanently parked on the Cape Fear River, tells the story of the North Carolina Coast’s involvement in WWII.
To reach Wilmington, head east out of Charlotte on US-74 for about 3 hours (200 miles).
Plan to head to the beach pretty soon after arriving in Wilmington. This section of the Atlantic coastline is highly underrated, and much less populated and developed than areas to the north or south. Here you’ll find miles and miles of powder-like sand beaches, pristine and left untouched, aside from the occasional fishing pier or boardwalk.
Wrightsville Beach is the closest beach access from Wilmington and is a locals-favorite, laid back surf spot. On the way, you’ll pass Arlie Gardens, a nice place to stop first for a stroll to admire the coastal flowers, live oaks, and many species of birds.
Before crossing the bridge from Wilmington into Wrightsville, look out for the small colorful building of Ceviche’s, the place to stop for the first taste of fresh coastal fare—and margaritas—with Latin American and Caribbean flair.
Next, you can head for a quick peek at the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, an exploration of the beach town throughout the decades, before parking near the beach. You can take a scenic boat tour, cast a line off of Johnny Mercer’s Fishing Pier, or rent surf and stand-up paddleboards. Wrightsville’s small downtown is full of seafood shacks, clothing and swimwear boutiques, and relaxed bars and cafes.
Head back to Wilmington, where you can visit the shops and restaurants of the Downtown Riverwalk before having a cocktail in the chic courtyard at Dram Yard (at the ARRIVE hotel).
Dine in Downtown Wilmington at PinPoint Restaurant. The chef here does wonders with oysters and other local produce, and the modern Southern menu is both comforting and sophisticated. Afterward, if you’re still feeling festive, head to the Blind Elephant, a happening 1920s speakeasy (tucked into an alley downtown) known for their Moscow mules.
Grab a sweet treat and coffee at Wake N Bake Donuts (or Port City Java) before heading out to explore Wilmington and its farther beaches, Carolina and Kure. It’s a quick detour to Cameron Art Museum on your drive southeast to the beaches, so stop here first to explore for an hour or two before hitting the coast. The Art Museum hosts a well-curated permanent collection by North Carolina artists, local and international exhibits on photography and different fine arts, as well as interactive, technology-fueled experiences.
Today is a good day for more involved beach activities, like a boat tour or renting a fishing boat. Otherwise, you can leisurely explore Kure Beach Oceanfront Park and Fishing Pier, visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, and tour the Fort Fisher historic site, an old Civil War Confederate fort.
Carolina Beach’s most sophisticated spot is Surf House Oyster Bar and Surf Camp, great for lunch, an early dinner, or just a dozen on the half shell and a glass of wine.
As you head back into Wilmington, spend time exploring the breweries of downtown. New-wave craft breweries like New Anthem Beer Project, Ironclad Brewery, and Flytrap Brewing are all within walking distance in Downtown Wilmington. Download the Wilmington Walking Tours app for self-guided entertainment as you stroll, or opt for a horse-drawn carriage ride.
Dinner can be casual tonight, with burgers piled in pimento cheese and other fixings at hipster Rebellion, or fish-and-chips at Copper Penny pub. There’s plenty of time for a nightcap at Tails Piano Bar, a unique and entertaining venue.
Go for brunch at Spoonfed Kitchen, a bright cafe where breakfast and lunch plates are piled high with seasonal vegetables and housemade ingredients like sausages and baked goods.
Next, head back to the Downtown Riverwalk to board a Wilmington Water Tour. The 50-minute Eagle Island Cruise is a casual, guided tour through the Cape Fear River and the history and natural beauty of Wilmington’s waterways. A quick drive from the cruise’s dock will take you across the Cape Fear to the Battle Ship North Carolina. The permanently docked museum-ship has nine levels to explore (decks and interior rooms) and teaches visitors all about the Navy’s involvement in WWII’s Pacific Theatre.
There are a few options for your last lunch in Wilmington. Foxes and Boxes is a cute (and affordable) way to take gourmet salads and sandwiches on the road; Beer Barrio offers casual, modern Mexican dishes; and Indochine, with Vietnamese and Thai-fusion lunch specials in a lively setting—complete with East Asian decor, pavilions, and gazebos—is a local favorite.
WHERE TO STAY
You’ll find all the standard chain hotels in Wilmington (the city hosts frequent conventions and events), but only in recent years have there been more interesting choices available like Hotel Ballast, a large riverfront hotel with boardwalk access and a nice poolside lounge; and the newest addition, ARRIVE Wilmington a hip, boutique-style hotel with excellent bar and dining outlets.
The historic Blockade Runner Resort, renovated in a chic-retro style to celebrate its 1960s charm, is the best stay at Wrightsville Beach: there are an oceanside pool and patio, a few hotel bars and restaurants, and the resort organizes any activities or tours you might have in mind (and sells packages).
WHEN TO GO
Summer is the peak season for Wilmington and its beaches, though it’s best to keep an eye on the weather channel when planning a trip during Hurricane Season (technically June through November). High temps continue here until early October, making fall a good time to enjoy the beach while avoiding summer vacation crowds. Expect many beachside businesses to shutter during winter months.