Here in Wilmington, we get it. You might already know — or think you know — your favorite Wilmington spots: Wrightsville Beach, Britt’s Donuts on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, the Riverwalk, the list goes on. But next time you’re here, whether you’re brewery-bound, coming to town for a concert at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater or the new Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park, or you just need some time on the water, be open to discovery. Or rediscovery, as the case may be.
Wilmington’s got insider secrets in spades, from all-too-temporary art installations to hidden nooks only explorable at low tide. Pack a bag, grab your kids, friends or whoever you like travel with or without, sunscreen, and hit the road for some fresh air — and a fresh list of things to do in Wilmington this spring or summer.
(Re)Discovering Wilmington greenspaces
Art museums, carnivorous gardens, and lesser-known parks
Even if you’ve already been to the Cameron Art Museum, where the galleries are full of thought-provoking pieces, put it back on your list — a new era of Civil War storytelling is unfolding. Since late 2021, Boundless, a sculpture honoring and depicting the United States Colored Troops (USCT), has celebrated these heroes on the ground where they quite literally marched. Sculptor Stephen Hayes even connected with descendants of some of the troops to model for the sculpture. And in fall 2022, North Carolina’s first USCT Park will open right here on the museum grounds with Boundless as its focal point. Consider this your chance to see the “before” shot.
Over in Airlie Gardens, stop by in spring and summer for some astounding blooms, as it seems everything in the garden is brought to you in technicolor. This includes the butterfly house and soon-to-open public art exhibit: a dozen or so rabbit-themed sculptures painted, decorated, and adorned by local artists. For something wilder but just as family friendly, don’t get too close to the flora at the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, a spot full of Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, and more hard-to-believe greenery. The Venus flytrap is native to these parts, found growing wild only in a 75-mile radius around Wilmington — making it a rare beauty indeed.
Look for more animal and plant life around Greenfield Park as you walk, jog, or bike the 5-mile loop around the eponymous lake. You can also opt for an afternoon at the playground or skate park, or head out to explore the lake by pedal boat, kayak, or canoe.
Make your way to Fort Fisher to get up close and personal with marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium. Stroll through the outdoor gardens to meet Maverick, the aquarium’s rescued bald eagle. Energetic children can climb around on Adventure Reef, the aquarium’s outdoor interactive play area. This year, there are new exhibits to experience: the Caribbean Corals habitat, a mega-sized jellyfish exhibit, and two rescued owls.
Skaters take note: Bring your deck, because Greenfield Lake isn’t the only skate park around. Ogden Park features a 10,000-foot concrete paradise complete with bowl, rails, ramps, and steps.
On the water
Nature sanctuaries, sand dunes, and private cruises
If you’d rather get your outdoor fix in larger doses — picture sweeping views of the colorful coast, vibrant marsh grasses, and cobalt waves — then it’s time to explore by water. Arrange a guided kayak or paddleboard trip to Masonboro Island Reserve, a pristine barrier island and bird sanctuary south of Wrightsville Beach. Families can also get to the island via a cruise with Blockade Runner Surf to Sound Adventures. Or, at the south end of Fort Fisher, connect with Kayak Carolina and Cape Fear Paddleboarding for gear and tips that’ll lead you to Zeke’s Island Reserve, another wildlife-rich nature preserve on our scenic stretch of coast.
On your way down to Zeke’s Island, make sure to take a look at the coquina rock formation in Kure Beach (you’ll need to be there at low tide). Folks don’t expect to find rocks here, and these aren’t normal formations — they’re composed almost entirely of ancient shells and fossils. And on Thursdays, June through August, Kure Beach’s Up and Active program brings a festive atmosphere for the whole family to the Kure Beach Ocean Front Park & Pavilion with music, games, face painting, and more (including fossil hunting, if you time it right).
This area’s network of trails — hiking, walking, jogging, and biking — are also substantial. Fort Fisher State Historic Site is home to paths that cross the earthworks of this former Civil War gun emplacement, and at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, you can hike the dunes and shore to the World War II bunker that housed the Fort Fisher Hermit for decades. Meanwhile, you’ll find more flytraps in Carolina Beach State Park, where sandy trails also lead to Sugarloaf Dune, an important landmark for sailors dating back to the Civil War and even today.
But you don’t have to get into the woods and wilds to find a path. The Island Greenway trail system will guide you around Carolina Beach for a little exercise and sightseeing. It doubles as a great way to admire the Carolina Beach Mural Project — look for eight (soon to be 11) murals by local artists, including some talented youth, inspired by this place and its people.
The Wrightsville Beach Loop (a local favorite) is another spot that dishes out steps with a side of gorgeous views. Then there are the River to the Sea Bikeway and Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, both of which meander through neighborhoods from Wrightsville Beach to the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington, passing ponds, creeks, and the picturesque UNC Wilmington campus along the way.
Last but not least, in Carolina Beach, there’s one adventure that’s simultaneously wild and takes it easy: Get a permit for off-road driving and head onto the sand at Freeman Park Recreation Area for exceptional fishing and sunsets you just can’t beat.
Tip: If you’re traveling with a large crew, look into the Family Beach Party option from Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours & Water Taxi, a private boat tour and shore excursion for up to 20 guests. In Carolina Beach, Island Cruises sails their Caribbean-style catamaran, Island Explorer, on sunset cruises and even moonlit outings complete with dancing under the stars. There’s also Salty Ventures, whose trips range from 2-hour private cruises to day-long adventures, sunset sailings, and more.
Al fresco rewards
Fresh seafood, Carolina ‘cue, craft brews, and more
There are loads of restaurants in Wilmington where you can grab a bite — or something to sip — and enjoy it in the sunshine. Butts-N-Such, in Carolina Beach, serves up barbecue, burgers, seafood, and sides if you’re hankering for Carolina classics. On Wilmington’s Riverwalk, Sauce’d is all about fries and sauces to share while you stroll and take in the sunset. Or you can head to aView Rooftop Bistro, an elevated eatery perched atop the new Aloft Wilmington at Coastline Center.
Leave time to explore Wilmington’s busting-at-the-seams beer scene, a sip-by-sip journey that’s nothing short of robust. Besides popular al fresco spots like Flytrap Brewing and Flying Machine Brewing Company, Waterman’s Brewing Company has a great outdoor space plus games (cornhole, giant Jenga, and the like) and a menu of food and beverages that’ll keep both kids and adults happy. Good Hops Brewing, in Carolina Beach, ups the ante with an 18-hole disc golf course.
Some exciting transplant breweries have taken root in Wilmington as well. Hi-Wire Brewing keeps 21 taps flowing with seasonal sours and a solid lineup of core brews, often accompanied by a roster of food trucks. The dog-friendly patio at Catawba Brewing pairs well with their kitchen offerings and the two dozen brews on tap. And Ponysaurus Brewing Co.’s second taproom is in the heart of downtown. Opening in summer 2022, this Durham-based brewery will be a welcome addition to our rich and growing beer community. Welcome to Wilmington, y’all.