Calling a place a “must-visit” is a lofty claim. On North Carolina’s southern coast, Wilmington lives up to the label, with island beaches, land and sea adventures, and an exciting culinary scene that should rocket the city to the top of your list.

Situated on the banks of the Cape Fear River, Wilmington is a gateway to the family-friendly shores at Carolina, Kure, and Wrightsville Beaches. Whether you decide to stay riverside, oceanfront, or anywhere in between, you’re never more than a few minutes from award-worthy dining, bike tours to breweries and beyond, and accommodations that’ll make you regret having to return home. Factor in how easy the city is to reach by car or plane, and you’ll see why Wilmington and its beaches are the perfect choice for your next trip.

A tour for every traveler

Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

Whether you’re gearing up for your first or 15th visit to Wilmington, there’s no better way to get to know the area than on a tour. Options are plentiful, ranging from kayak excursions and guided bike tours to walking tours and narrated horse-drawn carriage rides through the National Register Historic District in the heart of downtown.

New kayak tours hosted by Wilmington Outdoor Adventures let nature lovers experience the area’s diverse ecosystems by paddle power. For an easy outing, check out Greenfield Lake, Wilmington’s largest urban lake, where you’ll float among cypress trees and spot plenty of wildlife. Opt for a more strenuous excursion to Masonboro Island, a secluded barrier island, for your chance to see more coastal wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins. The all-female crew at Coastal Eco Adventures also leads intimate charter boat expeditions to Masonboro Island and the area around Wrightsville Beach. Try the oyster-focused tour to visit seed nurseries and estuary farms, then wrap up with a tasting experience.

On land, e-bike around town with Wilmington Bike & Brew Tours for an educational (and hoppy) way to see the Port City. Beyond downtown, the Carolina Beach Experience gives you four hours in Carolina Beach — from the state park where Venus flytraps grow wild to a walk along a vintage boardwalk. Take your time there, and be sure to stop at Britt’s Donuts or Latella Gelato for a sweet power-up.

Fans of the Outlander books or TV series have two choices for delving into southeastern North Carolina’s connection to Scottish heritage: the Outlander in Cape Fear cruise by Wilmington Water Tours and the Burgwin-Wright House & Garden’s Outlander in Cape Fear walking tour. Sign up for one or both — no kilts or bagpipes required.

A world of cuisine in one scenic city

Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

Wilmington’s best-kept secret is officially out: The food scene is on fire. The city’s chefs have been busy racking up awards, including recognitions from the James Beard Foundation (JBF) and North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA). But the best part? Wilmington has restaurants for every palate, occasion, and price point.

Head downtown for fresh and creative seafood dishes at Seabird. Nowhere is Chef Dean Neff’s commitment to artistry and seasonality more evident than in the restaurant’s seafood tower, piled high with pickled shrimp, oyster escabeche, smoked fish, and more. It’s one reason Neff is up for JBF’s 2024 Chef of the Year.

If sampling the best of the Beard nominees is your thing, make reservations at Catch and Olivero. At Catch, Chef Keith Rhodes finds inspiration in international flavors, Gullah traditions, and regional delicacies. In the burgeoning Castle Street Arts & Antique District, Chef Sunny Gerhardt helms Olivero Kitchen + Cocktails, borrowing from his family’s New Orleans roots to craft inventive yet homey dishes. Also in the Castle Street Arts & Antique District, the recently reimagined Rx Chicken & Oysters features seafood that’s farmed and fished by Chef-Owner James Doss and his wife. Nearby, celebrity Chef-Owner Vivian Howard (another JBF nominee) serves pies and pasta that will transport you to Naples with a single bite at Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria.

It’s not all seafood and Southern cuisine in Wilmington. The new G Prime Steak & Cellar delivers a high-end steakhouse experience. At Tequila Comida & Cantina, rooftop cocktails and scenic river views complement big-flavored Mexican and Tex-Mex fare like chili-marinated mahi-mahi.

Dreamy accommodations to call home

Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

Sure, you can use your hotel loyalty points when you come to Wilmington, but you can also consider a more unique stay. Reserve a houseboat at The Cove Riverwalk Villas to stay right along the award-winning Riverwalk on the Cape Fear River. Or perhaps go the bed and breakfast route — C.W. Worth House and The Verandas have both been named among the country’s most charming B&Bs. ARRIVE Wilmington caters to the boutique hotel crowd and is slated to expand by 50 rooms by year’s end. Wilmington also has stays for those looking for the super stylish — try The Hive or DREAMERS by DW for meticulously designed rooms and convenient, walkable locations.

Even more accommodations await shoreside. At Wrightsville Beach, a pair of oceanfront resorts positions you steps from the sand. Lumina on Wrightsville Beach, a Holiday Inn Resort sits on the north end near Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier and a stunning stretch of shoreline. To the south, Blockade Runner Beach Resort has been a Wrightsville Beach fixture for more than 50 years, with retro-modern rooms, farm-to-table dining at EAST, and activities like surf and sail lessons, SUP yoga, and a variety of cruises.

Lessons in water sports, history, or both

Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

With Wilmington as your home base, you’re minutes away from a trio of island beaches that have distinct draws: Easygoing Carolina Beach brings on the fun with summer amusement rides at its boardwalk. Kure Beach evokes the nostalgia of beach vacations gone by and is prime for nearby nature hikes or afternoons at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. And Wrightsville Beach beckons with Caribbean-hued waters, ideal for water sports. Together, these beaches create blissful inroads to the outdoors, from sunbathing, beachcombing, and splashing in the waves to more energetic activities like surf lessons and scuba diving.

For combo beach days and educational outings, visit Fort Fisher State Historic Site at Kure Beach to see where the Civil War’s largest land-sea battle was fought. Be one of the first people to experience the new visitors center coming this summer, offering 24,000 square feet of insights into artillery, battle strategy, and the role the US Colored Troops (USCT) played during the Civil War. Additional features will open in the fall, so you’ll want to plan multiple visits to see it all.

If you love stories from the past, you’ll also appreciate the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, which you can see from nearly every foot of the Cape Fear Riverwalk; Cameron Art Museum; and Wilmington’s 230-plus-block National Register Historic District, a one-stop shop for period-era mansions, museums, and other landmark attractions. They’re all must-visits in a destination that’s full of them, so get yourself to Wilmington for a trip you’ll never forget.