Neighborhood Guide: Wilmington, NC and Island Beaches

Text: Jason Frye | Photo: Wilmington and Beaches

Tucked into the southeastern corner of North Carolina, Wilmington sits between the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean. This vibrant riverfront city is ripe for discovery, with an expansive historic district and riverfront providing miles of walking on the Riverwalk, sightseeing, and shopping. In nearby neighborhoods, you’ll find breweries, galleries, and hip hangouts, while three distinct island beaches are just minutes from historic downtown — whether you’re after a free-spirited good time, a day in nature, or crystal blue waters, your perfect patch of sand is here.

When it comes time to plan your trip, use this guide to uncover which areas of Wilmington and its island beaches are the right fit for you and your travel style.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Wilmington and Beaches.

Wilmington’s two-mile Riverwalk serves up gorgeous views of the Cape Fear River and puts you right on the doorsteps of markets, galleries, and plenty of restaurants and cafes. Even better: The National Register Historic District begins just a block away, and a stroll along these picturesque, tree-lined streets is a must when you’re in Wilmington.

Things to do along the Riverwalk

Where Market Street meets the Cape Fear River, you’ll find an Insta-worthy view of Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, a World War II battleship turned museum and memorial. (Note: The views in the other direction, from the ship’s fantail looking towards downtown, are nothing short of fantastic). Cruises from Cape Fear River Boats and Wilmington Water Tours depart from the Riverwalk and take you through the region’s natural history and the city’s growth.

Head north on the Riverwalk to check out Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park, a Live Nation-managed waterfront venue that’s hosted the likes of Dave Matthews Band, Phish, and Jelly Roll. In the other direction, you’ll find restaurants and boutiques including Chandler’s Wharf, a cluster of shops in a historic warehouse. For more retail therapy near the Riverwalk, breeze through galleries and specialty stores at The Cotton Exchange, a charming shopping complex connected by open-air courtyards and comprised of 19th-century brick buildings.

Where to eat & drink

You’re never far from a memorable meal in Wilmington, no matter your favorite cuisine. Sample your way through the city’s culinary scene on an outing with Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours. Book a reservation at one of Wilmington’s lauded downtown restaurants like manna ave. 123, which received its ninth consecutive AAA Four-Diamond rating in 2023, or Seabird, helmed by James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southeast Semifinalist Dean Neff. At both restaurants, expect an exquisite experience with wow-worthy wine lists, immaculately plated dishes, and bite after bite of culinary perfection. Other recommendations include PinPoint, with its new take on Southern cuisine, and riverside eateries like Floriana, Elijah’s, and The George, which pair a great meal with a river view.

Quench your thirst with a bespoke cocktail from Earnest Money & Sons or The Blind Elephant, a hidden speakeasy serving old-school drinks with modern twists. Beer lovers, downtown’s got you covered with Front Street Brewery — the city’s first craft brewery and home to one of the largest bourbon collections in the state — which is one of more than 30 stops along the self-guided Wilmington Ale Trail. For drinks with a view, Cloud 9 and aView Rooftop Bistro sit atop a pair of riverside hotels and make for ideal spots to watch the setting sun.

Where to stay in downtown Wilmington

Where should you stay in Wilmington? The choice is yours. Go for something fun and funky like The Cove Riverwalk Villas, a collection of 35 luxury houseboats moored right by the Riverwalk and Live Oak Bank Pavilion. The Hive brings an ultra-modern hotel experience to town with its contact-free check-in.

Hotel Ballast, Embassy Suites Wilmington Riverfront, and Aloft Wilmington at Coastline Center feature stylish, comfortable rooms only steps from downtown’s best dining and nightlife. Don’t miss out on ARRIVE Wilmington, a boutique hotel with a buzzworthy restaurant — Dram Yard — tucked inside.

National Register Historic District

Connect with the city’s rich history by exploring its 230-plus-block National Register Historic District, one of the largest and most picturesque in the South.

Things to do

Join Springbrook Farms for one of their horse-drawn carriage tours through the historic district. Tour Old Wilmington, Wilmington True History Tours, and Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington offer insights into the stories, characters, and spirits that once — or may still — roam the streets. Add a visit to historic homes like the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts, Latimer House Museum, and Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens to bring many of these tales to life.

Where to stay

Book a room in a stunning historic home-turned-inn and be a short walk from dinner. DREAMERS by DW has lent a modern touch to a gorgeous Victorian home, blending contemporary amenities and classic style. The Verandas, a AAA Diamond Award Winner, provides a luxurious, tranquil stay in a stately downtown home. And the C.W. Worth House Bed & Breakfast, voted as the 10Best Readers’ Choice travel award “Best Bed and Breakfast” in 2023, will charm you with its sumptuous style and attentive service.

Photo credits: Wilmington and Beaches

Venture beyond the riverfront and Historic District and you’ll find still more to explore in Wilmington. Nearby neighborhoods are home to breweries and a distillery; cool spots to catch live music; standout food from fine dining to wood-fired pizza; and boutiques stocked with new and vintage vinyl, art, goods from local makers and designers, gifts for your furry friends, and more.

Brooklyn Arts District

Just north of downtown, the Brooklyn Arts District celebrates the city’s creative spirit, inviting you to do the same with live music, galleries, and great cuisine.

Things to do

Anchored by Brooklyn Arts Center + The Annex, an 1888 church that’s found new life as an event space and concert hall, this neighborhood exudes an eclectic and cultured vibe. On First Fridays, the citywide art gallery crawl, the Brooklyn Arts District really shines. Bottega Art & Wine, a wine-bar-meets-art-gallery, hosts musicians, open mic nights, and more.

Where to eat & drink

You’ll never go thirsty in the Brooklyn Arts District, where Flytrap Brewing — specializing in a blend of Belgian and American beer styles — has a dozen taps flowing and keeps a steady schedule of food trucks and live musicians.

Nearby, there’s a cluster of eateries. Boombalatti’s Homemade Ice Cream is a dessert-lover’s dream with more than 20 flavors and vegan/non-dairy options. Next door, Angus Grill serves a jaw-dropping selection of 25 burgers, plus cheesesteaks, wraps, and more. If you’re in the mood for seafood, book a table at three10, where every dish is a delightful twist on modern Southern cuisine. Start with local oysters on the half shell before tucking into the ancho-rubbed yellowfin tuna or the decadent scallops and shrimp and grits.

South Front District

World War II-era warehouses and greengrocers have become a hive of nightlife on the south side of Wilmington. South Front District contains a collection of lively spots to grab a bite, a glass, or a pint of something delicious.

Where to eat & drink

You’ll find plenty of nightlife options here, but nighttime isn’t the only time to visit South Front. Satellite Bar and Lounge hosts a bluegrass jam on Sunday afternoons and evenings, and their patio area offers plenty of places to gather with friends to listen to some tunes, play a few lawn games, or just catch up. Next door, The Second Glass delivers a top-end wine experience with a great selection, and their food — a mix of small, sharable plates and perfectly portioned entrees — never disappoints. New Anthem Beer Project’s brewing and canning operation is around the corner, and this enormous taproom keeps its freshest brews on draft and in cans.

In addition to the dining options at The Second Glass, you can grab a burger or something heartier — like a dry-aged steak — from True Blue Butcher & Barrel, a restaurant and whiskey bar. If you’re a bourbon fan, their whiskey flights let you explore North Carolina whiskeys as well as distillery- or style-specific spirits. And you may have a hard time deciding what to get for dinner at Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, helmed by Chef Vivian Howard, a PBS star and James Beard Semifinalist. The pizza pies are exceptional to the last bite of crust, and their pastas — all house-made — are a thing of beauty.

Castle Street Arts & Antiques District

With vintage fashion, handmade gifts, the region’s best vinyl selection, and fine farm-to-fork fare, the Castle Street Arts & Antiques District is only a few blocks from downtown.

Things to do

Ease into the day with a morning yoga class from Terra Sol Sanctuary, an inviting studio in a one-time church; classes here range from gentle yin yoga to strength to sessions with live musicians. After, visit Jess James + Co, a vintage boutique where a local style icon presents a range of clothing items and accessories. Up the street, the charity Kids Making It teaches woodworking to youth and then sells their creations including cutting boards, hand-turned pens, holiday décor, and more. Cross Castle Street and hit up Gravity Records, one of the city’s favorite vinyl shops with new and vintage records along with turntables and accessories.

Where to eat & drink

If you’re hungry for breakfast, lunch, or Sunday brunch, check out the classic eggs Benedict at Jester’s Café. Nearby, the gathering space and dining room at Castle Street Kitchen stay busy thanks to the eclectic menu, where you’ll find options from an heirloom tomato pie to a France-meets-Cuba sandwich to a burger topped with spicy peppers and crunchy tortilla strips.

Be sure to make a reservation at one of Wilmington’s new favorite restaurants: Olivero Kitchen + Cocktails. James Beard Semifinalist Chef Sunny Gerhart proves why he was a Best Chef Southeast contender with his impeccable fusing of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French cooking. His food delivers a fine-dining take on New Orleans’ culinary heritage, and bites like the seafood lasagna, beignets served with mortadella and Calabrian chili-laced honey, and ribbon-shaped mafaldine pasta with mushrooms and crab will have you wishing you could eat two dinners in one day.

Cargo District

This group of retrofitted cargo containers is home to a hip collection of businesses ranging from chic cocktail bars to creative boutiques to one-of-a-kind restaurants.

Things to do

Grab a unique houseplant and a cool new pot from The Plant Outpost (their advice can turn any thumb green). Browse local and fair trade treasures at hello, love. and check out Crafted Outpost, where designer Rachael Kinsey crafts and curates a must-have selection of gifts, art, and home goods. Pick up something for your four-legged friend at Bark, and shop for a vintage tee or sneakers from Last Stop.

Where to eat & drink

Expand your palate with globally inspired street food delicacies at Beat Street, or indulge in artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches at nearby CheeseSmith. Stick around for a cocktail from The Starling, A Whiskey & Wine Bar and watch the sunset from the rooftop deck. Just up the street, End of Days Distillery — Wilmington’s first craft distillery — concocts gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey and serves up spirit-forward classic and bespoke cocktails. Concept Kitchen Co., a new pop-up restaurant located at the distillery, offers a unique dining experience with rotating chef-driven concepts.

Keep supper simple with tots and a burger at Mess Hall. Bring the pooch to Ruff Draft Dog Park & Bar, which adjoins Mess Hall, for some playtime; thanks to the walk-up window, you can keep an eye on the doggos while you order.

Photo credits: Wilmington and Beaches.

Three distinct beach towns sit a short drive from downtown Wilmington. At each beach, you’ll find oceanfront lodging, yesteryear inns, and vacation homes. Add in time on the sand, an afternoon outdoors, and some great food, and you have the makings of a perfect seaside vacation.

Carolina Beach

This laid-back beach offers families a truly original getaway thanks to the vintage Carolina Beach Boardwalk, year-round live music, and outdoor adventures.

Things to do

Start with a visit to Carolina Beach State Park, where hiking trails lead you to sites like Sugarloaf Dune, marshes along the Cape Fear River, and natural habitats of the indigenous Venus fly trap. If you’re an offroad enthusiast, get a permit to drive on the sand at Freeman Park Recreation Area and spend a day on the beach with your own mobile base camp. Learn how to hang ten with lessons from an Olympic gold medalist surfer at Tony Silvagni Surf School. Annual events like the Carolina Beach Music Festival and summer’s weekly Fireworks by the Sea and Boardwalk Blast add to the good times.

Where to eat & drink

During the summer season, Britt’s Donut Shop serves hot and fresh glazed treats to adoring crowds on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. Enjoy mouthwatering North Carolina barbecue oceanfront at Carolina Smokehouse, or stop by The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar, which serves its drinks and bites with a side of views and seasonal live music. Havana’s, set in a 100-plus-year-old beach cottage, is open year-round and plates steaks, seafood, salads, and pasta. To immerse yourself in local lore and fare, join Tasting History Tours, which also runs tours of the town’s vibrant murals.

Kure Beach

Tap into natural wonders along the unspoiled shore at Kure Beach, a Southern Living “Best Family Beach Vacation” pick in 2023.

Things to do

The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher gives you and the family a look at life beneath the sea, from tributaries to the continental shelf. See alligators — even a rare all-white one — and sea turtles, and visit “Otters on the Edge,” a habitat for these playful aquatic critters. Marvel at the huge tank full of sharks, rays, eels, turtles, and divers who pop in to check on the residents.

Visit Fort Fisher State Historic Site, the site of the largest land-sea battle of the Civil War, to explore the remaining earthworks and a scenic trail as well as new interpretive exhibits and other major additions slated for summer 2024. If some of these sights look familiar, it’s because “The Summer I Turned Pretty” was partially filmed in the area. Nearby, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area allows four-wheel-drive beach access with the required permit, which enables you to explore the shore and go fishing in solitude. The state park’s Basin Trail leads hikers through salt marshes and a maritime forest filled with wildlife.

Wrightsville Beach

Surfers and sun-seekers flock to Wrightsville Beach, where crystal-blue waters and world-class watersports are just a few reasons Travel + Leisure recognized it as one of the “25 Best Beaches in the US” in 2023.

Things to do

Embrace the island’s active lifestyle by taking the Wrightsville Beach Waterloop Tour, a new guided kayaking eco-tour run by Wilmington Outdoor Adventures, or consider a Wrightsville Kayak Company guided tour. A paddleboard outing with Wrightsville SUP or Cape Fear Paddleboarding will reveal the beauty of the marsh creeks. Learn to hang ten with instruction from a local surf school like WB Surf Camp. With Blockade Runner Sailing Center or Wrightsville Performance Sailing, hop aboard for a lesson or rent a boat and sail around the island. You can also leave the work to someone else and join a scenic cruise or excursion to uninhabited Masonboro Island Reserve with Soundside Adventures, Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, or Epic Excursions.

Where to eat & drink

Dining on the water is a must here. Bluewater Waterfront Grill serves a New American menu with a seafood focus from their spot on the Intracoastal Waterway. Across the channel you’ll find fine dining at The Bridge Tender and casual fare and a happening bar at Dockside Restaurant. At Oceanic Restaurant, you can dine on Crystal Pier to take in beach scenes with your meal. South Beach Grill, meanwhile, serves seafood and Southern specialties with channel views in the heart of Wrightsville Beach.

Oceanfront resorts

Wrightsville Beach stands apart from other beaches in North Carolina thanks to several full-service oceanfront resorts. Blockade Runner Beach Resort has offered a pampered beach experience for nearly 60 years. From the luxe rooms with both ocean and sound views to award-winning food from EAST Oceanfront Dining, Blockade Runner is a favorite among locals and visitors. Whether you’re relaxing poolside, chilling on a chaise steps from the surf, or joining their paddleboard yoga or other wellness programs, you’ll fall for the ambience of this place.

At the community’s north end, Lumina on Wrightsville Beach, a Holiday Inn Resort has both oceanfront and soundside rooms, a large pool and deck complex, and umbrellas and beach chairs for guests. With ample parking and a prime beach location, it’s the choice for many families visiting Wrightsville Beach. But as you’ve seen by now, there really are a lot of choices when it comes to where you stay or what you do on a trip to Wilmington and its island beaches.

Photo credits: Wilmington and Beaches.
This post is proudly produced in partnership with Wilmington and Beaches.