If you’re looking to really learn about Wilmington and its island beaches on your next trip to the Carolina coast, there’s a tour for you. With a range of different excursions available, typically led by locals themselves, opportunities abound to uncover the area’s rich history, stunning natural beauty, and top-notch culture. Whether you’re a lover of local craft beer, an epicurean seeking culinary delights, or an avid explorer ready to set sail, we’ve got you covered.
So buckle up and let our expert guides take you on a memorable journey. Whether by land or by sea, you’ll never forget your Wilmington and Beaches trip if it includes these one-of-a-kind experiences.
Splurge on nautical adventures and island escapades.
With the Cape Fear River to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Wilmington and its island beaches hold a rich maritime heritage. Plenty of local tour guides and charter companies tap into that tradition to provide customized excursions for visitors.
There are countless Cape Fear river cruises that embark from downtown Wilmington and allow you to take in the charm of the Riverwalk from a whole new perspective. Cape Fear River Boats is a must-try for travelers seeking stunning views of Wilmington’s riverfront, while Wilmington Water Tours offers narrated trips that explore the city’s history and ecology, as well as private charters for a more personalized experience. And if you’re looking for a unique way to explore the river, BrewBoat Wilmington’s 90-minute paddleboat excursion is a fun and green option that’s also BYOB — grab a six-pack from Edward Teach Brewing before you head out.
East of the city and just minutes away, you can sail into the waves with an island cruise. For bucket-list seekers, Epic Excursions focuses on a variety of island adventures and is perfect for groups of up to 12 friends, letting you customize your excursion to get exactly what you want. Sunset cruises, wine paddleboarding trips, private island hopping, and dinner packages are the norm. But the company’s newest offering is the Oyster Farm Tour & Tasting, which takes guests out to a mariculture farm and then to Masonboro Island to slurp down the area’s best on the half-shell.
Ride the breeze towards the Atlantic via Masonboro Inlet with Soundside Adventures. Your captain will anchor behind Masonboro Island — North Carolina’s largest undisturbed barrier island — for some R&R and island exploration. Or hunt for shark teeth on an eco-tour with Wilmington Outdoor Adventures. You’ll visit an uninhabited island to scour for those Great White keepsakes, as well as whale bones, fossils, and other mysterious artifacts.
Delve into the past in one of the country’s largest historic districts.
Wilmington is a trove of historical treasures waiting to be explored. Channel your inner sailor and head “behind the hatch” at the WWII Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. With guided offerings like the Showboat Tour, the City at Sea Tour, the Above the Deck Tour, and the Big Bang Tour, you’ll explore every nook and cranny of this storied ship — from the sick bay and barber shop to the gun house and beyond. The surrounding shipyard and USO are also must-see spots that helped make Wilmington the country’s first official American World War II Heritage City.
But history here goes back much further. Take a trip down brick-lined streets by horse-drawn carriage and experience the city’s vibrant past at three historic house museums. Get a glimpse into the lives of prominent families who once called Wilmington home at the Colonial-era Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens and the Victorian-era Latimer House Museum. Music lovers shouldn’t miss the Jazz at the Mansion Concert Series at the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History & Design Arts, held the second Thursday of the month from May to September.
For a comprehensive view of Wilmington’s history, join a guided tour of the National Register Historic District. You’ll be transported back in time as you discover the famous landmarks and personalities that have shaped the city over the centuries. If you prefer to go at your own pace, download the Wilmington History app and take advantage of one of six self-guided walking tours, including the African American History Tour, Pub Crawl, Civil War, and Old Wilmington.
Sip and savor your way through town.
For all the food and drink enthusiasts out there, roll up your sleeves and prepare for a culinary journey through Wilmington and beyond with a variety of mouth-watering tours. Come hungry and thirsty, and get ready to sample the best local flavors.
Check out Wilmington’s vibrant craft beer scene via the self-guided Wilmington Ale Trail, or join Wilmington Bike & Brew Tours for a guided e-bike ride through the city, stopping at some of the most popular breweries along the way. For those who prefer cocktails, the tours and tastings from End of Days Distillery offer a peek behind the scenes at the award-winning distillery, housed in a refurbished historic Quonset hut. Or learn about the eerie history of downtown Wilmington with the Haunted Pub Crawl, featuring ghost stories and local pub stops. The 2.5-hour tour regales with horror tales of murder, mayhem, love, lunacy, humor, and more.
Culinary tours are a great way to see — and in this case, taste — a plethora of different eateries. In Carolina Beach, Tasting History Tours, led by local residents Jeff and Brinley Christner, will usher you through spots like The Veggie Wagon and Nollie’s Taco Joint. For a more upscale culinary experience, join Taste Carolina on their Downtown Tasting Tour, featuring stops at popular restaurants like Savorez and PinPoint. The tour is led by a knowledgeable guide who also happens to be a pastry chef.
Revel in garden, park, and art tours.
There’s no shortage of art and culture in Wilmington and its island beaches. The Cameron Art Museum features rotating exhibits and outdoor works, including the nation’s first US Colored Troops (USCT) Park. Take a weekly exhibition tour or reserve a guided tour with hands-on activities for a more immersive experience. And make sure to scope out Boundless, the life-sized bronze sculpture found in the outdoor park, commemorating the USCT who fearlessly fought in the Civil War at this very spot.
Indulge in a guided or self-guided tour of the Carolina Beach Murals, which illustrate the island’s incredible history, culture, and originality. Murals 14 and 15, celebrating the Shoo Fly Train and native plants of Carolina Beach, respectively, are set to be completed by the fall of 2023. Mural 16, honoring the “Carolina Shag” and one of its pioneers, Malcolm Ray “Chicken” Hicks, created by world-renowned artist Brian Lewis, debuts in April.
For a more natural adventure, visit Airlie Gardens — seasonal blooms, peaceful paths, and wildlife await you. Take a self-guided walk along the trails or reserve a docent-led tour to learn more about the 65-acre gardens.
Explore North Carolina’s trails with NC’s Year of the Trail tours for 2023, including hikes, bike rides, and paddle adventures. At Carolina Beach State Park, you can hike 8.5 scenic miles of trails — top picks include the Sugarloaf Trail and the Flytrap Trail, highlighting the rare Venus flytrap, which grows natively in the area. Or visit Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and explore miles of walkable coastline, a sound-side trail, and the unique coquina rock formation.
Bring your bike to take the Self-Guided Carolina Beach Bike Tour — it encompasses Carolina Beach and Kure Beach and highlights Civil War sites and restaurants along the way. You can also pedal along the River to Sea Bikeway, following the Historic Beach Car Line, or tackle the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, which provides access to numerous recreational, cultural, and educational destinations.
The right tour can elevate any trip, and Wilmington and its island beaches are no exception. By land or by sea, by ear or by taste bud, by bike or on foot — which will you choose?