15 Reasons Wilmington, NC is the Best of the Carolina Coast

By: Jason Frye

Photo: Farid Sani/Shutterstock.
Photos below courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches

Not all oceanside vacations are created equal, and one trip to Wilmington and our island beaches will show you why we’re the crown jewel of coastal getaways in the Carolinas. With the city’s historic River District and Riverwalk, along with three island beaches just minutes away, there’s plenty to explore. Expect to encounter turquoise waters, exceptional sand, one-of-a-kind nature escapes, and award-winning chefs and breweries — just a few of the many attractions you’ll fall in love with on this slice of the North Carolina coast.

Ready for a countdown? Here are the top 15 reasons for getting yourself to Wilmington ASAP.

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

15. Historically artsy

Performing and visual arts thrive in Wilmington. Tear yourself away from the galleries to take in a play, show, or film at one of the state’s oldest theaters: Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts. The venue’s architecture, décor, and performances have delighted audiences for well over a century, as the Thalian has been in continuous operation since 1858. A few blocks away, The Wilson Center stands in modern contrast, bringing Broadway shows and concerts to one of the most technologically advanced performance spaces in the region.

14. Festival fantasyland

Love a fair? Wilmington has more than 150 annual festivals, events, and street fairs, celebrating our arts, culture, and history, and delivering something to do in every season. In spring, the North Carolina Azalea Festival — a show-stopping display of azalea blooms, gardens, and goings-on — dishes out five days of merriment. Dust off your shagging shoes for June’s Carolina Beach Music Festival, one of the longest-running music festivals in the country, which has bands performing and crowds dancing with their toes in the sand. And in November, the Cape Fear Kite Festival fills the air over Fort Fisher State Recreation Area with fanciful kites.

13. Live music in a magical setting

Perched on the banks of the Cape Fear River, Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park offers concertgoers the chance to catch a show from big-name touring acts a short stroll from the hotels, restaurants, and breweries of downtown. Even when packed, there’s not a bad seat in the house at this venue that accommodates 7,000+. Smaller shows, intimate concerts, and up-and-coming acts, meanwhile, flock to Greenfield Lake Amphitheater, where an audience of up to 1,200 can enjoy a concert season nine months long in a lakeside setting surrounded by century-old cypress trees.

12. Coastal gardens and an ancient oak

Azalea-lined paths, trellises dripping with fragrant flowers, thousands of blooming plants, and the ancient Airlie Oak make the waterside Airlie Gardens a must-visit for green-thumbed nature lovers. The historic Lebanon Chapel sits among pines and azaleas, the Minnie Evans Glass Bottle House celebrates the visionary folk artist (and longtime Airlie Gardens attendant) Minnie Evans, and the Airlie Oak — spreading root and branch since 1545 — gives you plenty to see and experience when you visit.

11. Fabulous fossils

Fossils? At the beach? You bet. Head to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area at low tide for a glimpse of North Carolina’s only coquina outcrop. The coquina — a cement-like mixture of sediment, fossilized shells and corals, and rock — is between 12,000 and 80,000 years old and makes for a surprising sight in the retreating surf.

10. A bloom like no other

Wilmington’s a place like no other, and we have the plants to prove it. The carnivorous Venus flytrap’s native habitat sits within a 75- to 100-mile radius of our city, and you can spot their lovely five-petaled white blooms in May. At Carolina Beach State Park, follow the Venus Flytrap Trail to find groves and patches of the plant as well as pockets of other indigenous carnivorous plants like the pitcher plant and bladderwort. The Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, the only public garden of its type in the world, also features an amazing collection of these unique species.

9. Beaches and two state parks all on one island

Miles of sand stretch south from Carolina Beach to Kure Beach and on down to Fort Fisher. The same island holds a pair of state parks packed with things to do. See the Venus flytrap and other flora while hiking the 8.5 miles of trails in Carolina Beach State Park. Here, two ADA-accessible trails and an accessible fishing dock ensure that everyone can enjoy the great outdoors. Just down the road, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area reveals the state’s Civil War history along an undeveloped stretch of coast. Hike the Basin Trail, spend the day shelling or birding, or bring your kayak and go for a paddle.

8. Claims to fame

What do Dawson’s Creek, Halloween Kills, One Tree Hill, Iron Man 3, Blue Velvet, and The Black Phone have in common? They were all filmed here in Hollywood East. Drive around town and you’ll spot locations from more than 400 movies and TV episodes that called Wilmington home. There are several self-guided tours available, including detailed information for visiting locations made famous (or familiar, like One Tree Hill’s Naley Bench) on Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill.

7. Caribbean waters in the Carolinas

The silvery sands, east-facing beach, and terrific turquoise waters of Wrightsville Beach are more reminiscent of the Caribbean than any other beach in the Carolinas, making this stretch of shore a favorite for locals and visitors. You’ll find these bright blue waters on Wrightsville because the silty, tannin-rich Cape Fear River meets the ocean far to the south and a pair of fast-flowing inlets flank the island, refreshing the water and sand like clockwork.

6. World-class watersports

There’s no better place to learn to surf than Wilmington’s island beaches. Wrightsville Beach is recognized as the birthplace of NC’s surf scene, and Men’s Journal called our coast the state’s most rewarding watersports hub. Waste no time in booking a surf lesson at Tony Silvagni Surf School. Tony’s a pro surfer and International Surfing Association Gold Medalist, so he knows how to help you hang 10. If you’d rather be under the waves, we’ve got great SCUBA and freediving — in fact, the waters just off the Fort Fisher coast were the first North Carolina Heritage Dive Site thanks to dives around The Condor, a wrecked blockade runner sunk during the Civil War.

5. An amazing aquarium

TripAdvisor has named the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher one of the top aquariums in the U.S. multiple times. Why? Maybe it’s the albino alligator, the kid-friendly touch tank loaded with sea creatures, or the two-story tank where sharks glide through the water with rays and eels. Or perhaps it’s the sea turtles, otters, outdoor gardens and play area, or the exceptional family-friendly programming. Visit and find out for yourself.

4. A classic boardwalk

Find yesteryear delight in strolling the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. Ice cream, the famous Britt’s Donuts, shops, summer amusement rides and weekly fireworks shows, and more line this boardwalk that both Food & Wine Magazine and Budget Travel ranked as one of the top boardwalks in the nation. Be sure to take a ride on the Ferris wheel for a gull’s-eye view of Carolina Beach.

3. History around every corner

Here in Wilmington, we wear our history on our sleeve, ready for your exploration: Make sure to see for yourself why Fort Fisher State Historic Site is the most visited state historic site in NC. Tour USCT Park at the Cameron Art Museum to learn about the United States Colored Troops at the only park in the nation built to honor these troops and their fight for freedom. See why USA TODAY and FoxNews.com love the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA. And learn why we’re the first city in the U.S. to be named a WWII Heritage City.

Of course, your history tour wouldn’t be complete without a self-guided walk or horse-drawn carriage ride around downtown Wilmington’s National Register Historic District. Encompassing more than 230 blocks, its size is matched by its picturesque charm. This is history you’ll want to linger over.

2. A rad riverwalk

Stretching for nearly two picturesque miles, the Wilmington Riverwalk anchors downtown, helping us earn the No. 1 ranking in USA TODAY’s 10Best – Best American Riverfronts. Lined with bespoke markets and boutiques, and only steps away from award-winning breweries and restaurants, the Riverwalk offers something whether you’re out for a casual stroll, a fitness-minded walk, or just a chance to peruse local businesses and culture.

1. Best Small City in the U.S.

The secret’s out: Wilmington and our island beaches are spectacular. In 2022, Conde Nast Traveler readers named Wilmington one of its “Best Small Cities in the U.S.”, and for good reason. Beyond all the attractions of downtown itself, a 20-minute drive will deposit you on the shore, at a state or historic park, or have you ready to explore the area bite by bite and sip by sip. From our fantastic festivals to our stunning scenery, one visit and you’ll see why “Best Small City” doesn’t even begin to do this place justice.

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