Families flock to Wilmington and Beaches, North Carolina, to experience a getaway that parents will enjoy just as much as the kids. Join them and what you’ll find is vacation perfection in Wilmington’s vibrant downtown and award-winning Riverwalk, located only a few minutes’ drive from three distinct island beaches where fun in the sun — and the sand and the water — will keep you and the kiddos busy all day. That is, until you decide it’s time for a cruise, some standup paddleboarding, a trip to the aquarium, or a visit to one of the other exciting, kid-friendly attractions at the best of the Carolina coast.

Read on for your ultimate family-focused travel guide to Wilmington and its island beaches, North Carolina’s most accessible coastal destination by interstate or a short non-stop flight.

Water, water everywhere

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The Cape Fear River flows through downtown Wilmington, and the nearby barrier-island beaches are surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. Get acquainted with the historic city as you stroll along the Riverwalk, a nearly two-mile boardwalk along the Cape Fear River featuring beautiful views. Steps away, you’ll find candy shops, boutiques, and excellent spots to grab an ice cream or a bite to eat.

Across from the Riverwalk floats the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, a museum and memorial to North Carolina’s WWII veterans. Take a quick drive or a water taxi across the river to embark on a guided or self-led tour, exploring both above and below deck for a look at life on a battleship. At the riverfront, hop aboard the double-decker boat from Cape Fear River Boats or the custom-built catamaran from Wilmington Water Tours, which offers the Black Water Adventure Cruise. This narrated nature cruise will take you to spot eagles, alligators, and more in a verdant swamp forest full of old-growth cypress trees.

When it’s time to head to the island beaches — Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach — you’ll find even more water tours to join. Soundside Adventures at Wrightsville Beach runs boat tours to the nature preserve and marsh system at uninhabited Masonboro Island. Soundside also has a 44-foot catamaran for private sightseeing cruises and island excursions. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours and Carolina Beach’s Island Cruises give kids the thrill of a pirate adventure complete with a treasure hunt. Shelling excursions and trips focused on wildlife and ecology also make it easy to satisfy the curiosity of your little travel companions.

Make the most of your playtime on the water. A standup paddleboarding lesson or guided tour from Wrightsville SUP or Cape Fear Paddleboarding (they’ll even drop off rental boards at your beach house) lets you experience refreshing waters from a new perspective. Kayak with Wilmington Outdoor Adventures — their new sightseeing and nature tours include a Waterloop Tour that puts Wrightsville Beach’s waterways and beautiful waterside homes on display. Or try a thrilling new sport at Tony Silvagni Surf School in Carolina Beach. Tony, an Olympic Gold Medalist, will have you hanging ten in no time.

Kid-perfect stops back on land

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Kids love the Wilmington area, and as you discover it through their eyes, you’ll fall in love too. What gets kids so excited? Plenty!

  • Carolina Beach Boardwalk: Boardwalks are a seaside classic, and the one you’ll find in Carolina Beach holds souvenir shops, arcades, and delicious distractions like Britt’s Donut Shop, a local favorite spot for hot glazed donuts since 1939. Throughout the summer, weekly fireworks displays dazzle and seasonal amusement rides deliver even more oohs, aahs, and kid-sized thrills.
  • North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher: At this aquarium, the tanks and displays tell the story of area waters — from inland rivers and creeks to the marshes to the surf and deep ocean offshore. You can even meet an albino alligator, young sea turtles, and a family of otters. The touch tank lets you get hands-on with horseshoe crabs, sea stars, and more animals. Other exhibits include sharks, rays, eels, and jellies, to name a few. Book a behind-the-scenes tour for an up-close and personal experience.
  • Wilmington Pirate Walk: For a kid-friendly activity full of seafaring legends and lore, join this downtown walking tour led by a costumed guide.
  • Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park: This place was made for play, and kids can’t get enough of the arcade, go-karts, rides, mini-golf, and games for the little ones. Drift on the lazy river, dip in the wave pool, and ride a few water slides while you’re at it.
  • Children’s Museum of Wilmington: Stop in for a play date (with a side of education) only a couple of blocks from the Riverwalk. The Children’s Museum offers hours of enriched play with hands-on arts, science, and cultural exhibits in a space that’s kid-approved.
  • Cape Fear Museum of History and Science: Learn a bit about Wilmington’s past, from the 1.5-million-year-old ground sloth replica to the town’s most celebrated sports star, Michael Jordan. At this Smithsonian affiliate, exhibits such as the Space Place — a kid-sized space station — and the interactive Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery keep kids engaged, while traveling exhibitions like the upcoming display of images from the Hubble Space Telescope will fill the whole family with wonder.
  • Wilmington Railroad Museum: Explore a retired steam locomotive and caboose, hear songs and stories from railroad life, and get wowed by the model train exhibit at this one-of-a-kind museum on the northern end of the Riverwalk.

Exploring the outdoors

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The destination’s parks and historic sites offer up plenty of greenspace and outdoor areas to discover. At Kure Beach’s Fort Fisher State Historic Site, the site of the largest land-sea battle of the Civil War, you’ll be surrounded by history (and some beautiful live oak trees). Explore the earthwork battlements and the brand new visitor center (opening mid-2024). It’ll feature an orientation auditorium and new exhibits.

Check out indigenous plants like the Venus flytrap along Carolina Beach State Park’s Flytrap Trail. While you’re here, hike the Sugarloaf Trail to a 50-foot sand dune, a landmark for early sailors. Visit another state park, Kure Beach’s Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, where you can explore miles of unspoiled shoreline and hike the Basin Trail through a maritime forest.

Mom, I’m hungry!

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Did you think we forgot mealtime? Enjoy everything from exceptional Thai cuisine and sushi to taco and burrito shops you’ll be talking about for years. Whether you’re seeking seafood or Southern barbecue, you’ll find plenty of places to dine al fresco and waterside that’ll delight even the pickiest eater. Here’s a list of kid-friendly restaurants.

A good night’s sleep

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There are plenty of standout places to stay in Wilmington and its nearby island beaches. Book a family-sized suite just steps from the Riverwalk at Aloft Wilmington at Coastline Center (near the Railroad Museum) or Embassy Suites Wilmington Riverfront Hotel.

Stay oceanfront in style at Wrightsville Beach’s family-friendly Lumina on Wrightsville Beach, a Holiday Inn Resort, or the storied Blockade Runner Beach Resort, a seaside complex with an exceptional restaurant and loads of on-site watersports. The Courtyard Marriott Carolina Beach Oceanfront offers heated indoor/outdoor pools, easy access to the Boardwalk and beach, and wow-worthy ocean views.

Of course, you can opt for a vacation rental and make a condo, townhouse, houseboat, or beach house your home-away-from-home for a few days. With options including accessible homes, pet-friendly accommodations, and properties ideal for an extended family getaway, you’ll find a home perfect for your family-focused escape to Wilmington and Beaches.