Want to take a weekend trip but not sure where to go? How about a city full of Southern charm, rich in history, with delicious eats, good beer, and amazing beaches?! If that sounds like a dream… it can be real life when you visit Wilmington and its island beaches.
I am lucky enough to live just 2 and a half hours from North Carolina’s beautiful coastal city of Wilmington! In November, Michael and I were able to take a quick getaway to Wilmington to enjoy all the Port City had to offer. Even though Wilmington is known for the beach, there was so much to see and do even in late Fall! Spending a weekend in Wilmington makes for the perfect quick trip. For the foodies, there are yummy fresh oysters and tons of amazing restaurants, for the beer lovers, you have dozens of breweries to choose from, and for the history buffs you have the battleship and Fort Fisher! There is truly something for everyone to enjoy and discover in Wilmington.
In this post, I’m sharing the best of Wilmington and its beaches, when to visit, and where to stay on a quick weekend in Wilmington!
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Wilmington is known as the “Port City” and is tucked on the southern coast of North Carolina. Wilmington has long been a busy port and at its peak served over a hundred merchant ships per day! It still serves as a port although it’s not quite as busy. Nonetheless, Wilmington is a bustling coastal town that people both love to visit and live in. Because of its port and location in North Carolina, Wilmington has a rich history and strong Southern influence. You’ll see many historic buildings and neighborhoods surrounding Wilmington’s downtown. Outside of the riverfront and downtown, you’ll find many North Carolinians (and other states as well!) flocking to one of Wilmington area’s many beaches including Wrightsville, Carolina, and Kure during the summer or enjoying one of the many breweries in Wilmington.
When to visit Wilmington
Due to North Carolina’s location and Wilmington’s proximity to the coast, there’s really no bad time to visit Wilmington! The weather is temperate and Wilmington experiences all four seasons. The summers are very hot and humid which make it perfect for beach going but the winters can be pretty chilly! The fall and the spring are the perfect times to visit to experience all Wilmington has to offer. Both seasons still have warm days in the high 70s/low 80s so you can enjoy walking around without extreme weather but still enjoy the beach!
In the spring, you can visit during Wilmington’s world famous Azalea Festival!
Where to stay in Wilmington
There are a ton of different great districts to stay in Wilmington! We stayed on the riverfront downtown and couldn’t recommend the location more. The Hotel Ballast was the perfect stay. It was super clean and quiet which surprised me given it hosted not one, but two military balls over the weekend we were there! The Hotel Ballast is walking distance to the riverwalk and most of the restaurants I have mentioned in the itinerary below. Other options are the Embassy Suites or the Aloft, which are just a little farther down the road from Hotel Ballast. Both Hotel Ballast and Embassy Suites are both Hilton properties and the Aloft is a Marriott property if you’re hoping to redeem some points!
If you’d rather stay on the beach, check out the Blockade Runner on Wrightsville Beach or the Shell Island Resort, which boasts all oceanfront suites! For points and miles, the Holiday Inn Resort Lumina on Wrightsville is an IHG property.
Related: The Best Hiking Trails Near Raleigh, NC
What to do with a weekend in Wilmington
Start your long weekend by driving (or flying) into Wilmington early in the afternoon. We arrived late due to my husband’s work schedule, but I would’ve loved to get there a little bit after lunchtime to explore. I recommend getting in around 2 or 3. Check in to your hotel and set off for Wilmington’s downtown riverwalk. The riverwalk is a boardwalk set along the Cape Fear River that has adorable shops and restaurants ranging from casual bars to fancy eateries right on the water. Stroll the boardwalk and pop in and out of shops to enjoy your first afternoon in Wilmington. The riverwalk isn’t too long–without stopping, you can make it from one end to the other in about an hour.
After walking the riverwalk, head to one of Wilmington’s several downtown breweries! Flytrap Brewing, Waterline Brewing, and New Anthem Beer Project are all a short walk away from the riverwalk.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, walk down Front Street and eat at Front Street Brewery for dinner for some Southern fare. Have another beer for dinner, too–the Honey & Bones ale from Front Street Brewery was my favorite of the weekend! Get the fried pickles as an app, the ranch and pickles are all homemade and absolutely delicious.
Following dinner, grab an after dinner drink at one of the many bars along Front Street and in downtown. We tried Whiskey Tango Foxtrot on Grace Street. It had live music and a good crowd. Michael had the Cedar Smoked Old Fashioned which was out of this world, but my drink was just okay. The cocktails are pretty upscale but the vibe inside is more of a dive bar so we didn’t love it. However, if you like an Old Fashioned this is definitely the place to go.
If I could choose again, I’d try Cloud 9 on the rooftop of the Embassy Suites or the aView Rooftop Bistro on the roof of the Aloft hotel.
Start your day nice and early by hopping in the car and driving to Carolina Beach. Don’t worry–we’ll be stopping for breakfast and coffee on the way! Just a short 25 minute drive from downtown Wilmington in Carolina Beach, you’ll find the Southerly. The Southerly is a grab and go breakfast spot with scratch-made biscuits and the most delicious baked goods. Michael and I both had the vegetarian gravy which has a potato base… trust me, you want to get this! We also couldn’t resist getting some cookies to-go.
After grabbing breakfast, we drove about 8 minutes further towards Fort Fisher to go to the aquarium. The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher is a great little aquarium and perfect for kids and adults alike! Make sure you book tickets in advance. Without kids, expect to spend about an hour here but budget longer if you do have kids.
Following the aquarium, you’re perfectly situated to explore Fort Fisher. Fort Fisher is known as a Confederate site that protected the trade routes in and out of Wilmington. We just got out of the car really quick to see the beach and walk around the site, but didn’t go to the museum or anything like that. You could if you have time–but lunch was calling our name! We drove to Stoked Restaurant in Carolina Beach and enjoyed some brews and delicious blackened Mahi tacos.
For the afternoon, spend the afternoon in Carolina Beach because there’s so much to do! You can either stroll the boardwalk or if you’re wanting to stretch your legs a bit more head to Carolina Beach State Park. Many of the trails are short and easy, so it was nice to get some fresh air. Keep your eyes peeled for venus flytraps growing in the forest!
Grab a sweet treat at the FudgeBoat or Celtic Creamery or Britt’s Donuts if it’s open for the season. All 3 are known for their homemade fudge, ice cream, and donuts respectively so I wouldn’t even blame you for stopping at all three!
Head back into Wilmington for your afternoon cruise! Along the riverwalk, there are a few different companies offering tours of the Cape Fear River and we had an absolute blast with Wilmington Water Tours. You’ll learn a bit of history of the Cape Fear River and see some beautiful sites. And if you do the sunset cruise (for us in November it was at 4 pm!) it just adds to the beauty even more!
Freshen up and get ready for a delicious dinner at either Seabird or Pinpoint right downtown. We had Pinpoint and enjoyed some great wine, delicious oysters, and fresh caught seafood. We called it a night after this but if you still have some energy, check out one of the many breweries in Wilmington!
On your last morning walk back over to Front Street for breakfast at Drift Coffee Shop. The coffee is delicious and they have an awesome breakfast burrito or smoothies if you want something a little lighter!
Once you finish breakfast, head off to the USS North Carolina. The USS North Carolina is the most decorated battleship from World War II and it sits proudly on the Cape Fear River. If you’ve never been, you certainly can’t visit Wilmington without a visit! Find tickets here.
Head into Wrightsville Beach after your history lesson on the battleship and grab lunch at Wrightsville Beach Brewery or Tower 7. Whether you’re in the mood for beer and bar fare or Mexican food, you can’t go wrong with either choice for lunch!
Finish off your trip with a walk around Airlie Gardens. The beautiful gardens have been around for over 100 years and was the original home to the famous azalea festival. Located along Bradley Creek, you’ll enjoy some beautiful views and flowers on your visit.
Now it’s time to head home! Even though you covered a ton of ground this weekend, this short weekend in Wilmington will have you wanting to come back for more!
Wilmington makes for the perfect destination for a weekend getaway if you live in North Carolina or the Southeast. With a vibrant downtown and beautiful coastline, Wilmington and its beaches are a picturesque way to explore a new corner of North Carolina! Be sure to spend some time eating some of the delicious oysters and Southern fare and drinking a beer at one of the many breweries in Wilmington. Learn some history at the USS North Carolina and Fort Fisher and visit one of the gorgeous Carolina, Kure, or Wrightsville beaches. With just 2 days, you can see so much of Wilmington but you’ll definitely want to come back year after year!
This weekend in Wilmington was hosted by Wilmington and Beaches CVB. All thoughts and opinions are my own! Please visit Wilmington and Beaches CVB website for great resources on planning your trip to Wilmington.