Whether you’re a beach bum or love to walk through historic downtown areas, there’s something for everyone in Wilmington, North Carolina. Situated on the Atlantic coast where the Cape Fear river meets the ocean, Wilmington offers families all kinds of options for lodging, restaurants, beaches, activities and more. My family and I had the chance to explore the area for five days during our extended family vacation road trip this summer, and we enjoyed every moment of it. Here are just five of the reasons why:
With miles of beach, Wilmington is the place to go for swimming, surfing or just playing in the sand. There are three island beach towns in the Wilmington area and every one of them has a distinct feel and atmosphere. Carolina Beach (located at the northern end of Pleasure Island) is very family-friendly, with a boardwalk, amusement park and lots of activities and events. Kure Beach is located at the southern tip of Pleasure Island and has a small-town atmosphere filled with colorful beach homes. Wrightsville Beach was recently named as one of the “World’s Best Surf Towns” by National Geographic – and is home to the Wrightsville Beach Surf Camp, where kids can attend surf camps, schools or take private or group lessons to learn how to surf.
My kids and I enjoyed a wonderful time exploring all three of Wilmington’s beach towns and my girls loved their first introduction to swimming and playing in the ocean waves and sand – and collecting lots of seashells as well.
When I first found out that we would be spending a week in Wilmington this summer, I immediately went to the web to do some research into what our options might be for things to do. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Wilmington has many family-friendly attractions – everything from the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, to the Wilmington Children’s Museum and the Wilmington Railroad Museum in downtown Wilmington. Each of these attractions is educational – but offers plenty to keep kids engaged and enjoying the time spent there.
We spent an afternoon at each of these locations and every time my kids weren’t ready to leave afterward. From viewing all kinds of fish, touching stingrays and sharks and measuring their hands against a giant shark tooth – to giving checkups to teddy bears and dental exams to dinosaurs, giving a weather forecast and playing pretend in a model campsite with real tents (but pretend fire) – to exploring miniature railroad models with a game of ‘seek-and-find’ and ringing the bell on an actual locomotive… My girls had an absolute blast.
Without even needing to venture out onto the ocean, there are plenty of ways to explore the Cape Fear river area and the salt marshes of the Intra-Coastal Waterway. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours can show you everything from rare birds that stop over in the area during their migration, to beautiful sunsets and plenty of wildlife, including dolphins. And on the Cape Fear River side, there’s Wilmington Water Tours that offer cruises, tours, and even weddings and charters for a guided tour of the wildlife and ecosystem of the Cape Fear.
Not only did my girls get to act as official ‘dolphin spotters’ on our Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours cruise – we did actually spot a dolphin in the wild and were able to follow it for a ways. We learned about the architecture, environment and history of the Wrightsville Beach area and enjoyed a relaxing evening aboard their boat, the Shamrock. We also were able to cruise up the Cape Fear River with Wilmington Water Tours, where we watched for egrets and learned about how the ecosystem has changed over time as the river has turned from fresh to salt water in the Wilmington area. The views of downtown Wilmington from the boat were beautiful as well!
Wilmington is a beautiful southern city, with some gorgeous historic buildings and a downtown that offers a riverfront boardwalk, horse-drawn carriage tours and rides, and lots of restaurants and shopping opportunities. My family ate downtown at the Pilot House restaurant and spent some time afterward exploring, enjoying an ice cream treat, watching a street juggler perform and entertain the crowd, and touring the area via horse-drawn trolley. One opportunity we did not get the chance to experience was to go on a ghost walk through downtown Wilmington – my kids were really excited about that one unfortunately but the evening weather did not cooperate with us very well.
Whether you prefer a hotel or rental house right on the beach, a downtown bed-and-breakfast, camping, or a more traditional hotel near shopping and commercial development, Wilmington has a wide variety of options for lodging. You can stay in one of the beach towns or downtown – or anywhere in between. We stayed along the commercial corridor (our lodging was covered by my husband’s employer) – but I would love to explore the area more again someday and stay in one of the vacation beach rentals or one of the hotels, such as the beautiful Homewood Suites at Mayfaire, which we had the chance to tour while we were there.
Thank you to the Wilmington and Beaches CVB for arranging a wonderful stay for my family in Wilmington, NC, as well as setting up passes, dining and tours for us to sample and explore from the businesses mentioned in this post. All opinions stated here are 100% my own or those of my family.