Philadelphia Traveling Mom Sarah Ricks says strolling the pretty wooden walkway on the riverbank was one of her favorite things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina. Plus, the riverwalk is free. But Wilmington has much more. Explore antebellum house museums, gorgeous 19th architecture, an historical downtown district that is easily walkable, and African-American history. A plantation near Wilmington is both a house museum and – surprise – a horse sanctuary.
Things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina include exploring antebellum architecture and house museums. We enjoyed walking along the river front, a ghost walk, and boutique shops in Wilmington’s walkable downtown. We also enjoyed visiting a nearby plantation and discovering a sanctuary for horses, goats, and pigs.
Riverwalk on Cape Fear River
In the center of its historic downtown, Wilmington has a pretty riverfront walkway that is a magnet for strolling families, runners, and dog walkers. The wooden riverwalk runs alongside the bank of the Cape Fear River. Cafes, restaurants, and gift shops line the walkway. We strolled the mile long walkway before dinner, enjoying the river view. Since we enjoyed people-watching with the view of the river and the bridge, we returned several times.
Bellamy Mansion Museum
Touring the antebellum Bellamy Mansion is one of the most popular things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina. The imposing white mansion, surrounded by columns, is just blocks from the center of town. I appreciated that our thoughtful guided tour did not shy away from slavery. For example, our guide showed us the slave quarters, a brick building right behind the big house – with no openings on the street side.
Similarly, the guide explained that both enslaved people and African American freedmen built the house, including the elaborate plaster work. One enslaved man, William Gould, signed his work and the museum displays the plaster fragment with his signature. The guide explained that William Gould later escaped, served in the Union Navy, and kept a diary that his great-grandson published in 2002. Bellamy Mansion sells the book.
Architecture in Wilmington
The historic center is pretty area of 19th century buildings in a compact, walkable downtown. One of my favorite things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina was walk around the historic center. Wilmington has gorgeous architecture, locally owned shops, and almost no national chains. Instead, the vibe is funky Main Street, USA. As an architecture fan, I was delighted to see cheerfully painted stores and lots of building details. We also enjoyed the beautiful residential neighborhood just a short walking distance from the shops. Lush gardens surround gracious 19th century wood and brick houses. Many of Wilmington’s Bed and Breakfast inns are located in this neighborhood, and we stayed in two.
I’m a fan of spooky, after dark walking tours. The Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington is a spooky walking tour of the historic downtown of Wilmington. The tour took about an hour. Our guide walked us down dark creepy alleyways and over to the 19th century graveyard. He spun stories about ghosts who haunt this port city. Tickets are online.
Local shops in Wilmington NC
Wilmington is proud of its entrepreneurs. Both the city and the riverwalk have fun shopping for crafts, clothes, toys, and jewelry. Almost all are charming small stores that are the personal visions of their owners, not chains. For example, we stumbled on a wonderful bookstore, Old Books on Front Street. This cavernous independent bookstore has used and new books of every kind. Browsing here was one of my favorite things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Similarly, after a morning of walking, we perked up with locally roasted coffee from Port City Java. This café is cheerfully decorated in bright contrasting colors.
African American Heritage Walk
While it is possible to take a walking tour, my husband and I had more of a conversation about Wilmington’s African-American history with Islah Speller, the founder of the Burnett-Eaton Museum Foundation. I phoned the day before to make an appointment (910-769-4450). When we arrived, Ms. Speller greeted me with a hug. In what is clearly a labor of love, she has created an idiosyncratic collection of artifacts about Wilmington’s tragic and inspiring racial history. A prominent African-American doctor, Foster Burnett, once lived in the house that now houses the museum. His son-in-law, Hubert Eaton, Sr., a doctor and civil rights leader, sued to integrate a hospital, schools, and other institutions.
Poplar Grove Plantation
This North Carolina plantation is about a 20-minute drive from Wilmington. I was struck by the museum’s thoughtful explanations of slavery’s central place in the economy of the south and of this location in particular. For example, Poplar Grove Plantation researched the lives of several people enslaved by the Foy family. They tracked down descendants of the Foy family’s slaves, some who are still named Foy. Now, that oral history is a core part of the plantation museum. This thoughtful exhibit, From Civil War to Civil Rights: The African American Experience at Poplar Grove, opened in 2014 and fills a room. While guides are available, we took a self-guided tour.
Unlike the urban location of the antebellum Bellamy House, Poplar Grove Plantation was a working farm. The 15-acre grounds include a wooden shack where tenant farmers lived. Basket weavers offer on site lessons. We were happily surprised to find that the grounds now include a horse sanctuary. We spent a fun hour with the friendly farmer, meeting the gregarious goats, sheep, pigs, and turkeys now living there.