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Fun things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina include strolling the Cape Fear riverfront walkway. But the Wilmington walkable historic district also has 19th-century museums, pretty architecture, and boutique shops. Popular and easy excursions are nearby beaches, a Civil War fort, and a botanical garden. Plus, a plantation with rich history that now doubles as a farm animal sanctuary.
My husband and I took a southern road trip from Philadelphia to Wilmington, North Carolina, and found a plethora of things to do. Strolling the pretty wooden walkway on Cape Fear River was among our favorite things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina.
And downtown Wilmington NC has much more. We explored historic site museums, gorgeous 19th architecture, the easily walkable historic district, and African-American history. We enjoyed easy excursions from Wilmington to beaches, a Civil War site, and a plantation that’s both a house museum and – surprise – a horse sanctuary.
1. Riverwalk on Cape Fear River
In the center of historic downtown Wilmington is 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 riverwalk before dinner, enjoying the view.
And since people-watching with the bridge and river view was fun, we returned several times. While we didn’t visit the Battleship North Carolina, which served in World War II, we saw the ship from the riverwalk.
2. 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, important United States history. For example, our guide showed us the quarters for enslaved people, a brick building right behind the big house. Then she pointed out there were no openings on the street side.
Similarly, the guide explained that both enslaved people and African American freedmen built the house, including the elaborate plasterwork. In fact, 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.
While we missed it on this trip, another historic downtown Wilmington mansion, the colonial-era Burgwin-Wright House, is also open to the public. Also, near Bellamy Mansion on Market Street is the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science, another rainy day option.
3. Historic District in Downtown Wilmington
The historic district is a pretty area of 19th-century buildings in compact, walkable downtown Wilmington. In fact, one of my favorite things to do in Wilmington is walking around the historic center to discover its gorgeous architecture and cheerfully painted locally-owned shops and terrific Wilmington restaurants. (And almost no national chains!) Instead, the vibe is funky Main Street, USA.
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.
4. Ghost Walking Tour for Tweens, Teens
I’m a fan of spooky, after dark walking tours. The Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington is a spooky walking tour of the historic district of downtown 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.
5. Local Shops
Wilmington is proud of its entrepreneurs. And for good reason. Year-round, 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. From toddlers to teens, browsing here is one of the fun things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Nearby, the Cotton Exchange on Front Street has a cluster of 30 unique boutiques and restaurants.
Read More: Best Beaches in Wilmington NC for Families
6. African American Heritage Walk
We took a self-guided walking tour of the Wilmington African-American heritage sites laid out in this pamphlet. For example, we visited churches, schools, and a monument honoring the African-Americans killed in the 1898 violent overthrow of the city’s government. Also, we saw the location of the Black newspaper burned during the 1898 massacre. Still controversial, some call it the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. But others call it a coup.
We also visited the Burnett-Eaton Museum Foundation, open by appointment. This house museum is clearly a labor of love, 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. And his son-in-law, Hubert Eaton, Sr., a doctor and civil rights leader, sued to integrate a hospital, schools, and other institutions.
7. Nearby Beaches
Surprisingly, downtown Wilmington is an easy drive to gorgeous beaches. And from toddlers up to grandparents, nothing beats sea air, splashing in the surf, and bare feet on the sand. We visited Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, and Kure Beach.
8. Airlie Gardens
Another easy excursion from Wilmington, North Carolina is the 67-acre Airlie Gardens, a serene botanical garden. Little kids and grandparents will enjoy the butterfly house. Even tweens and teens will enjoy the whimsical sculpture made out of colored bottles and concrete. I was especially taken by the majesty of a 450-year-old tree, the Airlie Oak. Click here for more on Airlie Gardens and the beaches nearby.
9. Fort Fisher Historic Site
Fort Fisher, in Kure Beach, is an easy drive from Wilmington NC. Now, the ruins of a Civil War Confederate fort are part of a park with wooden walking paths and spooky trees. Plus, lovely views of marshland and Cape Fear River. And an on-site museum makes this a year-round and rainy day option for tweens, teens, and grandparents.
10. 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 people enslaved by the Foy family, some 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, 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. Now, basket weavers offer on-site lessons. Surprisingly, the grounds now include a horse sanctuary, a kind of animal park. So we spent a fun hour with the friendly farmer, meeting gregarious goats, sheep, pigs, and turkeys now living there. From toddlers to teens, this is a fun thing to do near Wilmington NC.
What things to do in Wilmington, North Carolina tempt you? Tell us about it in the comments.