Stately antebellum homes, brick-lined streets and moss-covered live oaks are the stuff romantic Southern vacations are made of, and Wilmington, North Carolina has all these things in spades. But that’s not all this coastal city has to offer. Surfers and scuba divers flock to its nearby beaches to get up close and personal with historic shipwrecks, search for prehistoric fossils and ride some of the best waves the east coast has to offer. Plus, Wilmington’s restaurant and brewery scene is sophisticated enough to satisfy even the most discerning hipster foodie. Read on to see why we think Wilmington makes for an ideal couple’s getaway.
If you can swing a flight to Wilmington, you won’t regret it. It has possibly the most charming and easy-to-navigate airport we’ve ever experienced (and we have been through a lot of airports!). Pick up your rental car right outside the airport’s exit doors, and you’ll arrive in Wilmington’s Historic District in under 10 minutes.
For a romantic couple of nights within easy walking distance of most Wilmington attractions, we recommend the Front Street Inn, a charming 12-room bed & breakfast with complimentary on-site parking. Each suite here has a different theme — choose the one that best fits your style and budget.
Just a block away from the inn, you’ll find Wilmington’s scenic Riverwalk, which extends for nearly two miles along the Cape Fear River and is filled with boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and plenty of tourists. Take some time for a stroll here to shop, have drinks, and enjoy the view — it includes the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, an authentically restored WWII battleship that’s now open for tours.
Battleships weren’t the only vessels on these waters. Centuries ago, the pirates Blackbeard and Captain Kidd used Wilmington’s nearby barrier islands to hide their ships — and, according to legend, their treasure. During the Civil War, Wilmington was the destination of choice for blockade runners, who used its port to smuggle goods from England to Confederate soldiers and sympathizers.
In nearby Kure Beach, Fort Fisher was built in 1861 to protect Wilmington’s port from Union troops. Confederate soldiers managed to keep the port open until 1865, when Fort Fisher fell to the Union in a six-hour battle that was pivotal to the outcome of the Civil War. The remains of Fort Fisher still stand and are well worth visiting, along with the Civil War museum built nearby.
Also still standing are scores of gorgeous historic homes in downtown Wilmington, several of which are open to the public, and the 10,000-square-foot Bellamy Mansion is the best of the bunch! The home, its lush Victorian gardens and recently restored slave quarters all are open for touring. And not far from the Bellamy Mansion, you’ll find the Burgwin-Wright House. This house was built in 1770 as the townhome for a wealthy merchant and planter.
With so much to see on foot, you’ll soon work up a healthy appetite. Locals pointed us to the Dixie Grill, and we’re grateful they did. This unassuming downtown restaurant opened its doors in the 1920s and has been serving up Southern favorites ever since. My fried green tomato BLT was to. Die. For.
Another favorite for a casual meal is the Front Street Brewery. Not only does this Wilmington staple have excellent micro brews and the largest whiskey selection in North Carolina, but its food menu is delicious as well. You can’t go wrong with the Scottish Ale Brew-B-Q Ribs or shrimp & grits. Whatever you do, don’t miss their famous pulled chicken nachos. I’m also a big fan of Front Street’s Riptide Raspberry Wheat beer.
Looking for something more upscale? Try Circa 1922, an inventive tapas bar and restaurant where locals go to celebrate special occasions. Or PinPoint, an upscale restaurant inside an 1890s building, where up-and-coming chef Dean Neff sources as much of his seasonal menu as possible from Wilmington’s farmers, fishermen, oystermen and crabbers.
For drinks, head for Le Catalan at sunset. It’s a French outdoor cafe right on the river with an excellent selection of French wines. More adventurous types will want to seek out Wilmington’s very own speakeasy, The Blind Elephant. Located in an alley just around the corner from Front Street Brewery, look for the unmarked metal door with a peephole — there are no signs. If you give the right password (Hint: Call 910-833-7175 to get it), you’ll be allowed into this secret bar with a 1920s-inspired drink menu.
It doesn’t take much to find great shopping in Wilmington. Just take a walk down Market Street or Front Street. Both are lined with enticing independently owned shops featuring clothing, antiques, arts and crafts and more. One-stop shoppers can hit up more than 30 shops and restaurants inside The Cotton Exchange, which also offers free on-site parking. Along the Riverwalk, the historic brick building known as Chandler’s Wharf also houses several charming shops and art galleries.
Book lovers won’t want to miss Old Books on Front Street, which is literally overflowing with volumes on all topics and also includes a book-themed coffee and wine bar. Literary walking tours depart from Old Books several times a week. Visit on a Sunday afternoon if you can, when James Jarvis plays his original compositions on the piano Sundays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the “M” aisle of the fiction section. He is truly a sight to behold — once you find him!
In a newly renovated building on North Front Street, Expo 216 is a “gallerium” — part gallery, part museum — that’s earning rave reviews from locals and tourists alike. Exhibits here are theme-driven and based on a social issue. The theme is Ocean Plastic through August 2017. Next up will be Death and Dying.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of Wilmington, we suggest you spend a few more nights at one of its surrounding beaches. Carolina Beach has a retro, family-friendly vibe; just down the coast, Kure Beach is a little more quiet and relaxed. But for a romantic getaway, it’s hard to beat a few nights at Wrightsville Beach’s Blockade Runner hotel.
As you’re headed out to Wrightsville Beach, be sure and stop by Airlie Gardens for some fabulous photo opportunities. This gorgeous 67-acre public garden is on the border of Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, and it’s worth a walk-through.
On a hot day, it can’t hurt to stop for ice cream as well! Boombalatti’s is a family-owned ice cream parlor featuring 26 scrumptious homemade flavors and a constant line of locals — proof that this is the go-to place for ice cream in and around Wilmington.
Once you’ve crossed the bridge into Wrightsville Beach, Blockade Runner Beach Resort is easy to spot. Don’t be fooled by its plain-jane façade. Inside, the building has been retro-fitted to luxury hotel standards. Choose a room facing either the Atlantic Ocean on one side or the Banks Channel Sound on the other — both views are lovely.
We loved the “balcony seating” inside our oceanfront room. It was a clever way to maximize space, and a great spot to dive into a book. And with the addition of star chef Jessica Cabo, Blockade Runner is now known for its food as much as its amenities. Locals and tourists alike flock here to try Cabo’s lobster nachos, banh mi sandwiches, and avocado toast. And if you’re looking for shopping or meals elsewhere, Wrightsville Beach’s small main drag is just a short, pleasant walk away.
If you’ve ever wanted to try surfing or stand-up paddle boarding, you’re in the right place. (Or should I say “Wright” place? Sorry.) Wrightsville Beach is known for its surf, and there are plenty of outfitters offering group and private surfing lessons on Wilmington’s area beaches.
Scuba divers are also drawn to the waters here for the many shipwrecks dotting the coast, some of which are 300 years old, as well as the giant megalodon teeth that can be found (and sold for hundreds of dollars) on fossil reefs just off the shores.
One easy way to see those megalodon teeth for yourself is at The Workshop in Wrightsville Beach, which has to be one of the most unusual coffee shops in the United States. Its owners have a passion for coffee and scuba diving for sharks teeth. Their solution was to create a cafe that doubles as a shark jewelry boutique.
Want to search for prehistoric fossils without the fuss of scuba gear? We had a fantastic time kayaking to Shark’s Tooth Island and looking for fossils with the help of a knowledgeable guide from Mahanaim Adventures. On the island, we found plenty of prehistoric shark teeth and other fossils and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset on the Cape Fear River.
No matter what kind of traveler you are, Wilmington and its area beaches can almost certainly provide exactly what you’re looking for. We love this place for its history, restaurants, small-town charm and natural wonders, and we’re betting you will, too.
Want more ideas for your next vacation? Check out Lindsay’s blog, Suburban Turmoil.
Ready to plan your next vacation? Check out our travel archives and start packing your bags!