Wilmington is one of the most beautiful cities by the sea (situated between a river and an ocean), boasting a large historic district that encompasses nearly 300 blocks along the Cape Fear River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. A short drive (30 minutes or less) from several local beaches (Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher), the port city’s historic downtown includes a 1.75-mile Riverwalk, ranked as the “Best American Riverfront” by USA Today readers. The city also hosts the North Carolina Azalea Festival each year and features numerous historic landmarks, museums, art galleries, and more.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Wilmington was a majority-black, racially integrated prosperous city, and the largest city in North Carolina. In the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, white supremacists launched a coup that overthrew the legitimately elected local government. They expelled opposition black and white political leaders from the city, destroyed the property and businesses of black citizens built up since the Civil War, including the only black newspaper in the city, and killed an estimated 60 to more than 300 people.
The World War II battleship USS North Carolina is maintained as a war memorial. Moored on the Cape Fear River and easily visible across from the downtown port area, the ship is open to public tours. The city contains many more historical and entertainment attractions.
Wilmington is also the home of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, the largest domestic television and movie production facility outside California. “Dream Stage 10,” the facility’s newest sound stage, is the third largest in the United States. It houses the largest special-effects water tank in North America. After the studio’s opening in 1984, Wilmington became a major center of American film and television production. Numerous movies in a range of genres and several television series have been produced here, including Iron Man 3, The Conjuring, We’re the Millers, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, One Tree Hill, Dawson’s Creek, and NBC’s Revolution.
Due to Wilmington’s commercial importance as a major port, it had a critical role in opposition to the British in the years leading up to the Revolution. When the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act the following year, designed to raise revenue for the Crown with a kind of tax on shipping, Wilmington was the site of an elaborate demonstration against it. On October 19, 1765, several hundred townspeople gathered in protest of the new law, burned an effigy of one town resident who favored the act, and toasted to “Liberty, Property, and No Stamp Duty.”
In the 1830s, citizens of Wilmington became eager to take advantage of railroad transportation. Plans were developed to build a railroad line from the capital, Raleigh, to Wilmington. The Wilmington Gas Light Company was established in 1854. Soon after, street lights were powered by gas made from lightwood and rosin, replacing the old street oil lamps. During the Civil War, the port was the major base for Confederate and privately owned blockade runners, which delivered badly needed supplies from England. The Union mounted a blockade to reduce the goods received by the South. The city was captured by Union forces in the Battle of Wilmington in February 1865, approximately one month after the fall of Fort Fisher had closed the port. As nearly all the military action took place some distance from the city, numerous antebellum houses and other buildings survived the war years.
During World War II, Wilmington was the home of the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company. The shipyard was created as part of the U.S. government’s Emergency Shipbuilding Program. Workers built 243 ships in Wilmington during the five years the company operated.
Three prisoner-of-war (POW) camps operated in the city from February 1944 through April 1946. At their peak, the camps held 550 German prisoners. The first camp was located on the corner of Shipyard Boulevard and Carolina Beach Road; it was moved downtown to Ann Street, between 8th and 10th avenues, when it outgrew the original location. A smaller contingent of prisoners was assigned to a third site, working in the officers’ mess and doing grounds keeping at Bluethenthal Army Air Base, which is now Wilmington International Airport.
You can’t visit Wilmington without experiencing River Walk, stretching from the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to the Isabel Holmes Bridge. Constructed with brick-lined streets, cobblestones, gooseneck lighting, granite, open railings, timber and brick structures, and benches along the Cape Fear River, stop in a variety of local, eclectic shops along Market and Front Streets and on many of the area side streets as well. Take a horse-drawn trolley ride or a short river cruise on a Cape Fear Riverboat or other Wilmington water tours while you’re there. Peer at the USS North Carolina across the river, shop to your heart’s content (including at The Cotton Exchange, transformed in the 1970s to accommodate 30+ locally owned shops and restaurants), visit several local museums and historic homes, take a walking tour or haunted ghost walk, and eat at numerous trendy restaurants and cafes. The area also hosts numerous festivals and events year-round.
Museum of the Bizarre
Tucked away toward one end of the River Walk shops, you’ll stumble upon the Museum of the Bizarre (201 S. Water St.). It only costs a few dollars to enter–and no photos allowed–but you’re sure to experience something offbeat, unusual, or even creepy while you’re here. You just have to experience it for yourself. You can even lie inside a coffin for a few minutes… or seconds.
Tucked away on a street that meanders Wilmington’s jagged coastline near Wrightsville Beach, you’ll find the expansive 67-acre Airlee Gardens (300 Airlee Rd.). This exquisitely maintained public gardens has attracted people since its inception in 1901 for public parties, weddings, and entertainment as well as an afternoon stroll on the grounds.
Just two miles west of Wrightsville Beach, Airlee Gardens features walking paths, a freshwater lake, and formal gardens that showcase seasonal blooms, towering live oaks, historic structures, and contemporary sculpture. You may find a bit of wildlife, birdlife, and butterflies as you peruse the landscape. Check their schedule for their summer concert series, annual art exhibit, low country oyster roast, and Christmas light displays. Other site features include a bottle chapel, mystery grave, Bradley Creek pier, pergola garden, and more. On-site, formal photography is permitted with reservations and hourly rates. The gardens are operated as a nonprofit, and membership is available. Be sure to stop by the gift shop for a memento from your visit here!
Cameron Art Museum
Peruse through rotating exhibits of acclaimed local, national, and international artists at the Cameron Art Museum, established in 1962 (3201 S. 17th St.). Take a walk through on your own or a guided tour for a more in-depth experience. Plus, catch events happening both indoors and outdoors throughout the year–or rent the facility for your own event. Hungry while you’re there? Stay for a bite at their delightful CAM cafe, with art-inspired dining right beside the gift shop at the museum entrance.
Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden
Just around the corner from the Cameron Art Museum, you’ll find another hidden NC Gem: the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden (3800 Canterbury Rd.). Slip into the small parking lot and take a short hike down the trail that empties into an observation deck and a myriad of trails for an up-close view of the area’s indigenous carnivorous plants, including pitcher plants and Venus fly traps. In fact, did you know this fun bit of trivia… the Venus fly trap is indigenous ONLY to the Wilmington and surrounding areas–and nowhere else in the world It’s true!
USS North Carolina Battleship and Museum
You can’t miss this big beauty, which has been part of Wilmington’s character for decades. The USS North Carolina (1 Battleship Rd. NE) is the most decorated battleship after taking part in every major naval offensive. The ship was actually torpedoed in September 1942, causing a 32 x 18 foot torpedo hole. The water caused the ship to list. The crew quickly righted the ship by intentionally flooding compartments on the opposite side. Five men were killed and 23 were wounded. The battleship has since been authentically restored, serves as a memorial for the 11,000 North Carolinians who gave their lives in World War II, and is open for tours. Step back in time and let history come alive through the crews’ stories. You can explore all nine levels of this battleship, including the barracks, mess hall, and other areas plus an on-site gift shop.
Wilmington Railroad Museum
Stop in the Wilmington Railroad Museum (505 Nutt St.) for lots of kid and family fun all related to Wilmington’s rail history. Take your picture beside a scale-model rail car and full-size steam engine, and marvel at the huge room filled with model trains running the tracks. And their red caboose is available for party rentals.
A 3-Pack of Historic Homes: Bellamy Mansion, Latimer House, and Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens
Located at opposite ends of adjacent city blocks on South Third Street, you can enjoy back-to-back (on the hour tours) of the Latimer House and Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens. The tours are approximately 45 minutes, and designed so that you can visit one house and go straight to the next, though you may want to plan your gift shop stop before one of the tours or head back after your second tour. Be sure to ask for the Triple Ticket at your first stop for a discounted rate to tour all three homes. (It’s not required that you tour all three in one day.)
The Latimer house (126 S. Third St.) is a fully furnished 1852 Italian mansion. Three generations of the upper-class Latimer family lived here along with both free and enslaved help. Meander through the 11 rooms and more than 600 period objects and ornate furnishings on a guided tour (on the hour). The historic home also hosts events and houses an archive, library, and gift shop. Plus, they host the Annual Old Wilmington by Candlelight Tour.
Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens
Just a few minutes away on foot is the deceptive property in the middle of downtown. Aside from the historic residence of Georgian architecture at 224 Market St. (built in 1770-1771), you’ll discover 2/3 acre of luxurious, manicured gardens that dwarf the home’s footprint. It is the only structure in Wilmington from the colonial era open to the public. Walk the brick footpaths and spy unique plant, shrub, and tree specimens sprinkled throughout. Inside, discover another Wilmington treasure and take a guided tour on the property’s many levels, which include the lower level which was once the city’s first jail, built in 1744. The House also hosts a myriad of events, including weddings, Fourth Friday, Paint-Out, and an annual Christmas Stroll.
Surrounded by majestic magnolias, the Bellamy Mansion (503 Market Street) was built between 1859 and 1861, and is located just a few blocks away from the Latimer and Burgwin-Wright Houses–and just down the street from River Walk. Take a guided (on the hour) or self-guided tour through the grand entrance, airy parlors under the glow of brass gasoliers, and one of the few remaining urban slave quarters in the U.S. that is open to the public. They also host numerous art and musical events and fundraisers throughout the year. Don’t forget to stop in the museum store before you leave.
New Hanover County Extension Service Arboretum
Not far from UNC-Wilmington, enjoy a walk through the seven acres of beautiful gardens, statuary, and treasures at the North Hanover County Arboretum (6206 Oleander Dr.). These gardens opened in 1989 after a fire destroyed the Bradley Creek School on the site in 1982. In February 1984, New Hanover County commissioners appropriated $200,000 to turn the school’s site into the gardens you see today. The arboretum is open daily (8am-5pm) free of charge.
Tregembo Animal Park
On your way toward Pleasure Island (Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Fort Fisher) you’ll encounter the Tregembo Animal Park (5811 Carolina Beach Rd.), in operation since 1952. You can’t miss it for the entrance through a lion’s giant jaws that invite you to encounter more than 100 animal species. It is also Southern NC’s oldest zoo. This wild animal park of rescued animals is larger than you think–and houses a lion, tiger, giraffe, zebras and zedonks (which this travel blogger had never seen before!), ringtail lemurs (think Madagascar), numerous monkey species, and more. For a few extra dollars, you can purchase some feed and interact a little more with the animals during your visit.
Next edition… Orange County!