Wilmington, N.C. Travel Guide

July 13, 2020

Since purchasing our North Carolina home, we’ve been so excited to explore more of our neighboring state to the North. There’s a lot that North and South Carolina have in common: beautiful architecture, tons of beaches, Southern charm, and more. So I was so excited to get the chance to take a trip to Wilmington, N.C., which, just like Charleston, consistently ranks among best Southern cities lists. We spent a weekend in Wilmington and enjoyed the culture, history, and activities of this beautiful city!

Wilmington is surrounded north and south along the coast by gorgeous beaches, but the city itself is known for its riverfront. The downtown district features hundreds of local shops and dining options situated along the Riverwalk and offers hours of entertainment. Wilmington is a vibrant town, with preserved history and architecture and a boom of modern development, combining the best of timeless Southern spirit. The city’s 230-block historic district is one of the largest in the U.S., and features wonderful Victorian and antebellum architecture along live oak-lined streets.

It’s difficult to sum up the atmosphere of Wilmington in a single characteristic. Its history mingles seamlessly with trending businesses popping up along the river. Breweries stand next to old mills and historic homes. Home to the University of North Carolina Wilmington, you also get a sense of how collegiate life influences the city in the best of ways. Between the beaches, shopping, dining, and entertainment, Wilmington is a great spot for a casual coastal getaway. We had the best time during our trip, so I’m sharing this Wilmington travel guide as a reference for y’all!

Wilmington Travel Guide

With its historic district, riverfront, and commercial areas, Wilmington is a sprawling city, with plenty to do and see. Though we didn’t get to every corner of the city, we sampled some of the best Wilmington has to offer. In this Wilmington travel guide, I’m giving you my recommendations for where to stay, what to do, and where to eat for a perfect weekend in Wilmington.

How to Get to Wilmington

Wilmington, N.C. is just a 3.5-hour drive up the coast from Charleston, and due to the geography of North Carolina, it’s close to many other cities as well. It’s a 2-hour drive from the Raleigh area and 4.5 hours from Savannah. If you’re coming from further away, Wilmington also has its own airport (Wilmington International Airport) that’s really nice.

Best Times to Travel to Wilmington, NC

You can expect warm and temperate weather pretty much any time you visit Wilmington, N.C., but to take full advantage of the amazing beaches in the Wilmington area, head to the coast during the early summer, before the rainy season starts and before you get overwhelmed by humidity! We visited during the summer, but if you’re reading this Wilmington travel guide to plan a trip during a different time, there are still plenty of year-round opportunities to have fun! There are many events and festivals that take place throughout the year in Wilmington and its surrounding cities, like Kure Beach and Carolina Beach. Some of these include:

Where to Stay in Wilmington

We stayed at ARRIVE Hotel in Wilmington. ARRIVE is casual yet so, so chic! With a neighborhood vibe and modern decor, ARRIVE is eons above a traditional hotel experience. We walked in past the snapdragon garden out front and were greeted with cool retro wallpaper and amazing tile in the bathroom, balanced by modern touches like gold fixtures and marble countertops.

The luxury hotel is located just a block from the historic district, as evidenced by the 18th-century homes that surround it, and is only two blocks away from the riverfront district. Since Wilmington is so walkable, it’s nice that we could just step out of the hotel and get right to our day! ARRIVE also had free parking, and was pet-friendly!

Everything about ARRIVE is so thoughtful and fun. From the cocktail bar to the outdoor space with croquet, to the room amenities (a fitness basket, Apple TV, Red Lotus bath products, etc.), every one of our needs was taken care of. The hotel also has a 1950s-era confessional. There’s also a restaurant, Dram Yard, on the same property. If you’re looking for a luxurious, fun, and centrally located place to stay in Wilmington, ARRIVE is the place to go!

My favorite story about ARRIVE is the elephant story. All around the property, you’ll see elephants, which is an homage to Topsy the Elephant, a local legend who escaped the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1922 and crashed through the front of the building that now houses the Dram Yard. This kind of dedication to honoring local history is acknowledged throughout the hotel in cute and quirky ways that totally makes this a unique stay. The ARRIVE guide book has this story and tons of local recommendations that make exploring Wilmington a breeze.

Wilmington Travel Guide

What to Do

Breakfast at Sweet n Savory Cafe

By far the most recommended place to eat in Wilmington was Sweet n Savory Cafe, and for good reason! This cute and cheery cafe is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but it’s their Wrightsville Beach French Toast that put them on the map. It was even featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives! I got the Wrightsville Beach French Toast with eggs and a side of bacon. The french toast is two thick slices of house-made cinnamon raisin bread dunked in Sweet n Savory Cafe’s secret batter. The entree was only $10.99. All of Sweet n Savory Cafe’s breakfast dishes were so affordable and insanely delicious. It’s one of the best breakfast deals I’ve seen on my travels!

1611 Pavilion Place
Wilmington, NC 28403

Explore Downtown Wilmington

Between spending time at the beach and eating a bunch of delicious meals, we didn’t get around to everything Wilmington has to offer (which is quite a lot!), but we did walk around the beautiful streets of downtown Wilmington. The nationally recognized historic district has so many beautiful old homes that have been kept in wonderful shape. I definitely got some inspiration from them! We also liked looking at all the boutiques and restaurants that make up the thriving commerce in downtown. Anything you could want, you can find in Wilmington! The downtown area is right along the banks of the Cape Fear River, so it’s worth walking along the Riverwalk to take in some fresh air.

Sweet Treats at Kilwins of Wilmington

Kilwins Chocolates may have a bunch of locations across the United States, but they still manage to convey the atmosphere of a hometown mom and pop chocolate shop. They also sell ice cream, which is perfect for a hot summer’s day in Wilmington! You can smell the scent of the fresh waffle cones when you walk by, and it’s impossible not to stop in for a treat. Erik gets the peanut butter and fudge ice cream and Harper gets the Superman flavor, a swirled mix of fruity pink, yellow and blue ice cream. (I think it tastes like vanilla!) I always get a milkshake, and my favorite is to get a scoop of chocolate mixed together with a scoop of strawberry. Did someone say chocolate-covered strawberries?!

16 Market Street
Wilmington, NC 28401

Carolina Beach Guide

We spent one full day in Wilmington exploring Carolina Beach. The Wilmington area is actually home to three stunning beaches, all with their own unique charms. Between Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach, we decided to head over to Carolina Beach, which is a family-friendly, authentic beach town with a downright fun personality, and a scenic beachside boardwalk to boot!

The whole Carolina Beach area is so cute. It’s the epitome of a Carolina beach town, with colorful boutiques, surf shops and delicious restaurants around every corner. The boardwalk and beach is also SO great. They have a bunch of outdoor showers to rinse the sand off after the beach, and plenty of seating on the boardwalk if you just want to take in the seaside sights.

Donuts at Britt’s Donut Shop

I don’t know about you, but there’s something about donuts and the beach that just go so perfectly together. If you’re a fan of the sweet confection, you absolutely MUST go to Britt’s Donut Shop. Only offering one flavor of donut (classic glazed), Britt’s knows their specialty and has perfected it to an art. With a little bit of glaze, a crispy exterior, and a melt in your mouth soft interior, it was like Krispy Kreme but better.

11 Carolina Beach Avenue N.
Carolina Beach, NC 28428

Breakfast at Kate’s Pancake House

Donuts were just our breakfast appetizer! We settled in for a more hearty breakfast at Kate’s Pancake House. This cute diner spot with a pink and teal exterior screams beach breakfast, and they back up their colorful outside with a menu full of creative pancake concoctions. I got Kate’s Trio, which gets you 3 sets of baby pancakes so you can try three of the flavors. I chose Very Berry (blueberries, strawberries and whipped cream), Caribbean Pleasure (banana slices, chopped nuts, chocolate chips, chocolate syrup and whipped cream), and Banana Nut (banana slices, chopped pecans and walnuts, and whipped cream). Everything was so good and very filling. Plus, they had great prices; Kate’s Trio was just $7.99!

102 S Lake Park Blvd.
Carolina Beach, NC 28428

Dinner at Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn

Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn first opened in Wilmington in 2000, and has quickly risen to become the best burrito spot in Wilmington, expanding to three locations. They’ve been featured on Food Network and have been named one of the 33 best burritos in America by Thrillist. Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn sums up their culinary experience in four words – hot, fast, cheap and easy. It was all of those things and more! When we went, they were only serving carry-out orders, but the restaurant has an outdoor dining area still open for customers to use, so we ate there. Everything was so good! While Flaming Amy’s signature is their wide choice of signature burritos, you can also build your own burrito, or try a salad, nacho plate, soft taco, quesadilla. The menu is practically endless!

1140-A N Lake Park Blvd.
Carolina Beach, NC 28428

We had such a good time exploring Wilmington. From days spent at the beach to nights cozying up around the fire at ARRIVE Wilmington, there was every kind of adventure available. This Wilmington Travel Guide just scratches the surface of everything there is to do in this North Carolina beach town. I can’t wait to come back and keep discovering more of Wilmington’s incredible cuisine, fascinating history, and gorgeous beaches! And if you want to see Wilmington by water, you can rent a boat in Wilmington, NC! 

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