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by Laura X. / 8.05.22

Laura’s Wilmington City Guide

As promised, my personal Wilmington city guide is finally here! Before we jump to the guide, here are a few quick tidbits about Wilmington, NC:

Wilmington is a well-known vacation spot for people living on the east coast, but for most others, it’s still a bit of a hidden gem. It's also a famous filming location for many Hollywood movies and TV shows (such as A Walk to Remember and Dawson’s Creek). Filled with charming historic buildings, what seems like an endless stretch of beaches and ocean, warm weather and super friendly people, it’s not exactly difficult to fall in love with this quaint coastal city!

With the two year anniversary around the corner, I feel like I’ve lived here for an adequate amount of time to really get to know this city I call home. Keep reading to catch a glimpse of what makes Wilmy (as we locals lovingly call it) such a special place.


Things to see and places to be

Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, or Kure Beach
This is one of the main reasons why the hubby and I fell in love with Wilmington. Not only are there so many beaches to choose from here, but they’re all so clean! Of course you see an occasional litter bug here and there, but overall people seem to be quite respectful of the beaches, and they’re much cleaner than most other beaches I’ve been to in the U.S.

Wrightsville Beach is my favorite beach (mainly because of a few eateries and the close proximity to our house), but Carolina and Kure Beach are also both wonderful.

Wrightsville Beach

Carolina Beach has a state park to explore and a boardwalk with carnivals and fireworks on warm summer nights. It’s also home to Britt's Donuts, a crazy delicious donut stand that’s been operating since 1939 and is SO worth the hype.

If you drive all the way down to the end of Kure Beach, you’ll reach the Fort Fisher Historic Site and Recreation Area, filled with stunning live oak trees. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is also located at Kure Beach and is the perfect family-friendly indoor activity when you need a few hours of rest from the NC sun.

You can also head further north and visit Topsail Beach, which is usually a bit less populated than the ones further south but equally beautiful. Plus they’ve opened a lot of great new restaurants and bars in recent years, so there’s way more variety than before.


Airlie Gardens

Laura at Airlie Gardens
Standing next to the giant live oak trees in Airlie Gardens
Airlie Gardens is a stunning 67-acre public garden filled with mighty live oaks, seasonal blooms such as azaleas and tulips, walking trails and historic structures. It’s also a popular spot for events and special occasions (such as weddings). I highly recommend visiting in mid to late spring when everything starts to bloom. Summer’s also an ideal time to visit, as Airlie usually has their summer concert series running from early June to end of August.

Downtown
Downtown Wilmington is a must-see when you’re in Wilmington. You can marvel at all of the stunning 18th and 19th century architecture within the Historic district, take a relaxing stroll down the riverwalk or visit all of the hip brewpubs, nearby eateries and shops in the area.

Battleship
I’m going to be totally honest here and admit that I’ve yet to visit the USS North Carolina Battleship, but it’s on my list of places to check out soon. The USS North Carolina Battleship is the lead ship of the North Carolina class of fast battleships, the first vessel of the type built for the United States Navy. You can learn about its history by taking your own self-tour or they offer guided tours of the authentically restored World War II battleship museum. All of my friends who have done the tour have told me it’s well worth the visit.

Lumina Station
Lumina Station is a small shopping area located in the Mayfaire region. This delightful area has some lovely home decor shops, clothing boutiques, restaurants, and also an amazing green beauty boutique (and Henné retailer) Figgy Co.

Mayfaire Town Center
An outdoor mall area with a mix of local shops, department stores and plenty of food options. There’s also a Regal movie theater at Mayfaire with comfy soft, reclining seats that will make you want to take a cat nap before the movie starts.

Cameron Art Museum
The Cameron Art Museum was established in 1962 (first called St. John’s Museum of Art) and offers rotating art exhibitions of historical and contemporary significance. The museum is filled with works by international, national and local artists and also has a cafe inside where you can grab a bite to eat.


Venture out

Off the coast
Renting a boat or taking a boat tour is a fantastic way to explore more of the ocean and some of Wilmington’s surrounding islands, such as Masonboro Island.

Topsail, Southport, & Oak Island
Topsail, Southport and Oak Island are other areas outside of Wilmington with lots to offer. Southport is particularly charming, with its historic buildings, picturesque port and fresh local eats. Fun Fact: Dawson's Creek was mainly filmed here, along with movies such as A Walk To Remember and Safe Haven.


Cafés

Casa Blanca Coffee Roasters
My #1 cafe pick

Casa Blanca exterior
Photo cred: Casa Blanca
The first year we lived in Wilmington, we came to Casa Blanca at least twice a week, as it was located fairly close to the house we were renting. I would say that even now, it’s still my favorite cafe in town, as they always have a fantastic selection of their own specialty brew coffees. My top food picks there are their avocado toast, bacon egg roll (with cheese added) and açaí bowl.

Blue Cup Roastery
Latte with a burger
Located in the up-and-coming Cargo District in downtown Wilmington. This cozy little coffee shop is connected to the Mess Hall, an indoor/outdoor burger joint which is also worth a visit. The indoor area has multiple outlets, which makes it a convenient spot to work out of for a few hours if you need to charge a laptop or tablet.

The Workshop
Breakfast to go
This is my go-to breakfast spot whenever I got to Wrightsville Beach. A yummy bagel sandwich and black coffee and then I’m ready to head to the water for some fun in the sun. There’s usually a line out the door, but don’t let that deter you, as the line moves pretty fast and the wait is usually not bad at all.

SUNdays
Coffee by the ocean
Don’t be fooled by the name. SUNdays is open every day of the week from 6am to 8pm. It’s located at the southern tip of Wrightsville Beach. I would say this is my favorite beach cafe when it comes to the coffee itself, but food options are a bit limited. It’s located on the second floor and offers a gorgeous view of the ocean. SUNdays also serves alcohol, so if you’re in the mood for a cold beer after some sunbathing, this is the place to go.

Drift Coffee
Coastal vibes

Banana bread

This premium coffee shop encompasses a bright, open atmosphere with a neighborhood vibe and outdoor seating. Drift has three locations in town (with a fourth location coming soon downtown) and offers a plethora of food options, from warm lunch bowls to wraps, and you can’t forget to try their divine sweets, especially the banana bread (pictured above).

The Roastery
Industrial chic + STRONG coffee
You can probably guess by the name but The Roastery also roasts their own delicious coffee. I love the industrial interior decor and of course their coffee. Note to the wise: Their standard brewed coffee is stronger than other ones in town, so be prepared for a legit caffeine boost!

Clean Juice
USDA Certified Organic
Clean Juice might not be a local chain, but it’s on the list because it’s actually the only USDA Certified Organic juice chain in the US. This does make Clean Juice a bit on the pricier end, but the quality of ingredients is so worth it. They have a wide selection of juices, smoothies, salads, sandwiches and wraps. There are two Clean Juice locations in Wilmington, one downtown and one in the Mayfaire shopping center.

Adapt Kitchen & Juice Bar
Tasty clean eats
I love everything about Adapt Kitchen. Located in Wrightsville Beach, they offer everything from coffee and fresh juices to delicious tuna bowls. My favorites are their Nutty Açaí Bowl, OG Avocado Smash toast and Ahi Poke En Fuego Bowl.


Restaurants

Manna
Elevated New American fare

Oysters
Photo cred: Manna
A high end restaurant located in downtown Wilmington serving modern American cuisine. Perfect for a special occasion or a nicer date night. They’ve got a wonderful wine menu and some seriously good cocktails.

Rumcow
Southern fusion
Rumcow focuses on local ingredients to serve Southern dishes with a global flair. The ambience is fun and upbeat, and you can really go there for any occasion. We’ve had company dinners there as well as date nights. Be sure to take a look at their cocktail menu, and I highly recommend the bread pudding for dessert.

Shark Bar & Kitchen
Beach eating
Just steps from the sand by Johnny Mercer Pier in Wrightsville Beach, this fun beachside eatery always delivers. My favorite dish here is definitely the lobster roll. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Oceanic
Seafood with a view
If you want lunch or dinner with an ocean view, you have to check out Oceanic. The menu isn’t going to knock your socks off in terms of uniqueness, but the seafood is always fresh and that view is hard to beat, especially at sunset. Oceanic is wildly popular and only takes reservations for larger groups, so if you don’t want a long wait, it’s best to arrive around 11am for lunch or 5pm for dinner.

Indochine
Come hungry

Indochine restaurant exterior
Photo cred: Indochine
If you’ve done any research on restaurants in Wilmington, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve seen Indochine on some (if not all) of the lists. This Thai and Vietnamese restaurant is a Wilmington staple and is loved by locals and tourists alike. Indochine has very generous entree portion sizes, and my go-to starter is their dumpling sampler.

Brasserie du Soleil
Contemporary French
A blend of French and modern American cuisine. Brasserie Du Soleil is located at Lumina Station in Mayfaire, and it’s one of my favorite weekend brunch spots. Their dinner menu is also excellent. If the weather permits, you should definitely sit outside on the patio at one of their chic Parisian bistro-inspired tables. And if you’re a seafood lover, then you must order their mussels. I recommend asking for half-and-half when it comes to the sauce for the mussels: half diablo, half saffron.

The Green House
Upscale vegan dining
The Green House is a fairly new addition to the Wilmington restaurant scene, and people can’t get enough of it. The decor is bright and airy, and the dishes are creative and absolutely delicious. The Green House is only open for dinner during the week, but they are open for brunch both Saturday and Sunday.

Nawab Fine Indian Cuisine
Authentic and family owned
Nawab is a family owned restaurant with authentic and super tasty Indian food. My favorite dishes are the Rogan Josh, Tikka Masala and the Jalfarzi. You also HAVE to get their garlic naan.

True Blue Butcher & Table
Vegetarians welcome too
Don’t let the name scare you. While True Blue is mainly known for its selection of superb meats, they also provide lots of seafood and vegetarian options for anyone in your group. They've also got bar section in the corner that's perfect for happy hour.


Libations

The Second Glass
Or third…

Glasses of wine
Photo cred: Second Glass
As a true wine bar in the South Front District, The Second Glass serves a flavorful wine and dine combination in a polished and elegant setting. Their food menu is also top-notch.

Flytrap Brewery
Beer isn’t my personal beverage of choice, but my husband is always up for a good IPA, and Flytrap Brewery is a spot that both of us can enjoy. They’ve got a well curated selection of beers on tap as well as some solid wine options for yours truly. There’s plenty of outdoor seating space, and they often have live music playing. Every time we go there, the hours seem to just fly by, which is always a good sign!

End of Days Distillery
Spirits in style

Interior of distillery
Photo cred: EOD Distillery
EOD Distillery is relatively new to Wilmington and I can’t say enough great things about it. They have a beautiful indoor bar with expansive ceilings and equally impressive cocktails featuring their own craft spirits.


Where to stay

Airbnb
Experience local living
Renting an Airbnb is a great way to have a more local experience, whether it’s a studio apartment in the midst of downtown or beachfront property with an ocean view. Since Wilmington is a very tourist-friendly city, there are quite a few Airbnbs available, especially given the size of the city. Word to the wise though: Look up the area where the Airbnb is before you finalize the booking. While the majority of Wilmington is very safe, there are a few areas (including where I booked our first Airbnb in town) where you probably won’t want to stay.

Dreamers Welcome
A dreamy sanctuary

Dreamers Welcome hotel
Photo cred: Dreamers Welcome
This renovated Victorian home turned boutique hotel in downtown Wilmington combines old city charm with modern interior touches. It’s popular with tourists and as well as some locals who book a night or two as a staycation.

Hotel Ballast
Home is where the heart is
This upscale hotel is conveniently located downtown and overlooks the Cape Fear River. It’s within walking distance from dozens of terrific restaurants, fun bars and interesting boutiques.

Lumina on Wrightsville Beach
From pool to ocean in seconds

Interior of Lumina hotel
Photo cred: Lumina on Wrightsville Beach
Formerly known as Holiday Inn Resport, this recently renovated hotel in Wrightsville Beach has gotten a major facelift and looks leaps and bounds better than before. It's located right on the water and gives you an incredible view of the Atlantic. The hotel also has an enclosed outdoor space with a large pool, so you can enjoy that mojito without worrying about losing sight of the kiddos.


I could probably make this city guide four times as long as the above, but I figured this starter guide highlights enough spots in town for either a weekend or weeklong trip. I hope you enjoyed the guide, and hopefully Wilmington will be on your vacay itinerary sometime in the future!