Wilmington: What to See and Do

By land or by sea, where to find the most at the coast

photo: Joshua Paul

A surfer heads out at Wrightsville Beach

Where to Stay

Figure Eight Island
There are plenty of beach cottages and condos for rent on Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, but if you really want to escape, Figure Eight Island is the place. There are zero shops and restaurants on this quiet five-mile-long private island, just empty beaches with beautiful oceanfront and soundfront homes for rent.

Graystone Inn
Steeped in Old South style and grace, this turn-of-the-century mansion is now an elegant inn with nine unique rooms, a traditional parlor, and a lazy veranda. It sits just a few blocks from the Cape Fear River in historic downtown.
100 S. Third St.;

Where to Shop

The Cotton Exchange
At the turn of the twentieth century, Wilmington was a bustling port, and this historic structure thrived as a cotton exporter. Revitalized in the 1970s as a shopping complex, it now includes eight restored buildings housing art galleries, a few cafés, and boutiques such as the Fire & Spice Gourmet Kitchen Shoppe, with hundreds of hard-to-find hot sauces, seasonings, and rubs.
Corner of Front and Grace St.;

Old Bookson Front Street
This family-owned bookshop houses some 200,000 used titles, along with quirky additions like the Vend-a-Poem machine (25 cents each) and a literary jukebox that plays everything from Hamlet to the Muppets. Sugar, a tiny bakery, serves fresh pastries and cakes while you browse. Try the chocolate bourbon pecan pie.
249 N. Front St.;

Though it began as a chain of Army surplus stores, in the 1960s Redix was transformed into a sort of general store for everything beach—chairs, bikinis, boating garb, bait and tackle. In need of a crab pot? Yep, they got it.
120 Causeway Dr., Wrightsville Beach;

Spectrum Art & Jewelry
Part custom jeweler, part gallery, this bright and airy space carries the work of more than one hundred artists, including glasswork, sculpture, and paintings such as those of local Ben Keys, who specializes in plein-air scenes of Wilmington landmarks.
1125-H Military Cutoff Rd.;

What to See & Do

Airlie Gardens
These graceful gardens by the sea encompass 67 acres of walking trails and formal gardens. The centerpiece is an ancient live oak called the Airlie Oak, but it’s justly famous for Virginia Wright-Frierson’s Bottle Chapel, constructed from more than 4,000 colorful glass bottles.
300 Airlie Rd.;

Brooklyn Arts Center at St. Andrews
Just last year, the circa 1888 St. Andrews Church—with its cathedral ceilings and intricate stained glass—was transformed into Wilmington’s hottest new concert venue. It has already attracted national acts 
such as Robert Earl Keen, Old Crow Medicine Show, and the Punch Brothers.
516 N. 4th St.;

Kayak fishing
There’s no better way to 
experience Wilmington’s pristine salt marshes than on a kayak fishing tour. Cast for flounder, trout, and redfish while weaving your way through reeds and skinny water, or stalk blues and Spanish mackerel near the inlets. Hook, Line & Paddle will get you geared up and on the water. Ask for Chris Tryon, a gregarious local and an expert angler.
435 Eastwood Rd.;

Wrightsville Beach
With white sand and crystal blue water, this four-mile-long barrier island is Wilmington’s most 
picturesque beach. Most of the action centers around the island’s two piers, but if you just want to 
beachcomb, head to the sand dunes and wide beach on the 
quieter north end.