There’s never a bad time to visit Wilmington and Beaches, North Carolina. But if there’s a better time to make the trip, it might just be fall.
Trust me on this. I’m a local, and even though I get to experience our beautiful beaches — Carolina, Kure, and Wrightsville — and historic downtown year-round, I’m partial to autumn. Why? The weather’s perfect, there’s less competition for a spot on the sand, and downtown stays alive with activity. And because I want you to love this area like I do, I’ve put together some of my favorite fall activities you should experience on your visit. Grab your spouse, tell your partner, or text the group, then pack some bags for a fall getaway in Wilmington. Here’s what you can look forward to.
Getting outdoors in Wilmington and Beaches
Sunny days, cooler nights, and the lack of summer humidity make for near-perfect weather in Wilmington throughout fall. That means it’s prime time to go outside and have some fun: Pay a visit to one of our bike rental shops — like City Bicycle Company or Wrightsville Beach Bikes and Boards — grab some wheels, and then hop on the River to Sea Bikeway. It’s an 11-mile trip that takes you from the Cape Fear River, through the heart of Historic Downtown Wilmington, past stately homes, along tree-lined streets, and out to Wrightsville Beach, where you’ll end your mini Tour de Wilmington at Johnnie Mercers Pier. (You can take a quick dip in the ocean to cool off before you head back!) And with farmers markets at either end, you can get a fresh taste of what life here is like, too.
For even more leisurely views, go for a long walk or run on the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, a 15-mile multi-use trail that carries you through several neighborhoods, along the flanks of the University of North Carolina Wilmington campus (my favorite stretch), and out to Wrightsville Beach. The trail ends near the Loop at Wrightsville Beach, a 2.5-mile path that circles town, crossing the Intracoastal Waterway twice and putting you steps from the sand.
If you’re into something a bit woodsier, head south of Wilmington to Carolina Beach State Park. There, a pair of trails will lead you through the piney woods and along the river to discover Sugarloaf, a huge sand dune that’s been a landmark for boaters on the river since the city was first settled in 1734. And along the Flytrap Trail, you can actually see the Venus flytrap, a strange and beautiful carnivorous plant that’s native to these parts. For an outdoor stroll at another state park, take a walk along the scenic Basin Trail at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, getting a good look at the marshes, creeks, and patches of woods that draw hikers, artists, and kayakers ready to explore.
And then there are the gardens and lakes: Greenfield Lake — south of downtown — is encircled by a paved, five-mile walking trail, but you can also picnic, rent watercraft, or even do a little fishing here (I like it for the birdwatching and a long, leisurely walk). Near the Intracoastal Waterway and its complex of creeks and marshes, you’ll find the New Hanover County Arboretum and Airlie Gardens. The arboretum encompasses seven acres of beautifully planted and manicured gardens, each themed around seasonality, specific flowers and plantings, or a particular aesthetic. It’s a lovely place you shouldn’t miss, especially if you’re a gardener. Airlie Gardens, meanwhile, is home to one of the most beautiful live oak trees around. It’s been standing for more than 475 years, and the spread of its branches is like something from a fairytale.
Drinks and tunes — “downtime” done right
You can’t come here and not take a little downtime to check out our food, beer, and nightlife. We’ve got a bevy of breweries to visit, some excellent wine bars, and a cocktail scene that’s worth an entire itinerary of its own.
For stellar beer within walking distance of downtown, there’s Front Street Brewery (our city’s first and oldest craft brewery, and home to one of North Carolina’s largest bourbon collections), Flytrap Brewing (specializing in Belgian and American styles), and Hi-Wire Brewing (their Pink Lemonade session sour is a personal favorite). Near Wrightsville you have Wrightsville Beach Brewery, which serves up tasty food to go with a long lineup of pours. And if you’re in Carolina Beach, drop in at Good Hops Brewing for a pint or two and some disc golf.
You can always grab a bite and a drink at one of our rooftop bars or patios, where the views are as good as what’s in the glass. Cloud 9 Rooftop Bar looks out onto downtown and the Cape Fear River; Smoke on the Water pairs great food and drink with a side of exceptional river views; and Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar in Carolina Beach brings more ocean vistas, along with live music and tasty bites.
And if you’re like me and you love nothing more than seeing a concert, then you’ve got to come to Wilmington. The newly opened Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park seats around 7,500 and has already secured big acts like Widespread Panic, Counting Crows, and Lady A; comedians such as Jim Gaffigan and Trevor Noah have also graced the stage. Greenfield Lake Amphitheater — currently my favorite venue in town — sees acts like Band of Horses, Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers, Thievery Corporation, and Rodrigo y Gabriela (those are just some of the shows coming up this fall). Smaller venues like Satellite Bar and Lounge, Bourgie Nights and sister bar Earnest Money & Sons, The Blind Elephant, The Palm Room, and SeaWitch Café & Tiki Bar play host to smaller touring acts and up-and-coming local performers.
Learning a little Wilmington and Beaches history
Downtown Wilmington is full of historic homes, and while you’re free to wander on foot and explore the oak-lined streets on your own, make time to hop on a horse-drawn carriage tour with Springbrook Farms. The tour takes you through the historic district, letting you enjoy the view while the driver tosses you fascinating tidbits about the architecture and history of Wilmington.
You can dive deeper by visiting the Bellamy Mansion Museum of History & Design, a stunning home a few blocks’ walk from downtown. The museum preserves the house and tells the full story of the property, its owners, and the enslaved people who once resided there. Nearby, both the Latimer House Museum and Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens give you even more perspectives on our city and let you experience the homes, artifacts, and gardens of former residents. The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society has its offices in the Latimer House, so if you’ve got history questions, this is the place to ask; you can also join them on a tour.
Across the river sits the Battleship NORTH CAROLINA, a retired World War II battleship turned museum and war memorial. From combat in the Pacific Theater to the fight to save it from the scrapyard and bring it to Wilmington, this ship has tales to tell. A new cofferdam and walkway allow visitors to circle the ship at water-level and see it from all angles. Add that to the many decks there are to explore, and you’ve got a moving visit to one of the last remaining WWII battleships in the nation. It’s an experience that befits Wilmington as the inaugural American WWII Heritage City.
At the Cameron Art Museum — or the CAM, as we call it — you’ll find a well-curated selection of art in permanent and rotating exhibits. In November of 2021 they’ll unveil a new sculpture: a bronze-cast statue of the Wilmington United States Colored Troops. Commemorating Black soldiers’ experience during the Civil War, it’s located at the site of the Battle of Forks Road, where the US Colored Troops helped bring victory to the Union and remove Wilmington from the hands of the Confederacy.
You can get a couple more doses of culture at Thalian Hall Center for Performing Arts (which happens to be on the National Register of Historic Places) and The Wilson Center, both of which host plays and performances throughout the year. Thalian Hall, an ornate theater built in the 1850s as an opera house and the seat of city government, hosts theatrical productions and screens movies (classics, Oscar nominees, and foreign films) on a regular basis. The Wilson Center, only a few blocks away, brings Broadway-style productions and concerts to a modern theater that’s nothing short of fantastic.
Making time to feast
When you come to Wilmington, come curious and hungry — we’re packed with places that’ll delight your taste buds and leave you sated. Dig into nouvelle Southern cuisine at downtown spots like Rx Restaurant and Bar, PinPoint Restaurant, manna (which, incidentally, has some of the best cocktails in the state), and Seabird. Each of these restaurants takes advantage of the best local seafood and produce available, using their relationships with farmers, anglers, and other suppliers to deliver outstanding meals.
Chills, thrills, and scares (even for the faint of heart)
It wouldn’t be fall without something a little spooky — and in a town with a history as long as ours, there have to be a few ghosts hanging around, right? Join Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington and do a little paranormal investigation of your own on the streets of downtown, listening to stories of some of our best-known ghosts. You can also join a haunted pub crawl and add a pint or two to your research of the supernatural.
Next, head north to Poplar Grove, a former peanut plantation, for the Poplar Grove Paranormal Ghost Tour. You’ll hear about the spirits that haunt the house and wander the grounds while you search the rooms and shadowed corners for any lingering sign of the otherworldly. If that sounds like a bit much, you might prefer Poplar Grove’s Goosebumps in the Grove, a kid-friendly set of spooky stories. Or join the Halloween Ghost Trolley, where the stories are more on the friendly ghost and slightly spooky side. There’s also the Family Fall Festival at the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, a chance to celebrate the Halloween spirit — without upsetting any spirits in the process.
Wilmington is also home to a big movie studio (Screen Gems is one of the largest soundstages outside of Hollywood), and our film scene knows how to chill and thrill. The first movie filmed here was Stephen King’s Firestarter, and the most recent, Halloween Kills, hits theaters October 15, 2021 — we’re all excited (and a bit spooked) for the premier. For something timeless, Bellamy Mansion’s Monster Movie Madness at the Mansion brings a classic monster movie to the screen in a place that’s most definitely haunted.
In the end, you might not see any Wilmington ghosts on your fall trip, but you’ll definitely feel that Wilmington and Beaches spirit. And now you know why that’s something to look forward to.