When one of my best friends called me back in April and suggested the idea of me staying with her in Wilmington, North Carolina, for part of the summer, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve always loved visiting the Outer Banks with my family in the summers, and since I didn’t go last year and wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit a beach this year, I was very excited to visit Wilmington. In addition to the beaches, I also knew that Wilmington has some of North Carolina’s more swampy areas, and, having read and loved Where the Crawdads Sing, I really wanted to visit those too.
As my friend ended up breaking her leg, we didn’t do quite as much as I originally planned, but I still had an amazing time. There were lots of lazy days just hanging out and relaxing and going to the pool or beach in the evening, but I also had a few days where I got to really do some exploring, so for this post, I’m going to talk about some of my favorite things that I did in Wilmington!
As I was only here for a short time, I don’t know quite as much about Wilmington as I do places like Tucson where I stayed for much longer. However, I did learn a few really interesting things about the city that shaped my experiences being there. For one thing, Wilmington is located along the Cape Fear River, which got its ominous name in an appropriately ominous way. What’s known as the “Frying Pan Shoals” off the Cape Fear headland are a shallow area that caused problems for ships since the early days of colonization. Some of the earliest mentions of Cape Fear come from the Roanoke expeditions when in 1585, Sir Richard Grenville’s ship was nearly marooned on the shoals. John White, the governor of Roanoke, also ran into problems here in 1587. Though the origin of the name is not entirely certain (or very easy to research), the story I heard while in Wilmington is that the shoals on which so many ships wrecked made the cape a fearful place to sail and gave it the name. The fact that Edward Teach (A.K.A. Black-Beard) also liked to sail around here may have further contributed to the sense of fear on these shoals. Thus, by the time of the American Revolution, Cape Fear was the common name for the area.
In 1725, Brunswick Town was established as the capitol of the North Carolina Colony, and colonial architecture can still be found around the area. Southport, where the Cape Fear River flows into the Atlantic was an important trading post in the early days of colonization, but nearby Wilmington quickly became the most important city and grew into a hub for culture, politics, and, of course, trade. In the Revolution, the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge was fought 20 miles outside of Wilmington, and you can still visit the battlefield today. Wilmington continued to grow following the Revolution and by 1850 was the largest city in North Carolina. Some of the very nice old buildings in the city come from around this time, and it can be fun to just drive around downtown and take in the architecture.
During the Civil War, Wilmington was the last Confederate Port to stay open as Union troops created blockades along the coast. The Reconstruction Period after the war was marked by an economic downturn in the years immediately following the war and civil unrest through the end of the century. As in many Southern cities, newly-emancipated African Americans initially saw a good change in their fortunes as they were able to open businesses and pursue government office. However, the nationwide resurgence of white nationalism at the end of the 19th century here resulted in the Wilmington Coup. The legally elected city government was overthrown, and an unknown number (at least 25, but likely over 100) of Wilmington’s Black residents were killed. The coup is commemorated at 1898 Memorial Park, which was dedicated in 2008. Even before this event, however, Reconstruction was approaching its end; though Wilmington’s government represented the mixed makeup of the city, the actual population remained largely segregated. The Wilmington Coup, also known as the Wilmington Race Riot, marked a clear shift in the politics of Wilmington and the surrounding area as the “New South” embraced the implementation of Jim Crow laws that would remain in existence until the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.
Wilmington as a city continued to prosper in the early 20th century, especially during WWII during which many ships were built here. Visible from some of Wilmington’s main roads is the Battleship North Carolina – a WWII battleship that you can (and should) tour while visiting the city. The battleship is one of Wilmington’s many efforts to preserve its WWII history, an effort which began in the 1960s. The work put in to preserve this era led to Wilmington’s designation as an “American World War II Heritage City.” In the post-war period, there was a slight recession as the railroad – a major employer – moved its headquarters out of Wilmington, but new industries quickly moved in. Though not one of the biggest cities in the United States, Wilmington remained busy and prosperous throughout the century. In the 1990s, a new industry of craft beer was jumpstarted with the Wilmington Brewing Company. The city’s craft beer history dates to just after the repeal of prohibition, but it has taken off in the last 30 years as a part of Wilmington culture with over a dozen independent breweries available to sample. Though Wilmington is no longer North Carolina’s biggest city (that honor goes to Charlotte), it’s a lively but laid-back place that gives you both a sense of history as well as excitement for the future in this city that is still growing and changing.
I debated for some time about how to write this post because, while I was able to do several things around Wilmington, I didn’t feel that I had quite enough material for multiple posts about specific things in the city. And since I don’t know the city well enough to really have favorite, must-visit places, I wasn’t sure how to go about writing a weekend guide to the city. So, rather than providing any kind of itinerary of what to do in the area, I’m going to instead talk about the top five things I did and really enjoyed while in Wilmington.
Relaxing on the Beaches
Of course, the whole goal of going to Wilmington was to hang out on the beaches. Though there are several in the area, I really just visited Wrightsville Beach and Oak Island. Of the two, Oak Island was my favorite because of the soft sand that lacked the shell carpet of Wrightsville and because it had fewer people. As the closest beach though, Wrightsville still had a lot of appeal. Parking is free after 7 pm, which is also when the crowds start to disperse. Because it was summer, we were able to go several times in the evening when it was less crowded and cooler, but not dark yet. I loved getting to visit the ocean this year since it was something I couldn’t really do in 2020. From letting the waves splash over me to reading on the sand, relaxing on the beaches around Wilmington was definitely one of the trip’s highlights!
Wilmington is pretty famous for its breweries, and we were able to visit several while I was here. However, before visiting Wilmington, I’d never actually had beer because I didn’t like how the canned stuff smelled. Since these places provided “craft beer” though, I was persuaded to try it. Honestly, I’m still not a huge fan, but there were a few that were okay. What I really liked about the breweries (and why they made this list) is the laid-back vibe you can enjoy there. There was a sense of camaraderie at the breweries, and they were more of a family affair than I expected, due to the diversity of events they offer. I of course loved the live music whenever we were able to see that, but I also got to do some trivia nights, hang out a Christmas in July market outside one brewery, and meet some birds at a fundraiser for the Cape Fear Raptor Center. Especially at the last one, there were kids along with the adults, which I think made the atmosphere very relaxed and friendly. And, of course, the best part of visiting the breweries was just hanging out with my friends!
Seeking out Carniverous Plants
I’ve wanted to visit some of the swampy areas of North Carolina since reading Where the Crawdads Sing a couple of years ago, but as we usually stay on the barrier islands, I didn’t know when I would actually get a chance to do that. So naturally, as soon as I was invited to visit Wilmington, I wanted to visit a swamp. And in researching where to go, I learned that the Venus Flytrap (one of nature’s coolest plants) is uniquely native to the Wilmington area (and about 100 miles around it). This changed my plans a bit since I’d originally been thinking about booking some kind of kayaking tour through the swamps (which I’d still love to do in the future). Instead, I found a short trail at the Green Swamp Preserve and a place called the Stanley Rehder Carniverous Plant Garden. Both of these feature a bit more than just Venus Flytraps, though those were the main draw for me. I had an amazing time exploring the two parks – though we got slightly lost going to both of them as well – and I have more pictures of plants than I could post! Getting to see these plants in person and learn more about them was a definite highlight of being in Wilmington!
Visiting Battleship North Carolina
Battleship North Carolina was something I was aware of the whole time I was in Wilmington, but I didn’t visit until my last day. You can actually see if from several places in the city because it’s so big, but you don’t realize quite how big until you’re on the ship itself. Currently all tours are self-guided, but I imagine a tour with someone leading you around would be helpful because even with the signs, it’s easy to get turned around, and I know we didn’t see everything. What we did see though was really impressive! This was by far the biggest boat I’ve ever been on, and it was really interesting to see where everything was and how people lived on the ship during WWII. My favorite part of the ship was the Crew Memories, little sections on larger boards of text and images that had quotes from men who served on the ship talking about what it was like. Some were funny, like one that talked about taking baths in the washing machines (and how sometimes a guy’s friends would press the button and actually turn it on for a bit) while others were just disgusting, like the ones that talked about cockroaches in the food. I really enjoyed visiting the ship though, and I would consider it something that everyone should do in Wilmington if possible. However, it was also very hot, so maybe try to visit in a month that isn’t July.
A Day in Southport, NC
Definitely one of my favorite things in Wilmington was taking a day to drive a little further south to Oak Island and Southport. I did get a little confused in making my plans for the day and learned that the Oak Island rumored to have buried treasure is actually in Nova Scotia, not North Carolina. But I think it was a reasonable mistake to make given the pirate history in the area, and, who knows? maybe there’s some buried treasure on this Oak Island too, and we just don’t know about it! Or maybe the real treasure was the small town charm we found along the way…
But honestly I really enjoyed this area. We headed to Oak Island beach first in the morning and just hung out, wading into the water, and reading books on the shore. Since we had other plans for the day, we didn’t want to get drenched, so we avoided swimming even though this would have been a great place for it since it was so much calmer than at Wrightsville. Eventually, we headed into the town of Southport and got lunch at the Fishy Fishy Cafe. I think this was by far the best meal I had while in the Wilmington area, in large part thanks to the cheesy bowl of crab dip we got as an appetizer. Then, because it was overcast and seemed appropriate, I had their award-winning clam chowder and a grilled cheese sandwich.
After that delicious meal, we did a self-guided historic walking tour around Southport and got to see the cute colonial buildings. It reminded me a bit of Mackinac Island in Michigan actually, and I loved getting to explore this little place. The trail also went by a little art gallery that showed the work of local artists, and though I couldn’t afford a real painting, I did get a print that I’m very excited to put on my wall. I had a great day in Southport, and I would absolutely come back to this little town! Also, fun fact, this is where a lot of the movie Safe Haven (based on the Nicholas Sparks novel) was filmed, so we watched that later, and I saw several places where I’d been!
The drawbridges in Wilmington aren’t really something you seek out, since you just have to cross them when you drive between places, but they are pretty cool as architectural things that exist in abundance here. And one very Wilmington experience that you should probably hope not to experience is getting stuck in traffic because they have to raise the bridge to let one dinky sailboat with a too-tall mast said into the marina. It was cool because we were close enough to watch the bridge go up and down, but it seems like a very egoistic move to require the city to stop traffic and lift up the bridge just so your one little boat can pass through. Also, if we’d been in a rush at the time, I would have found this much less interesting, so I don’t think I can count it as one of my actual “Top 5.”
I loved spending time in Wilmington and getting to spend some time on a beach this summer! I had a lot of relaxing days but also got to experience some really cool places, and I loved hanging out with my friends for so much of the summer! It was really fun to visit a part of North Carolina I’d never been to before, and I hope I get to go back one day in the future and see a bit more – maybe do some zip-lining in a swamp like I saw advertised on a few billboards. For now though, I’m back in West Virginia, and I’m looking forward to starting an AmeriCorps position at Arthurdale Heritage, Inc., as well as just getting to experience fall again after being in the desert for the last few years!