This summertime destination offers plenty to do when the temperatures drop.
With average temps hovering around 50 degrees from December to March, an offseason escape to Wilmington, North Carolina, won’t necessarily get you a tan, but there’s more to this coastal enclave than its beachy reputation would have you believe. Though it's still dealing with the damage wrought by Hurricane Florence in the fall, the community is well on its way to recovery, and now's a great time to visit. From riverside walks to history lessons to artsy outings to five-star dining, here’s how to while away a winter weekend in the Port City.
1. Get Outside
Airlie Gardens. (Maya Stanton)
It might not be warm enough for sunbathing, but even at less-than-optimal temperatures, Wrightsville Beach is a prime destination for seashell collecting and long walks in the sand, especially at sunrise. Plus, parking is free from November 1 to March 1. (To take full advantage of those ocean breezes, book a room at the Blockade Runner, a water-facing Hotel We Love that recently reopened after the hurricane; accommodations there are a steal during the winter months.) Just over the causeway, the vast Airlie Gardens (airliegardens.org) are an oasis of calm, with ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss and a sculpture garden paying tribute to the fascinating work of Minnie Evans, a prolific, self-taught African-American visionary artist who didn’t begin drawing or painting until age 43. Don’t miss the Bottle Chapel, a a 3D representation of Minnie’s paintings, built with cement, metal, and colorful glass bottles. Downtown, pop into Pineapple Studios (lovepineapplestudios.com) for a pottery lesson or a yoga class, pause for a pint at Front Street Brewery (frontstreetbrewery.com) or the local outpost of Pour Taphouse (pourtaproom.com), and wander along the Riverwalk, 1.75 miles of walking paths along the Cape Fear River comprising shops, restaurants, and water views.
2. Take a History Lesson
Incorporated in 1739, the city of Wilmington has seen its fair share of action, from Revolutionary War battles to Civil War blockades to World War II shipbuilding. A trio of historic homes, each open for walk-throughs, showcases what the 18th and mid-19th centuries were like for moneyed white folks and the slaves they kept. Dating to 1770, the Burgwin-Wright (bwhg.memberclicks.net), for one, is a Georgian home built directly on top of the former jail, and the only colonial-era building in the city that’s accessible to the public. Peek inside the original kitchen and the old cells, then take a breather in the terraced garden, which are free to explore. Completed in 1852, the Latimer House (latimerhouse.org) was the Victorian-era estate of a wealthy merchant's family—and, before emancipation, the 11 enslaved people who served them. A guided tour offers a vivid sense of life at the time, while a tour of the circa-1861 Bellamy Mansion (bellamymansion.org), built primarily by enslaved laborers, reveals a restored carriage house and the original slave quarters. A few minutes outside of town, across the causeway in Wrightsville Beach, is the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History (wbmuseumofhistory.com), housed in a cottage built in 1909, with displays outlining the swimsuit’s backstory and a model of the beach, complete with a miniature working trolley. (One caveat: The offseason is a popular time for maintenance, repairs, and private events, so be sure to call ahead or check opening times online for all of the above.)
3. Walk and Talk
Wilmington offers a variety of walking tours to help you see the sights. Run by Beverly Tetterton, a former research librarian and long-serving member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, alongside tech guru Dan Camancho, Wilmington.tours (wilmington.tours) has four app tours, three of which focus on the city’s general past and the Civil War era, plus one pub crawl dishing the dirt on 13 watering holes—though covering the entire baker’s dozen in one night is not recommended. (The site warns: “Wilmington.tours is not responsible for hangovers or regrettable behavior. We also do not guarantee impressing your friends & dates. If they are not impressed, you did something wrong, or have dumb friends, or both.”)
On the less scientific end of the spectrum, Haunted Wilmington (hauntedwilmington.com) leads one of our favorite ghost walks in the U.S., a spooky stroll through the historic downtown area. Gothy guides customize itineraries for each outing, but stops may include the graveyard at St. James Episcopal Church, where an unfortunate young man was reputedly buried alive, and the aforementioned Latimer House, where five of the family’s nine children didn’t make it to adulthood. The company also offers a Hollywood location walk of spots you'll likely recognize from movies and teen dramas. (Spoiler alert: Dawson’s Creek and Cape Fear were both filmed here.)
4. Eat Your Heart Out
Manna's Homard Simpson, a buttered lobster tail with sugar-snap peas and shiitakes. (Maya Stanton)
For a smaller city, Wilmington has some stellar dining options, and even the Food Network has taken note—last year, Guy Fieri shot an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives here, creating quite the stir. It confirmed what locals have known for ages: This is a town that loves to eat. With creative Southern-inspired takes on standard fare (think: hummus made with North Carolina butterbeans in lieu of chickpeas, topped with tangy green tomatoes), PinPoint (pinpointrestaurant.com) offers some of the best bites in town. Between the fun Latin fare at Savorez (savorez.com), the modern plates from Top Chef alum Keith Rhodes at Catch (catchwilmington.com), and the special-occasion, pun-loving menu at Manna (mannaavenue.com), seafood enthusiasts will find no shortage of options here. And what’s a day at the beach without an ice cream cone? At both of its locations, including one downtown, the family-run Boombalatti’s (boombalattis.com) serves homemade ice cream with milk from grass-fed cows, and the flavors are out of this world—the key-lime pie in particular.
5. Embrace Your Artistic Side
College towns often foster a creative environment, and with its first-rate galleries, studios, and performance spaces, Wilmington is no exception. On the fourth Friday of each month (artscouncilofwilmington.org/four-fridays), a selection of art spaces open their doors after hours, offering up drinks, snacks, entertainment, and opportunities to chat with the artists themselves. Art in Bloom Gallery (aibgallery.com) features a mix of fine photography, paintings, mobiles, and stunning blown-glass pieces, while New Elements Gallery (newelementsgallery.com) boasts canvases and crafts from local and regional talents. theArtWorks (theartworks.co), a warren of studios and galleries housed in a former factory, also participates in Fourth Fridays, but its 45-plus studios keep regular open hours as well, so you can pop in on a weekend and visit artists as they work. Performance-wise, Thalian Hall (thalianhall.org) has been in near-continuous use since it opened in 1858, hosting everyone from Buffalo Bill Cody to Beatles cover bands. Today it's a go-to for theatrical revivals, contemporary movies, and one-offs like the Bluegrass Bash and Mutts Gone Nuts, a “comedy dog spectacular” promoting rescue adoptions. And over at the Wilson Center (cfcc.edu/capefearstage), a soaring hall affiliated with the Cape Fear Community College, not only do touring Broadway shows, contemporary dance troupes, and musicians as varied as Air Supply and Chick Corea take center stage, an outreach initiative also provides free tickets to underserved communities, so kids from all backgrounds can experience the arts.