Back in November, I completed a cross-state road trip in North Carolina. Oddly enough, even though I grew up in neighboring Virginia, my family never really took the time to vacation in the state just to the south of us: and I realize now that was a *big* mistake.
We started our road trip on the beach in Wilmington, North Carolina. We stayed in Wilmington for one night before heading over to neighboring Wrightsville Beach, and then we shipped out to Raleigh the next day. The Wilmington and Beaches CVB graciously helped us plan out our itinerary and explore the best of what this charming area had to offer!
How To Get There + Transportation
Since I was coming down from Philly, I opted to fly into Wilmington’s airport. It’s small, but I was able to land a direct flight fairly easily. If you’re coming from D.C., it’s roughly a 5.5-hour drive, give or take an hour or so based on traffic. We visited during the off-season, so bringing a car wasn’t much of a hassle: there were very low meter fares in Downtown Wilmington, and Wrightsville Beach has free street parking after October 31st.
It only takes 20 minutes to get from Downtown Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach, so I’d highly recommend visiting both cities if you’re in the area. I loved the more urban feel of Wilmington, but I also enjoyed the more laid-back beach town as well. You’re getting two completely different vacation experiences all in one!
Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach are two lively towns that have a pretty unique culture. Here are a few must-see spots and activities:
- Cameron Art Museum (Wilmington): I have to admit — I was pleasantly surprised by the CAM and wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. It’s a smaller museum with two exhibits, and I was able to view both a photography exhibit and their amazing State of the Art exhibit, which featured work from artists all across North Carolina. It’s a quick stop: we were in and out in an hour, but you can also opt for one of their guided tours if you want a more in-depth experience.
- Riverwalk & Horse-drawn Carriage Tour (Wilmington): As soon as we got off the plane and picked up our car for the week, we stopped to walk along the Riverwalk. There are dozens of charming local shops and restaurants along the Riverwalk, and it is incredibly picturesque. It felt amazing to be right on the water and soak up everything that historic Downtown Wilmington had to offer. If you want to explore all of Riverwalk, I’d highly recommend the Horse-drawn Carriage Tour as well.
- Airlie Gardens (Wrightsville Beach): If you need a little more time outdoors, Airlie Gardens features 67 acres of walking paths, formal gardens, seasonal blooms, mighty live oaks, historic structures, and contemporary sculpture. We went during the off-season, however, every summer they have a summer art exhibit that in my opinion would be worth the visit.
- Sunset Cruise with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours: This was hands down the favorite thing we did in Wrightsville Beach. You get to learn the history of Wrightsville Beach, see some of the most stunning beachfront properties owned by celebrities and politicians and soak up the sunset all at once. Pro tip: it’s BYOB.
As most of you know, half of my family is from Baltimore, and I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, so I take my seafood pretty seriously. Wilmington and Wrightsville surprisingly had a top-notch culinary scene, and I cannot wait to revisit some of these restaurants in the future.
- PinPoint (Wilmington): This was the best restaurant I visited in the area, and it was a seafood lover’s dream. I was a big fan of the ambiance of the restaurant; all of the art hung at the location is made by one local artist and is available for purchase. All of the food is sourced from the Southeast as well, except for their octopus that’s flown in from Spain. As for the food, I would highly recommend both the raw and baked oysters, catfish on grits (might have been the best grits I’ve ever had), and the persimmon salad.
- Beer Barrio (Wilmington): Beer Barrio serves modern Mexican cuisine with a bit of North Carolina flair. I jumped at the chance to try the BBQ tacos (so good), and we were big fans of the burritos. Their cocktails are pretty standard, but they’re offered at incredible prices. I enjoyed the beer selection here, as it featured a ton of local, craft options.
- The Basics (Wilmington): If you’re looking for good Southern fare, The Basics is where you’ll want to head. This casual spot offers delicious comfort food made with fresh regional ingredients. It’s quick, inexpensive, and I had some of the best grits I’ve had in a while here.
- Cruz (Wilmington): Cruz somehow managed to blend two styles of food that I’ve grown to love: they offer a California meets Carolina dining experience. The cocktails here were incredible; I’d highly recommend the Sassy Sara if you can handle some spice and the Nacho Mama’s Lemonade. As far as food, I loved the Crab Stack, but I didn’t have much time to try other options on the menu.
Brews: The Wilmington Ale Trail
If you’re in Wilmington, you have to head out to some spots on the Wilmington Ale Trail. I wish we were able to hit every single brewery on the trail, but we simply ran out of time. Here were some of our favorites that we had a chance to try:
- Flytrap Brewery: I unexpectedly got a chance to chat with the owners of the brewery when we stopped in, and it was awesome to learn about their history. They started brewing beer at home seven years before opening their own location and named their brewery after a Venus Flytrap because it only grows within a 70-mile radius of Wilmington. I was a huge fan of their Sour Squash Ale, Sour Raspberry Saison and Oak Leaf, which was a guest brew. They also offer a popcorn pairing with select beers, which was game-changing.
- New Anthem: Located right in Downtown Wilmington, the folks at New Anthem just celebrated their four year anniversary and offered a wide selection. The Velodrome Gose and Brett Saison were my two favorite brews on tap.
- Wrightsville Beach Brewing: This brewery offered both amazing beers and great food (including a fantastic selection of seafood!) The brewery likes to give back to the community and supports different local charities each month with proceeds from a featured beer.
- Waterline Brewing: You must try the Blood Orange Gose, Coffee & Cream in a Pale Ale, or the Tomato and Basil when it’s offered seasonally. They have live music on Fridays and Saturdays, and they also offer one wine tasting per month. They partner with Art Factory to feature local artists throughout their location.
Photos by Tom McGovern