sunset over the cape fear river wilmington north carolina

It might be hot, it might be rainy, but, hey, it’s summer and in the Cape Fear, that means both locals and tourists are out, about, and looking for something to do in Wilmington and the surrounding towns.

With the easing of COVID restrictions, and local life starting to feel a little bit more normal (especially for those who are vaccinated), there is no better excuse to get outside and enjoy some of the distinctly Wilmington activities. Our knowledgeable and engaged crew of local experts have put together this list of 20 things that just shout “summer.”

1. Wilmington Riverwalk

Head to the downtown Wilmington Riverwalk for a stroll along the Cape Fear River. If you start at Nun Street, you can walk the entire length of the wide wood-planked pedestrian way, winding along the water at the edge of historic downtown, past multiple restaurants, shops, and scenic rest stops, all the way to the new Live Oak Bank Pavilion at the Isabel Holmes bridge on the north side of town. Some of our highlights: lunch on the deck at Elijahs or Pilot House, a refreshing ice cream or beer at Anne Bonny’s, photo opportunities from the Market Street Venus flytrap sculpture and the steps of the Alton Lennon Federal Building, a peek in the boat building workshop of Cape Fear Community College, a climb up the little fishing pier by the Wilmington Convention Center, and stopping to read the historic plaques and memorials along the way. The Riverwalk is about 2 miles from end-to-end, so wear your walking shoes and bring a bottle of water.

2. Boardwalk Bingo

Play Cash Bingo on the Carolina Beach Boardwalk Gazebo. Wednesday evenings, May through August at 6:30pm, literally hundreds of people gather to buy in for less than $20. Bring friends, make friends, and expect to have a great time.

3. Poplar Grove Farmers Market

Shop local produce at the open air Farmers Market at Poplar Grove, Wednesdays from 8am to 1pm, through October. The venue is Poplar Grove Plantation, which was a peanut and sweet potato plantation and is located within the National Park Service Gullah Geechee Corridor. You will find lots of seasonal produce – every week brings something new – as well as meats, seafood, cheese, eggs, baked goods, specialty foods, North Carolina wines and a variety of local arts and crafts.

4. Ferry to Southport

Drive your car onto the ferry at Fort Fisher for a ride across the Cape Fear River to the lovely little seaside town of Southport. The ferry runs every 45 minutes from 5:30am to 7pm, and takes about 30 minutes to cross the river. Riders can get out of their car to commune with the seagulls and enjoy the view from the upper deck of the ferry. Check the ferry schedule and plan to get in line at the ferry early so you don’t miss a spot on the ferry. You pay per vehicle.

5. Mary’s Gone Wild

Visit Mary Paulson’s intriguing and unusual studio and art campus on Holden Beach Road in Supply, billed as a “museum,” Mary’s Gone Wild, is a great stop for lovers of folk and outsider art. Described as magical, inspired, and just plain weird, there is something to see on every single inch of the property. Recognized in art circles, and the subject of various documentaries and art books, Mary is usually in either her studio or the shop, and is happy to chat with visitors. This is a great destination for a day trip from Wilmington.

6. Calabash, Seafood Capital

Eat your fill of seafood in Calabash, the “Seafood Capital” of North Carolina. You can sit outside at any one of the great restaurants, order some local shrimp and watch the boats go up and down the Intracoastal Waterway.

7. Shelton Herb Farm

Venture out to Shelton Herb Farm in Leland and gather all the plants you can fit in your yard or on your patio. Everyone who works here is an expert on what will grow in the area, and which combination of shade, sun, soil, and water you need for success. Wander through the various greenhouses and rows of plants. Pet the pigs. We have purchased glorious orange nasturtiums and a determined papyrus, and that’s just to start.

8. Cameron Art Museum

Catch an exhibit at the Cameron Art Museum, and stop for brunch or lunch at The Cam Cafe. Memberships help support the museum and garner you both access to the exhibits and a discount at the cafe. Check the calendar of events and classes, too, as there is always something interesting offered at the museum.

9. Castle Street Arts & Antiques District

Hop in and out of the antique and vintage stores on Wilmington’s Castle Street. Don’t miss Jess James + Co. for beautifully curated vintage clothing, Gravity Records for a huge selection of vintage vinyl and record players, and Wilmington Wine for a well-priced and interesting selection of wines plus weekend tastings. If you keep going up Castle Street, you will find EOD – End of Days Distillery – where there is often a food truck to go with your craft cocktails in the hip, indoor-outdoor new space.

10. Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center

Drive up to Topsail to visit the Sea Turtle Hospital where a huge contingent of volunteers and marine life experts work to conserve and preserve marine turtles from the beach and in the water. They rescue, rehabilitate, and release turtles. At the hospital, you can see the turtles currently in their care, read the exhibits, shop the cool merchandise, and come away with a greater appreciation of the need to care for our coast.

11. Boat Tour of the Cape Fear River

Take a ride up the Cape Fear River or the North Branch with Wilmington Water Tours. The history and area information are well worth the price, and the view of Wilmington from the water is wonderful. Wilmington Water Tours offers a variety of themes and times, including a sunset ride.

12. Carolina Beach State Park

Hike up to the top of Sugarloaf in the Carolina Beach State Park for a view across the Cape Fear River to Brunswick Settlement. Take your mosquito spray and follow the trail markers. If you park in the lot by the marina, you’ve got lots of options for a short nature walk or a longer hike. Keep a look out for Venus flytraps, too. Don’t touch or pick because they are protected, but it’s a bit of a thrill to see one in the wild.

13. Greenfield Lake

Walk around Greenfield Lake or rent a paddleboat for a leisurely day on the water. You can also rent kayaks here from the Cape Fear River Watch, or bring your own and launch from the parking lot just off Carolina Beach Road. The bike and walking trail around the lake is four miles long, and bustling with activity on the weekends. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might catch a glimpse of one of Greenfield’s resident alligators. Of course, please don’t feed the wildlife.

14. Ivy Cottage

Go to Ivy Cottage and pick through the huge selection of consignment goods. You will find everything from antiques to new-but-barely-used furniture and home decor, wall art, and kitchen gear. Don’t miss the warehouse packed floor to ceiling with chairs, tables, wardrobes and more, or the 50% off room in the third cottage. It’s easy to pass the afternoon looking for great deals on everything you do – or do not – need. There are lots of consignment stores in Wilmington, and excellent picking at estate sales, but the Ivy Cottage is always top of our list for treasure hunting. Don’t miss their new showroom further up Market Street, with an awesome inventory of consigned designer furnishings and high-value antiques.

15. Take Surf Lessons

There are plenty of places to find expert instruction on Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Oak Island. Surfing on the southeastern coast is challenging but not daunting, and will give beginners a taste of this favorite local sport that is both thrilling and addicting. More expert surfers will also find satisfaction on the days when the surf is a bit rough, and there are even tournaments on the various beaches. Find a surf lesson for your pup, too, at Surf Dog Experience on Carolina Beach.

16. Axes and Allies

Try your hand at ax throwing at Axes and Allies. Competitive types are welcome and might be surprised at the level of skill needed to score a bulls-eye. Our own #flatcharles ventured out for some good-hearted fun.

17. Skywatch Bird Rescue

This wild bird rescue also responds to calls about injured wildlife in the area, and offers on-site educational programs, tours of the sanctuary, and volunteer opportunities. Kids will enjoy the petting zoo, where the resident emu soaks up tons of attention.

18. Battleship U.S.S. North Carolina

The refurbishment of the hull has just been completed, and the ship is again open for tours, post-COVID. You don’t need advance reservations, and the ship is easy to access via the grounds on the west side of the Cape Fear River. Wear flat-soled, non slip shoes for your tour, and be prepared to visit the tight crew quarters of the battleship, with plenty of stairs and narrow halls. For history buffs, nothing compares to this up close opportunity to envision life on one of the country’s awe-inspiring warships. (photo courtesy dillons_pics via Instagram)

19. Brooklyn Arts District

When you are looking for something to do in Wilmington, the combination of hot summer days and a cold beer has a special appeal. With more breweries per capita than most other North Carolina cities, Wilmington and the beaches present beer lovers a variety of options. If you want to walk from brewery to brewery on a self-guided tasting tour, a trip to the neighborhood just east and north of historic downtown offers the right number of local craft breweries. Hit Flytrap, then wander up the street to Edward Teach (in a rehabbed fire station), and then Palate. Brooklyn Arts District has a cool collection of shops, as well, and a stop at Boombalatti’s for handmade, craft ice cream is never a bad idea.

20. Sunset over the Cape Fear River

End the day with your camera for a breathtaking shot of the sunset over the Cape Fear River. Photographers gather every evening in the small park by the public boat ramp under the Cape Fear Memorial bridge at Castle Street. There is plenty of parking and some people arrive early with lawn chairs and picnics to enjoy Mother Nature’s show. After dark settles in, drive down Surrey to Waterline Brewing for yes another of Wilmington’s outstanding local craft beers.

Do you have a favorite summer-time activity or a tried-and-true recommendation for friends visiting Wilmington North Carolina? Share it in the comments.

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