Explore Wilmington, North Carolina: A Family-Friendly Beach Destination

The port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, is the perfect summertime -- or any time! -- destination for families. Here’s where to stay, what to do, what to eat and where to go.

There is something for everyone in Wilmington, N.C., a beach city on the East Coast with relaxed vibes and loads of Southern charm. Wilmington offers a perfect blend of history, culture and outdoor activities, plus miles of sandy beaches to enjoy. Looking for a relaxing vacation chilling on the beach with your family? You’ll find it here. Want some outdoorsy adventures hiking, boating and exploring? You got it. Need to indulge your inner foodie by trying out the best bites in the area? Wilmington has it all.

Here are some of our recommendations for the top family-friendly activities and attractions that Wilmington has to offer. It might possibly be the perfect destination for your next family vacation.

Where to Stay in Wilmington, North Carolina

Wilmington, N.C., is a beach city that is located right off of the Atlantic Ocean, so you’ll probably want to stay as close to the beach as possible. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Resort Lumina on Wrightsville Beach, located just steps from Wrightsville Beach with easy access to the beach and gorgeous, undisturbed ocean views from our hotel room.

The Holiday Inn Resort Lumina on Wrightsville Beach has lots of amenities for families. You’ll find three indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs, hammocks, lawn games, and weekly activities and events like live music on the weekends. The hotel also offers a free shuttle that will take guests to nearby shops and restaurants. 


The hotel also has three restaurants onsite, including Solstice Oceanfront Kitchen + Cocktails, where kids eat free all day with each paying adult. Surfside Beach Bar & Grille is a small snack bar located near the pools, and Longboard Coffee + Market is a grab-and-go coffee shop that sells baked goods and snacks. 


What to Do + What to Eat in Wilmington, N.C. 

We stayed in Wrightsville Beach, so this was our starting point for exploring the beautiful port city of Wilmington.

Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours

There’s nothing like being out on the water. Booking a ride with Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours is a great way to explore Wilmington, and learn a little something as your cruise your way along the water. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours offer a variety of tour options, including family adventures and birding cruises. We opted to climb aboard the Shamrock catamaran for a trip out to Masonboro Island Reserve, an 8.4 mile-long, undisturbed barrier island ecosystem in southern North Carolina that can only be reached by boat. We were one of only a few people on the island exploring the beaches and climbing up and down the sand dunes.


Wilmington Riverwalk

Strolling along Wilmington’s Riverwalk — or exploring by horse-drawn carriage — is a must. The historic Riverwalk was once named the Best Riverfront in America by USA Today, and offers breathtaking views of the water, the river bridge and the Battleship North Carolina. You’ll also find markets, outdoor cafes, art galleries and more. Wilmington is and has been the filming location for several popular movies and television shows, including Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, and it’s easy to see why when you visit this picturesque spot of the city.


Battleship North Carolina

Touring a real battleship was on my older son’s bucket list, so we made sure to visit the Battleship North Carolina while we were in Wilmington. This historic ship served in World War II, and was considered one of the most powerful ships of its time. The Battleship North Carolina is now a museum in Wilmington, where visitors can explore the ship with a self-guided tour and learn about its history and naval warfare. Make sure to allow yourself plenty of time. This ship is massive and includes nine decks to explore, which can take anywhere from an hour to two hours to see completely!


Airlie Gardens

Nature lovers will want to stop at Airlie Gardens, a beautiful and historic garden located in Wilmington. The garden spans over 67 acres and features a variety of plants and wildlife, including azaleas, camellias and magnolias. One of the garden’s most famous plants is its biggest and oldest: the Airlie Oak. This massive tree is over 400 years old and was planted in 1545. Visitors can also explore the garden’s many trails and pathways, which wind through lush forests and around tranquil ponds, either by foot or by tram.


Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park

When you need a place to get the wiggles out, Jungle Rapids Family Fun Park takes care of that job nicely. This amusement park offers a variety of activities for all ages, including mini golf, go-karts, rock climbing and an arcade. The park also has a water park that’s open from May to September, with water slides, a lazy river, bumper boats, a large wave pool and a kiddie area for younger children. In addition to the rides and attractions, Jungle Rapids also has a snack bar, so it’s al all-in-one-stop for indoor and outdoor fun.


Places to Eat in Wrightsville Beach

The Workshop

Located just steps from the beach, The Workshop is a great place to visit on a lazy morning to grab a coffee, a nourishing smoothie (we recommend the Boneyard!) or a sandwich. This coffee shop is owned and operated by local SCUBA divers who have collected fossils and shark teeth during their underwater adventures. They have their collections on display, and have even turned some of them into jewelry that you can purchase.


Oceanic Restaurant

Oceanic Restaurant is located on a pier overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and offers an unbeatable atmosphere for diners looking for a relaxed vibe on the beach. The menu features a wide range of fresh seafood options, including shrimp, crab cakes and fish tacos, plus non-seafood options like chicken and pasta. 

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Be sure to take a walk along the Crystal Pier at The Oceanic for beautiful views of the ocean and great opportunities for selfies!

Drift Cafe Wrightsville Beach

Drift is known for its relaxed and cozy atmosphere, making it a perfect spot for a casual breakfast, brunch or lunch. Their kids menu features items like fluffy buttermilk pancakes and eggs; adults can find light brunch favorites like acai bowls, toasts and grain bowls. Sip on a Drift mimosa or aperol spritz while enjoying a game of cornhole out front.


South Beach Grill

If you’re looking for creative, seasonal offerings, South Beach Grill is your place. Located just steps from the beach, this casual, family-friendly restaurant is chef-driven and features a unique menu with “Chef’s Chalkboard Specials” that change frequently. We especially enjoyed the cold beet gazpacho (with edible flowers sprinkled on top!) and the zucchini fries with pickled onions.


Carolina Beach + Kure Beach

A short drive from Wrightsville will take you to the laid-back beach areas of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach in Wilmington. There’s lots to explore here!

Carolina Beach Boardwalk

During the summer months, the Carolina Beach Boardwalk comes alive with amusement rides, live music and weekly fireworks. While exploring this vintage boardwalk, enjoy sweet treats from one of the many shops (including the locally famous Britt’s Donuts), shop for souvenirs and beach gear, or grab a bite at one of the seaside restaurants or tiki bars. Keep your eyes peeled for the intricate and colorful murals all around the boardwalk area (nine in all). Each mural was painted by a different North Carolina artist, and showcases the town’s free-spirited vibe.


Britt’s Donuts

A visit to Britt’s Donuts is a must when you’re visiting the Carolina Beach Boardwalk. This iconic donut shop has been serving delicious, made-to-order donuts from their walk-up shop on the boardwalk since 1939. The menu is simple: “Homemade glazed donuts” is the only option. So, just tell the friendly people behind the counter how many donuts you want, and be sure you have cash. The line for Britt’s can get quite long, but it’s worth the wait for a taste of these hot-from-the-fryer, melt-in-your-mouth treats. Britt’s donuts are best enjoyed on the boardwalk while taking in the sights and sounds of the ocean.


North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

Located in Kure Beach, The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is very family-friendly (they have an outdoor playground!) with lots of hands-on displays to learn about marine life, aquatic animals and their habitats. The aquarium features exhibits that showcase the diverse marine life of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors can see sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, and other fascinating creatures in the large tanks that simulate their natural habitats. The aquarium also offers educational programs and activities for visitors of all ages, including behind-the-scenes tours and interactive exhibits.


Fort Fisher State Historic Site

While you’re in Kure Beach, take a walk through Fort Fisher State Historic Site, a Civil War-era fort. The fort played a big role in the Confederate defense of the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, which was the last major Confederate port on the Atlantic coast. The fort was attacked twice by Union forces, and the second attack resulted in its capture and eventual fall of Wilmington. Today, the site offers visitors the opportunity to explore the remains of the fort, including the large earthworks and gun emplacements, as well as a museum that features artifacts and exhibits related to the history of the fort and the Civil War. Visitors can also enjoy the nearby beach and nature trails, making it a great destination for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts alike.


Places to Eat in Carolina Beach + Kure Beach

Celtic Creamery

You’ll find Celtic Creamery in Carolina Beach’s downtown district, serving extra-creamy Irish ice cream, sundaes and shakes. Don’t sleep on the mini donuts: These bite-sized, sugar-dusted orbs are made fresh right after you order them, so each one is hot and delectable.


The Veggie Wagon

We have an unusual obsession with visiting local grocery stores when we travel, so coming across The Veggie Wagon in Carolina Beach was a treat. This eclectic, family-owned shop sells organic North Carolina produce, house-made baked goods and take-and-bake meals. Grab a cup of freshly ground coffee from their coffee bar (I recommend the silky smooth bulletproof coffee), or get a freshly poured growler of kombucha or craft beer to go. 


Stoked Restaurant

Seafood and more await you at Stoked Restaurant, a Carolina Beach restaurant right on the marina, which allows boaters to dock and dine. The outside patio is dog-friendly, offering a view of the water, or sit inside and catch a game on one of the TVs around the dining room. 


Michael’s Seafood

You can’t leave the Carolina Beach area without visiting Michael’s Seafood Restaurant, with its tropical tiki ambiance indoors and outside patio seating around a Koi pond. Michael’s is known for its clam chowder and build-your-own steamer pots. Be sure to start with the appetizer sampler, which offers little bites of fresh seafood like bacon-wrapped scallops and tempura shrimp. Michael’s kids menu is extensive and includes kid-favorites like mac and cheese and hot dogs, but also elevated offerings for more adventurous eaters, like crab legs and lemon butter fish.


There’s an ocean of activities and adventures awaiting families in Wilmington, North Carolina. For more information or to plan your trip, visit wilmingtonandbeaches.com.

Nicole Sipe
Nicole Sipe
Nicole Sipe is the editor of Indy's Child and Southwest Ohio Parent magazines. She has a BA in Journalism from California State University Northridge, and has been involved in the print and digital publishing world for most of her life. Born and raised in Southern California, Nicole traded the city and sun for corn and creeks, and now lives in central Indiana with her husband, two sons and Collie. Her latest book for children, “All About Me! Art Journal” was published in 2022 by Walter Foster Jr. In her spare time, she likes traveling with her family, enjoying good food and drink, volunteering at her children’s schools and around her community, and practicing yoga.

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