From the historic homes of Wilmington’s famed residents to coastal destinations that highlight the life of vacationers past, there’s a lot to uncover when it comes to the Cape Fear area’s many enticing museums.
Spend a cloudy day learning something new, or start a vacation off right by uncovering the region in rich detail by ensuring that a trip to these local museums are on your vacation itinerary.
Stationed along the Cape Fear Riverfront in the heart of downtown Wilmington, the USS Battleship North Carolina is a historic and stunning vessel that also doubles as an intricate museum. Head up the galley to the topside decks to start your exploration of this extensive 1940 ship that served in every major Pacific offensive in WWII, and won 15 battle stars in the process. Stunning throughout, the USS North Carolina also hosts a range of special events and educational programs, such as summer movie nights and Independence Day celebrations.
Situated in the town of Wrightsville Beach, this museum that’s housed within an early 20th century beach cottage has a wealth of exhibits and artifacts that outline the fun excursions of vacationers past. Visitors can learn all about the famed Lumina Pavilion, see postcards and bathing suits from a century ago, and even stroll through original rooms that have been transformed to look like an original beach cottage from roughly a century ago – all with a single, eye-opening trip.
Famed as the oldest museum in the state, and established in 1898, the Cape Fear Museum is a sprawling downtown Wilmington destination that outlines all the unique historical and environmental treasures of the Cape Fear area. Visitors can peruse memorabilia from the many movies filmed in the area, discover living habitats in the Michel Jordan Discovery Gallery, see a replica of Wilmington from the mid-19th century, and even take a tour through the battles and events of the Civil War. With a wealth of both permanent and ever-changing displays, the Cape Fear Museum is a true local treasure.
If you’re feeling brave, head to the sprawling 10,000’ square foot Cape Fear Serpentarium, which is the home to hundreds of snakes which are thankfully housed within 54 safe glass displays. The impressive collection includes boa constrictors, native snakes, and more than 40 venomous snakes from all around the world, including the black mamba, python, and king cobra. Not for the squeamish, a trip to this museum is simply unforgettable.
The Children's Museum of Wilmington is a favorite destination for kids ages 1-10, and is a veritable indoor playground with a wealth of activities to keep little hands and minds busy. Exhibits of note include the giant and central “Ahoy Wilmington!” pirate ship, the in-house art studio, the Magnetic Minds Science Center, the Imagination Circus Exhibit, and the Teddy Bear hospital. Regular tours and special programs are available, making every visit an opportunity for the Cape Fear area’s youngest visitors to learn – and discover – something new.
An interesting addition to any self-guided museum tour, downtown Wilmington’s Museum of the Bizarre is a veritable collection of mis-matched artifacts that will leave heads scratching. Exhibits of note include movie props and memorabilia from some of Wilmington’s many film productions, historical oddities like Alexander Hamilton’s Hair, and legendary relics such as the Fort Fisher mermaid, or the Crystal Skull of Knowledge. All in all, this museum presents a weirder side of the Wilmington and Cape Fear scene.
The Cameron Art Museum, or simply “The Cam,” is a 42,000’ square foot space that features a wealth of both exhibits and activities. Roughly 6-8 rotating exhibits make every visit a chance to discover a new talent, while permanent displays throughout the museum honor artists from the local region, the southeast, and even from all across the globe. The Cam also features a cool in-house café, as well as an exterior and historic Civil War battle site, and an on-site art school that offers classes for students of all interests, ages, and abilities. As a result of this collection of both exhibits and activities, a visit to the Cam can turn into a full-day, artful adventure.
The Wilmington Railroad Museum pays homage to Wilmington’s rich history as a port town, and is housed within a former 1883 railroad freight warehouse that’s flanked by an original locomotive, ACL boxcar, and caboose. There’s even more treasures and artifacts waiting inside, thanks to a decadently grand model train room, a special children’s hall, and numerous relics from Wilmington’s heyday as the home of one of the largest single-line tracks in the world. Special activities – including events for kids – may be held throughout the year, making this destination a must-stop for train fans of all ages.
The Bellamy Mansion Museum and Gardens is one of downtown Wilmington’s prime examples of antebellum architecture, and serves as a living history museum of local life on the eve of the Civil War. The home, which was built from 1859-1861, features rooms that are outfitted with period antiques and furnishings, stunning architectural details, and lush gardens that pay homage to the time period. Tours may be available, and the home can also be rented for private events and parties, including romantic weddings and receptions.
Built in 1770 and known as one of the oldest restored homes in downtown Wilmington, the Burgwin-Wright House Museum and Gardens is an enticing example of Georgian architecture that can be explored from the inside out. The rooms within the grand home are filled with antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the site also features a freestanding kitchen house, as well as gardens and grounds that are perfect for afternoon strolls. Guided tours of the property which outline the rich history are available regularly.
Constructed in 1852, the Latimer House Museum and Gardens is a perfect example of antebellum style and architecture, and is one of the most popular historic homes that’s open for visitors in the heart of downtown Wilmington. The 14 rooms within the structure are outfitted with more than 600 antiques, and visitors can continue a historical exploration by stepping outside, where ornate Victorian gardens, period kitchen herb gardens, and original servants’ quarters can all be found. Tours are available throughout the property for visitors who want to dive deeper into this grand home’s history.
Visitors can follow the footsteps of one of the most important battles in Cape Fear history with a visit to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site. Located just south of Kure Beach, this indoor and outdoor “museum” features a Visitors’ Center with in-depth displays and exhibits, (as well as battle artifacts), a walking trail, and a monument to honor the fallen soldiers of the largest amphibious water battle of the Civil War. Known as one of the most devastating defeats for the south, (the war ended just a couple months later), and still home to earthen remains of the original fort, Fort Fisher remains an iconic destination where Cape Fear history comes to life.
This popular attraction located just south of Kure Beach is one of three aquariums managed by the state of North Carolina, and is a great spot for visitors to learn all about the abundance of wildlife that lives just beneath the surface. Packed with interactive exhibits and enchanting displays, visitors can “touch” skates and starfish at the aquarium’s touch tank exhibit, meet a rare albino alligator, and watch divers descend into the two-story open ocean tank that’s filled with sharks, sting rays, and sea turtles. With special events throughout the year for visitors of all ages, any time is a good time to discover the Cape Fear’s underwater world at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
Tips and Tricks for Exploring Cape Fear Area museums
- There’s lots to discover outdoors as well! Discover the enchanting gardens and blooms of the Cape Fear area with a visit to the 67-acre Airlie Gardens, which boasts more than 100,000 seasonally blooming azaleas, or with a visit to the North Hanover County Arboretum, which features more than 30 distinctive gardens in a pretty central Wilmington location.
- Many area parks and reserves have special visitors’ centers and programs for explorers who want to discover more about the Cape Fear area. Check out popular destinations like the Carolina Beach State Park or Mansonboro Island Reserve for an opportunity to learn something remarkably new in the great outdoors.
- Plan to stay a while? A number of local museums, like the Cameron Arts Museum and the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, offer annual passes for visitors who want to enjoy multiple museum trips throughout the year.
- Be sure and ask about local discounts! Many area museums have special savings for UNCW college students, children, seniors, active and retired military personnel, and / or all of the above. Potential discounts are often listed online, or at the respective ticket booth / entrance.
- Love the local landscape and want to learn more? Try a tour. Popular historical destinations like Downtown Wilmington offer a myriad of walking, trolley, bike, or even Segway tours for visitors. Meanwhile, coastal communities like Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach may offer on-the-water cruises or tours of the outlying isolated islands, like Masonboro or Zeke’s Island.
- Don’t forget to check out the local events calendars for your dates of stay. Many area museums offer a range of special programs for visitors, such as guided tours, kids’ activities, seasonal holiday events, and much more.
The museums of the Cape Fear area are truly eclectic, with a little something for everyone, and centuries of history and stories to explore. Pop into a museum or two for a rainy day adventure, or just plan some time to uncover the cool exhibits and sites that are scattered throughout the coastal region.
With so many museums and treasures to admire, visitors will have no trouble learning all there is to know about the enticing, historic, and altogether stunning Cape Fear region.