Creating a list of the “must see” attractions during a vacation to the Cape Fear area can be a difficult task. With 300 years of history, a brilliant natural landscape, and an array of activities, it can seem impossible to do and see it all during a getaway to this enriching coastal destination.
And while visitors may have their own specific interests and pursuits when they come to the Cape Fear area – whether it’s history, beaches, or incredible dining and shopping – any vacationer who wants to fully discover the region will want to ensure these iconic attractions are on their itinerary.
Home to one of the largest historic districts in the county, a stunning waterfront along the Cape Fear River, and dozens of chic shops, restaurants, and attractions, Downtown Wilmington easily showcases the best of the Cape Fear region. The downtown area was established in the 1720s, and became the heart of the area in the centuries to come, as the focal point of the bustling “Port City.” Today, visitors can uncover the history behind the ancient brick building sand historic residences through a myriad of tours, (including walking tours, carriage / trolley tours, and even Segway tours), or can set out on a self-guided adventure through the blocks of downtown streets that includes plenty of shopping and dining along the way. For the best views, head to the roughly mile-long Riverwalk on the water’s edge, and enjoy a stunning exploration of the city that’s just a shell’s through from the Cape Fear River.
Stationed along the riverfront, and impossible to miss for Downtown Wilmington explorers, the USS Battleship North Carolina is a fascinating destination for history buffs and everyday sightseers alike. This decommissioned battleship that was completed in 1940 and which served during the duration of World War II has been converted to a museum, where visitors can explore the depths of the ship from the topside decks to the galleys and engine rooms deep below. The USS Battleship North Carolina earned 15 battle stars during its years of service – an unprecedented accomplishment – and was moved to the Wilmington waterfront just a couple decades ago as an impressive and well-received attraction. Today, the battleship also serves as a fascinating venue for a wide variety of events, (from Easter Egg hunts to summertime movie nights), which makes any visit to this iconic destination an adventure.
Visitors can learn all about the abundance of wildlife that calls the Cape Fear area home with a visit to the sprawling and impressive North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Located just south of Kure Beach, this attraction is one of three aquariums along the North Carolina coastline that’s managed by the state, and is a favorite destination for Cape Fear vacationers of all ages. Visitors will be able to touch local critters like sting rays and starfish at the special touch tank exhibit, meet rare area residents like an albino alligator, and can marvel at the giant sharks and sea turtles in the two-story open ocean exhibit. With a collection of galleries that outline the distinct habitats and ecosystems found throughout the coastal area, education and fun are effortlessly combined at this always fascinating attraction.
The 761 acre Carolina Beach State Park is one of the most popular destinations along the beach, thanks to its myriad of naturally inclined things to do. The park features a campground, an on-site marina, a launching area for kayaks and vessels alongside the Cape Fear River, and a full roster of educational programs that shed new light on this unique environment. New visitors will want to start their exploration at the extensive Visitors Center / Exhibit Hall, or at the entrance of one of the park’s miles of nature trails that cut through maritime forest, shrub thickets, marshes, and Cape Fear Riverfront terrain. Along the way, look for the rare carnivorous plants, (including Venus flytraps), which grow naturally in the area, and which are considered one of the park’s star attractions.
Beautiful beaches and legendary history are both found at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area / Fort Fisher Historic Site, which is situated just south of the popular Carolina Beach and Kure Beach communities. This public park features six miles of beautifully undeveloped beaches that are popular in the summer months, as well as the remains of the historic Fort Fisher, which was an essential Confederate stronghold during the Civil War. Eventually falling in 1865 after one of the largest naval battles during the war, (a battle that effectively ended the war just a couple months later), visitors can still explore the remnants of the historic site which includes an earth works border, and a visitor’s center that’s filled with artifacts and relics from the fort’s heyday. With walking trails, stunning beaches, and small reminders of history, the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is a great destination for both education and miles of fun in the sun.
Originally established as a private garden for a wealthy family in 1901, the 67-acre Airlie Gardens has become a favorite attraction for history lovers, nature lovers, and everyday sightseers, due to its enchanting landscape that changes with the season. The impressive site has a collection of formal and informal gardens, 10 acres of freshwater lakes, a series of winding walking trials, and more than 100,000 azaleas which bloom in the spring and summer months. Visitors will also be treated to artworks and historic buildings that are scattered throughout the gardens, special exhibits just for kids, and the roughly 500-year-old “Airlie Oak” which towers above the scene. For a complete exploration of the stunning gardens that the Cape Fear area is known for, add a trip to the New Hanover County Arboretum and the Bluethenthal Wildflower Preserve, and enjoy all the breathtaking natural beauty that this region has to offer.
Famed as the oldest museum in North Carolina, and established more than a century ago, the Cape Fear Museum is a fantastic first stop for visitors who are new to the area and who want to discover what the Cape Fear region is all about. Located in downtown Wilmington, this expansive museum has more than 52,000 artifacts that are found within distinct galleries which pay homage to unique chapters in Cape Fear’s story. Visitors can uncover 100 years of movie making history at the “Starring Cape Fear!” exhibit, learn all about the local ecology and habitats at the Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery, or view intricate models of the downtown landscape circa 1850. With both permanent and rotating exhibits, as well as regular programs for patrons of all ages throughout the year, every visit is an opportunity to discover something new at the Cape Fear Museum.
Wilmington is known for its rich theater scene, (as well as its deep ties to Hollywood), and taking in a show or performance while in the area is a must for any Cape Fear visitor. While the downtown region has plenty of options and theaters to choose from, with an eclectic blend of locally produced dramas, comedies and musicals, visitors will want to include a visit to the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in their theatrical pursuits. Opened in 1858, and featuring a decadently ornate interior, the Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts continues to host an impressive collection for performances throughout the year, including international comedians and performers, orchestras, ballet companies, and much, much more. With stellar shows and equally impressive surroundings, Thalian Hall is an iconic testament to the vibrant Wilmington theater scene.
While the Cape Fear area has miles of stunning beaches, Mansonboro Island is a rarely discovered treasure. Sandwiched in between Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, Mansonboro Island is the largest component of the 10 sites that make up the Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve system, and includes 5,653 acres of terrain as well as 8.4 miles of pristine, undeveloped beaches. Only accessible by boat, visitors who can reach the island will enjoy exceptional shelling, fishing, birdwatching, hiking, kayaking, and primitive camping. Explorers in the mood for an adventure can embark on a number of tours that launch from Wrightsville Beach, and which include shelling trips, eco-explorations, and even kid-friendly pirate hunts for buried treasure. Regardless of how a visitor reaches and explores the island, however, the natural terrain is a stellar example of southern North Carolina Beaches at their best.
With stunning landscapes and a rich cultural backbone, it should come as no surprise that the Cape Fear region is considered a haven for the arts. Visitors with an artful inclination will have a fine time exploring the cool downtown Wilmington galleries and art spaces, and will definitely want to schedule a trip to one of the oldest museums in the region – the Cameron Art Museum. Established more than 50 years ago, the “CAM” features 42,000’ square feet of space, which includes both permanent and rotating exhibits of artists from all over the world, an in-house and acclaimed café, and an on-site art school for patrons of all ages and interests. In addition, the museum is also the site of a historic Civil War battle, the Battle of Forks Road, which is noted on the surrounding grounds. With regular events that include exhibit openings, artist receptions, and art school classes of all varieties, the Cameron Art Museum is an all-encompassing destination for both visiting and local creative minds.
There are literally dozens – if not hundreds - of historic homes and museums, stunning gardens, and area attractions to discover in the Cape Fear area, and a visitor could spend a month trying to see it all.
But no matter where a visitor lands, the sheer assortment of iconic sites, activities, and stunning landscapes is more than enough incentive to plan a vacation or two to this enthralling corner of coastal North Carolina.