Road Trip to Wilmington
From stately Southern mansions and cobbled side streets to the sparkling Cape Fear River and its boardwalk lined with shops, Wilmington is best explored up close and at an unhurried pace.
A leisurely stroll along the two-mile River Walk in Historic Downtown Wilmington, North Carolina offers ample opportunity for great dining, shopping, and scenery. The Riverwalk is a wide and sun-dappled boardwalk that parallels the Cape Fear River and is situated between the river and historic Water Street.
The Cotton Exchange
The area is anchored on the North end by the Cotton Exchange, a unique multi-story brick shopping area that was once home to the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Visitors can meander through dozens of specialty shops including a hot sauce store, a blown glass art gallery, and a Celtic gift shop, and enjoy treats such as gourmet coffee, lemonade, and ice cream.
Heading South on the Cape Fear River Boardwalk
Back along the boardwalk, traveling south from the Cotton Exchange, visitors pass the Henrietta III, the flagship of the Cape Fear Riverboat Company. During the summer, the restored ship offers scenic river rides throughout the day, including lunch and dinner cruises, and is a perfect way to see the downtown area from a different perspective.
Near the boat dock, a short detour from the boardwalk up Market Street is Kilwin’s, a downtown landmark famous for its homemade fudge and ice cream.
The Old Wilmington City Market and Chandler’s Wharf
Clothing boutiques, jewelers, and art galleries have replaced vegetable sellers in this light-filled historic building, which once housed a produce market. The building is a browser’s dream with shops arranged in an arcade-style around a galley featuring the work of local craftsmen and artists.
Further south is Chandler’s Wharf, another historic brick structure housing a variety of eclectic shops and galleries. The 2-story atrium features a brick fountain and offers visitors a chance to sit down and consider the many nearby lunch or dinner options.
Riverfront Dining Along with the Cape Fear
Other shops along the boardwalk are interspersed with condominiums and world-class restaurants, including the award-winning La Catalan, featuring French cuisine, an impressive wine list, and intimate candlelit riverfront tables.
Next door, the Wilmington Tea Room offers light lunches, including a sumptuous seafood bisque, or English-style afternoon tea – complete with scones and Devonshire cream – in an elegant coastal atmosphere. A wide selection of quality teas served in china cups on white linen table clothes makes the Tea Room a memorable experience for both the tea connoisseur and the novice.
For a more substantial lunch or dinner, Elijah’s and The Pilot House at the far southern end of the boardwalk offer extraordinary views and outdoor seating as well as new and creative versions of traditional Southern dishes and fresh-caught local seafood.
Exploring Wilmington by Segway
For those who want to see and experience all that Wilmington has to offer, but still have energy left to enjoy the city’s bustling nightlife, it’s hard to beat a Segway. These personal transportation devices take just a few minutes for most people to master and let visitors duck into the same nooks and crannies they could on foot. Cape Fear Segway offers Segway rentals and guided tours every day of the week and on Sunday afternoons.
Horse Drawn Carriage
A tour of the downtown by horse-drawn carriage has the added advantage of being an experience in itself. Riders in these white, open are carriages roll over the cobblestones above the surrounding traffic and are treated to thirty minutes of narration by a costumed driver with a wealth of interesting tidbits to share. The company prides itself on using rescued horses.
Carriages depart regularly from Market Street between Water and Front Streets. Rides are offered daily from April through October and during more limited hours in the off-season. Private carriages are available year-round.
After forty-five minutes on one of the Wilmington Trolley Company’s old-fashioned trolley tours, visitors have enough knowledge of the city’s historic past to make for lively dinner table conversation. Drivers make a large loop of the downtown, taking guests by such historic treasures as the old Cotton Exchange, Thalian Hall, the Bellamy Mansion, and Chandler’s Wharf and along Water Street with a view of the river.
Because it is roomier than a carriage, the trolley is a fun and relaxing option for larger groups or those with small children. Tours depart from the corner of Dock and Water Streets.
Sightseeing River Cruises
Riverboat cruises offer yet another way to see the downtown, as well as to easily access one of the gems of the area: the USS North Carolina Battleship. Docked at the foot of Market Street, Captain J.N. Maffitt offers 45-minute sightseeing cruises twice daily which include a tour of the harbor and an opportunity to see the busy port in action. The same boat also serves as a river taxi, shuttling visitors back and forth to the Battleship every half hour.
North Carolina’s largest riverboat, the Henrietta III, gives visitors a more extensive cruise experience, either from one of its open-air decks or from inside a climate-controlled salon. In addition to daily 90-minute sightseeing cruises, the Henrietta offers narrated lunch, dinner, and sunset cruises and a variety of specialty entertainment cruises. The boat runs from April through October and can be boarded at the foot of Dock Street.
Both river tours provide ample opportunity for nature lover’s to spot pelicans, cranes, egrets, and even an occasional alligator on undeveloped Eagle Island on the opposite bank.