On North Carolina’s southeastern edge and along the Cape Fear River, Wilmington is the state’s most accessible coastal area and is a Coast Guard City, an honorable title given at the discretion of the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Wilmington was first settled in the early 1700s and contains one of the nation’s largest historic districts, which spans 230 blocks along the river and features aged architecture as well as sleek, modern buildings. Look across the river from downtown, into a small bay, to find another huge marker of Wilmington’s historical significance: The USS North Carolina battleship, which originally launched to support the American fleet in World War II in 1941. What once carried more than 2,000 soldiers and participated in all of the war’s major naval events now serves as a museum and monument. With a population of just around 112,000 people, this lush Southern city plays a surprising role in the film industry. Wilmington has appeared onscreen several times, such as in One Tree Hill, as the home of one of the largest TV and movie production facilities outside of California. Several colleges are based in the city, including the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which serves more than 14,000 students.
Finding an apartment in Wilmington is typically going to take about two months, which is the average for most cities. Available listings tend to dry up over the summer months, as students move into their apartments in advance of the fall semester, but in many cases you’ll find apartments that are available immediately.
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Rents in Wilmington are below average, especially in comparison to North Carolina’s other main hubs, such as Raleigh — which is just two hours away and makes for an easy day trip. And though Wilmington lacks the metropolitan feel of those larger cities, it makes up for it by being nearly surrounded by water, thanks to both the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River, so beaches and a coastal lifestyle abound.
Although Wilmington does have a bus system, WAVE Transit, the routes in some neighborhoods can be few and far between, especially in the areas west of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and often require transfers to get downtown. However, several routes pass by the campus, which is also near WAVE’s Forden Station. The downtown area also employs a free trolley that travels between Third and Nutt streets and Harnett and Ann streets, covering many museums, retail destinations, restaurants, and Cape Fear Community College. Still, Wilmington is a driver's city for the most part. If you plan to rely on public transit, check for nearby bus stops and routes before you move into an apartment.
Wilmington is a beach-lover’s paradise, with mild weather that lets you enjoy the water all year long. Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach are all less than a half hour’s drive apart, and two islands — Masonboro and Figure Eight — are also nearby for exploration. Enjoy the warm ocean breeze, visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher (just off Kure Beach), or go paddleboarding, fishing, kayaking or seashell hunting.
Just across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington — along the 2-mile historic riverwalk — stands the USS North Carolina battleship. Thousands tour the battleship each year, walking its historic 728-foot deck and marveling at its 100-plus guns. Downtown Wilmington’s riverwalk itself is also a destination for many, featuring views of the USS North Carolina as well as the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the water, and the most historic part of the city. For a more thrilling attraction, head to Carolina Beach for a historic boardwalk plus seaside amusement park, featuring fair food, fireworks, an arcade, and, of course, plenty of rides, including a ferris wheel that provides an unmatched vista.
Naturally — being the seaside city that it is — Wilmington offers fresh, delicious seafood. For a Caribbean twist on locally sourced seafood, check out Ceviche’s, which also is known for its brunch. The Port Land Grille, inside the Lumina Station, has exceptional crab cakes, served on a bed of lima beans and topped with a bacon vinaigrette and a green goddess tartar sauce. To chow down while soaking in sunset waterscapes, try Elijah’s for views of the Cape Fear River, or Oceanic to look out at the Atlantic from southern Wrightsville Beach, both of which are more hotspots for seafood. For a fine dining experience, Pinpoint serves fresh, seasonal, Southern food, while Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn gives you a delicious bargain.
Some people choose a bar based on atmosphere, others on quality cocktails or lengthy beer list. If you’re looking for the best of all worlds, head to Wilmington’s cabin-esque Satellite Bar & Lounge, which sports exposed brick and mountain decor as backdrops for a lengthy tap list and inventive cocktails.You can even bring your (friendly) dog. The most unique signature cocktails are waiting for you at Rx or Manna, and you can spend months going through the beer lists at Ogden Tap Room or the Beer Barrio, which has nearly 30 beers on tap. Level 5, on the fifth floor of an unassuming building on downtown’s Front Street, offers one of the city’s best nightclubs and rooftop bars.
One of the most unique cultural experiences Wilmington has to offer — aside from the massive, tourable USS North Carolina battleship — is the Museum of the Bizarre. It’s packed with the personal collection of Justin Lanasa, featuring Houdini’s Ouija board, a chupacabra hand, unicorn horn, hair from Alexander Hamilton, and tons of movie props. Fans of the unusual might also appreciate the Cape Fear Serpentarium, which holds enormous and dangerous reptiles from around the world. If you just want to view some art, on the other hand, the elegant Cameron Art Museum might be more your scene. For locally influenced culture, history, and scientific ventures, visit the Cape Fear Museum.
Given Wilmington’s rich history and penchant for honoring it, it’s no huge surprise that the city has an annual history-themed event: the Civil War Living History Weekend, featuring exhibits and interpretations at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, on a former battlefield. There’s also a festival honoring the city’s seafood, several outdoor film and concert series, a handful of film festivals honoring local and national auteurs, and a riverfest that brings live performances, arts and crafts, food and fireworks. But perhaps the largest of Wilmington’s festivals is the North Carolina Jazz Festival. Thirty-plus years running, the fest draws thousands for performances and workshops.
Few places encapsulate Wilmington as well as one of the area’s main shopping centers: the Cotton Exchange, overlooking the Cape Fear River from downtown. It comprises eight turn-of-the-century buildings restored and upgraded with modern flair. Inside the Cotton Exchange, you’ll find 33 specialty shops and a brick open-air walkways connecting them. The downtown area is spotted with local independent shops, but if you travel just 4 miles southwest, you’ll find yourself in Independence Mall. This major shopping center houses more than 150 stores, including mall mainstays like Dillards, Sears, and JC Penney.
The main sports source in the city is the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The university’s Seahawks compete in soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, and nearly every other major sport you can think of — except football. But for football, you can find the Carolina Panthers playing at the Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, which is 3.5 hours away. A shorter drive, just two hours, yields you Carolina Hurricanes hockey in Raleigh.
Sitting outside in Wilmington generally means finding yourself a sandy, sunny spot on one of the area’s three beaches: Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, or Wrightsville Beach. Depending on what activities you’d like to do after your lounge time, you might want to choose Carolina Beach, which has a gorgeous boardwalk and amusement park rides. Kure Beach, on the other hand, is near the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and has onsite disc golf, trails, recreation courts, and a dog park along 6 miles of shoreline. Wrightsville Beach is where to go for sailing, surfing, SCUBA diving, or walking out on the historic Crystal Pier. Water taxi tours and parasailing are two other popular ways to see the most of Wilmington, and Arlie Gardens and the Arboretum at New Hanover County let you admire the manicured city while staying on solid ground.