Wilmington, North Carolina, has a charm all its own. If historic seaports with beach, pirates, an "artsy-antiquey" vibe and boutique shopping set your sea legs roving, this is a destination to sate all appetites. Wilmington has venues for every enthusiast and is an oft-overlooked East Coast gem.
If a pleasant weekend or change of scenery on on the cards, our options will have you logging in, reserving your spot and counting down the hours and minutes. Once you're there, you can log into downtown's free Port City WiFi system, or opt for a disconnected experience exploring the past, or getting in touch with people and nature. We'll let you know where to go for good times with a low price tag.
Find Cheap Flights
Finding cheap flights to the port city is less challenging than getting a deal to better know vacation spots. A look into flights showed that any weekday is a good day for flying to Wilmington, but Tuesday departures round-trip were slightly cheaper.
Coming from New York, our lowest fare using the same airport for departure and return and taking us to Wilmington International was an early morning or evening American Airlines flight for $205 out of JFK. We investigated flying into nearby Raleigh-Durham or Myrtle Beach, but even on Spirit, fares started in the $400s.
Coming from the west, American Airlines still had the best deal flying from Minneapolis-St. Paul for $275, with one stop in Charlotte. From Portland, American Airlines flew for $270 but stopped twice (in Phoenix and Charlotte) stretching time to 12 hours! For one stop and less than 9 hours, Delta charged $388, but American could fly you from Seattle in a little over 7 with one stop for $311.
From LAX, American Airlines charged $340 for a two-stop flight with just 8 hours traveling compared with the cheapest one-stop, also American but $37 more and saving less than an hour!
For Phoenix, American had afternoon flights into nearby Raleigh-Durham for $268; in comparison, American flew straight into Wilmington for $271! Southwest could round-trip Dallas Love Field to Raleigh-Durham for $238; American could fly you to Raleigh for $223 but cost $10 more to fly straight into Wilmington.
Cheap Hotel StaysPhoto by Billy Hathorn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.
If you want to stay in the Historic District, The Wilmingtonian's Superior Suite with free Wi-Fi, breakfast, kitchen and hardwood floors was $132 a night. Water Street Retreats had a riverfront condo for $123 per night with free Wi-Fi, kitchen, a river view, one queen plus two sofa beds, and free airport shuttle.
If you were willing to stay just a mile or so away, you could cut costs to $62 a night at the newly renovated Ramada Conference Center; the double or king room included Wi-Fi, breakfast and room amenities. Howard Johnson Express Inn had a comparable deal for $76, and the Fairfield Inn & Suites had a king room for $69, with Wi-Fi, fitness center and breakfast buffet.
When we checked Airbnb, we found an absolutely charming room in a Castle Street arts and antiques district bungalow with private bath and full amenities. It was pet-friendly and close to everything you'd want.
We also found a North Front Street one-bedroom apartment with original hardwoods and 14-foot ceilings for $110 a night in the downtown historic heart of Wilmington; rent by the month for a 51-percent discount! Further out, we even found part of a mansion for $42. Looking toward the beaches, we found Airbnb listings for tidy 3-bedroom homes for around $100 a night, and sometimes half that amount.
Finding free Wi-Fi in Wilmington is a walk in the park, so if you find a great deal on accommodation which doesn't include Wi-Fi, you won't have much trouble finding a place to hook up for free.
Cheap Spots For Great Food
Chops Deli is a local go-to for good reason. It's repeatedly been voted Wilmington's Best Delicatessen, Best Sandwich, Best Lunch and Best Homemade Soup! Assorted Boar's Head meats and cheeses grace Sweet and Savory Bakery breads in subs, panini, signature sandwiches and old standards as well as real salads and soups. Nothing crosses the $10 mark, and – best of all – you have three locations to rely on: downtown on North Front Street, Monkey Junction on South College Road and Wrightsville Beach on Wrightsville Avenue!
While not exactly cheap, you do get your money's worth at the Fork-n-Cork's convenient location on Market Street, and it's something quite different. Order crispy fried duck wings, rattlesnake bites, a chicken Cobb salad, a build-your-own burger or brisket brunches. Portions are large and flavors delicious, with the most expensive item $14 but most well under.
Seafood can be pricey or disappointingly inconsistent here, but if you like Mediterranean, fans cannot get enough of The Greeks Authentic Mediterranean Deli and Market for inexpensive prices (under $10) and generous portions. You can order takeout by the pound, and variety stretches from the expected lamb gyro or spanakopita platter to falafel, Greek salads or potatoes, and of course baklava.
Whatever your tastes, using a restaurant credit card lets you earn rewards on dining which you can use towards future savings.
Wilmington's Historic DistrictPhoto by Billy Hathorn - Own work, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.
Along Cape Fear River, Wilmington's Historic District extends from Water and Market Streets for 230 square blocks. The USS North Carolina battleship sits along the river, and you can tour the district by horse-drawn trolley or carriage or on foot (riverboat, too).
Learn about the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad at the Wilmington Railroad Museum on Nutt Street, and see their 20-train, four-scale miniature railroad world.
Follow Market Street, enjoying the Cape Fear Museum, colonial Burgwin-Wright House and Gardens, antebellum Bellamy Mansion Museum and its Victorian gardens, and the scenic Riverwalk. Victorian Latimer House on Third Street hosts the Historical Society and daily tours.
The Historic Homes "Passport" and "Town and Country" options offer 3-home and 2-home packages, including the Poplar Grove peanut plantation on Highway 17.
Wilmington Gardens And Parks
With its butterfly house and bottle chapel, Airlie Gardens is a favorite stop, especially during azalea or holiday seasons (early April and December). It's a frequent wedding site, with just over a mile of walking trails, sculptures, views of Bradley Creek and the ancient Airlie Oak.
Walking trails are self-guided, but trams run most months except January and February. Admission is $9 per adult, $5 with military ID and $3 per child.
A true treat (and free!) New Hanover County Arboretum on Oleander Drive "encompasses seven acres of gardens and plantings dedicated to demonstrating the best plant species for southeastern North Carolina landscapes, proper horticultural techniques, aesthetic design, environmental stewardship, and research."
It boasts a Japanese garden and tea house, a children's garden and miniature cottage, and perennial borders framing water gardens. The arboretum also has rose, herb and tropical gardens and a colorful picnic area where you can break bread among the hummingbirds and butterflies.
Beaches For Nature Lovers And Tourists
Wilmington offers at least 3 choices of beach. Carolina Beach is family-oriented, with a boardwalk, waterfront, fishing and Carolina Beach State Park for those seeking a natural environment.
Farther south, with its small-town-feel, Kure Beach is home to "the oldest fishing pier on the Atlantic coast" and the state's North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Featuring Carolina creatures and habitat, the aquarium includes a dinosaur exhibit and butterfly bungalow in its $11 admission price ($9 for kids).
The third beach, Wrightsville Beach, is known for its water sports and is the place to go for kayaking, surfing, fishing, paddle-boarding, sailing, cruising and other activities. Shopping and dining are less active options, but so are long walks on pale-sand beaches.
Other Places To Go
Some people love the Cotton Exchange; others consider its boutiques, craft stores, memorabilia shops and restaurants too pricey and touristy. A quick walk-through will let you decide.
The Children's Museum of Wilmington costs $10 per head; if you go, Groupon it at $8 for 2 people or $15 for 4.
The Cape Fear Serpentarium at $9 per person on Orange Street isn't for everyone; it does house an accredited and amazing collection of the rare, venomous and poisonous, but its serpents, reptiles and accompanying graphics are overwhelming for some.
Nearby, the Museum of the Bizarre is on South Water Street; $3 per person yields assorted oddities like chupacabra hands, a Big Foot imprint and the Goat Brothers' heads. All that to say, you'll find plenty to see and do in North Carolina's Port City.