A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Lingering at a table in historic downtown Wilmington’s Seabird restaurant, your second hot cup of coffee in hand, you get the feeling that there are a lot of regulars around.

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Lingering at a table in historic downtown Wilmington’s Seabird restaurant, your second hot cup of coffee in hand, you get the feeling that there are a lot of regulars around.

Your Ultimate Guide to a Wilmington Getaway

Lingering at a table in historic downtown Wilmington’s Seabird restaurant, your second hot cup of coffee in hand, you get the feeling that there are a lot of regulars around. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Seabird is the kind of space where guests float from table to table and idly share the scuttlebutt. “We’re here for a meal a day,” one guest sheepishly admits. “We eat every meal here that we possibly can.”

Dine on delicious, elevated seafood at Seabird. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

This sense of community isn’t accidental, according to James Beard Semi-Finalist chef Dean Neff. “We wanted to make Seabird available to the community as much as possible,” he says. He and his partner, Lydia Clopton, opted for a more casual counter service model for breakfast and lunch, and a more formal feel for dinner (though they always reserve the chef’s table for walk-in guests).

The truth is that Seabird is only one example of the many delightful destinations available in Wilmington and its three neighboring island beaches. From notable chefs to outdoor excursions to craft cocktails and live music, there are countless ways to be entertained. Read on to discover your new favorite spot.


See our state carnivorous plant along the Flytrap Trail at Carolina Beach State Park. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

One if By Land, Two if By Sea

“If you can impress Charles Darwin,” Carolina Beach State Park Superintendent Chris Helms insists, “That’s pretty high cotton!” In 1875, Darwin praised the diminutive Venus flytrap as “one of the most wonderful plants in the world.” These curious carnivorous plants are native only to a small 70-mile swath of the Carolinas, and Carolina Beach State Park is a prime place to view them in the wild.

The 761-acre park hosts a million guests a year, and on weekends the rangers offer a guided tour around the wheelchair-accessible Flytrap Trail. The trail features the Venus flytrap plus its carnivorous cousins: delicate yellow bladderwort, lavender butterworts, tiny crimson sundew, and towering scarlet pitcher plants. If you’re unsuccessful in spotting them on the trail, examples of these unusual plants are on display at the exhibit box or bog garden at the visitors’ center.

For an adventure in the waves, head to Wrightsville SUP, where you are encouraged to leave your worries on land as you glide over flat water. The outfitter rents stand-up paddleboards (SUPs), kayaks, canoes, outriggers, and bikes. Test your balance with yoga on the water, try night paddling, or choose an unforgettable guided tour in a six-person outrigger canoe.

Enjoy a one-of-a-kind dinner on Masonboro Island. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

To venture into deeper waters, check out the extensive list of fully customizable full- and half-day adventures available at Epic Excursions, also in Wrightsville Beach. Their Chef Dinner Experience gives participants a relaxing cruise, complete with panoramic views, to an uninhabited island where the chefs of True Blue Butcher & Table prepare a gourmet meal over an open fire.

If you’re in town the first full weekend of November, don’t miss the Cape Fear Kite Festival held on the beach at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. Overhead, a canopy of colors, designs, and styles dip and soar at the hands of true kite-flying professionals. This feast for the eyes is made all the better by live bands and food trucks. Festivities begin on Friday with a special “Night with Kites” on the beach in nearby Carolina Beach.


Head over to the Tiki Bar at Ocean Grill in Carolina Beach for amazing atmosphere and views. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

Noontime Nosh

When the sun shortens the shadow beneath you, it might be time to break for lunch. Take your pick from Wilmington and its surrounding beaches’ charming lunchtime destinations.

Situated on the narrow spit of land between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar at Carolina Beach is a great destination for the whole family. Dine indoors or on the outdoor patio and enjoy a panoramic ocean view. Just a few steps away, you can sip a cold drink or enjoy a simple meal at the Tiki Bar, which was built over the remains of the old Carolina Pier. Sit back and unwind as you watch the gulls wing over the water.

Anne Bonny’s Bar & Grill is located aboard an old barge on the Cape Fear River waterfront.  Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

Stroll down Wilmington’s Riverwalk and stop for a casual lunch at Anne Bonny’s Bar & Grill. This floating restaurant aboard an old barge is a fantastic spot for an easy meal and a magnificent view of the Cape Fear River. Across the river, another boat — the Battleship North Carolina — casts an impressive silhouette against the lush green of Battleship Park.

In the city’s trendy Cargo District, CheeseSmith serves mouthwatering riffs on grilled cheese sandwiches, along with delicious and inventive sides. This food truck turned brick-and-mortar boasts that their sandwiches are “Not Your Momma’s Grilled Cheese,” and the crowds that flock there agree — the original food truck won national acclaim on the Cooking Channel’s Best Thing I Ever Ate.


See & Sip

Watch a show or take a tour at historic Thalian Hall. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

The ornate and intimate Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Wilmington is a local treasure. This recently renovated historic center boasts a stunning jewel box theater with ivory, gold, and crimson proscenium arch. You can arrange an hour-long tour, or take in one of the many local or national events and shows on its stage.

Sip your way through Carolina Beach on the “History in a Glass” walking tour with Tasting History Tours. Guides serve beer, wine, and distilled spirits along with a shot of island history. Tours last about two hours and are available throughout the summer and on-demand during the off-season.

In downtown Wilmington, head to Social Casa De’ Tequila to sample one of their 55 tequila varieties, including rare finds like Don Julio 1942. The bar also specializes in seasonal, house-made margaritas with all-natural ingredients. Live music (on Sundays and Thursdays) and a sweeping balcony view of the Cape Fear River complete the experience.

Sip a house-made cocktail at The Blind Elephant, a Prohibition-style speakeasy. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

To turn back the clock on your cocktail, wander down Smith Alley and knock at the metal door of The Blind Elephant, a 1920s-themed Prohibition speakeasy. This private club requires an annual $5 membership fee, and then you can choose from their large selection of bourbons or enjoy a house-made cocktail like the Jive or the Model T. Enjoy a relaxing break while jazz music hums and silent black-and-white movies flicker on the exposed brick walls.

Just a little farther afield in the Cargo District, The Starling is a whiskey, wine, and cocktail bar. Also a private club (with an annual $1 membership fee), guests will be treated to specialty drinks and mocktails made by award-winning mixologists. The club also hosts live music, wine-tasting clubs, and wine and bourbon pairing dinners on the top deck.


Dig into a seafood steamer pot at Smoke on the Water. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

A Taste of the Town

An exciting venture by legendary restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias opened in Wilmington’s Lumina Station. Kipos Hellenic Cuisine — an elevated counterpoint to Bakatsias’ beloved Kipos Greek Taverna in Chapel Hill — serves local seafood in authentic Greek dishes and a wide selection of other Greek classics such as spanakopita, moussaka, and avgolemono. “We are really excited to bring our love for the coastal cooking of Greece to Wilmington,” says Bakatsias, who immigrated to the United States from Greece as an adolescent.

Also on the waterfront, the family-friendly, open-air Smoke on the Water serves steamer pots and oysters, smoked meats, and barbecue with a New Orleans flair. Delicious food, beautiful scenery, nearby walking trails, and plenty of seating for large groups make this a perfect destination for a casual dinner or weekend lunch. The restaurant also features a dog-friendly shaded deck, a fire pit during cooler weather, and a dock for guests who prefer to arrive by boat.

Dress up for dinner at manna ave. 123 in historic downtown. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

In Historic Downtown Wilmington, soothing grey tones mix with vintage mirrors to set a sophisticated tone at award-winning manna ave. 123. It’s the only restaurant in the city to receive the prestigious AAA Four Diamond Award for multiple consecutive years. But the whimsical menu reveals a lighter side, too, with dishes like A Shell of Himself oysters, Stake your Claim beef tenderloin, and the Bird in the Hand chicken. The restaurant also features a music venue, Bourgie Nights, where guests can listen to an inspired lineup of traveling singers, songwriters, and local musicians.

Now open in Wilmington’s historic district, Olivero will unite food and family for award-winning chef Sunny Gerhart. The new restaurant, he reveals, is “a chance to explore more of my family’s immigrant history and the dishes and ingredients they brought from Spain and Italy to New Orleans.” Olivero’s cuisine will rely on fresh local ingredients and feature Spanish-influenced dishes alongside homemade pasta, seafood, and other meats. Olivero is an overdue homecoming: “I’m so excited to finally be back in Wilmington with food that’s so important to me,” Gerhart says.


Stage Lights & Haunted Nights

After dinner, follow the Riverwalk to the Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park. This 7,200-capacity waterfront amphitheater hosts acclaimed acts ranging from The Head and the Heart to Maren Morris and Maxwell.

For a more intimate show, check out Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. Visitors rave about the exquisite lake view, the great seats, the short lines, and the free parking. Upcoming acts include Big Something, The Wailers, and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

And don’t go home just yet: Wilmington, declares Salt magazine, “is a city of ghosts.” Its 400-year history supplies a full cast of shadowy stories. This haunted history begins thousands of years ago with the Cape Fear Indians and continues with English settlers, pirates, and slaves. Legend has it that spirits cannot cross the water, which means the city — sandwiched by the river on the west side and the ocean on the east — is a perfect ghost trap. This haunted heritage is best explored after dark.

Take the Ghost Walk to explore the city’s most haunted sites with a professional storyteller and ghost hunter guide. Photography courtesy of Wilmington & Beaches CVB

Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington offers ghost hunters a family-friendly, 90-minute guided walking tour through some of historic Wilmington’s most haunted sites. Professional storytellers and ghost hunters regale their audience with eerie tales and ghostly guest encounters.

For the committed ghost hunter, the Battleship North Carolina Ghost Hunt USA weekend tour is the pièce de résistance. Visitors are provided with detecting equipment and warned that full-bodied apparitions might be lurking just around the corner. Each all-access tour lasts from 7:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., and tickets sell out fast so buy them early.

It’s an experience that is utterly Wilmington — and totally unforgettable.

This story was published on Aug 29, 2023

Alysia Yates

Alysia Yates is a writer, editor, and outdoor enthusiast. She lives with her family in Raleigh, where you can find her on the Greenways or in her favorite coffee shop.