While there is plenty to do in Wilmington, chances are you have traveled to southeastern North Carolina for one main thing – the beach! There’s nothing better than watching the pelicans skim the water, with the sand between your toes, and the sun shining on you.
Thankfully, there are plenty of amazing Wilmington beaches where you can enjoy this feeling! You’ll unlikely be able to visit them all on one trip, so we are here to break down the best beaches in Wilmington and around the area to head to.
The Best Wilmington, NC Beaches
While Wrightsville Beach is truly the only Wilmington beach, the other Wilmington beaches noted on this section are on Pleasure Island and are all widely considered to be part of the Wilmington area.
When people think of Wilmington Beaches, Wrightsville Beach is the first beach that comes to mind. It is the one beach that is actually considered to be in Wilmington proper.
Wrightsville Beach is one of the most popular beaches for locals as it’s the closest to get to from UNCW, the Mayfaire area, and most of metro Wilmington.
It’s also one of the most popular beaches to visit in the entire state as it’s only a 2-hour drive from North Carolina’s capital city, and has plenty of amazing Wilmington hotels. There are optimal restaurants, bars, and places to stay along Lumina Avenue which makes it ideal for beach vacationers. Because of this, it’s also one of the most expensive places to visit in Wilmington, and you’ll quickly notice the high prices as you search for Wrightsville Beach accommodation in the summertime.
Wrightsville Beach is four miles of sandy beach with over 40 different public access points. Even on the Fourth of July, it’s easy to find your own space at the beach without feeling like you are on top of each other.
If you surf, bring your board or consider taking lessons from one of the operators around town. One of the best things to do in Wrightsville Beach is enjoy a surf session, as it’s often regarded as the best place to surf on the east coast. If you aren’t a great surfer another fun thing to do is rent a beach cruiser and bike around the island or take a stroll on Johnny Mercer’s fishing pier before heading to Wrightsville Beach Brewery.
Outside of Wrightsville Beach, the next most conveniently located beach to Wilmington is Carolina Beach. Carolina Beach is connected to the rest of Wilmington via Snow’s Cut Bridge.
Carolina Beach is an island between the Cape Fear River on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. It’s an extremely popular place to visit, especially from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
While many consider Wrightsville Beach to be a bougie, affluent beach, Carolina Beach has a much more laid-back and relaxed vibe. It’s where you’ll see brightly colored pink and yellow buildings, tiki bars, and more golf carts on the roads than convertibles.
If you really want to feel like you are in an All-American beach town, consider booking a Carolina Beach vacation rental and staying here for the week. There are plenty of things to do in Carolina Beach, but perhaps the most popular thing is to walk the famous Carolina Beach boardwalk. The boardwalk is where you’ll find plenty of Carolina Beach restaurants, bars, and even an amusement park in the summer.
To escape the crowds, head to Carolina Beach State Park, where there are plenty of sandy walking trails. It’s also home to the rare Venus flytrap and is where you can enjoy the best sunsets on the island!
Just a 10-minute drive past Carolina Beach is the much quieter Kure Beach, one of my favorite Wilmington, NC beaches. So if you arrive at Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach and decide the crowds are too much, continue driving down Fort Fisher Blvd to Kure Beach. This is my favorite Wilmington beach, and is where I always head with a good book, as I know I can completely relax here.
Here you can enjoy all the beautiful sand, water, fishing, and boardwalk that you can at other beaches, without the cheesy amusement park rides and busy tiki bars. Walk the Kure Beach Pier and watch the fisherman wrangle one in, this 711-foot-long pier is one of the oldest on the Atlantic Coast.
If you want to fish yourself, you can easily rent a rod and get some bait and tackle from the shop at the pier – with a small fishing admission fee, your fishing license on the pier is included in the rate. Don’t miss getting a reservation at Freddie’s; it’s one of the best restaurants at Kure Beach!
Fort Fisher State Park
Keep going past Kure Beach, and the Wilmington beaches get even quieter. Fort Fisher Recreation Area is on the tip of Pleasure Island and provides ample things for the family to do. The Fort Fisher Aquarium is the best in Wilmington, and the historic Civil War site will surely mesmerize history buffs.
That’s right, Fort Fisher has a lot of history dating back to the American Civil War. It was a Confederate fort and protected the critical trading routes at the port of Wilmington. By 1865, this was the last remaining supply route open to Robert E Lee’s Army. On January 15th, 1865 Fort Fisher Fell to the Union.
Beyond history, many Loggerhead sea turtles nest along the shorts at Fort Fisher. It’s also one of the only sights where four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed to drive on the beach. To drive on the sand, vehicles must register with NC Parks and pay for their annual or daily permit.
At Fort Fisher, many use a boat ramp to launch kayaks and canoes. One of my favorite things to do in Wilmington is head here, get our kayak in the water and paddle out to Zeke’s Island for the ultimate secluded beach trip.
If you make the endeavor, chances are you won’t find many other people around as it’s not one the typical Wilmington beaches. Bring a cooler and a few drinks (pack out what you bring in – always), and enjoy Zeke’s Island Reserve in the Cape Fear River basin.
There’s a small sandy area here, but most of the fun is had from the kayak. This reserve is one of the most important shorebird feeding habitats on the East Coast, and chances are you’ll see plenty of black-bellied plovers, white ibis, and great blue herons!
Masonboro Island is one of the most special Wilmington beaches because you must work to get there. The work required means it’s often empty and secluded.
Masonboro Island is only accessible by boat. So to get there, you’ll either have to make friends with a friendly boater, hire a water taxi (Masonboro Water Taxi), or kayak/canoe to the island. Once there, you can wild camp right on the sand, making it a beautiful place for a raw and unspoiled getaway complete with plenty of nature.
Masonboro Island Reserve is one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands along the entire Carolina Coast. Many researchers and university students head there to study the fragile ecosystem.
Beaches Near Wilmington
While not directly in Wilmington, most of these beaches near Wilmington are within an hour’s drive from Downtown Wilmington.
Close to the border with South Carolina, this stretch of vacation homes has everything you need to spend a week on the island, while also being close enough to both states’ major hubs to always be within reach.
Oak Island is a thriving area close to Southport, North Carolina. Don’t worry, fresh seafood and quirky privately owned homes are abundant. If you pack a bike, you won’t have to get back into the car for the duration of your stay.
The jewel of North Carolina’s mainland coast, Emerald Isle, is a large-scale tourist destination that has something for everyone. Scenic Bogue Inlet fishing pier stretches out to sea; a plethora of Emerald Isle restaurant options allow you to spend your entire week vacation without having to figure out how to turn on the oven, and various adventure parks fill your days with amusement.
It’s one of the most beautiful beaches near Wilmington, however with a 1.5 hour drive, you’ll have to put in a little legwork to experience it. Once there, you’ll be happy you made the drive – many often remarking it has the bluest water they’ve seen in the state!
Check out The Point for one of the best sunsets on the east coast, and take walks through the maritime forest that shades the island in green. Its central location on the coast also makes it a remarkable home base for further exploration.
Figure Eight Island
Not accessible to all, but worthy of mention on this list of Wilmington beaches is Figure Eight Island. The only way to access Figure Eight is by renting or purchasing a vacation home. There’s only one bridge onto the island that is guarded 24 hours a day.
This 1300-acre island is rumored to be a haven for celebrities, CEOs, and millionaires who want a private escape. If you make it into one of the 500 or so vacation homes on the island you’ll be rewarded with one of the quietest beach experiences you can have in North Carolina.
Topsail Island (pronounced Tops’l or Topsil) comprises Topsail Beach, Surf City, and North Topsail Beach and is one of the best beach destinations in North Carolina.
The island’s name harkens back to the days of pirates who would hide their boats in the channel between the island and the mainland. Only the ship’s sails would be visible from the Atlantic – hence “Topsail.”
There are plenty of things to do on Topsail Island, but my personal favorite is enjoying the stretch of 26 mile long sand before having a meal at a Surf City restaurant.
Known more for its sea turtle residents than human inhabitants, Topsail Beach is home to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehab Center. Visitors can cheer on the rehabilitated turtles as they head back to sea. Stay at one of the locally owned motels, or a Topsail VRBO that offers beachfront views to stay in the mix throughout your stay.
Holden Beach promises to be one of the best family-friendly beaches in the US. A slice of the Brunswick Islands provides wide-open spaces, calm waters, and tranquil sandy shorelines.
Local building regulations have kept a small-town feel to this beach paradise. You’ll find no skyscrapers here, only family homes available for rent, and quirky restaurants across the water.
It’s a quick trip from Wilmington, so a stay here will ensure you aren’t too far away from the action. Holden Beach offers plenty of enticing options for families that want a peaceful place to rest their heads but offer plenty of enticing options to fill their days with activities.
Ocean Isle Beach
Less than an hour away from Wilmington is Ocean Isle Beach, just south of Holden Beach but north of Myrtle Beach and the South Carolina border.
Ocean Isle Beach sees a fraction of the visitors of other nearby North Carolina and South Carolina beaches. With that being said, it’s a family-friendly beach, where you’ll find many groups of parents and children on the weekend. That’s thanks to the ample things to do here for all. From ziplining at The Swamp Park to enjoying the summer concert series it’s hard to get bored here.
There are plenty of beach restaurants, and even a brewery! Makai Brewing Company has all the best tropically flavored IPAS.
Bald Head Island
Bald Head Island’s genuine uniqueness stems from the absence of cars on its shores. Upon taking the ferry from Southport to the island, you’ll encounter only golf carts moving around, often shuttling between the beach, golf courses, and superb dining establishments.
The island occupies a vast expanse of 12,000 acres, and developers have pledged to preserve most of it in its natural state, providing visitors access to immaculate natural environments.
For a vacation free of traffic, consider leaving your keys behind on the mainland and savor a distinctive vacation experience on Bald Head Island.