This was one of our favourite towns on our tour of North Carolina. It has an easy, laid-back charm and wears its history very unselfconsciously. Its downtown area (more than 300 blocks of which are on the National Register of Historic Places) has some interesting shops, especially in the Cotton Exchange building, and a great coffee bar (Port City Java, 8207 Market Street). Nearby the Historic Riverfront District has more shops, some good restaurants (although the ones we visited no longer seem to be there) and attractive buildings. The residential streets are shaded by beautiful old trees and looked very much as I imagine more southerly US towns such as Charleston or Savannah must look. We stayed in a B&B here, the excellent Hoge Wood (see my other tip).
Wilmington is a preservation success story. It was a centre of the North Carolina economy in colonial times, its port exporting rice and timber. But after the Second World War it fell into decline and by the 1970s no one valued its history or wanted to live in its run-down downtown area. The town was rescued largely through the efforts of one man, Bob Jenkins, who had the vision to see what it could become and the drive to convince others that it was worth preserving.
On the outskirts of town is another attraction, the Screen Gems Studio, and again I’ve done a separate tip about this.
Wilmington is one of my favorite North Carolina towns. The historic district in quite large and can be toured either on foot, trolley or by horse-drawn carriage. It's has a picturesque location on the Cape Fear River and is located only minutes from some great beaches.