Despite having recently made National Geographic's list of "World's 20 Best Surf Towns" and for a popular city for young artists, Wilmington, North Carolina, was cool long before it got those designations. At a glance, it's a small, sleepy town (population roughly 110,000), but poke around for a bit and you’ll notice it's very much alive, with a vibrant art scene, a top-notch university, and a strong sense of community. It's the sort of comfortable place where you go to visit, only to end up moving there permanently. With its charm and laid-back lifestyle, set against a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean, it is a siren song of the South.
Hands down, the best way to start your day is with a walk on the beach. Share a hearty breakfast with locals at Causeway Cafe. Don't worry if they're busy (and they will be). You can sit on the covered patio, drink free coffee, and read local papers while you wait. The eggs Benedict is a good place to start if you're overwhelmed by all the breakfast choices, since they're generous with the hollandaise sauce. If you have a bigger appetite, go for the decadent seafood omelette.
By lunch, you're probably sandy and thirsty, so stick around the beach for your midday recharge. If you want to blend in, spend most of the day in your swimsuit. There are a slew of places where you can saunter in wearing exactly what you wore on the beach. The college students are usually at Trolley Stop Hot Dogs. They have fun choices like The Nuclear (a hot dog wrapped with melted cheese, topped with jalapeño and mustard) and Old Baldy (totally plain), but there are vegetarian and fat-free turkey options as well. You'll have to eat outdoors, as there's barely enough standing room inside their beach shack.
Families go to Tower 7 Baja Grill, where the salsa and chips are made fresh every day. Kids will be happy with the creative options, like the peanut butter and jelly quesadilla. Boaters (and wanna-be boaters) drink bloody mary's on the two-story patio at Dockside. You can get a killer BLT (they use Texas toast) or a slew of seafood baskets, broiled or fried. If you'd rather clean up, there are several places along the waterway that are more upscale and dressy. Blue Water has live music on Sunday evenings so you'll find shag-dancing retirees out in full force long after the sun sets. They serve everything from grilled mahi-mahi to crab nachos, but it won't be an inexpensive meal.
If you're staying closer to the southern end of town, head to Carolina Beach and make a beeline for Britt's. This place has been churning out glazed yeast donuts since 1939, and it's a must-visit. The menu is simple and straightforward — they only make one kind of donut — and milk or coffee are your beverage choices. Sit right down at the counter and eat them while they're hot.
Historic Downtown Wilmington
After a day in the surf, switch gears and head to our historic district. Grab a house blend coffee at Port City Java, a beloved local franchise since 1995 that showcases local artwork on its exposed-brick walls. If an adult beverage is what you're craving, sip a glass of wine on the riverwalk at Le Catalan. Their Parisian-style cafe seating will give you a fabulous vantage point for a sunset over the river. The cheese plate is a delightful, albeit pricey, snack, but they do serve escargot and daily quiche specials if you want to get even more French. At Front Street Brewery, the drink sampler is a great way to taste-test all of the beers they make on-site. Order a raspberry wheat or a mug of bacon and you'll be mistaken for a regular.
Circa 1922 is the fine-dining spot for food lovers. Think dark wood interiors and dim lighting where you can finish off your crisp duck confit with the biggest portion of bananas Foster you've ever seen. If your palate prefers spicy Asian flavors, it's worth a short drive up Market Street to eat at Indochine. The Vietnamese wraps are a fun way to create your own meal, and you can't go wrong with any of the curry dishes. The impressive array of Asian art and Buddha statues evoke a magical ambience no matter where you sit, but ask about seating in the garden — its hidden gem — as your table will be located inside a life-size replica of a Thai spirit house.