Visitors who want to spend a day off the beach learning something new will find plenty of opportunities in the Cape Fear region. The coastal communities that surround Carolina Beach are chock full of enticing museums, historic sites, and other landmarks that are easy to explore with just a few minutes’ drive.
So make the most out of your educational outings, and plan a trip to these destinations where the region’s rich history, culture, and stunning natural landscapes are explored in vivid depth to the delight of museum patrons of all ages.
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
Learning has never been more breathtaking, or more fun, at this extensive museum that’s located just south of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher has a wealth of galleries and interactive displays to keep everyone entertained, including a two-story open ocean exhibit with massive sharks, eels, and sting rays, a touch tank area, and an outdoor garden with aquatic wildlife. With daily dive shows, animal encounters, and a full line-up of special events, every visit is an opportunity to dive deeper into North Carolina’s underwater landscape at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
Fort Fisher Historic Site
Tear yourself away from the adjacent stunning beaches of the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, and dive into world-changing history at this extensive site and museum / visitors’ center that tells the story of the Civil War’s largest amphibious battle. Visitors can tour the remnants of the former earthen fort, view videos on the Battle of Fort Fisher, admire artifacts recovered from sunken ships, and even take a nature walk through a scenic trail that’s dotted with ancient live oaks. Guided tours of the site are regularly available, and a wealth of exhibits that can range from artifacts from the battle itself, to the history of the blockade runners who made daredevil runs through the area, bring the story of Fort Fisher to vivid life.
Wrightsville Beach Museum of History
Located in the northern community of Wrightsville Beach, this fascinating museum that’s housed within an early 20th century beach house outlines the early roots of the Cape Fear coastal region’s rise to fame as a popular beach vacation destination. Visitors can tour original rooms outfitted with period antiques from early beach-goers, see exhibits on some of the shoreline’s most famed attractions like the Lumina Pavilion, and even admire local memorabilia, like postcards and bathing suits, from decades past. Small but enticing, this museum serves as a great spot to soak up the generations of fun that the Cape Fear beaches are known for.
Cape Fear Museum
The Cape Fear Museum, which is located in the neighboring town of Wilmington, is famed as the oldest museum in the state of North Carolina, and has been enlightening visitors since it first opened its doors in 1898. Today, visitors can learn all about the Cape Fear region – from its ancient history to its current natural landscapes – through a far-reaching range of exhibits and interactive displays. Galleries of note include a model of Wilmington in the mid-1800s, the natural Discovery Gallery which is filled with local wildlife, and a host of exhibits and information on the famed Battle of Fort Fisher during the Civil War. Regular educational programs and events are held throughout the year, allowing visitors to learn all about a new and fascinating chapter of the Cape Fear area’s legacy.
Children’s Museum of Wilmington
Ideal for visitors ages 1-10, the Children’s Museum of Wilmington features a collection of galleries and play areas that promote endless learning and creativity - all while young visitors of all budding interests have an absolute blast. Favorite activities and attractions within the museum include a Magnetic Minds Science Center, a Teddy Bear Hospital, an art studio, an Imagination Circus Exhibit, and a giant “Ahoy Wilmington!” pirate ship that’s perfect for climbing. Regular classes and programs are available for visitors, such as art or craft projects, science experiments, or museum tours, which makes every visit an adventure for the Cape Fear area’s youngest vacationers and residents.
Cape Fear Serpentarium
Visitors who love a thrill will want to plan a visit Wilmington’s scaliest destination – the Cape Fear Serpentarium. This sprawling 10,000’ square foot museum has more than 150 different types of snakes and other reptiles that are housed within thick glass display cases for visitors’ safety (and peace of mind.) More than 40 venomous snakes can be admired from a safe distance, which includes local North Carolina species as well as more exotic reptiles such as black mambas and cobras. With more than 50 living exhibits and a wealth of information on each unique species, visitors who want a fright will find the Cape Fear Serpentarium a simply unforgettable Cape Fear attraction.
Wilmington Railroad Museum
Long before Wilmington and the outlying beaches (like Carolina Beach) became a popular tourist destination, the area was a bustling commercial port city, and was famed as the home of one of the longest single track line railroad systems in the world. Today, modern visitors can explore this history in fascinating detail at the Wilmington Railroad Museum – a unique museum that’s housed within an original brick train depot, and which is flanked by an authentic locomotive, an Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) boxcar, and a caboose. The interior is just as fascinating, with a special kids’ hall, an extensive model train room, and a series of exhibits that outline Wilmington’s heyday as a railroad community in the mid-1800s.
Cameron Art Museum
For more than 50 years, the Cameron Art Museum has been an impressive destination for art lovers, thanks to more than 42,000’ square feet of space that is dedicated to temporary and rotating exhibits which showcase talents from all across the Cape Fear region, as well as the world. The expansive collection features roughly 6-8 temporary displays or galleries, (which makes every visit a fascinating opportunity to discover a new talent), and the extensive complex also features an acclaimed on-site restaurant, the CAM Café, and an in-house art school for students of all ages and interests. As a result, a museum visit can turn into a full day art-extravaganza at this all-inclusive destination where local and visiting talents can shine.
Museum of the Bizarre
As the name would suggest, Wilmington’s Museum of the Bizarre is the destination of choice for Cape Fear visitors and residents who like their museums to be a little on the wild side. The unique destination features a range of weird, legendary, and just plain odd exhibits, such as the Fort Fisher mermaid, Alexander Hamilton’s hair, or the Crystal Skull of Knowledge. With a unique arsenal of “local” fare, such as props from some of the area’s many movie sets, visitors can learn a little about local history and a lot about the Cape Fear region’s stranger side with a visit to this engrossing museum.
USS Battleship North Carolina
Wilmington’s most famous museum isn’t actually a museum at all – it’s a massive battleship that’s docked on the edge of the Cape Fear River, which is an unmistakable sight for area explorers. The USS Battleship North Carolina, which served during every major Pacific Offensive in World War II and which earned an astounding 15 battle stars in the process – has been converted into a “living history” museum, complete with engine rooms, galleys, and topside decks where the views of the downtown and the Cape Fear River are simply out of this world. Regular tours that explore the ship and its role in the war in detail are available, and the USS Battleship North Carolina also hosts a number of fascinating and fun events, including educational programs, summer movie nights, and even sprawling Easter egg hunts. As a result, it’s an enticing museum that will engage visitors in more ways than one.
Latimer House Museum and Gardens
This stunning historic residence that was built in 1852 is a popular destination for Wilmington explorers who want to learn more about the decadent antebellum era in the Cape Fear region. Guests can tour the interior of this perfectly resorted home to discover a total of 14 rooms that are outfitted with more than 600 period antiques from the Port City’s heyday. The outdoor original servant’s quarters and Victorian gardens simply add to the home’s charm, and completes the grand introduction to the Cape Fear area’s rich and sometimes decadent history.
Burgwin Wright House
Built in 1771 and turned into a museum in 1957, the Burgwin Wright House is a living representation of what life was like for Wilmington’s wealthiest and most elite residents in the 18th and 19th centuries. The interior rooms have been perfectly restored to their original grandeur, and the exterior kitchen house, utilitarian herb gardens, and stunningly ornate period gardens complete the picture of the historic Wilmington lifestyle. With rich details throughout, the Burgwin Wright is a must-stop during any exploration of Wilmington’s historic homes.
This grand home that was built just moments before the start of the Civil War (1859-1861) served a number of historic roles during its lifetime, and is a favorite attraction for Wilmington visitors who are exploring the stately landmarks of the downtown area. Highlights of the residence-turned-museum include the sprawling main home which features numerous antiques and vintage furnishings, the carriage house / visitors’ center, the historic slave quarters, and the decadent landscaping found throughout the property.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting Carolina Beach Area Museums
- A rainy day is a great time to visit the local museums, but watch out for the crowds. Several island destinations, like the Fort Fisher Aquarium and the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History, are at their busiest on summertime rainy days.
- Annual passes may be available for residents at local museums, like the Cameron Art Museum or the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, and discounts may be available for students, children, veterans, and seniors. Ask when purchasing your tickets what savings or additional options may apply.
- Want to learn more about the area outside the museum experience? Book a tour! A number of tours are available around Carolina Beach and Wilmington, which include boat tours and cruises, downtown Wilmington walking tours, and even downtown carriage / trolley tours.
- Outdoor “museums” like Zeke’s Island Reserve, Masonboro Island, and Wilmington area gardens and outdoor attractions like the New Hanover County Arboretum are also abundant in the region, and are great natural destinations to learn all about the local environments. Plan a paddle, cruise, or exploration to these sites to discover the Cape Fear area’s wild side.
While Carolina Beach may be famed as “Pleasure Island,” it’s also close to some of the most fascinating museums for area explorers. Plan a trip exploring the historic, natural, and fascinating destinations that this region has to offer, and discover the wealth of museums that highlight centuries of life on the Cape Fear coastline.