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wilmington, NC design guide {UPDATE}

by Grace Bonney

Today’s city guide update belongs to Wilmington, North Carolina and comes to us courtesy of Ellie Snow of Mint. ellie grew up in Wilmington and has been living in the triangle area of north carolina ever since. She’s currently freelance graphic designer in durham, specializing in invitations, and she keeps a small vintage etsy shop for fun. Wilmington is known as “Wilmywood” to some, because of the numerous tv shows and movie that shoot there, so keep your eyes peeled for celebs at every corner.  Thanks Ellie for this wonderful revision!–Stephanie

Nestled between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington is often called the Port City; although many fondly refer to it as “Wilmywood” in honor of local motion picture and TV studio Screen Gems. (Think Dawson’s Creek or One Tree Hill). Wilmington was settled nearly 300 years ago, and today visitors can stroll tree lined streets past century-old homes, then drive less than twenty minutes to find themselves among surfers and sunbathers on beautiful beaches. In the mid 1980s, Wilmington began to revitalize its downtown and today the area is rich with restaurants, bars, boutiques, galleries, and antique shops.


Airlie Moon– 1908 Eastwood Rd. in Lumina Station
Step into Airlie Moon, take a whiff of that lavender, and you’ll be ready to move into a cottage on Wrightsville Beach and start decorating. Think refinished furniture and design with southern, sophisticated vintage-inspired flair – with plenty of crisp linens, hand-milled soaps, and delicate jewelry to boot.

Antiques on Castle Street, 500-600 block
Castle Street is a great place to spend a couple hours antiquing. The shops seem to move around and change out frequently, but I’ll be surprised if you leave empty handed! Castle Corner Antiques (#555) and Michael Moore’s shop (#539) are notable favorites.

Baby Swank– 7204 Wrightsville Ave
Baby Swank is an upscale shop with everything needed to upfit your dream nursery, from cribs to rocking chairs to linens.

Beanie + Cecil– 1904 Eastwood Road, Suite 108 (Lumina Station)
Beanie + Cecil is a beautiful women’s boutique filled with upscale, trendy clothing, shoes, and jewelry with designers such as Rag & Bone, Helmut Lang, and Loeffler Randall.

Edge of Urge– 18 Market St.
Located just a block from the riverfront in downtown Wilmington, indie boutique Edge of Urge has become a favorite among locals and tourists. The boutique specializes in the handmade, with a range products by DIYers to brands like Orla Kiely, and a wonderful collection of men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, accessories, goods for the home, note cards, and more.

Flashbax– 30 N. Front St.
You’re sure to find the perfect flapper dress, sixties beads, or vintage cowboy boots at Flashbax on Front St.

Hallelu– 84 Waynick Blvd. Wrightsville Beach
Hallelu has great clothing (both new and consigned), good prices, and a scenic view of the sound. After you’ve bought that cute dress, duck around the corner to Trolley Stop (see below) for the best hot dog you’ve ever had.

Hewitt– 1904 Eastwood Road (Lumina Station)
Hewitt is full of beautiful furnishings, from hand-embroidered pillows and rustic farm tables to hip artwork and breathtaking chandeliers.

Island Passage– 4 Market St. or 1900 Eastwood Rd. (Lumina Station)
An old local favorite for women’s clothing and accessories, Island Passage now boasts 6 locations in the Cape Fear region and has labels such as Free People, French Connection, and Velvet.

The Ivy Cottage– 3020-3030-3100 Market St.
The Ivy Cottage was opened in 1998 by a mother daughter team with a true love for antique shops and flea markets. Over the years it has grown from one building to four and now has over 25,000 square feet of vintage and consigned furniture, home accessories, antiques, china, jewelry, garden items, and more.

-Monkee’s- 1900 Eastwood Rd.
Upscale women’s fashion located in Lumina Station.

Re-Eco– 5325 Oleander Dr.
Re-Eco is a small, family owned shop filled with repurposed furniture, accessories, and jewelry with an eco-conscious mission. Artists Mary and Robert Holst have a knack for refinishing old furniture and hand-painting them with unique and beautiful illustrations, and their children Miles and Laura have helped fill the store with ceramics, jewelry, screen prints, handmade books, and more.

Return Passage– 302 N. Front St.
A sister of Island Passage, Return Passage is a one stop shop for those looking for gently used, well priced clothing and accessories. If Marc Jacobs under $50 sounds appealing, then Return Passage is your place.

Sambuca– 200 N Front St.
Sambuca is a boutique and spa specializing in organic, fair trade, renewable, and recycled materials with lots of style. They offer a good sized selection of beauty and skincare products, in addition to Bella Muse gift cards and stylish, comfortable women’s clothing.


Narrowing down Wilmington’s restaurants is no easy task. Wilmington has become known for its wide selection of delicious cuisine, and of course nearly everyone offers a good selection of seafood. If you’re new to the area, you have to give Calabash-style (read: deep-fried) seafood a try – preferably with a side of hush puppies. And of course there is good ‘ol southern BBQ at every turn. But as you’ll see from this list, this southern town is not all greasy-spoon joints.

-Boombalatti’s- 1127 B Military Cutoff Road
A wide assortment of ice cream flavors. If you have a hard time choosing just one, try the 4 or 8 flavor sampler!

Caffe Phoenix– 9 S. Front St.
Caffe Phoenix gets a bad wrap for being a bit “cold,” but you’d be hard pressed to order a bad thing on their menu. Modern and trendy since it opened in the ’80s, Caffe Phoenix is a good place to have a glass of wine, watch passersby, and check out local artwork on the walls.

Circa 1922– 8 N. Front St.
The hardest part about classy Circa 1922 is knowing when to stop eating all the fantastic tapas you’ve ordered. Because skipping dessert is not recommended! (Be sure to check out their website for more fantastic sister restaurants).

Coastal Cupcakes– 129 Princess St and 7210 Wrightsville Ave
The perfect treat at any time of day! Coastal Cupcakes offers daily specials like Hot Chocolate or Cheesecake, and offers breakfast cupcakes, too.

The Dixie Grill– 116 Market St.
Combine greasy-spoon style eating with menu items like veggie burgers and fresh fruit & granola, and you’ll have Dixie Grill. Just don’t leave without trying the sweet potato fries! Breakfast served until 3pm.

Dock Street Oyster Bar– 12 Dock St.
When I tell people I’m from Wilmington, it’s not uncommon for the Dock St. Oyster Bar to come up in conversation shortly thereafter. Delicious seafood, good service, and dog friendly.

Elijah’s– 2 Ann Street
Great food, good oysters, river views, and outdoor seating make Elijah’s a favorite among locals and visitors alike.

Flaming Amy’s– 4002 Oleander Drive
Huge burritos and a salsa bar with flavors like Cucumber or Ginger Peach salsa make Flaming Amy’s a favorite.

Front Street Brewery– 9 North Front Street
Front Street brews beer on site, and is a great place to grab a burger and pick up a growler for later.

Indochine– 3007 Market St.
I’ve lost count of how many restaurant awards Indochine has been given, and in my own humble opinion, Indochine is one of Wilmington’s best. Since it’s often crowded, you’ll probably be sent to the bar for a couple drinks before you’re seated in their richly atmospheric dining area and served delicious Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. If the weather is nice, sit out back in a gazebo and enjoy the garden under strings of lights.

J. Michael’s Philly Deli– 3501 Oleander Drive
Yes, it’s in a strip mall a few doors down from Harris Teeter, and looks like it’s not worth your time. But Philly Deli has the best cheesesteaks in town.

-Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ- 920 S Kerr Ave
Delicious pork BBQ, hushpuppies, brunswick stew… you really can’t go wrong at Jackson’s.

-Jester’s Java- 607 Castle Street
Wilmington is the birthplace of Port City Java, although now that Port City Java is a franchise in seven states, it’s almost like visiting Starbucks in Seattle. Instead try Jester’s Java on Castle Street, which is a great place to stop after you’ve hit up all the antique shops. They also serve a delicious lunch.

K38 Baja– 5410 Oleander Drive
K38 is a favorite for Mexican dishes.

The Little Dipper– 138 S. Front St.
Fondue, fondue, fondue!

Osteria Cicchetti– 1125-K Military Cutoff Rd. (The Forum)
Delicious, delicious Italian food. ‘Nough said.

Sweet and Savory– 1611 Pavilion Place
Sweet and Savory serves three meals a day, has outdoor seating, and is a perfect stop for delicious baked goods and desserts.

Slice of Life– 122 Market St.
Who doesn’t want a hot piece of pizza after hitting up the downtown bar scene? Open until 3am, cozy Slice of Life has a great pub atmosphere and truly delicious pizza.

Tidal Creek– 5329 Oleander Dr. #100
Tidal Creek is a market and deli selling organically produced foods and goods from local growers and high-ethics companies.

Trolley Stop– 121 N. Front St. and 94 S Lumina Ave. Wrightsville Beach
The Trolley Stop has two locations – one downtown and one at the beach. Go to Trolley Stop at the beach in the summer, and the line goes out the door as beach-clad locals load up on Surfer Dogs. I don’t know if it’s the ridiculously soft buns, the melty cheese, or the juicy hotdog itself, but there is nothing like a Trolley Stop dog.


Wilmington holds numerous festivals – most notably Azalea Fest which takes place each year in April when the azaleas are in full bloom (well, at least in theory.) The multi-day festival includes a parade, a street fair with local crafters, teens in antebellum gowns (‘Azalea Belles’), concerts, home tours, and more. Downtown Wilmington becomes festive again in October with Riverfest, when you can watch fireworks, view local arts and crafts, hear good music and watch various competitions. For those who tire of the street-fair scene, there are some fantastic arts festivals that should not be missed. In November the Cucalorus Film Festivalcelebrates independent films, in May the volunteer-run W.E. Fest celebrates indie musicians, and in July the Cape Fear Blues Festival brings national and local acts to the Port City.

Wilmington bars come and go, but these favorites always promise a good time. The Soapbox Laundro-Lounge is downtown’s largest music venue and has washing machines available for patrons who need to kill two birds with one stone. Level 5 at City Stage (21 N. Front St. 5th floor) is a theatre and rooftop bar combined. Enjoy the riverfront view from above and then duck inside and see what’s playing. Bluepost Billiards (15 S Water St.) is a smoky dive off of an alley downtown. Pop open a PBR and play pool, skee-ball, air hockey, or any number of arcade games. My newest favorite bar in Wilmington is Satellite Bar and Lounge (120 Greenfield St.). It’s in an up-and-coming part of town (that’s putting it nicely), and has a chill, neighborhood bar atmosphere with occasional live bands. Owners Dusty Ricks and Carol Cutshall did a beautiful job with the space, leaving exposed beams, original plaster and brick walls, and filled vintage and repurposed furniture. Hell’s Kitchen (118 Princess St.) is another good spot, with a pool table, darts, and Monday trivia.

-ACME Art Studios, 711 N. Fifth Ave. 910-763-8010
Ring the bell and if anyone answers then you’re in for a real treat. ACME is home away from home for 18 artists who work in all different mediums. You can also visit ACME during Fourth Friday art walks, from 6-9pm.

Airlie Gardens & the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden, 300 Airlie Rd.
Airlie Gardens is an historic, 67 acre county-owned piece of property on the water just before Wrightsville Beach. It’s a wonderful place for a walk or a picnic, and is home to the “bottle house,” a work of art dedicated to African American folk artist Minnie Evans. Evans was the gatekeeper of Airlie from 1949-1974 and the bottle house (named because it is made of glass bottles and mortar) was built in 2004 by local artists to celebrate her life.

Farmers Market– N. Water St. between Princess & Market
From mid April to the end of December, local farmers, crafters, and musicians gather on the Riverfront for the Saturday Farmer’s Market.

-Fourth Friday Art Walk, from 6-9pm April-December, 208 N Front St.
Start at Bottega Gallery, get a map, and visit the downtown art galleries during this monthly grassroots event.

Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum, 3021 S 17th St.
Built by the famous architectural firm Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of New York City, the Cameron Art Museum is one of my favorite places to visit. The museum has featured such exhibits as the costume designs of William Ivey Long, contemporary works using classic weaving techniques, and the phenomenal installations of Diane Landry. The museum shop items complement whatever is currently on display in the museum, making it an enjoyable stop on the way out.

Thalian Hall– 310 Chestnut St.
Built in the 1850s, Thalian is a beautiful place to see local and national productions from ballet to music to films.


Suggested For You


  • As a North Carolinian who has frequented Wilmington for many years, I can definitely say it’s one of my favorite towns. And Ellie did an AWESOME job describing it and hitting the key points. Good job Ellie!


  • As a Wilmingtonian now living in LA, it’s so lovely to see the names of all of my favorite places on my favorite blog. Yay for Wilmington!

  • There are a few great pizza places as well that are open late such as New York Pizza and Princess Pizza (on princess street). Also Hell’s Kitchen (also a bar) in the same location.

  • As part of an older crowd that lives in Wilmington, I wanted to add a couple places that were left out and should not be missed. I think everyone’s first trip to Wilmington must include dinner on the patio at Elijah’s. It makes me sad that someone would pick forgettable, icy Cafe Phoenix over an experience of sitting outside watching the Cape Fear river flow next to you. Also I recently found a new store called The Modern Nomad for garden-y housewares similar to those you’d find at The English Garden. It’s true Ivy Cottage is the Walmart of consignment shopping here but don’t miss Thrill of the Hunt where a good portion of my furniture comes from for painted shabby chic furniture. If you find yourself strolling Castle Street’s antique district please have lunch at Jester’s Java. Many celebs frequent here without makeup in sweats and it feels so homey and friendly and we love the food. And how can you forget NoFo for gift wares and accessories. Lunch is awesome (but fancier) here too. Blue Hand Home has really great, non-typical home furnishings. I also recommend Crabby Chic and Dragonflies for gifts and housewares. I also wanted to say for true NC BBQ, skip Casey’s and go to Jackson’s.

  • I agree with Lori that Elijah’s is great! However I’ve been disappointed with NoFo in recent years… a little preppy for my taste. And I think the guide did mention Jester’s….
    Monkee’s at Lumina Station has beautiful clothing, too!

  • I was so surprised to scroll down and see a design guide for the town I live in! I want to echo that Elijah’s is a great place to eat—especially for first time visitors. I’ve never been to the Smudged Pot or Jester’s Java (I always stop at Port City) but I’ll be trying them soon. Yeah Wilmington!

  • I was surprised to see a Wilmington city guide too – I’m the multimedia/design editor at the Star-News (Wilmington’s newspaper) and I visit Design Sponge a couple times a day!

    A couple things to add:
    – I agree about Caffe Pheonix being kind of icy.
    – My favorite restaurant in the area is Sweet & Savory – they have phenomenal baked goods, and all 3 meals are great.
    – Boombalatti’s near Mayfaire is the best ice cream. Ever.

    For fun Wilmington food tidbits, check out our food blog: http://www.starnewsonline.com/foodies

  • More hometown love for Wilmington! It’s a great place, and of course has more to offer than can fit in any guide, but this is a great starting point for any design-minded visitor!

  • Wilmington!! I have to make my confession.. I was such a Dawson’s Creek geek that I came for a visit with my mum in 2000 all the way from London. It’s such a beautiful place and we’d love so much to go back one day (and maybe check out some of these great suggestions rather than Joey’s wall…). Lovely memories, thanks Ellie :)
    And thank you Grace for making my days so pretty!

  • i went to wilmington for the first time back in july for my brother’s beach wedding. i was taken aback when i arrived at wrightsville beach just after sundown. gorgeous. i knew then and there i would be making it a yearly thing. now i have a list of hotspots to check out next summer. THANKS!

  • I was lucky enough to grow up in Wilmington, and I feel that this leads any visitor into the right direction. Especially edge of urge, 008, and hallelu, and flashbacks. I would also suggest some more true local spots such as k-38 in midtown (texmex, which has sister restaurants tower 7, on wrightsville beach, and kiva grill, porters neck), and also flaming amy’s for a large, i mean large burrito, and extensive salsa bar. And oh man, I miss Indochine. Also for a little something different try the Little Dipper, a fondue place downtown on the river. For a very ecclectic local bar at Carolina beach, the fat pelican, now that’s a scene. And also the lime and the coconut at carolina beach has a great mix of refurbished furniture, clothing, and local artwork. There are so many great spots, it is impossible to get them all in!

  • I grew up in Wilmington and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area now. Reading this article makes me homesick! But I am still excited to see Wilmington getting some publicity.

  • Have got to agree with Jessie about The Fat Pelican -it’s the most unique scene in the area.

    Planet has lost a lot of its edge since moving locations. It used to mix funky home goods and fashion with vintage military supplies, but now it’s just overpriced kitsch.

    A Loose Lucys took over Planet’s original location and we can all do with a few more embroidered cotton dresses and Phish posters, so stop by!

  • All of my favorite places. Especially Edge of Urge. It is a MUST SEE/BUY.
    I still think Planet’s prices are great. Downtown rent is TOUGH. I admire their drive to keep the prices affordable.

    And to eat, don’t forget Yosake. Half price sushi menu from 5-7!

    I’ve lived in Wilmington for 6 years, and my mom and I opened up a home furnishings and accessories store about 2 years ago.
    It’s been super fun getting to know the style vibe of this laid back little city.
    Totally different than anywhere else in the South, I feel.

  • My boyfriend and I decided to go on a spontaneous road trip one day. Our mission, was to see the Atlantic Ocean (we live in Wisconsin). So we hopped in the car and headed east with nothing else planned out. By chance, we ended up in Wilmington. We stayed in a cheap hotel, ate cheap food, and spent the rest of our waking time laying on the beach. After a few days of this we decided we better get back home to our jobs, ha! But I have to say, it only took that little amount of time for us to fall in love with Wilmington. And I’ll always remember back to my carefree days and think of how we discovered a little known town on the ocean. I hope to some day go back to Wilmington to re-live my good memories (and to explore the area better). And yes, I’m still with that same boyfriend, and in Wisconsin. To this day we tell everyone we meet to visit Wilmington if they’re ever on the east coast. Oh Wilmington…you’ll forever be in my heart. Love, from Wisconsin!

  • the cotton exchange is on the north end of front street, and is a historic complex that is now comprised of 30 unique shops and restaurants. It is across the street from the waterfront Downtown Hilton and has free parking for its customers. A MUST SEE for all ages

  • since wilmington is my favorite place in the whole WORLD…i must add a few to the list here!

    -Salt Works on Oleander has the best french toast ever
    -Tower 7 on Wrightsville Beach has amazing fish tacos and a very cool Baha atmosphere
    – i must also second the Indochine recommendation. it’s incredible.
    -Out of Eden Soaps (Wrightsville Ave.)– I recommend the Wrightsville Breeze scent. it will leave your bathroom smelling delish!

  • There is a great new home furnishings store, Jeff West Home, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on Rehoboth Avenue. Upscale home furnishings for beach homes including art, great gifts and accessories–owned/operated by Washington designer, Jeff West.

  • Just had lunch at The Basics — it was fantastic!! Really tasty, everything from scratch. Though I thought the Cotton Exchange was touristy and not worth a visit, this restaurant is not to be missed!

  • I grew up in Hampstead, NC (just north of Wilmington) so I was excited to see Downtown get some press! I have to say – if J. Michael’s Philly Deli is still open across from the mall….that is my favorite place to eat EVER!!!

  • You can visit Screen Gems studio and they give tours. When I went, we toured several ‘One Tree Hill’ sets, which is filmed there.

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