The lower Cape Fear region has played a role in American history since the region was first discovered by Spanish explorers and English colonists. At the same time, the local coastal habitats have been heralded (and preserved) as some of the most pristine coastal regions in the country. As a result of these roots as well as present-day ecosystems, a number of museums have been established to celebrate this legacy and cultural heritage.
Southport visitors will find an enticing handful of museums in their own hometown, as well as additional attractions that span from the city of Wilmington to the original Brunswick Town. So enjoy a vacation uncovering everything this coastal region has to offer by making sure these museums are on your vacation itinerary.
This museum is renowned as one of Southport’s favorite attractions. Located in the heart of the downtown area, the NC Maritime Museum features an array of detailed exhibits that chronicle more than 2,000 years of regional and coastal history. Visitors can peruse the remnants of an ancient Native American canoe, see artifacts from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and learn all about Southport’s claim to fame as an inherent maritime community. With a vast interior that’s literally ship shape, and a charming gift shop that’s stocked with unique treasures of all varieties, the NC Maritime Museum is a must stop for visitors who want to explore this charming town in depth.
This unique museum and visitors center celebrates the roots of Fort Johnston – a historic fort that was operational for more than 250 years, and which holds the honor of being the longest running active-duty fort in the country. Converted to a museum / visitors destination in 2006, modern day patrons can explore a wealth of exhibits that cover the fort’s rich history, which includes a wide array of memorabilia, documents, and artifacts of all varieties. In addition, the Fort Johnston Museum & Visitors Center is a great spot to pick up information on area activities and attractions, from walking tours to unique local shops and restaurants. With so much to explore, Fort Johnston is a popular first stop for new and longtime Southport visitors alike.
This modest-sized, two story jail turned museum is a fascinating attraction in downtown Southport that’s definitely worth a look. The jail was first established in 1904, and was operational for 70 years as the primary jail for the region. Picked up by the local Southport Historical Society in 1984, the jail has since been transformed into a unique museum where visitors can take a brief tour of the basement quarters, the two jail cells, and the top roundabout where jailors could keep an eye on the action. From the original graffiti scrawled on the walls, to stories of famous part-timers like Sissy Spacek during the filming of the 1986 movie “Crimes of the Heart,” the Old Brunswick County Jail is truly a unique destination for an eclectic slice of local history.
Visitors can follow the footsteps of one of the original communities in the lower Cape Fear region with a visit to the barley inland Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson, just north of Southport. This historic site was a major pre-Revolutionary port community on the Cape Fear River until it was razed by the British in 1776 during the Revolutionary War. Never reestablished, eventually the Fort Anderson was constructed on top of the original village site to serve as a defense of the Cape Fear River during the Civil War. The area today is a working archaeological site, and visitors can explore the region through guided tours that are regularly available. In addition, Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson features picnic areas, and a visitors center which features a short video of the history of the area, as well as artifacts that have been excavated from the site. Inside and out, this attraction is surrounded with fascinating elements that outline the area’s centuries of history.
Head north to the coastal town of Wrightsville Beach to discover a slice of coastal life from decades past. The Wrightsville Beach Museum of History tells the story of the region’s first beach vacationers through artifacts, photographs, and a wealth of memorabilia. Housed within a historic beach cottage, visitors can tour rooms that have been decked out to look like an original beach retreat, and enjoy special and ever-rotating exhibits that chronicle unique aspects of Wrightsville Beach’s past, like its original postcards, or its longtime love affair with surfing. With countless antiques and unique stories throughout, every trip to this fascinating museum is a step back in time.
Anchored along the Cape Fear River in the heart of Downtown Wilmington, the USS North Carolina Battleship is a stately sight that can be toured from the inside out. Self-guided and guided tours are regularly available of the ship’s vast interior, where visitors will learn all about the vessel’s role in World War II, as well as its unprecedented accumulation of 15 battle stars during its years of service. Along the way, explorers will discover engine rooms, living quarters, scenic topside decks, and literally everything in between. A popular spot for both public and private events, the USS Battleship North Carolina is a fascinating museum where history is alive and on full display.
The Cape Fear Museum is renowned as the oldest museum in the state of North Carolina, and this downtown Wilmington destination continues to impress visitors with distinct galleries and exhibit halls that outline multiple chapters of the region’s history, culture, and ecology. Visitors can get up close with wild residents at the Michael Jordan Discovery Gallery, see props and memorabilia from some of the area’s many movies and television productions, and learn all about the Cape Fear region’s prominent role in the Civil War with a single, lingering tour. With regular special events as well as an on-site gift shop, expect to uncover just about everything there is to know about the coastal area with a trip to the Cape Fear Museum.
Little visitors age 1-10 will have a ball at this downtown Wilmington museum that is designed just for them. The Children's Museum of Wilmington features a myriad of activities and special exhibits or halls that focus on a specific interest or creative inclination, and which will keep little hands and minds occupied for hours on end. Favorite areas of the museum include the central Ahoy Wilmington!” pirate ship, the Imagination Circus exhibit, the Magnetic Minds science center, the Teddy Bear hospital, and an in-house art studio. With special tours and events regularly available, like story hours and craft projects, every day is a fun adventure at the Children's Museum of Wilmington.
An unforgettable destination, the Cape Fear Serpentarium in Wilmington is a creepy museum where the reptiles rule the world. Extending for an impressive 10,000’ square feet, visitors can meet and greet with hundreds of snakes and scaly critters that are safely housed within 54 glass display cases. Eye-catching species of note include giant constrictors, native reptiles, and more than 40 venomous snakes from all around the globe, including a python, a black mamba, and a king cobra. Best for brave visitors, the Cape Fear Serpentarium is a museum experience that is truly spine tingling.
This unique downtown museum truly offers an inside look into the bizarre legends and artifacts that the Cape Fear area is known for. Visitors who tour the modest sized interior will be treated to local stories of the Fort Fisher Mermaid or the Crystal Skull of Knowledge, can peruse historical artifacts that are a little on the eccentric side like a piece of Alexander Hamilton’s hair, and can even admire a variety of movie props that were used in local film and television show productions. An homage to the weird and wonderful, the Museum of the Bizarre is an attraction that is one-of-a-kind.
Located in the heart of Wilmington, and an esteemed destination for art lovers for more than 50 years, the Cameron Art Museum is a 42,000’ square foot space where talents from all across the Cape Fear region and the world are celebrated. The museum features a wealth of both permanent and rotating exhibits, (with about 6-8 exhibits that change every few months), an on-site Café, and an in-house art school that offers classes and camps to students of all ages. From modern works to historical masterpieces, every artist will be inspired with a lingering visit to the Cameron Art Museum.
This unique museum that’s found within an 1883 railroad freight warehouse will charm visitors as soon they arrive, thanks to an original and full-size locomotive, boxcar, and caboose that’s stationed just outside the perimeter. The interior of the Wilmington Railroad Museum is just as fascinating, with a special hall that’s just for kids, an expansive model train exhibit, and a wealth of artifacts and memorabilia that highlight Wilmington’s heyday as one of the most important port cities and railroad towns along the southern East Coast. Perfect for kids and adults alike, the Wilmington Railroad Museum is a unique must-see destination on any regional museum tour.
Situated on the southern end of Pleasure Island – and just a short ferry ride away from Southport – visitors can follow the footsteps of one of the most important battles in Civil War history with a visit to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site. This indoor and outdoor museum features an interpretive trail, remnants of the original earthen works fort, and a visitors center where artifacts from the fort can be perused in detail. Well known as the site of the largest amphibious battle in the war’s history – a battle which occurred just months before the war’s end - this site is a unique destination that will appeal to history buffs of all varieties.
Visitors of all ages will love catching a ferry ride from Southport to pay a visit to this attraction, which is renowned as one of the most fascinating destinations in southern Pleasure Island. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is stocked with a variety of unique marine life that can range from the local rivers to the deep ocean waters, and which include special galleries like a Touch Tank exhibit, and a two-story open ocean display where giant rays, sharks, and sea turtles regularly glide by. With a wealth of special events that can range from daily diver feedings to Halloween or Easter-themed parties and celebrations, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is always a popular spot for visitors who are fascinated with life under the waves.
Tips and Tricks for Exploring Cape Fear Area museums
Take a ferry across the wide Cape Fear River to the picturesque Bald Head Island to explore an original 1817 lighthouse that’s renowned as one of the oldest lighthouses in the state. The Old Baldy Lighthouse & Smith Island Museum of History is a small but charming complex that features “Old Baldy” itself, as well as a museum that’s housed within the original 1850s lighthous keeper’s cottage. Visitors can explore relics from the lighthouse’s more than 200 years of history, and can even climb to the top for breathtaking views of the surrounding terrain. Though a bit of a trek to reach, (and no cars are allowed on the island), the ensuing vistas and picturesque surroundings are certainly worth the effort.
Tips and Tricks for Exploring Southport Museums
- There’s more to discover on a tour! Take a bike, vehicular, or walking tour of downtown Southport to uncover movie sets and historic homes, or take a boat tour for unparalleled views of the local landscape.
- Don’t forget to ask about discounts. While the region’s museums are generally free or inexpensive, many museums with an entrance fee offer special discounts for veterans, seniors, students, residents, and more.
- Love historic homes? Downtown Wilmington is home to three 18th and 19th century residences that are open for visitors, and which serve as living history museums. Check out the Bellamy Mansion Museum and Gardens, the Burgwin-Wright House Museum and Gardens, and the Latimer House Museum and Gardens for an insider’s perspective of Wilmington’s past.
- A rainy day is often one of the busiest days for popular attractions like the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the NC Maritime Museum in Southport. To avoid the crowds, plan an outing when the local weather is nice and sunny.
Southport is known for its unique stories, landscapes, and centuries of history, so it’s no wonder that the museums around town and in the surrounding region are fascinating local treasures. Plan a visit to one, two, or all of the region’s diverse museums, and gain new insight on what makes this corner of coastal North Carolina so inherently special.