33 Wilmington

PopulationMetro: 288,156
Authentic heritage blends with modern design and attractions in this southern city on the Cape Fear River.

Even if you’ve never set foot in Wilmington, you probably recognize some of its sights: the scenic Riverwalk, the vibrant nightlife along the Cape Fear River, the Boardwalk, and the stunning antebellum mansions that line the quaint streets.

With more than 400 film and television credits under its belt, it’s no wonder the city is affectionately known as Hollywood East.

It’s also no surprise that a city that brings together beaches, history and natural beauty has its waterfront regularly voted among the most scenic and enjoyable in the country. In our ranking, Wilmington finished #12 for Programming, a category composed of Culture, Nightlife, Dining and Shopping.

Residents and visitors alike continue to flock to the recently expanded 1.75-mile Wilmington Riverwalk, a place where they can stroll the scenic walkway alongside the historic Cape Fear River, where brick-lined streets with cafes and boutiques in the historic district lead to new hotels and restaurants, a performing arts center, the Port City Marina, and an outdoor event concert venue.

Place 41
Product 38
Programming 48
People 47
Prosperity 30
Promotion 36

The city, which comes in at #8 for Shopping, is home to The Ivy Cottage, the largest furniture consignment store in the Southeast. The River District’s restored old buildings, like the 19th-century Cotton Exchange and the century-old Chandler’s Wharf Building, house boutiques and shops where local artisans showcase their creations. Along Riverwalk, Front Street and elsewhere in the district are some 40 locally owned cafes, restaurants and pubs that focus on local ingredients.

In fact, it’s not unusual to spot one of the city’s top chefs sourcing veggies at the farmers markets or meeting the fish boats at the dock. New restaurants, cafes and even an arcade that have opened in the recently completed Carolina Beach Boardwalk extension have also helped propel the city to the #35 spot in the Restaurants category.

In 2017, Wilmington became the first destination in the country to incorporate SkyNav 3D interactive tour technology via the official tourism website—not bad for a city that ranks #34 in our Promotion category. “A lot of people want to see something before they come and experience it,” says Shawn Braden, vice president of marketing for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. The 3D tours feature over a dozen aerial and ground 360-degree panoramas that encompass the entire coastline from Wilmington to its three island beaches: Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach.