North Carolina’s eccentric port city is a destination, and not just because lots of TV shows were filmed there.
There are many beautiful, historic places to visit in Wilmington, many of which top both tourists’ and locals’ must-see lists: Airlie Gardens, Battleship North Carolina, the downtown Riverwalk. But what if you want to get a little… weird?
Wilmy’s got plenty of those off-the-beaten path options, too. The Port City is considered one of the most haunted towns in the South, so it would be strange if it didn’t have at least a couple quirky offerings.
From Pachinko World to ghost tours to giant seahawks, here are eight ways you can get weird in Wilmington.
Pachinko World – The Adult Chuck E. Cheese
Pachinko World is the adult Chuck E. Cheese (manager Nick Bryant’s nickname for the business) that you never knew you needed.
Pachinko originated in Japan and is incredibly popular in Asia, but the arcade-style game, which Bryant describes as “a Japanese stand-up pinball machine,” is much harder to find stateside. In fact, this is the only Pachinko parlor in North America, and as such, CEO and owner Leo Daniels keeps dozens of the digital games on hand at the South 17th Street shop.
Wilmington is an apropos location, as the first Pachinko parlor founded in the United States was in nearby Carolina Beach in the 1970s; once that closed, none existed until Daniels founded Pachinko World.
The arcade-like atmosphere is much closer to what you’d find at the boardwalk than a casino, as these aren’t gambling machines but skills-based digital games. Players buy trays of balls, often starting with a half tray of 800 for $20, and can play multiple games in the parlor.
Bryant says the appeal of this unique place is the games themselves, which range from Resident Evil and Terminator machines, where you get to go “through” the movies to Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson.
Pachinko World, 2591 South 17th Street, Wilmington; (910) 859-6603
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 12-8; Friday-Saturday, 12-9
There’s nary an apparition-free alley in downtown Wilmington, but if you want to know your history rather than unwillingly stumble upon a ghost, look no further than the Black Cat Shoppe.
Owners Kim and John Hirchak run a quirky store that One Tree Hill fans know as “CD Alley,” but behind the kitschy signs and shirts, the couple is knowledgeable ghost gurus who’ve been researching the town’s haunted history since 1978.
John has written two books, Ghosts of Old Wilmington and Legends of Old Wilmington & Cape Fear, and two ghost tours are run out of their store, the Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington and the Haunted Pub Crawl. One of the original ghost walks of the South, the former takes guests on a 90-minute walk around downtown’s haunted homes and burial grounds and has been named to top tour lists by Trip Advisor and USA Today.
Want a bit of feminism with your ghost stories? One of the most beloved tales on the tours is of Gallus Meg, a six-foot female proprietor of a bar and brother in then-Paradise Alley called Blue Post, who used to bite off unruly sailor’s ears and store them in a pickling jar on the bar. Rumor has it that she was killed by men who didn’t appreciate her methods, and she now protects women at the bar, which still goes by the same name.
If you’re visiting in October, you’ll find even more creepy outings to attend, including paranormal historic home tours, haunted trails and festivals. Animal lover? There are some furry ghosts roaming downtown, too.
The Black Cat Shoppe, 8 Market Street, Wilmington; (910) 772-1410
Ghost Walk of Old Wilmington Hours: March 1-Oct. 31, nightly, 6:30 & 8:30 p.m.; November, nightly, 6:30 p.m.; December-February, Thurs.-Sat., 6:30 p.m.
Haunted Pub Crawl Hours: Jan. and Dec., Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Feb., March, and Nov. – Friday and Sat., 7:30 p.m., April-June and Sept.-Oct., Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; July and August, Tues.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.
Wilmington is a tv-lover’s destination (see One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek), and gear from each can be found downtown at the aforementioned Black Cat Shoppe and Krazy Mikez.
If you want more than T-shirts, walk a couple blocks up to Grace Street and pop into Whatever… Wilmington. The store is chock full of cool, weird and “strange” (their words) pop culture paraphernalia, including goodies from the movies and TV shows filmed in the Cape Fear area, and a whole lot of comic books. They call themselves a “modern day pop culture curiosity shop,” and if you can’t make it to their brick and mortar, they also run an eBay store.
Whatever… Wilmington, 117 Grace St., Wilmington; (910) 599-8072
Hours: Wed.-Sat., 12-6 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
A Museum of the Bizarre
On the popularity scale, the Museum of the Bizarre isn’t a hidden gem—this science center is a well-known tourist attraction. Their tag line is the tongue in cheek “of course it’s real,” and they pride themselves on being the only curiosities museum in town. Family-friendly exhibits on display include a crystal skull of knowledge, Bigfoot imprint, possessed clown and Alexander Hamilton’s hair.
Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, the museum’s $3 general admission fee (it’s higher if you pick the events packages) makes it a relatively inexpensive family outing or way to kill a few hours in air conditioning. Not into the macabre? The museum also boasts a laser vault maze and a mirror maze.
Museum of the Bizarre, 201 North Water Street, Wilmington; 910-399-2641
Hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day, daily, 11 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Labor Day to Memorial Day, daily, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Search for Venus Flytraps at the Piney Ridge Nature Preserve
Venus flytraps are Wilmington natives, only occurring naturally within a 75-mile radius of the city. Though they’ve been planted and grown in other states, including New Jersey and Florida, their natural habitat is North and South Carolina.
Unfortunately, many of these plants have been (often illegally) cultivated from the wild population, which is dwindling to such a degree, they’re being considered for the endangered species list. There are still places to find these curious creatures, however, and while many flock to Carolina Beach State Park to peep the perennials along the Flytrap Trail, a hidden gem in Wilmington is the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden.
The ADA-accessible Piney Ridge Nature Preserve is home to the .728-acre garden, which features a wooden overlook and interpretive signs. The garden was named after Stanley Rehder, the guy known as the “The Flytrap Man” who built out the showcase garden to begin with, following his death in 2012.
The best times to view the various pitcher plants range from March-May, while the Venus Flytrap is best seen from May-June, the Pink Sundew from May-August, and the Roundleaf Sundew from July-September.
Piney Ridge Nature Preserve & Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, 3800 Canterbury Road, Wilmington (behind Alderman Elementary School); (910) 341-7852
Hours: 7 days a week, sunrise-sunset
Grab a beer at the Fat Pelican
The Wilmington area isn’t short on dive bars, but one of the quirkiest is located just south of town in Carolina Beach. Imagine if your crazy uncle’s garage exploded into his backyard and was visited daily by every friend he’s ever made, and you’ve got the Fat Pelican.
Metal signs and paraphernalia line the walls and ceilings, which have been graffitied with names and dates of visitors, and the outside garden is sectioned off into numerous seating areas, ranging from picnic tables to Adirondack chairs and, even, a boat.
Fat Pelican originated as a beer and wine store before selling its first on-premise beer in 1992. The property is a hodgepodge, as the main building is the remains of a garage that burnt down in 195 and the walk-in-cooler where you can pick your own beer is the refrigerated trailer of an 18-wheeler. Current owner Danny McLaughlin has dubbed the bar “beach trailer park chic,” and we can’t disagree.
Fat Pelican, 8 Lake Park Blvd. S., Carolina Beach; (910) 458-4061
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday, noon-2 a.m.
What’s with the Gnomes?
Airlie Gardens hosts an annual summer sculpture exhibition, and in 2018, the theme was “Gnome Invasion,” featuring 15 fiberglass gnomes decorated by 17 artists. These cleverly decorated 5-foot creatures were on display through the gardens, but they didn’t disappear. After their initial viewing, the gnomes went on sale, with proceeds benefiting the Airlie Garden Foundation.
While some traveled as far as Rhode Island, others stayed in town and allow for a DIY gnome hunt. Those include Grace Brookshire’s “Mountain to Sea, Beautiful NC” and Catherine Halecki’s eye-catching “Mini Minnie,” located in Story Park outside the New Hanover County Public Library’s Main Branch, and Jen Schellenberg’s “Wild Tontti,” who now calls the New Hanover County Arboretum home.
Carolina Beach has a gnome of their own on Peninsula Drive, where artist Elena Wright’s majestic “King of the Gnomes” is kept company by Brooks Koff’s mosaic “Squirrels Just Wanna Have Fun” from the 2020 exhibit, “Squirrels!” and Sally Martin’s zen “Mandal-Owl” from 2021’s “It’s Owl Good.”
Curious to check out the 2022 sculptures? This year’s theme was “Hoppy Times!” Ten 4.5-foot tall fiberglass rabbits were decorated to celebrate ten years of Airlie Gardens art exhibits, and they will be on display until Dec. 31.
New Hanover County Public Library – Main Branch, 201 Chestnut Street, Wilmington; (910) 798-6300; Hours: Daylight (The statue is located outside in the plaza between the library building and the parking structure.)
New Hanover County Arboretum, 6202 Oleander Drive, Wilmington; (910) 798-7660; Hours: 7 days a week, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
Peninsula Drive, Carolina Beach (This gnome is located on private property—please be respectful!)
Scope Out the World’s Largest Seahawk
In addition to being a beautiful, walkable campus, the University of North Carolina Wilmington has one very important feature on its grounds: the World’s Largest Seahawk. The 2,000-pound copper statue was created by artist Durnay Gorham right in town, and he was dedicated to the school in 2009. The majestic creature greets visitors from his perch on Wagoner Road, but if you’re not paying attention, you may miss him—even with his enviable wing span, he sits in the center of a traffic circle.
UNCW Seahawk Statue, Wagoner Road, Wilmington
Hours: Daylight (preferably)