Did you know there were tons of fun things to do in Wilson, North Carolina? While you may know Wilson as the home of the Whirligig Park, there’s a lot more to this small town.
Wilson is a small town known for its southern charm, art scene, and whirligigs. It was once known as “The World’s Greatest Tobacco Market,” but has morphed over the years.
Originally a community formed around Toisnot Primitive Baptist Church in the 1800s, it began to evolve with the introduction of the railroad. After the Wilmington to Weldon railroad line was completed in 1840, people in Wilson were able to travel north and south, which stimulated growth. The official Town of Wilson was chartered by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1848.
Today, Wilson is home to a variety of manufacturing industries and a place for budding artists, tasty candy makers, and children’s imaginations to grow.
A great time to visit Wilson, NC is during their annual Whirligig Festival in November. The festival and parking are free, but bring some cash because you’ll want to buy from all the talented vendors.
- Things to Know Before Visiting Wilson, NC
- Fun Things to do in Wilson, NC
- Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park/whirligig festival
- Wilson Arts Center
- Imagination Station Science Museum
- Krueger’s candies
- North Carolina Baseball Museum
- Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum
- The Kennedy Family Theatre at Barton College
- Wilson Botanical Gardens
- Wilson Rose Garden
- Lake Wilson
- Country Doctor Museum (Bailey, NC)
- Where to Eat
- Where to stay
- Visit Wilson, NC
Things to Know Before Visiting Wilson, NC
I love visiting our small towns here in North Carolina and Wilson is no exception, but they take a little extra planning before you visit.
Like many small towns, Wilson’s businesses have limited hours. Always check for hours of operation before you head out.
Several restaurants are closed Sundays and Mondays. But others are closed on Tuesdays. Also, due to staffing shortages, some places may be closed even though their normal hours show they should be open. Remaining flexible and going with the flow is key when visiting any small town.
Most museums are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Plan any indoor activities for Saturday, then keep Sunday open for outdoor adventures.
With just a little planning, you’ll have a fun adventure exploring Wilson, North Carolina.
Fun Things to do in Wilson, NC
Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park/whirligig festival
You can’t miss the tall, bright, whirligigs towering over Historic Downtown Wilson. Some of the sculptures stand 50 feet tall. The colorful, dynamic, works of art twirl and move with the wind. Some act out scenes, like two farmers sawing wood, while others spin in multiple directions.
The artist is Vollis Simpson, a farm machinery repairman. As he neared retirement, Simpson began making the whirligigs out of scrap metal and placed them on his farm. Over time, people from all over came to admire his work.
While he never called himself an artist, he took great pride in his works and built them with care. Simpson’s attention to detail included cutting small squares of reflective road signs and attaching them to the metal so the whirligigs reflect nearby light at night.
When his health declined, the town created the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Historic Downtown Wilson. Volunteers helped move, grease, and paint the structures. To this day, the sculptures are maintained by these volunteers. Sadly, Simpson passed away in 2013 at the age of 94.
The park is free, and anyone can come to enjoy the whirligigs. There’s a pavilion for events, and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Museum where you can learn more about the man and his incredible art.
The Whirligig Festival is held annually in Wilson to celebrate the city’s commitment to art.
Wilson Arts Center
The Wilson Arts Center in Historic Downtown is amazing. They have performance art, visual art exhibitions, and even offer classes.
The exhibitions rotate about every two months with an opening reception on Thursday evenings. Wandering through the gallery to enjoy the exhibits and attending an opening reception is free and open to the public. Performances are ticketed and fees vary.
You can check their website for both the opening and performance schedules.
The Arts Center also has a small store where you can purchase items from local and regional artists.
I was blown away by the creativity and caliber of work the last time I visited.
Imagination Station Science Museum
When you say “museum,” your kids probably sigh. Let’s face it, kids don’t enjoy museums because they have to be on good behavior and “don’t touch anything.” Well, that’s boring.
But the Imagination Station is different. It’s one of the most interactive science and history educational museums around. Here, you’re supposed to touch things. Kids (and adults) can race a Cheetah (OK, not a real one), climb a rock wall, and watch worker bees buzz around and make honey.
As a matter of fact, this museum recommends you wear tennis shoes because you’re going to need them. Kids and adults alike will be entertained and learn something new.
You may overlook the building at first because the museum is housed in the old Wilson Federal Building which served as the post office and court house.
Krueger’s candies is where you go to happily blow your diet. They have homemade candy and fudge. The back of the shop is open, and you can watch them make the candy from a distance. Of course, they also have a table lined with fudge. You can’t help it; you’re going to ask for a small piece. It’s priced by weight which they check at the register.
If you want to have lunch to go with your dessert, their specialty is hot dogs. But they also have hamburgers, subs, and healthier options like salads and smoothies. Honestly, if you’re going to down some delicious fudge, just go all the way with the hot dog.
North Carolina Baseball Museum
If you look through a list of famous people from North Carolina, you’ll see a lot of baseball players like Hoyt Wilheim and Enos Slaughter. The North Carolina Baseball Museum in Wilson is where you can learn more about them.
The 3328 square foot museum is located inside Fleming Stadium and is run by volunteers who take pride in North Carolina’s baseball history and memorabilia housed in the museum.
Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum
The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum was opened in 2001 to increase awareness and appreciation for African American traditions and contributions to society.
After World War II, there was a housing shortage and returning soldiers had nowhere to live. Mr. Freeman played a significant role in alleviating this issue in Wilson by building houses. His efforts were recognized when Wilson named its first housing project after him.
The Kennedy Family Theatre at Barton College
The Kennedy Theatre is a chance to see up-and-coming stars with student performances. It’s also known to host many world-class international performers. The building is also a beautiful work of art.
While you’re there, take some time to walk around the pretty campus of Barton College with its stately red brick buildings and clock tower.
Wilson Botanical Gardens
Free to the public, the Wilson Botanical Gardens is open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk. Even better, they have restrooms open on weekdays from 8 am to 5 pm.
The gardens form a U as they wrap around the Wilson Agricultural Center and parking lot. I like to start at the top of the parking lot, closest to the road, and work my way to the back.
The gardens appear small at first, but as you walk along the path, you find yourself heading into a children’s area with a rain wall, garden tunnel, and more.
Large enough to entertain children and adults, it’s also small enough to ensure you can see and do everything before someone becomes bored or tired.
They even have a solar-powered charger in the middle of a walkway. You can charge your phone while you’re there!
Wilson Rose Garden
I’ll admit, it’s a little confusing when you follow GPS and turn down the road that houses the Rose Garden. That’s because the Wilson Rose Garden is located down the same street as several municipal buildings including the Wilson Recreation Director, Electric Utilities Department, and Recycling Collection. I thought I was in the wrong place.
But if you stay to the right, the garden is in front of you with parking directly in front. The location makes you envious of the people working in the buildings who can stop and enjoy lunch in the garden every day.
Like the Botanical Gardens, the site is just large enough. With pathways taking you past beautiful, scented rose bushes, there are also sculptures to enjoy, and benches to sit on.
The space is relaxing and a good place to sit and decompress after a busy day. Even though you’re next to a heavily trafficked road, the cars seem to fade away as you slowly meander through the flowers.
Lake Wilson is a reservoir and a city park. The site offers fishing, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, disc golf, and a two-mile walking trail.
There are also covered picnic tables to get out of the sun while you enjoy lunch or coffee.
Children will enjoy the playground and the hiking trail is relatively flat and easy, perfect for hikers of any experience.
Country Doctor Museum (Bailey, NC)
Technically, the Country Doctor Museum is in Bailey, NC, not Wilson. But since it’s interesting, cute, and only 30 minutes away, why not?
This is the oldest museum in the US dedicated to the history of rural health care. A group of women created the museum in 1967 hoping to create a lasting memorial for rural physicians. Since then, the museum’s collection has grown to over 5000 artifacts.
As you wander through the museum you’ll find information on rural doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and home remedies.
Where to Eat
I can’t give you a list of 11 things to do in Wilson and then not tell you where to eat. That would be mean.
As I mentioned up front, many restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays, and a few close on Tuesdays. Check for hours before you head out for the day so you know what options are available. Also keep in mind that with some places facing staffing shortages, a business may be closed when you arrive.
There are plenty of options, you just need to stay flexible.
There are two places known for their BBQ in Wilson, Marty’s BBQ, and Parker’s Barbecue. Both offer mouth-watering Eastern BBQ and fried chicken.
Brewmasters is one of the restaurants in Wilson open 7 days a week. It’s a combination bottle shop/draft house. If you enjoy a good craft brew, be sure to check it out. They also offer pizzas, sandwiches, and salads.
Casita Brewing is a brew house right across from the Whirligig park. They have beer on tap and also in cans if you want to buy one to take home.
While they don’t serve food, there’s often a food truck out front, and they have a cute beer garden to the side with a view of the Whirligig Park.
Where to stay
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If you’re coming from the coast or Raleigh, you could easily make Wilson a day trip. I like pairing it with a trip to Cliffs of the Neuse State Park 45 minutes away. Set up an RV or tent and you’ve got a peaceful evening with pretty scenery. They also have hot showers.
Not an outdoor fan? Not a problem. You won’t find fancy hotels in the area, but thanks to Barton College, there are plenty of comfortable rooms around. There’s the Hampton Inn downtown, about 10 minutes from the historic area. You can also find homes and apartments for rent through Expedia, Airbnb, and VRBO.
I’m going to throw out a crazy idea here. River & Twine in nearby Rocky Mount offers a unique option. While a little pricy and 30 minutes away from Wilson, you get your own tiny home. If you’ve ever wondered about tiny home living, this is your chance to test it out.
Visit Wilson, NC
This wonderful city has a lot to offer. From one of the best festivals in NC celebrating Wilson as a city of artists, to good food, and a museum that caters to the young at heart, you can’t miss a chance to visit.
As mentioned above, I highly recommend checking the hours of operation for any business you would like to visit. The outdoor areas are open 7 days a week, but several restaurants and museums are closed on Sundays and Mondays. If you’re visiting over a weekend, you’ll want to visit the Imagination Station and get your BBQ on Saturday.
Save Brewmasters for Sunday since they’re one of the few restaurants open that day.