Living like a local: Exploring The Cotton Exchange

Nov 30, 2023 • 3 min. read | By Karen Bright

Wilmington is a town with a lot of history. The benefits of a historical town are the many exquisite structures. In Wilmington’s downtown there is no shortage of opportunities to take part in historical tours, sightseeing and learning. While these all deserve your attention, I want to spotlight The Cotton Exchange.


The Cotton Exchange has been around since before the Civil War. Back in those days it was a mill. In the early 20th century, it became a large cotton export business. With its proximity to the port, it soon became a world leader. This is the time it became known as The Cotton Exchange. In the mid 1970s it undertook another transformation to become a place to enjoy shopping and dining. 


The renovation kept the integrity of the historical structure intact. The brick walkways, arches and courtyards make for an alluring experience. Inside you will find over 30 shops including galleries, restaurants and antique dealers. Recently we spent an afternoon exploring and bought some local art, toys and even some whiskey from the distillery.


If you are someone who requires ease of accessibility, I would recommend sending in a scout ahead of time. This is in a historical structure and has cobblestones, uneven stairways and narrow walkways. I know I needed some hand-holding at times. Parking however is not an issue. This is a popular place in downtown Wilmington, and it offers free validated parking. The lot has an attendant so you will need to get a validation, which can be procured from any of the merchants on the property. 


There are a few options for dining within The Cotton Exchange. There is The German Cafe, an Irish pub and a restaurant with Southern cuisine to entice any foodie. When we were shopping, we chose to have lunch at Paddy’s Hollow, the Irish pub. We had great food, and the ambiance was dark and cozy, which is unlike the bright and airy restaurants on the waterfront.


From The Cotton Exchange, it is an easy walk to the riverwalk that follows the Cape Fear River. On the waterfront, there are gorgeous views, many restaurants and a historic battleship: the North Carolina Battleship. It is a lovely place for a casual stroll.


The Cotton Exchange offers an opportunity for shopping, enjoying history, immersing yourself in the community, delicious food and overall is a great way to spend time. Its location is ideal for wandering by the river and enjoying the waterfront boardwalk. It is a different vibe from the beaches I speak about so often. This is another way Wilmington is great. There is something for everyone!