Last Updated on May 15, 2023
Last Updated on May 15, 2023
Eastern North Carolina is home to some amazing places and these NC coastal towns are another example of that fact. Many of them lead to our favorite weekend getaways and the best beaches.
Some are easy to access via day trip and others require a lengthier road trip and even a boat.
Our guide features more than 30 towns from the northern Outer Banks down to Brunswick County and the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Keep reading for a wonderful variety of attractions, amazing people, and fun for the whole family!
Read More: The Most Amazing Small Towns in North Carolina
The Best NC Coastal Towns (List and Map)
We’ve alphabetically organized these NC coastal towns.
- Atlantic Beach
- Bald Head Island
- Carolina Beach
- Elizabeth City
- Emerald Isle
- Holden Beach
- Kill Devil Hills
- Kitty Hawk
- Kure Beach
- Morehead City
- Nags Head
- New Bern
- Oak Island
- Ocean Isle Beach
- Sunset Beach
- Surf City
- Topsail Beach
- Wrightsville Beach
If you’d like to visually plan your trip to any of these places, check out our Eastern North Carolina map.
Read More: The NC Tripping North Carolina Travel Map
We keep coming back to Atlantic Beach and I don’t see us forgetting about the Bogue Banks town. At least once or twice a year, you can find us parked at Atlantis Lodge.
This family-owned hotel has been around for decades and we’ve enjoyed it with our own family and just the two of us. We usually hang out on the beach for most of our days here, but we also make time to drive up to Fort Macon State Park and the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
There are some great restaurants up and down NC-58, also known as Fort Macon Rd.
Our favorites include the Shark Shack (great for takeout) and Amos Mosquitos, and the list continues to grow each year. The Crab Shack in Salter Path (between Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle) is always penciled in for lunch or dinner.
We’re also big fans of Crystal Coast Brewing, a newer brewery with taps and cans for you to take home.
Bald Head Island
I think you could spend the rest of your life on Bald Head Island. This coastal village and its surroundings are perfect for people seeking a new start or a week away from everything.
When you get tired of lazying around the house, grab your golf cart and check out Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse. Speaking of golf, the Bald Head Island Club challenges you to conquer one of the most beautiful golf courses on the east coast.
Bring your own food for the trip but don’t miss a meal at Jules’ Salty Grub & Island Pub and Horizons (part of the Bald Head Island Club), among other tasty spots.
Walk it all off at the Kent Mitchell Nature Trail, which will take you through the maritime forest and on boardwalk bridges above the water.
Bald Head Island is one of the best NC coastal towns, but please keep reading, even if you’re ready to move here.
Tucked away from the mighty Pamlico River, Bath is one of the smallest towns in North Carolina, with a population of just over 200. Founded in 1705, it is the state’s oldest town and was North Carolina’s first port of entry.
Bath and its surroundings around Goose Creek were once the home to the infamous pirate Edward Teach, a.k.a “Blackbeard.” A marker commemorates his time living here before meeting his end near Springer’s Point off Ocracoke Island.
Some interesting historic landmarks are found here, St. Thomas Church (construction began in 1734). St. Thomas is North Carolina’s oldest existing church.
Additional historic sites include the following:
- The Palmer-Marsh House
- The Van Der Veer House
- The Bonner House
Enjoy a visit to these places and walk around Bonners Point along the shores of Bath Creek. Just don’t get any ideas about becoming a pirate, okay?
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Beaufort is a wonderful place to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. There’s quite a bit to do here, so don’t get any ideas about being bored.
Stroll along Main Street and discover great local restaurants and chic boutiques with a friendly community. Also, don’t forget to grab some grub at Beaufort Grocery CO and Moonrakers. The latter will give you a nice view of boats, Taylor Creek, and Carrot Island.
The wild horses of the Rachel Carson Reserve were the main reason we first stopped by Beaufort, and we were hooked on the town. You don’t need a lot of luck to see the horses from the waterfront, but you can get a closer look by hiring a boat to the Reserve.
Crystal Coast Ecotours are a great option, and they offer dolphin cruises, too.
You can also come here to visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum. They have some cool things to see throughout the year but keep an eye out for special events.
You may know Calabash as a style of cooking seafood, and that famous food is a major reason to visit the Brunswick County town. River Road and Nance Street are where you’ll find a huge collection of restaurants.
Some are seasonally open, so make sure you check before trying to get a table. Yes, Calabash is primarily known for seafood, but also some interesting places to shop and to head out for a boat tour.
Callahan’s of Calabash might be our favorite gift shop in North Carolina. It’s huge and never seems to end, so try not to get lost inside!
Carolina Beach is one of our favorite NC coastal towns near Wilmington.
The Carolina Beach Boardwalk is the first place we start. It’s home to endless food stands, including Nauti Dog and the North Carolina institution we know and love—Britt’s Donuts.
This beach strand is roomy, especially if you’re staying within walking distance.
Lake Park is another place we love to visit, especially to walk off a meal. Speaking of a walk, Carolina Beach State Park is full of wonderful hiking trails and scenic paths.
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Corolla sits at the northern end of the Outer Banks and is a bit more isolated than other towns. You’ll find more oceanfront mansions, gated communities, and wide-open beaches here.
Corolla is also home to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Whalehead Historic House Museum in Corolla Village. Some great restaurants are here, too, including Corolla Cantina and Lighthouse Bagels.
Many folks come here to see the Corolla wild horses. These natural beauties are protected by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, but there are quite a few tours that will take you to them.
Remember to keep your distance and never touch the horses. Their lives depend on your cooperation.
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We’ve fallen in love with Duck for a variety of reasons. The beach and boardwalk in this town are perfect for families, couples, and solo travelers alike.
You’ll see folks out riding their bike or enjoying walks along Duck Trail when they’re not hanging out at the beach. Personally, Duck offers a more residential feel than other NC coastal towns.
Of course, tourists flock to Duck each year, exponentially increasing its population by tens of thousands. They come to stay at Sanderling Resort or one of the many rentals available.
They also come for meals at Roadside Bar & Grill and NC Coast Grill & Bar, two of our favorite Outer Banks restaurants.
Read More: The Best Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Edenton was the first Colonial Capital in North Carolina and remains a wonderful coastal town.
Visitors can enjoy the most intact American Colonial Courthouse, which was built in 1767. In addition to this former courthouse is the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse, North Carolina’s only surviving screw-pile lighthouse.
Hop on a trolley tour from the Visitor Center and get a closer look at even more of Edenton’s awesome highlights.
Elizabeth City sits on the Pasquotank River and is more than a stop on the way to and from the Outer Banks.
Among the many things to do here, you should check out the Museum of the Albemarle. This is the northeastern branch of the NC Museum of History.
Enjoy the waterfront from Charles Creek Park or hire a boat to take you fishing or just out on the water. No matter what brings you, there’s something fun waiting in Elizabeth City.
Read More: 40+ of the Most Amazing Museums in North Carolina (for ALL Ages!)
Emerald Isle is one of the best beach towns in North Carolina. The town sits at the opposite end of Bogue Banks from Atlantic Beach. As one of the most popular beaches in North Carolina, EI can get very busy in the summer.
Of course, the town’s shops and restaurants are ready to handle the traffic. Cap’n Willis Seafood Market has all you need if you want to cook at home, too.
And while you’re in Emerald Isle, make sure you’re on the beach when the sun goes down. You’ll enjoy some of the best sunset views in all of North Carolina.
Holden Beach is one of the most quaint NC coastal towns and it lives up to its nickname as North Carolina’s Family Beach. No matter where you stay, you’ll be within a walk from the beach and the Intracoastal Waterway on the other side.
We love riding bikes along Ocean Blvd and around many of the sights found on the “Olden” Holden Trail.
Speaking of those sights, you can enjoy lovely views while eating at the Dock House by the Intracoastal Waterway or Provision across the Holden Beach Bridge.
For small beach towns in North Carolina like Holden Beach, remember to check on open hours because many places here are seasonally open.
“Heroes are born and trained” Jacksonville, which is primarily known for Camp LeJeune, the largest Marine Base in the Eastern United States. Spend some time at Lejeune Memorial Gardens and learn about those who’ve served and given everything for this country.
There’s really something to do for everyone in this town that sometimes feels like a city. Kids love Zing Zumm Children’s Museum of Jacksonville.
Drive out to Walton’s Distillery for a tasting and a tour. Remember to drink responsibly and have a designated driver ready.
Everyone will love the restaurants that await in Jacksonville and its surroundings. We’re particularly fond of Jeff’s and the Kettle Diner, but our opinion changes according to the time of day.
Read More: 20+ Amazing Children’s Museums in North Carolina for All
Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills is one of our go-to places to stay in The Outer Banks. It’s one of the busiest sections of the barrier islands, with more shops, restaurants, and beach access points.
When we’re not at the beach or eating at Kill Devil Grill, we love visiting the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Nags Head Woods, which the town co-manages with Nags Head.
While the Wright Brothers National Memorial is in Kill Devil Hills, that town didn’t exist for another 50 years after Orville and Wilbur first flew. Kitty Hawk was the nearest settlement and where the Wright Brothers sent a telegram announcing their achievement.
Beyond that fun historic tidbit, Kitty Hawk is also home to many shops, restaurants, and one of the best beach towns in North Carolina. I Got Your Crabs will always be one of our favorite places to smash locally caught crab with a mallet, skillfully of course.
Of course, there are plenty of things to do in Kitty Hawk beyond the beach. That includes the 1,877-acre Kitty Hawk Woods and the 18-hole Sea Scape Golf Course.
We love Carolina Beach but have also enjoyed the much chiller vibe found at its neighbor Kure Beach. As one of the lesser-known, small beach towns in North Carolina, Kure Beach is often overlooked, but there are still plenty of fun things to do!
Start with their relatively less crowded beaches and fishing pier, and you’ll quickly fall in love with this town.
Head down to the southern terminus of US-421 and visit the interesting Civil War-era Fort Fisher State Historic Site. It’s one of the most beautiful places in North Carolina, even considering the violent battles that took place there.
The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is one of our favorite museums throughout North Carolina, especially on rainy days.
When the weather isn’t an issue, we also love stopping by Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. The NC State Parks-managed site has a nice beach and even a 4X4 section (permit required), but there are also trails and a nifty visitor center to explore.
Depending on your route to the Outer Banks, Manteo might be the first town you encounter. It sits on Roanoke Island, which is infamously known for the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Colony.
You can learn about it while visiting Fort Raleigh, a National Parks Service-managed site, or by attending a Lost Colony production. The Elizabethan Gardens is another fun place to visit and you can visit all three from the same parking spot.
The Waterfront in Manteo is another beautiful spot, with shops and restaurants galore waiting. Poor Richard’s is one eatery you need to visit, and don’t forget about Outer Banks Distilling.
Hang out and drink responsibly at their bar or grab a bottle of their delicious Kill Devil Rum to take home! OBX Distilling is definitely one of our favorite North Carolina distilleries!
Morehead City is one of our favorite NC coastal towns, especially in June during the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. That massive event brings people from all over, including the greatest basketball player who ever lived.
There’s also the North Carolina Seafood Festival at the end of September and the beginning of October. I hope to participate as a judge at that fun event someday.
The Morehead City Waterfront is a great place to go for a stroll and check out the water and boats passing by. You may have it to yourself during colder months but during the summer, people are coming from far and wide to grab a bite at one of Morehead’s awesome restaurants.
Our favorites include the Sanitary Fish Market and Southern Salt Seafood Company by the water. El’s Drive-in might be the most famous place to eat in Morehead City, and you probably know it if you’re from the area.
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Nags Head is the first beach town you’ll see after crossing the bridge from Manteo. It’s home to the iconic Jennette’s Pier and a fabulous stretch of beach that gets packed during the summer months.
There are also plenty of ways to explore the sound in Nags Head. Jockeys Ridge State Park is one of them, home to the tallest natural sand dunes on the East Coast.
It’s a great spot to watch the sunset, but you can also do that while eating at Miller’s Waterfront.
Some of our other go-to places to eat in Nags Head include Grits Grill and Tortugas Lie, and there are tons more places to dig into.
We quickly learned that New Bern is one of the tightest-knit NC coastal towns. You can learn all about this town while walking around downtown and hunting for bear statues, which are scattered throughout.
History abounds in New Bern, as you’ll find at Tryon Palace or when visiting the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola.
New Bern’s African-American Heritage Tour is another great way to learn about this charming town. You’ll follow the tour from the Convention Center to more than 10 landmarks and historic buildings.
There’s also the beautiful Union Point Park, where you can stare out at the water and the bridges carrying the day’s traffic. When you’re hungry, you’ll have tons of local restaurants to choose from, like Persimmons on the water, Baker’s Kitchen in town, and many more.
Read More: 15+ Awesome Things to Do in New Bern (and Nearby!)
Oak Island is the perfect spot to have a beach getaway, with quite a few beach access points within a walk from most rentals.
One of the most beautiful places to watch a sunset is from the Point, though. You can see the sun go down behind Holden Beach just across the water.
If you feel the need for more seclusion, head over to Caswell Beach. On the other side of the island, Oak Island Lighthouse and its surroundings offer views of the water, Bald Head Island, and Old Baldy Lighthouse across the way.
We also love eating in Oak Island, especially the seafood at Tranquil Harbour Restaurant and Bar and the burritos at Kai Joe’s. This town is certainly in the running for our favorite beach getaway.
Read More: 8 Beautiful Brunswick County Beaches to Explore
Ocean Isle Beach
Ask anyone about the best beaches in NC or check the comments in our social media posts and you’ll likely see Ocean Isle Beach as the first answer.
It’s hard to argue with people, though, especially when you first drive over the Intracoastal Waterway. The canals that you see are enough to keep you hooked on this place.
Along with an excellent beach strand, there are great parks in Ocean Isle Beach. There’s the adventure-friendly Swamp Park and the playgrounds at Ocean Isle Beach Park and Town Center Park, perfect for kids.
Endangered sea turtles also call this town “home,” and the OIB Sea Turtle Protection Organization watches over the nesting and hatching seasons.
A relative feeling of seclusion makes Ocracoke’s pristine beaches and untouched maritime forests feel even more special.
Springer’s Point Nature Preserve is one particular spot that brings together both beaches and forests. It also leads you to the beach that looks out to the Pamlico Sound and where Blackbeard was killed.
Explore the village by golf cart or by renting a bike and riding around. There are some things that you won’t see when driving a car.
You’ll likely visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse first thing, but don’t forget about the Pony Pen on the way to the Hatteras Ferry Terminal.
One of our favorite things to do is to grab a bite at one of Ocracoke Island’s great restaurants!
There are too many to name here. We think you should dig into them and report back to us!
Read More: Portsmouth Island (How to See this Beautiful Uninhabited Place)
Home to the North Carolina Fourth of July Festival, Southport is a lovely coastal town that’s served as a backdrop for multiple TV shows and films. You can hang out by Waterfront Park and walk off your meal at Fishy Fishy Cafe or American Fish Company.
One of the North Carolina Maritime Museum locations is also here. It shares space with the Fort Johnston-Southport Museum, which occupies the Garrison House.
Of our NC coastal towns, Sunset Beach is home to the southernmost beach in North Carolina. Speaking of which, you can spend all day (or year) relaxing on the beautiful beach here
A walk on the Sunset Beach Pier is worth moving from your spot, though.
Bird Island’s salt marsh and tidal creeks are another wonderful reason to visit Sunset Beach. There’s also the Kindred Spirit Mailbox, which is similar to the one found on Wrightsville Beach.
Learn the history of Sunset Beach (and its future) at the Swing Bridge & Museum. Don’t forget about the Ingram Planetarium, where interesting exhibits and programs await.
Surf City is the largest town on the 26-mile-long Topsail Island. Even though it’s the island’s geographic center, the town still has that laid-back vibe we all crave.
The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is one of the best things to do in North Carolina, not just in Surf City. Open from June through December, this volunteer-run non-profit rescues and cares for sea turtles of North Carolina.
The Surf City Ocean Pier offers a nice view of the beach and plenty of anglers to watch. After a “busy” day on the beach, visit the Salty Turtle Beer Company for high-quality, innovative brews.
If you are looking for something fun and unique to do while in Surf City, check out Board and Brush! It’s great for families and even date nights, as this is where you can pick a project and create together.
Sears Landing and Daddy Mac’s Beach Grille are a couple of our favorite places to eat in Surf City, but we think you’ll find even more deliciousness here.
Read More: 17 of the Best Topsail Island Restaurants (Great Food for All!)
Swansboro sits between Jacksonville and Cedar Point and is more than a nice stop on the way to Emerald Isle. The town is largely known for its wonderful waterfront.
We love walking around Front St, where you can shop and eat all day long.
You can also take a boat from Swansboro or nearby Hammocks Beach State Park to reach Bear Island, just across the inlet. It’s one of the best places to go shelling and enjoy some isolation along North Carolina’s coast.
The Jolly Roger Pier is an excellent introduction to Topsail Beach, which is just south of Surf City. Cast a reel here or just enjoy beautiful views of the green water as we do.
You can sometimes see dolphins and sea turtles from the end of the pier, if you’re lucky.
Serenity Point at the southern tip of Topsail Island is an undeveloped area and perfect for beachgoers. There is limited FREE parking, which adds to the privacy you’ll get.
Another interesting fact about Topsail Island is that it could’ve become our very own Cape Canaveral! During the 1940s, the then-uninhabited island was the site of a top-secret rocket launch mission (Operation Bumblebee).
The Missiles and More Museum shares more of this unique history, along with exhibits on local history, Pirates, and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) that was developed in response to World War II.
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You may fondly know Washington as “Little Washington” and we’ll sometimes alternate names of the town, too. It sits on the Pamlico River’s northern bank, with a cozy historic waterfront for walks or picnics.
There are restaurants all around, including Bill’s Hot Dogs. You may see their mobile Bill’s on Wheels in other parts of Eastern NC.
Just don’t forget about King Chicken Drive-in and Down on Mainstreet when hunting for places to eat in Washington.
Goose Creek State Park is also nearby, between Washington and Bath. It’s a great place to explore and get out on the water.
Wilmington is also known as Port City and Wilmywood, but we think of it as one of the best NC coastal towns.
It’s certainly the biggest, with a scenic riverfront along the Cape Fear River and walkable downtown. One of our favorite things to do in Wilmington is to visit the Wilmington Railroad Museum, a great place for kids.
The city is also known as a gateway to amazing beaches, including Wrightsville Beach (see below), Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach. We think you should stick around and stay for a while in Wilmington, though.
Wilmington has an awesome restaurant scene and some of the coolest breweries in North Carolina. It’s also home to quite a few historic buildings, including Bellamy Mansion.
Across the Cape Fear River is Battleship North Carolina, a preserved ship from the World War II era. We could go on about how much we love Wilmington and hope you’re able to explore it as much as we have!
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Wrightsville Beach is the last but not least of our favorite NC coastal towns. It’s home to some of the prettiest water in North Carolina, great surf, and five miles of wide, sandy beach.
Surfing, paddleboarding, and fishing are some of the most popular activities here.
Even if you’re not casting a reel from Johnnie Mercer’s Pier, you’ll enjoy a stroll on the only concrete fishing pier in North Carolina.
Also, don’t forget to visit the Wrightsville Beach Mailbox, in front of Shell Island Resort. It contains letters, notes, and words of encouragement left by strangers.
Wrightsville Beach is also a good jumping-off point to Masonboro Island Reserve, a beautiful and relatively untapped patch of sand nearby. Boat companies like Wrightsville Scenic Beach Tours will take you out there.
What are Your Favorite NC Coastal Towns?
We’ve fallen in love with each of these NC coastal towns during multiple trips and can’t wait to come back to them all. It’s so hard to choose a favorite, so we’ll leave it to you.
If you’re familiar with these towns, we’d love to know which one you think is the best. You can let us know in the comments below or by email.
Don’t forget to share your adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group.