Last Updated on October 30, 2022
Last Updated on October 30, 2022
If you’ve never visited this excellent section of North Carolina‘s coast, now is the time to go. A fascinating history, tons of places to explore, great food, and beautiful scenery all around are just a part of the fun here.
Our guide covers all of that and more, with a few sections dedicated to the area’s background. Here’s how we’ve organized this guide because there’s a lot to unpack before you go:
- Where are the Outer Banks?
- Quick Outer Banks Facts
- When to Visit (Anytime)
- Where to Stay
- Annual Events
- The Best Things to Do in the Outer Banks (Beaches, Sunrise, Sunset, and More!)
- Unique Things to Do in the Outer Banks (with Town Listed)
- Where to Eat (the Best Outer Banks Restaurants)
- More Things to Do in the Outer Banks (NC Travel Guides)
You can skip ahead to any of the sections mentioned above or keep reading for some quick geography, facts, and the best things to do in the Outer Banks.
Read More: Unique Things to Do in North Carolina
Where are the Outer Banks?
Before we cover the best things to do in the Outer Banks, it’s important to understand where they’re located.
- Obviously, the Outer Banks are located in Eastern North Carolina, but there are a few different ideas on which parts of the coast are included.
- Some have declared the Outer Banks to only include Currituck, Dare, and Hyde Counties.
- Others have expanded them all the way south through the entirety of Cape Lookout and the Bogue Banks (Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, etc).
- Until we see an official declaration on borders, our definition of the Outer Banks of North Carolina remains as follows: from north to south, Carova Beach to Portsmouth Island and Cape Lookout.
- That includes the following towns and locations (organized mostly north to south):
- Carova Beach
- Southern Shores
- Kitty Hawk
- Kill Devil Hills
- Nags Head
- Bodie Island
- Oregon Inlet
- Portsmouth Island
- Shackleford Banks
Read More: The NC Tripping North Carolina Travel Map
Quick Outer Banks Facts
Here are a few Outer Banks facts that are not up for debate, though.
- The number of islands and inlets here always changes, due to severe storms opening some up and closing others.
- In fact (hey, that’s the name of this post!), the stretch that runs along the Outer Banks is so historically rough for sailors that it’s long been referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” We’ll touch more on that later.
- The Outer Banks is also home to some interesting history, including the first attempted English Colony on Roanoke Island, Blackbeard’s demise near Ocracoke Island, the first recorded air flight in Kill Devil Hills (then Kitty Hawk), and more.
When to Visit (Anytime)
We’ve been asked the question, “When should you visit the Outer Banks” many times. Here’s a quick breakdown by seasons:
- Summer (High Season or Peak): You may be dead set on planning a summer Outer Banks vacation, and we’re with you. Everything is open, the water is at its warmest, and you’re at one of North Carolina’s best beaches for it all.
- Spring and Fall (Shoulder Season): Just give the Outer Banks a chance during the spring or fall when the weather is still warm. The only issue with spring is cold temperatures occasionally return and the fall is when hurricanes may still make their way to our coast.
- Winter (Off-Season): Of course, we agree, but what about during the off-season in the winter? In fact, we think the Outer Banks is among the best winter getaways in North Carolina. Some places may not be open, and temperatures may be cooler than during the rest of the year, but the scenery won’t change too much, and fewer people are vying for those incredible views. Give it a thought, and if you’ve ever visited the Outer Banks during winter, we’d love to know what you think.
If you’ve been to the area, we’d love to know, what’s your favorite time of year to visit the Outer Banks?
Where to Stay
- Hampton Inn in Corolla
- Sanderling Resort at the northern end of Duck, just south of Corolla
- TownePlace Suites by Marriott in Kill Devil Hills
- Holiday Inn Express in Nags Head
- KOA campground in Rodanthe
- Blackbeard’s Lodge and the Pony Island Inn on Ocracoke Island
Another alternative is to stay on the mainland side of Currituck County. You’ll have to drive over the bridge each day to get to the beach. However, we think you’ll love the KOA that’s right on the Currituck Sound in Coinjock.
Annual Events in the Outer Banks
These annual events are among the best things to do in the Outer Banks. Keep them on your calendar because you won’t want to miss out!
- March: Taste of the Beach (Throughout)
- July: Fourth of July (Throughout)
- August: Ocracoke Fig Festival
- October: Duck Jazz Festival, OBX Brewtag (Kill Devil Hills), Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree (Ocracoke)
- November and December: Christmas Parades, Christmas Villages, and Christmas Lights
- December: Anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ First Flight, Duck Yuletide Celebration, and the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association Oyster Roast & Shrimp Boil
Do you know of any other events that we should add? Kindly let us know in the comments or by email!
Things to Do in the Outer Banks (Best Attractions)
Here are the best things to do in the Outer Banks, regardless of when you visit (mostly). Keep in mind that some activities could be closed for the season, so be sure to call ahead before you head out!
This section is for the hits throughout the barrier islands. We will cover unique Outer Banks attractions in specific towns shortly.
Outer Banks Beaches
There are so many Outer Banks beaches to explore. One thing to remember is that public parking can be limited in some places, especially on weekends.
Nags Head is one of the busiest beaches along the Atlantic Ocean, and you’ll see why. Its gorgeous wide spaces are the first indicator. Personal favorites also include the beaches of Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Duck.
In our opinion, the best Outer Banks beach sits down on Hatteras Island, near Hatteras Lighthouse. We also think it’s one of the best beaches in North Carolina.
The Sound (Pamlico and Currituck)
The first of many people’s things to do in the Outer Banks is to relax on the beachside, but don’t forget about the Pamlico Sound and Currituck Sound between the mainland and the barrier islands.
While there are no waves to surf on the sound side, we love that the sound’s waters are relatively calm and warmer than the beach. A couple of great spots to enjoy the sound’s waters are at Jockey’s Ridge State Park or the KOA in Coinjock.
While it’s one continuous body of water, they’ve been divided into five named sounds, from the northern Currituck Sound down to the Pamlico Sound that meets the Pamlico River.
We won’t include the Core Sound further because that area to the south is typically known as the Crystal Coast.
One of our favorite things to do in the Outer Banks is to see the day start and end with beautiful sunrises and sunsets. But, of course, the best place to watch the sunrise is from your balcony if you’ve booked a rental on the beach.
If you can’t wake up early enough for a beach sunrise (it is vacation, after all!), then catch a sunset on the sound side. There are many Outer Banks sunset spots, including Duck Boardwalk, Miller’s Waterfront Restaurant in Nags Head, and anywhere on the sound side.
- Surfing: People come from all over to go surfing in the Outer Banks. That’s largely thanks to some of the best waves you’ll find on the East Coast. The Eastern Surfing Association likes the waves here, too, and hosts its Mid-Atlantic Regionals each year in Nags Head.
- Fishing: Not only can you stare at the water and enjoy the beaches here, but the Outer Banks is also an excellent spot for fishermen and -women. You can fish from piers, on the surf, or from a chartered boat and enjoy many more angling opportunities.
- Kayaking, Stand-up-paddleboarding, and Boating:
- Guided Tours: Depending on where you’re staying or where you can travel to, you can join guided fishing tours, kayak tours, cruises, jet skis, parasailing, or just about any other form of watersports.
- Equipment Rentals: Like with guided tours, there are companies throughout the Outer Banks to help you with equipment rentals. Our North Carolina Travel Map and Eastern North Carolina Map have as many listed as we’ve come across.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway
If you want to feel like you’re really on the edge of the United States, take a drive down NC Highway 12 through Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It’s also known as the Outer Banks Scenic Byway, one of our favorite roads to drive in North Carolina.
Seeing the water on both sides of the road is a remarkable thing. There are some fun places to stop along the way, too.
Outer Banks Lighthouses
There are seven coastal lighthouses in North Carolina and one replica.
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Ocracoke Lighthouse
- Cape Lookout Lighthouse
- Old Baldy Lighthouse
- Oak Island Lighthouse
- Roanoke Marshes (replica)
These lighthouses form an essential piece of maritime history in The Outer Banks, North Carolina, and the United States.
Outer Banks Hiking Trails
There are plenty of fun hiking trails to explore in nature preserves throughout the Outer Banks. Our favorites include the following:
- Jockey’s Ridge
- Kitty Hawk Woods
- Nags Head Woods
- Sea Breeze Trail Through the Hatteras Village Park
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
- More Here!
The Outer Banks also has a few breweries worth any day of the week or weekend. Of course, you can find a few of them at any Brew-thru, but we think any NC beer lover should check them all out in person.
- Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe in the historic town of Manteo has fantastic food to go along with an excellent selection of British and Irish-style beers.
- Weeping Radish is North Carolina’s oldest microbrewery, and its current location in Grandy offers a pub, butchery, and brewery open to tours. Owner Uli Bennewitz shared his story with us on NC Travel Chat from its beginnings to today.
- And then there’s Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills, the first wind-powered brewery in the US. Step inside and order from their massive tap list, food throughout the day and evening, and enjoy their jam-packed events calendar.
Read More: The Best Breweries in North Carolina
- Join a tour in Corolla.
- Drive to the Ocracoke Pony Pen. Don’t worry. They have plenty of space to roam. The land is protected by the National Parks Service.
- Take a boat to Shackleford Banks. There, you can relax on the beach and, on a good day, watch the wild horses.
Important Note: If you get to see them, please don’t approach the horses and touch them.
Unique Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Those are the best attractions but these are unique things to do in the Outer Banks towns, alphabetically-organized and covering everything from Corolla down to the former port town of Portsmouth.
Cape Lookout (and Shackelford Banks)
Portsmouth and the barrier islands to its south are part of Cape Lookout National Seashore. This area is more commonly known as the Crystal Coast (don’t fight me!) and is more accessible to reach via Harkers Island or Beaufort in Carteret County.
You can take your own boat or book a tour with Island Ferry Adventures. They’ll take you to either Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Shackelford Banks (home to wild horses), or both.
Sure, we already mentioned wild horses in the section before this one, but I don’t think you’ll complain about more mentions of them.
Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station (Rodanthe)
While driving through Rodanthe on the Outer Banks Scenic Byway, you’ll come upon the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station. Chicamacomico was the first life-saving station along North Carolina’s coast, commissioned in late 1874.
Here, you can learn about America’s only life-saving station crewed by African-Americans. It’s one of many important places to visit and learn about Black history in North Carolina.
One notable feat of heroism came in 1896 when the surfmen rescued all nine passengers of the ES Newman while battling a hurricane.
Duck’s sound side boardwalk stretches about a mile along the Currituck Sound, with Duck Town Park at its center. Sunset is the best time for a walk here, but you can enjoy gorgeous views throughout the day.
If you brought your boat or kayak, there are two slips at either end and one public kayak launch accessible near Duck Town Park.
Elizabethan Gardens (Manteo)
At the Elizabethan Gardens, you’ll find an extensive collection of hydrangeas, camellias, historic herbs, and coastal species. One highly regarded feature of this garden is a rose sent by HM Queen Elizabeth II from the rose garden at Windsor Castle.
There’s also a live oak tree that’s estimated to be alive since 1585.
We also love the Discovery Cottage, which is designed for kids to learn through play. The Elizabethan Gardens is also part of the NC Birding Trail.
Fort Raleigh (Manteo)
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves the attempted English colony of Roanoke. That was the first preserved English settlement in the US, founded in July 1587 by John White and sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh.
Of course, the Roanoke Colony is famous for its mysterious disappearance in 1590.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site commemorates the colony’s history through exhibits and preservation efforts. There are nature trails throughout the complex, which allow you to follow in the footsteps of the settlers who disappeared.
As long as you stay on the designated trail, you should have no problems.
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (Hatteras)
Before or after riding the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry, we suggest you spend some time at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Exhibits inside honor the area’s maritime history and culture.
Wars, piracy, and ghost ships are just a few of the topics covered at one of our favorite museums in North Carolina.
Historic Corolla Village
Corolla Village sits just a few miles south of the 4X4 beach access and where the wild horses roam. Walking around this historic collection of shops, residences, and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park (Nags Head)
The sand dunes here are the tallest set of natural ones on the East Coast. Watching the wind blow over them will take you away to another planet.
Seeing a beautiful sunset from one of Jockey’s Ridge’s dunes will remind you that it’s still earth. You can also fly kites or hang glide with Kitty Hawk Kites, another reason why Jockey’s Ridge is one of our absolute favorite state parks.
Jennette’s Pier (Nags Head)
We could name all the piers in the Outer Banks but want to give a shoutout to the ever-photogenic Jennette’s Pier. You can visit this popular pier for fishing but also for a stroll away from the shore.
There’s a small aquarium (affiliated with NC Aquariums) inside, along with shops for gear and souvenirs. You can hang out here for hours, staring out at the water or along the beach. Just make sure you get down to the beach and grab some photos of it, too.
Lost Colony (Manteo)
Lost Colony is a well-known play that commemorates the events of our first colonists. It’s been in production for many years and there’s even a plaque that indicates President Franklin D Roosevelt once attended a show.
And speaking of Manteo, this town is a nice change of pace from the rest of The Outer Banks, even though things aren’t too chaotic elsewhere.
We like coming here for the Waterfront, but the Roanoke Island Museum and the other places we’ve already mentioned make this a must-visit when staying in The Outer Banks.
NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island (Manteo)
Occasionally, you might run into bad weather during your visit, but don’t worry! There are some great indoor places to go and things to do.
The NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island is where you should start, full of fun for families and anyone interested in learning about North Carolina’s aquatic wildlife and habitats.
There are also fun places to eat on Ocracoke Island, including Smacnally’s and Eduardo’s, to name two of many.
Oregon Inlet Life-Saving Station (Pea Island)
Drive down NC-12 (or up) and you’ll pass the Oregon Inlet Lifesaving Station. Once a working station, the place is currently abandoned and under the care of the North Carolina Aquariums.
We’re hoping that preservation efforts can keep this place safe from demolition, as there are surely plenty of stories to tell about it.
You can get a closer look at the station from the Bonner Bridge Pier or by walking to it. Be careful as you do, though.
Outer Banks Distilling (Manteo)
Learn about the rum’s history in the area at Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo during any week spent in the Outer Banks. The owners are genuinely great guys, too.
And hopefully, you’ll come away inspired to the tune of looking into following your passions as they did. So pick up a bottle of rum (aka Kill Devil. Hence the name “Kill Devil Hills”) and some candied pecans.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
After Bodie Island Lighthouse, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of the first things to do in the Outer Banks in Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It’s definitely worth a stop for the short walk, with tons of bird-viewing opportunities and beautiful views awaiting.
South of Ocracoke and at the northern end of the Core Banks and Cape Lookout is Portsmouth Island. It was once an important port town but today, Portsmouth is relatively isolated.
You can take a boat from Ocracoke to get there. There has been some damage from Hurricane Dorian, but preservation efforts have persevered through much worse.
Walk around and admire the historic structures and overall beauty of this island. Just be sure to pack some bug spray and thank us later!
Springer’s Point (Ocracoke)
Near the lighthouse is Springer’s Point Nature Preserve, a wonderful place that leads to a pristine beach bordering the Pamlico Sound.
The waters beyond that beach are where Blackbeard was killed. They are known as Teach’s Hole today, as a result.
Speaking of Blackbeard, if you’re around in October, definitely check out Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree!
The Wright Brothers National Memorial (Kill Devil Hills)
If you ever wondered why North Carolina license plates read “First in Flight,” the Wright Brothers National Memorial will show you why. You can walk around outside and see the spot where the “first flight” occurred.
There’s a reconstructed camp to show where and how the Wright Brothers lived and a monument to commemorate this historic site.
The visitor’s center is pretty nice, too, with tributes to the Wright Brothers, their creations, and many other pioneers and trailblazers in the sky.
Where to Eat (the Best Outer Banks Restaurants)
Some pretty incredible places to eat in The Outer Banks remain open throughout the year, no matter when you’re visiting. Here are a few of our favorites listed by town:
- Duck: Cravings, NC Coast and Grill, The Roadside, and The Original Duck Donuts
- Corolla: Lighthouse Bagels and Corolla Cantina
- Kitty Hawk: I Got Your Crabs, OBX Trio, and Stack em’ High (also in Kill Devil Hills)
- Kill Devil Hills: Awful Arthur’s, Food Dude’s Kitchen, and Kill Devil Grill
- Nags Head: Biscuits N’ P*rn, Black Pelican, Miller’s Waterfront, and Waveriders Coffee, Deli, & Pub
- Manteo: Poor Richard’s
- Avon: Pangea Tavern
- Buxton: Buxton Munch and Orange Blossom Bakery
- Ocracoke: Eduardo’s and Plum Pointe Kitchen
Ready to Dig Into these Fun Things to Do in the Outer Banks?
So we’re pretty hooked on this part of our state and can’t wait to get back there. Among these fun things to do in the Outer Banks, which ones are your favorites?
Is it the beach, the fun things to do beyond the water, or something else? We’d love to know about your favorite things to do in the Outer Banks.
If you haven’t visited yet, please feel free to share your first experience with us here or in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group!
More Things to Do in the Outer Banks (Travel Guides)
We’ve created more NC travel guides that cover these things to do in the Outer Banks in greater detail. Here are a few of them.