The Outer Banks goes by many monikers. Off the coast of North Carolina, it’s a haven of untouched natural seascape and quaint, small-town charm. The Outer Banks, or OBX for short is renowned for its rich history, from pirates to planes to pilgrims. Many frequent this area of the world to discover beautiful Outer Banks beaches.
As a long chain of barrier islands, it’s surrounded on all sides by sparkling sea and still sound waters. Famous for fish, OBX is full of fresh seafood to savor. Most of all, OBX is home to hundreds of miles of pristine sandy shores – perfect for a dream beach getaway!
Whatever your desires may be, you can find them in the Outer Banks. For a secluded and slowed down escape from the everyday, there are some of the most relaxing and paradisiacal villages. For a fun-filled adventure, take your pick of water activities to try out, and kitschy seaside shops to visit in sunny and charming towns. A true gem of the East Coast, the banks aren’t your average destination for a beach vacation.
Each town has its own identity and unique thrills to discover, and heading here is one of the best things to do in North Carolina. Join the ever-growing club of OBX diehards. As they’re sure to tell you, once you’ve visited the Outer Banks, they will hold a special place in your heart for all your years to come.
The Best Outer Banks Beaches
In the 1900s, the Wright Brothers famously carried out experiments in flight right in our very own Outer Banks. Kitty Hawk’s name has spread far and wide in unison with the beginnings of aviation. The architecture of the area is centered on historic beach homes, offering a quaint, small-town charm.
As it rests on such a wide section of the Outer Banks, it was originally home to much of the development in the area. It’s still known as the heart of and a jumping off point for the rest of the Outer Banks beach towns. This town development was designed to be in harmony with its stunning surrounding nature.
It’s believed that its name comes from an indigenous phrase meaning “a place to hunt geese”. While there is now much more here attracting visitors every year, the goose population is still holding strong. The Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve has many cute residents, namely otters and sea turtles.
It’s a 461-acre maritime forest – perfect for enchanting walks on long meandering trails to explore these protected ecosystems. This is also the town where you will find some of the largest waves in the Northern Outer Banks. Due to this, surfing and skimboarding is one of the best things to do in Kitty Hawk. Whether you want watersports or woodland wanders, Kitty Hawk has it all.
This stretch of sandy coastline is home to a vibrant community and a wealth of natural beauty. Nags Head is known for having the longest public pier in North Carolina, a charming wooden structure that provides the perfect sunset stroll. There is an abundance of beachside amenities here, making it an Outer Banks vacation hotspot.
Nags Head is known as one of the best beaches in the Outer Banks, and one of the best beaches in North Carolina for that matter. Be sure to see one of the most beautiful NC lighthouses. Bodie Island Lighthouse, an impressive seaside structure from the 1870s which offers sweeping views over the banks. The former keeper’s house here has since been turned into a quirky and informative museum.
There are many boat trips available for an on-the-water adventure, both for a fun day filled with beautiful views or a foray into fishing. Nags Head Woods Preserve boasts many tranquil treks for journeys into stunning forested scenery. Find the secret beach by taking Roanoke Trail through picturesque salt marshes.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to otherworldly sand dunes that you can explore via all-terrain vehicles, hang gliding, or hiking. There are plenty of shops and restaurants – grab a snack with a sea breeze or browse the bohemian boutiques. Nags Head is home to the largest array of galleries in the Banks – perfect if you’re interested in engaging in some artistic exploration!
Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills is just the busy, bustling beach town that you may expect. It’s home to all of the usual beachfront shops, selling trinkets to tourists with just the right amount of kitsch. There are many hotels and resorts in the area for a luxury stay.
There are eateries and bars galore, so take your pick for delicious oceanfront dining and drinking. Kill Devil Hills is the most populated town in the Outer Banks, and it’s also the oldest official town. With plenty to see and do, you’ll never be bored in Kill Devil Hills. For this reason, it’s one of the most popular Outer Banks destinations.
One popular theory for the name of the town is that their rum was strong enough to kill the devil – be sure to keep that in mind when ordering your pina colada! The National Wright Brother Memorial is here, as they used the local sand dunes to take off.
There are miles of public beaches here, perfect for any shoreline activity you desire – bask in the warm sunshine or practice those sand castle skills. Check out the Avalon Pier for fishing, crabbing, surfing, or parasailing. Alternatively, have a look at Seascape Golf Links for a challenging game on a gorgeous course.
Here, you will find stunning, sweeping views across the Atlantic Ocean making it one of the best Outer Banks beaches. There is little commercial development in this area, resulting in a more undisturbed beach-going experience.
Southern Shores is almost entirely residential, and it has an overtone of secluded charm. The shores are quiet and calm – ideal for a tranquil escape away from it all. There is a paved trail that extends the length of the entire town making it a great space to enjoy a relaxing stroll or bike ride.
The golf course Duck Woods is located here and beloved among links enthusiasts for its up-scale facilities. There are a few adorable seafood spots here with fresh fish every day. It boasts a friendly neighborhood feel.
There are a couple of convenient shopping centers for anything you may need, but your time will undoubtedly be spent on the pristine sandy shores for some elusive and essential R&R. Southern Shores is secretly one of the best beaches in the Outer Banks.
If you have a furry friend in tow this vacation, Duck Beach is one of the best Outer Banks beaches for you. Not much of a resort town, you will probably need to rent a cozy beach cottage, or possibly extravagant beach estate for your stay.
Duck is also home to the original Duck Donuts. We recommend a breakfast stop here at least once while you’re in town. There are also some of the best shopping and culinary destinations here in Duck. They host several festive events throughout the year, and you will easily find live music to enjoy regularly.
The town is welcoming and friendly – ask a local for their favorite pizza joint or seafood spot. Named after its abundant waterfowl population, the beaches here are also known for their impressive shell collecting opportunities. The boardwalk stretches out along the calm, lapping waves of the sound, and is dotted with eclectic storefronts. There are also several acclaimed spas in the area if you’re looking to be pampered.
Corolla is a special beach town in the Outer Banks. Its name means the collection of petals on a flower, and its atmosphere is just as delightful. Corolla’s main draw is the population of wild horses which roam the coastline here. Be sure to appreciate the beauty of the Spanish Mustangs from a safe distance as they have been living free for centuries!
Sandwiched between the ocean and the sound, you get a great mix of salty waves, or calm waters on either side. This means you really have your pick of water activities – try your hand at kayaking the sound, or grab a board and hang ten. Its diverse range of activities make it one of the best beaches in the Outer Banks.
Corolla moves at its own laid-back pace, so expect to slow down and really soak up each moment here. There is an overflow of seafront community charm with plenty of little stores and cafes to puruse and enjoy. The Whalehead Club is a historic attraction in the area, frequented for its architecture and antique furnishings. Currituck Lighthouse boasts sweeping panoramas and interesting educational exhibits to learn more about the surrounding sea.
Currituck National Wildlife Refuge shelters many species of local wildlife and stunning scenery. Be sure to visit the Center for Wildlife Education to learn more about the lovely flora and fauna. The Grass Course is miniature golf on an all-natural grass course – it’s guaranteed great beach time fun for everyone!
Located on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore at the far southern end of the banks, Ocracoke is accessible only by boat. This adds to the mystique and seclusion of the space. It’s a quaint and historic town with calm and quiet beaches.
Hop aboard a ferry and make your way to this magical haven. Keep your eyes out for plenty of native wildlife here such as bears, birds, and ponies. This island is known as one of the best shelling spots on the Outer Banks, so be ready to do some sandy searching.
The atmosphere is both casual and carefree – ideal for an out of the way getaway. Everything is accessible once there, and every business is locally owned. There is a plethora of eclectic shops and cute restaurants to choose from.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the second oldest in the nation, a beacon of the historical significance of the area. Ask the locals about the legend of Blackbeard, the man who gave the island its unique name. Ocracoke definitely stands out in the banks, and that’s why we love it.
If you’re hoping to fish on your Outer Banks excursion, then you’ll be hooked on Hatteras Island. It’s home to several small villages and long stretches of shoreline. It’s an often uncrowded and charming beach break to take.
Over the centuries it has been the site of over 600 shipwrecks as the sandbars here can shift due to rough waves and currents. As such, it’s often referred to as the graveyard of the Atlantic. It also happens to be one of the best birding spots on the East Coast, so be sure to bring your binoculars.
With much of its land protected, its untamed nature and historical charm can often feel like not only an escape from the everyday, but an escape from the modern day as well. The villages are Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras are each with their own draws and delights to discover. Explore the lush landscape full of pristine woodlands, dunes, and marshes.
An oasis for travelers looking to step back in time and enjoy the basics, you won’t find the kitschy frills that often come with other beach towns. Hatteras is one of the longest islands in the country. Surfing and kiteboarding have also become popular pastimes here.
Roanoke Island is shrouded in history and mystery as it was the site of the first English colony in the New World. It’s also the site where the 120 settlers of this colony simply vanished. There are many theories of the Lost Colony, as it’s now known, but to this day it remains a legend of intrigue and uncertainty.
It’s also famously the birthplace of Virginia Dare, the first English person born in America. There are many sites dedicated to learning about this phenomenon on the island. The North Carolina Aquarium is also located here, a favorite visit of many who head to Roanoke.
Roanoke has the largest concentration of attractions in the Outer Banks, so if you’re looking for a busy and active trip, this is the place for you. Buffered from the Atlantic Ocean, this island lies between the mainland and the chain of barrier islands that make up the rest of the banks.
Instead, the waters which surround it are the Roanoke Sound and the Croatian Sound. Its landscape is wooded with ancient pines and hidden marshland. Its distinctive island geography really sets it apart from the pack. Wanchese and Manteo are the two towns on the island – one a sleepy fishing village and the other packed with plenty to see and do.
Avon Beach has miles and miles of undeveloped beaches. It is a popular spot for surfing, fishing, and watersports and is often considered the best place to surf in the Outer Banks.
Besides surfing, you’ll find a fishing pier and a water tower that reads “Kinnakeet,” the former name of Avon. Kinnakeet is an Algonquin word meaning “that which is mixed,” which refers to the intermingling of Native Tribes and English settlers.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
This is a protected 13 mile stretch of pristine barrier island shoreline. The Pea Island visitors’ center gives a great informational overview about the ecology of the area and the best ways to traverse the trails. Enjoy the serene seclusion of the beaches here.
There is a lot of local wildlife providing plenty of places perfect for birdwatching in particular. Partake in other eco-friendly outdoor activities such as paddling. Be sure to take in the picturesque views overlooking the North Pond and the Salt Flats.
Walking on the Rodanthe Pier is one of the most romantic things to do in the Outer Banks. It is located on the sound side of the island, and offers stunning views of sparkling waterways everywhere you look.
Visitors can wander down the pier, or relax on the gorgeous beach while they back and watch the waves. Stroll down the beach and see all the beautiful houses, including the house from “Nights in Rodanthe.”
Carova is known for its pristine and undeveloped beaches near the Virginia border. The shores extend for 12 miles and is the perfect place to visit when you want to escape the crowds and looking for a quiet day out.
The Shackleford Banks is located just south of Beaufort and Harkers Island and is 8.5 miles long and is roughly a mile wide at its widest point. You can only reach it by boat, from Beaufort, there is a direct ferry making it the easiest barrier island to reach out of the three portions of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Shackleford Banks act as an eight-mile barrier between Beaufort and the Atlantic Ocean and it’s said to have the bluest water in North Carolina. The banks protect Beaufort from the Atlantic Ocean’s full brunt and protect various plant and animal species, some of whom wound up on its shores in shipwrecks.
If you make the journey, you will find pristine beaches and the widest variety of seashell activities in North Carolina.
How to Get to and Around the Outer Banks Beaches
The Outer Banks are easily accessed from several airports. Depending on where you are wishing to venture, you can fly to one of the two large international airports nearby – either Norfolk International Airport (ORF) or Raleigh International Airport (RDU). RDU is about a four-hour drive and will offer the most direct flights from other US cities. ORF is much closer at only two hours away and is the most popular choice, however it’s a smaller airport so direct flights may be harder to score. Once in one of these spots it’s easy to rent a car and finish the adventure on the road from either one of these airports.
If you prefer a direct drop off, there are also several smaller regional airports, which will get you closer to the islands. Try Dare County Regional Airport, Ocracoke Island Airport, Kitty Hawk Airport, or Currituck County Regional Airport, which are all open for public use.
Having a car is our recommended way to get to the Outer Banks and also to get around within the Outer Banks. It gives you the most freedom to choose your own adventure and make stops along the way, and it will be the easiest way to explore all the charming coastal communities and these treasured OBX lighthouses.
There are only a few roads that follow north and south along the coastline, so it’s easy to navigate your desired path to the banks. The two main roads running north and south are NC 12 and US 158. Head as far east as you can get, and stop before you hit water. Many of the drives are scenic and enjoyable journeys. However, we recommend avoiding driving on a Saturday as that’s often when the traffic is at its worst, especially peak summer.
Once you’ve arrived in the Outer Banks, one of the most exciting and beautiful ways to make your way around the barrier islands is by ferry. The NC DOT ferry schedule and services will provide you with all the up-to-date information you need. There are 13 terminals around the North Carolina coast in total with seven regular routes. These are Cedar Island – Ocracoke, Swan Quarter – Ocracoke, Bayview – Aurora, Currituck – Knotts Island, South Port – Fort Fisher, Cherry Branch – Minnesott Beach, Hatteras – Ocracoke.
Biking the OBX
Finally, if you are looking for a more active manner in which to travel around the Outer Banks once you’ve landed in them, it’s possible to bike around the islands. You can rent one there or bring your own. There are plenty of bike rental operations on OBX. It’s very flat and there are many bike paths throughout. If you’re up for the challenge, this can be a very fun and freeing way to discover the natural beauty of the area.