Looking for some ideas for things to do in the Outer Banks? With almost 200 miles of narrow coastline, the Outer Banks are a chain of islands off of North Carolina that are one of the most beloved beach destinations in the country, and one of the best Southeast family vacation spots. If you’re thinking of visiting these barrier islands soon, check out all of the activities in the Outer Banks listed below and you’ll likely come to realize why visiting the Outer Banks is more than just a beach vacation.
Things to do in the Outer Banks NC
Visiting the Outer Banks offers more than time on the beach. There are state parks, national parks, museums, lighthouses, boardwalks, gardens, festivals, shops, restaurants, breweries, and marine activities lining the coast. The Outer Banks make a great family beach vacation destination. So, if you’re looking to add more options to your usual beach vacation, there are so many things to do in the Outer Banks. Below is a general map of some of the activities in the Outer Banks and things to do in OBX:
Visit the Site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
If you remember learning about this famed lost colony in elementary school, then why not visit the site in which it is believed to be the first English settlement in America. If you are looking to learn a little history, then visiting Fort Raleigh National Historic Site should be on your list of things to do in the Outer Banks. It can be found on the island of Manteo a bit removed from the main attractions of the Outer Banks. All that is visible is an earthen fort on the site, as well as a small visitors center filled with actual artifacts found in this location. The Visitors Center takes you through the voyages and failures of these early colonists and explains the possible reasons for their disappearance.
Our family enjoyed our visit, walked around the grounds until we reached the Outdoor Drama Theatre (which was closed). Adjacent is the Elizabethan Gardens, which although it requires an admission fee, offers guests a beautiful outdoor stroll through colorful flower displays and paved paths. There are two short nature trails on the site if you would like to explore the area even more and a monument dedicated to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the colonies. If you enjoy visiting colonial settlements, then be sure to check out St. Augustine and the Williamsburg/Jamestown area.
Check out the Corolla Wild Horses
From the Blue Ridge Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway to burgeoning metropolises such as Asheville and Raleigh, North Carolina has its fair share of major tourist attractions. But one of the lesser-known attractions in the Outer Banks is also among the state’s most controversial. The wild horses of Corolla (a.k.a. Banker horses) are believed to have arrived on NC’s barrier islands sometime in the 16th century, though there’s lots of debate about how they got there. Regardless, they share genetic traits with Colonial-era Spanish breeds such as the Pryor Mountain Mustang and Paso Fino.
They’ve been living on the Outer Banks for some 500 years now, grazing on grasses and sea oats and digging holes up to four feet deep in order to reach fresh groundwater. They were used by the U.S. Lifesaving Service for beach patrol and rescue in the early 1900s, and the Coast Guard used them during World War II. In short, these animals played a significant role in the state’s coastal heritage, and thousands once roamed the islands. These days, the horses who live around the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge are increasingly endangered, with some conservationists working to protect them and others wanting them removed because they compete with important migratory bird species for food.
The best way to see them is with Wild Horse Adventure Tours, whose 4-wheel drive takes you over massive sand dunes to the remote Currituck Banks community (which is accessible only by boat or 4-wheel drive). We saw several grazing in people’s front yards, as well as a group of four grazing on grasses along the beach. It’s an amazing experience for all and one of the top things to do in the OBX.
Contributed by: Bret Love & Mary Gabbett of Blue Ridge Mountains Travel Guide
If you love wild horses, consider a visit to Chincoteague in Virginia. This area is even quieter than the Outer Banks and has that small-town island feel as well. Most people who visit the area come to see the wild horses, but there are so many other things to do in Chincoteague that deserve your time.
Explore Historic Corolla Park
One of the best hidden gems in the Outer Banks is Historic Corolla Park. While most visitors make the trek north for a glimpse at the wild horses, there are plenty of things to do in Corolla to add to your list of activities in the Outer Banks. Located in the heart of Corolla, this park is free and open to the public. If you need a break from the beach it has wide-open green spaces that are great for walking and biking! There is a small gazebo over the bay where you can watch boats coming and going or spot wildlife such as blue herons! You can learn about local nature at The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education.
The beautiful centerpiece of the park is Whalehead. This museum is also an architectural masterpiece! It’s $7 admission or $5 for kids, seniors, and active military. Step back in time and see the glory of Corolla during the 1920s! While you’re enjoying the beaches of the Outer Banks, don’t forget to embrace the history in Corolla!
Contributed by: Pamela from the Directionally Challenged Traveler
Visit the Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse, located in the heart of Corolla, is one of the top things to do when visiting OBX. Originally constructed to fill in a 40-mile “blind spot” for boats at sea, this lighthouse still functions to assist any incoming boats. This breathtaking lighthouse is slightly different than other lighthouses you may have visited—the exterior was never painted over and still maintains around one million original red bricks.
This spot is perfect for those looking for breathtaking views from 220 steps up of the scenic shoreline. I highly recommend capturing some photos at the top as these are some of the best views found in all of the Outer Banks. Kids will love the nautical-themed souvenirs found at the Currituck Beach gift shop. As a regular host to local school groups, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse is perfect for a quick family excursion to learn about the region’s history. Visitors can explore this lighthouse year-round to get an up-close view of this famous, red-bricked landmark. If you’re interested in other lighthouses in the area, check out these fantastic lighthouses in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.
Contributed by: Ellie from Ellie’s Travel Tips
Check out some great places to stay in Corolla
Take Flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial
A visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial is one of the top things to do in the Outer Banks. Our older kids loved the exhibits at the Visitors Center and they actually read most of what was displayed. We had seen the original in Washington D.C., but to be in the place where the Wright Brothers took their first flight was pretty cool.
Here are some things to note when you visit… The park does require an entrance fee, but that can be avoided with a 4th-grade national park pass or an annual pass. If you are interested in the junior ranger program, it is offered here. My youngest grabbed a junior ranger booklet and we completed some of the activities as a family. Plan to spend some time at the Visitors Center itself. It is filled with great information about the brothers, physics and engineering, the geography of the area, and a short video.
Once you venture outside, take the walking path to the 2 houses where the brothers stayed while working on their glider. Be sure to walk towards the four stone markers that show the distances of each attempt (the 4th being the successful one). Then, make the walk up the hill to the monument, and don’t forget to visit the replica first flight scene at the bottom near the side lot (which we did). If you’re curious to learn more, check out these fun facts about the Wright Brothers Memorial.
Stay at the Saturday House AirBnB
Looking for a kid friendly place to stay in the Outer Banks? Consider our family favorite, The Saturday House Airbnb! Conveniently located in Nags Head, this beautifully decorated three bedroom, two bathroom house has everything your family will need for the perfect beach vacation!
From beach toys to bicycles, the owners of The Saturday House have thought of every little detail. Amenities beyond the basics include beach towels, boogie boards, washer and dryer, a highchair, ping pong table, outdoor grill, and beach wagon, just to name a few! Your family will have plenty of room to spread out both inside and outside this home. Oh and it’s pet friendly too!
While you will likely want to spend most of your days soaking up some sun and playing in the waves, you can also walk or bike to the community park, miniature golf, restaurants, and even ice cream from The Saturday House. When you’re ready for more things to do in the OBX, hop in your car to discover nearby lighthouses, wild horses, epic sand dunes, and historical sites. The Saturday House has everything your family will need for an amazing Outer Banks vacation!
Contributed by Julie from More than Main Street
If you’re new to Airbnb, use this link for up to $50 off your rental.
Hang Glide at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
No trip to the Outer Banks would be complete without visiting Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It is one of the best things to do in OBZ and a great way to enjoy a windy day. It’s home to the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast making it one of the most unique state parks in North Carolina. As an added bonus, you’ll find there is a constant breeze available to keep you cool, even in the summer, and to enhance the number of activities available.
Whether you want to simply climb the sand dunes – which will only take about 10 minutes, try your hand at hang gliding, or fly a kite with the family, Jockey’s Ridge State Park offers something for everyone. If the sand dunes don’t interest you, head over to the Soundside of the park where you’ll find a beach on the Roanoke Sound featuring shallow, still waters. It’s the perfect place to paddleboard, kayak, or take children swimming as there is almost no current at this beach, unlike many of the oceanfront beaches in the Outer Banks.
Contributed by: Julia from The Cure for Curiosity
Check out some great places to stay in Nags Head
Take a Ferry to Ocracoke Island
Another one of the great things to do in the Outer Banks NC is to take a ferry to a nearby island. Ocracoke Island, a quaint little village at the south of Outer Banks, is surely going to make you fall in love with it. This is the perfect place if you want to stay away from the hustle and bustle and just spend quality time with family. Ocracoke is reachable only by taking a ferry. There are 3 options depending upon where you are coming from – a free ferry from Cape Hatteras to Ocracoke, ferries from Cedar Island, or Swan Quarter for which you need to buy tickets.
This is a small island and best explored by renting a bike or golf carts. We rented bikes with kid’s seats and explored the town. Ocracoke Lighthouse is a beautiful white lighthouse and an icon of the island. If you are a nature lover then head to Springer’s Point and watch the many birds. Visiting Ocracoke would be incomplete without visiting the pristine Ocracoke beach. For a thrilling experience, you can even drive an AWD on the beach after getting a permit. Build castles, bask on the sands, do fishing or drive on the beach to have a fun-filled day.
If you love seafood, then there are many restaurants to indulge in. We also recommend eating Mexican flavors at Eduardo’s Taco Stand. We also recommend staying at the Ocracoke Harbor Inn by the Silver Lake with scintillating views of the lake and dock.
Contributed by: Neha from Travelmelodies
Hatteras Island Ocean Center
The Outer Banks is filled with amazing local experiences where you can learn about Hatteras Island’s beautiful nature and interesting history. One of the best places for this is the Hatteras Island Ocean Center (HIOC), a non-profit organization focused on advocating for wildlife conservation and cultural preservation on Hatteras Island.
Besides a wonderful indoor and outdoor nature center, HIOC also offers fun, educational programs that are great for the whole family. If you are a turtle lover, the ‘Turtle Patrol’ program will help you learn about the endangered sea turtles that come to lay eggs on Hatteras beaches and how their babies hatch later on! Opposite from the beachside of the island is the salt marsh or ‘wetlands’, one of the most interesting and productive ecosystems on earth. Learn more at the fascinating ‘Marsh Madness’ program where children get to see marsh critters up close.
For the adventure lovers, take part in the nature kayak tour that lets you closely experience the diverse wildlife of the salt marsh. You will be in for some beautiful views as you kayak through the winding wetlands and out to Pamlico Sound! Clearly, if you enjoy the outdoors then the Hatteras Island Ocean Center is one of the great activities in the Outer Banks.
Contributed by: Maria from Maptrekking
Visit the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is located in Buxton, North Carolina, and is one of the most famous things to see when in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The lighthouse is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and has an extremely beautiful construction that will take your breath away when there. The lighthouse is black and white, very similar to the famous Virginia lighthouse, Cape Henry Lighthouse. Built in 1870, and 187 feet tall, it truly is impressive and has become the iconic sight of Cape Hatteras.
There are plenty of accommodations near Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and one of the best places is the Lighthouse View Oceanfront Lodging that is merely a couple of miles away from the sight. Alternatively, you can stay at Cape Hatteras Motel, an affordable property that has an ocean view terrace where you can enjoy breakfast and coffee while you admire the imposing lighthouse.
Contributed by: Megan from Virginia Travel Tips
Take a Ferry to Cape Lookout
Another one of the can’t miss activities the Outer Banks is a stop at Cape Lookout. Nestled at the Outer Banks’ southern end, this lighthouse delights visitors with its black-and-white diamond pattern. A Cape Lookout visit begins with a ferry ride from Harkers Island to one of two islands at the Cape Lookout National Seashore Reserve. During the summer tourist season, reserve your ferry tickets. Most visitors head to Cape Lookout, where they can enjoy a beautiful beach, visit a historic facility, and climb to the top of the lighthouse. For an extra $5 fee, the ferry stops at Shackleford Island, popular with beach campers and other tourists. A group of wild horses is the main attraction on this small island.
A visit to Cape Lookout entertains adults and families. Pack a picnic lunch and bring drinks, since you won’t find much on the island. Plan a visit later in the day if you wish to enjoy the sunset. Cape Lookout is one of seven lighthouses along the North Carolina coast. If you have a few days, a tour of the NC lighthouses is worth the drive!
Contributed by: Annick from The Common Traveler
Enjoy the Beaches
Choosing which beach to enjoy during your OBX vacation is of great debate to many who vacation yearly on these gorgeous shores. The Northern shores of Duck and Corolla offer more of a quaint small-town feel, with fewer restaurants and more vacation rentals/homes. The Southern shores of Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hill are more touristy since most of the OBX attractions are closer. Beach fishing is also quite a popular thing to do in the Outer Banks. There are several piers from which you can fish, or you could opt to take a fishing charter and test your luck in the open water. In addition to the recommendations mentioned above, try to visit The Duck Boardwalk and Jennette’s Pier for some nice views.
A quick run down on some of the beaches in the Outer Banks:
- Kitty Hawk Beach and Kill Devil Hills Beach are known for good wave surfing, skim-boarding, and bodyboarding
- Nags Head Pier and Cape Hatteras are other spots to catch surfers
- Corolla beaches tend to have gentler waves
- Duck beaches are more pet friendly
Wherever you choose to vacation, make sure to enjoy the beach all day. If you happen to rent a vacation home or a hotel room with views of the beach, enjoy the sunrise/sunset and listen to the waves crashing on the shore as much as you can. Our room at the Towneplace Suites in Kill Devil Hills had floor to ceiling windows with views of the water. While I didn’t see the surf, it was a short walk away and the sunrise views were pretty amazing.
Bottom Line: Things to do in the Outer Banks
While the Outer Banks is a great place for a relaxing beach vacation, just know that there are plenty of things to do in the Outer Banks besides hanging out on the sand or in the water. Some of the best activities in the Outer Banks involve learning about the history of the area from the many national park sites found on the island. The lighthouses and museums are also great places to learn about the area and a visit to the top is one of the best things to do in Outer Banks NC. If you enjoy food and drink, there are some delicious restaurants in the OBX. Some of the best restaurants in the Outer Banks not only provide fresh seafood but gorgeous views of the ocean too.
Best Outer Banks Restaurants
In addition to the list of things to do in the OBX, don’t forget to make time to eat some great food. While we didn’t eat everywhere on this list (how I wish we had), these are some of the best Outer Banks restaurants according to Google, Yelp, some friends, and myself.
- Mama Kwan’s Tiki Bar & Grill
- The SaltBox Cafe
- Duck Donuts (three locations on the island)
- Outer Banks Brewing Station
- Fish Heads Bar & Grill
- The Chicken Coop Country Diner
- Off the Wall Tap House
- The Village Table and Tavern
Best Time to Visit the Outer Banks
There really is no “best time to visit the Outer Banks” as each season brings its own allure. Summer, by far, is the most popular time to visit as the warmer months offer even more opportunities for activities in the Outer Banks, yet that is also prime season and will bring with it the highest cost. The shoulder seasons of fall and spring are also a great time to visit the OBX, especially just after the tourists leave or before they arrive. Visiting the Outer Banks right after Labor Day or before Memorial Day could be a way to enjoy the beach with fewer crowds to contend with. You can even, drive your car on the beach November – May, or with a permit in Hatteras. Check out more details about driving on the OBX beaches.
Getting to the Outer Banks
Most people drive into the Outer Banks if they are traveling locally or fly into a nearby airport and rent a car. If you are looking to fly to the Outer Banks, Norfolk, VA is the closest airport two hours away, but Raleigh-Durham is likely going to be the cheapest option. Living in the Northeast, I know that many families vacation in the Outer Banks yearly each summer. They usually road trip down I-95 and some even combine it with visits to Williamsburg close by. However you choose to arrive, just be sure to come and experience the multitude of activities in the Outer Banks.
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