Below you’ll find a bucket list of things to do in Outer Banks, and we organize the list by Outer Banks’ towns.
But don’t fret, we won’t leave you hanging when it comes to making a plan. You are also able to access our 5-day itinerary which breaks down step-by-step plans to maximize your stay here. (Just click the link or send me an email.)
Whether you prefer water sports, beach lounging, or indulging in those special things that only The Outer Banks can offer – we’ve got you covered.
So, come on! Let’s plan your next Atlantic Coast vacation where it counts – along the 100+ miles of beaches in North Carolina’s northern barrier islands.
OBX Vacation Rentals
While there are a number of Outer Banks’ hotels along the beach, most folks opt for a vacation rental. We have a post coming out soon that breaks down our favorites, but if you need a rental now, check out this list. (Or look here for unique North Carolina Rentals here.)
Most people only consider the barrier islands when they think of this area, but Roanoke Island in the Sound is also part of The Outer Banks. Manteo is the island’s most popular city.
It is such a charming little town, filled with cute shops and restaurants. There are several smaller hotels and bed and breakfasts if you want to stay here, and you’ll find almost everyone riding their bike or walking.
What To Do
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Roanoke Island is home to a number of historical encounters, and Fort Raleigh is a great place to learn about them. Entrance is free, and if the visitor center is open, be sure to get your Jr Ranger info.
You’ll see reconstructed ruins from the 1585 expedition that landed Sir Walter Raleigh and his ship in North America from England. (Yes, well before Jamestown!)
See a monument mentioning Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America. It also mentions the baptism of the Croatoan native, Manteo, by the English – for whom the island’s largest town is named.
I didn’t learn until we were there that this is also the site of the Roanoke Island Freedman’s Colony that was set up during the American Civil War. The island was a safe-haven for formerly enslaved people, to help them prepare for a new way of life.
The Lost Colony
The Lost Colony is the first and longest running symphonic outdoor drama in the U.S. It tells the tale about how that first colony that landed here in 1587, just disappeared only three years later.
Because of COVID, it was closed when we visited. We still walked out to the stage area, which was a pretty awesome site. The boys liked dancing on stage and learning how amphitheaters work.
On the grounds of the park, you’ll also find the Elizabethan Gardens. There is an entry fee, but if you love gardens like me, it’s worth the extra coin.
The North Carolina Garden Club show their talents with a royal garden like it would have been in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. There is also a children’s garden and butterfly house (closed during COVID).
Roanoke Island Festival Park
The Roanoke Island Festival Park is like a “living history” museum of the 1585 settlement. Kids will love the ship, Elizabeth II, where they can swab the deck, fire the sling gun, and more. Great for young children!
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse isn’t one of the tall black and white lighthouses that you may be familiar with when you think of The Outer Banks, but it’s still worth the visit.
Park at the waterfront and walk the boardwalk to the screwpile lighthouse, with great views of the sound. It’s right in the heart of downtown, where the shops and restaurants are located, including our favorite OBX restaurant (below).
Where To Eat
Avenue Waterfront Grill
This waterfront restaurant is where we enjoyed lunch, and every bite was unbelievably delicious. Dan and I both concur, it was the best meal we had that week — and that’s saying a lot because OBX food is to-die-for!
The seared tuna kale salad, the chowder, the fried fish sandwich… it was all so tasty. And we loved sitting outside near the marina, enjoying the shade.
Now we’re leaving Roanoke Island and heading to the barrier islands. We’re starting in Duck, which is the northern-most town in The Outer Banks.
I know, you’re wondering why we’re not discussing the wild horses in Corolla, or the Currituck Lighthouse. The travel industry can be weird…it’s based on counties. I know, it’s one of those things that tourism is fueled by, but tourists know nothing about (and shouldn’t really care to, if you ask me).
Tourists view The Outer Banks as the entire strip of barrier islands along the coast, but it’s actually just the cities that fall into Dare County (with Duck, NC as the most northern city of that bunch).
We didn’t travel into Currituck County for this trip, but if you want to see the wild mustangs, it’s not too hard to get from here to any number of tour operators that can help you see them.
OK. Back to the Northern Outer Banks town of Duck. This delightful little town has about 7-miles of beaches that constantly rate high with the Travel Channel. You won’t see mega chain stores or lots of bright, blinking attractions.
You will find a slew of local shops, plenty of space to ride your bikes around, and a wonderful boardwalk along the sound. In fact, we found that the action here happened more on the south side than the beach side, with options for kayaking, fishing, sailing, and more.
What To Do
Vineyard Voyage Wine Tour
We really enjoyed this adventure, which worked well for us even with the kids. We hopped on a boat at the Duck Soundside Boardwalk, taking a ride across the Currituck Sound (we even saw the Currituck Beach Lighthouse from a distance) to Sanctuary Vineyards.
From there we loaded up in the “Currituck Cadillac” for a ride through the vineyards to the tasting room. When we were there, our guide told us about the wine history and then led us out for a tasting.
Because of COVID, our tasting was outside on the shaded patio – which honestly was divine! We sampled 12 wines; a mix of dry and sweet.
How did we do this with kids? The boys loved the boat and truck ride, but during the tasting we just sat them in the air-conditioning and let them have their tablets for about a half-hour.
The site recommends this tour for ages 5+, but I’d say you’ll only enjoy it yourself if the kids are able to sit alone for 45-odd minutes like ours did. They welcomed the rest and screen time, and we appreciated the chance to sample the vino. My added tip: Bring snacks. There were not chips, etc to purchase there for them while they waited on us.
When you return, don’t jump in the car. Instead, mosey southward on the boardwalk.
You’ll find a number of cute shops and restaurants, gorgeous views, and a slow, easy vibe. It’s only about a mile walk, and truly worth the time.
Where To Eat
You’ll leave for the wine tour at the northernmost part of the boardwalk, at the Duck Waterfront Shops. On the southernmost end is Aqua Restaurant, a great place for dinner. It sits right on the waterfront, and if you are lucky you can catch the most amazing sunset here. There is live music every evening, and kids are welcome.
Southern Shores is such a small little town I almost didn’t include it…but I couldn’t miss out on tell you about the incredible bike trails here, and the beaches.
This is really just a sleepy little town that vehemently protects its beaches from almost any commercialization, so you’ll find they are pristine. In fact, it’s one of the most low-density tourist areas in The Outer Banks, and you need a permit to park in the beach access areas. Want to get on these beaches? There are condos nearby for rent.
Where To Eat
Steamers Restaurant is where to go for casual seafood that is delicious. Shrimp, chicken, BBQ, salads…yum!
Kitty Hawk was the town that officially welcomed Orville and Wilbur Wright to build their “machines” here, and the brothers took them up on it primarily because of the sand dunes and the steady 15+mph winds. This history has made it one of the most popular towns in OBX.
What To Do
Get in The Water
Because of COVID, the Kitty Hawk Pier (above) is only open to Hilton Garden Inn Kitty Hawk guests, but there are still plenty of beach access points around for fun play all day in the Atlantic Ocean! It’s also the town which attracts a ton of surfers, so keep an eye out for them.
On the sound side, try kayaking, fishing, or paddle boarding. It’s nice and quiet here – very peaceful.
Where To Eat
Black Pelican Oceanfront Restaurant is one of the most popular restaurants in OBX. The building was finished in 1874 and used as a United States Lifesaving Station, but now it’s where to watch the sun set over the day’s fresh catch.
We also had lunch at Barefoot Bernies. The salads are filling, and drinks are fun.
Kill Devil Hills
Kill Devil Hills is probably best known for being home to the Wright Brother’s Museum (more below). It’s the most populous OBX city, brings a little heavier traffic than the northern cities, and begins a stretch of well-known grocery and department stores.
This is where we stayed, so I can attest that the beaches are fantastic. If you want to be smack in the middle of all that is happening, then this is where to grab your accommodations.
What To Do
Wright Brother’s National Memorial
On December 17, 1903 the world changed because the Wright brothers took flight. Here, you can be a part of that history.
When we visited, the museum was closed but that didn’t deter us. Just be sure to bring water because it can be hot out in the open sun!
When you get there, head toward the museum first (even if it’s closed). We met with the rangers and picked up our Jr Ranger Booklet and Badge that made the adventure even more fun (and educational).
And if you can’t yet get in, peer through the windows at the plane. The original 1903 Wright Flyer is at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, but this replica is still pretty amazing.
After that, see the spot where Orville and Wilbur first took flight and walk the four locations where they landed. Then, keep walking toward the Wright Brothers Monument.
The monument is perched on a dune 90-feet in the air – Big Kill Devil Hill. The Wright Brothers used this location to test gliders prior to the first powered flight. Fascinating fact – the dune itself sits about 30 feet north of it’s 1903 location. Around 1930, when they built the monument, they planted grass on the dune to prevent it from moving any further.
Be sure to walk (or drive) to the back of the monument to see the sculpture garden. That’s where we got the photo of the boys and the plane above.
Where To Eat
Max’s Italian Restaurant makes amazing NY style pies. Seriously – delicious! We also had a filling salad and a charcuterie plate that was terrific. The owner came out to check on us, and she was delightful. I highly recommend a stop here.
Awful Arthur’s Oyster Bar is a good place for raw oysters, but it’s a great place for steamed spiced shrimp. There is a gift shop next door run by the same folks, but that didn’t stop it from feeling like a locals hangout.
My youngest turned 8yo while were in The Outer Banks, and we celebrated with dinner at Miller’s Seafood and Steakhouse. Steak, seafood, even sushi! Everything was sensational. And they even brought us a brownie with ice cream and candles to celebrate!
When you come in from the mainland, this is the town you hit. It reminds me a little of Myrtle Beach or Destin, with tons of off-beach activities, stores, restaurants and more as you come onto the barrier islands.
But don’t let that fool you…Nags Head is fairly large and spread out, touting epic beaches with tons of public access point, gigantic sand dunes, and gorgeous rental cottages.
What To Do
Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head is the most popular of the OBX fishing piers, and for good reason. Catch a fish off the 1,000 foot pier…you can get your license, bait and rod rental right there.
Want to play on the beach? Parking is free, the beaches are wide, and there is a public bathhouse to clean up before lunch or dinner.
During COVID, the pier house gallery is closed but if they are open when you visit then don’t miss it. The gallery is run by the NC Aquarium.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge is known for its sand dunes… they’re the tallest living sand dunes on the Atlantic coast. What can you do here?
On the sound side, try wading, paddling or hiking the one-mile nature trail.
From the main entrance, stroll the boardwalk with exhibits that explain the dune’s ecology, then head right out onto the dunes. Yes, you can walk on these dunes! Climb to the top, where you can see great views of the ocean.
If you ask us, though, the best way to truly feel experience the park – and the true “feel” of Outer Banks – it to try your hand at hang gliding on the dunes!
Glide off a sand dune just like the Wright brothers. We did it with the boys and it was un-beee-lievable! So much fun. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things you MUST do, especially in OBX.
There are several places in The Outer Banks that allow for beach bonfires…and it is so lovely in the fall or winter, you don’t want to pass it up.
Be sure to find the beach bonfire rules for the beach you are visiting. In Nags Head, you need a permit. You pick that up after 5:30pm from the fire department. They like to make sure that the winds are not too strong before giving the thumbs up.
Pick up your wood from the local grocery or convenience stores, pack a blanket and some s’mores…and you’ll be making beautiful memories.
Where To Eat
Nags Head Pier Restaurant
This is a seasonal restaurant, right on the water with superb views and great eats. But here’s why I love it! They will clean the fish you catch, and cook them. Served up with french fries, slaw and hushpuppies, the kids (and adults) will love this!
Save your receipt and you can walk on the pier for free after dinner. It’s a great place to watch the sun set.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Come off the mainland and turn north…you hit Nags Head (which we discussed above). Turn south, and you enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The Seashore actually encompasses a little of the south end of Nags Head…all the way to the tip of Hatteras Island. This was my favorite part of OBX. Read more to learn why.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
If you can only visit one lighthouse, make it the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It’s perched in the perfect setting against the marsh. Be sure to take the time to walk the boardwalk, where you’ll find spectacular views of the lighthouse, wild birds, and serenity.
Looking to fish in Outer Banks but want something a little more tame than the big game fish of Hatteras? Oregon Inlet Fishing Center is the ideal place to catch a fishing charter ore head boat. There are charter types for every type of fisherman – including kids.
We took the twilight fishing tour with Miss Oregon Inlet and had a great time! We only caught a single fish on our trip, but we loved every second of it. It was fun and beautiful watching the sun set on the water.
Fishing in the sound is ideal for kiddos, where the water is calm and the trips are generally shorter.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a stellar place to view migratory birds (bring your binoculars) or spy hatching turtles heading to the ocean.
Be sure to stop by the visitor center. It’s free! You can learn about the animals and birds in the area, look through a spotting scope, and walk a few of the trails to an overlook.
We loved each and every pier in The Outer Banks, but really appreciated Avon Pier. It was only $1 to walk it, and the people were super friendly.
It extends out 665 feet, and is the only remaining pier on the national seashore. We watched the waves lap, talked to the anglers, and took a dozen photos. It’s a great place to stretch your legs during your drive.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is probably the most famous lighthouse, and it is certainly the tallest brick lighthouse in North America. It has 269 steps from the ground to the balcony level (69 more than Bodie Lighthouse above), which equates to climbing a 12-story building.
When we visited it was closed for climbing, but we still enjoyed seeing it up close. Be sure to look for the tracks they used to move the structure inland by about a half-mile, back in 1999.
There are several beaches dotting the seashore, but we opted to stop and play at Frisco Beach and later learned from a local that we’d found the hidden gem.
We saw only one other family here – the mom and dad taking turns surfing the waves. We played in the surf, hunted shells, and watched as the DNR came through checking turtle nests – dozens of them.
If you love a secluded beach, I can’t recommend this enough.
I said hang gliding was one of my favorite OBX adventures…and this was my other favorite. Horseback riding in the maritime forest and on the beach with Equine Adventures was sensational!
They offer guided tours twice a day, lasting about 2-2.5 hours. You’ll ride about 45 minutes through the forest, then spend about 30 minutes on the beach before returning back.
On the beach we were free to run the horses, and the guides positioned each group by the water to take our photos before heading back.
Where To Eat
Diamond Shoals Restaurant is just up the road from Equine Adventures, making it a great place to grab a late lunch before your ride. We didn’t try the sushi, as it was only available at dinner, but we did love the salad bar and seafood plates. It’s very casual…looks like a hole in the wall….but serves amazing food.
At the end of Hatteras Island is the village of Hatteras, and what a different feel this town gives. If (when) we return, this is the town I would want to stay in.
It’s more of a marina town than a beach town, though there is plenty of beach. It’s where the cold Labrador Current meets the warm Gulf Stream and creates the largest surf available on the East Coast.
Additionally, this is where you can catch a ferry to Ocracoke Island. The waters between Hatteras and Okracoke are one of the largest estuarine systems in the world…this means that the fishing opportunities are amazing.
Things To Do
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum
When we visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum (part of the NC Maritime Museum system) it was closed for COVID, but since it is opening again next week I highly recommend a stop. Be sure to ask about the scavenger hunt!
It’s because of that warm and cold current I mention above that this area has become a graveyard of ships over the years. You may have heard the “graveyard” mentioned in the popular book Where the Crawdads Sing…or you may know it from stories of Theodosia Burr (daughter of Aaron Burr, of Hamilton fame) losing her life in a shipwreck in this area. The museum is where to learn about these and other interesting pieces of history.
Whether or not you are able to see the museum, do be sure to visit the beach here. It’s really special, seeing the waters at the very tip of the OBX.
Where To Eat
On the day we were in the area, Breakwater was closed so we headed over to Dinkey’s. Words cannot describe this meal – it was fantastic! The tuna tartar appy is a must.
The seafood (loved the steamed platter), the beef, the salads! All delicious…as was the sunset from our window.
Even if you don’t dine at Breakwater, stop there to see if the fishermen have come in for the day. You can catch them cleaning some BIG catches here if you come at the right time.
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Disclosure: Thanks to Outer Banks Visitors Bureau for hosting us on this amazing adventure. We appreciate Kitty Hawk Kites and Equine Adventures for showing us the ropes, as well. This post may contain affiliate links. Opinions here are all our own, as always.