The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a geographical marvel treasured by residents and visitors alike. Stretching 100 miles along the state’s coastline, these barrier islands are replete with mountainous dunes, pristine beaches, and nearly endless access to the turquoise waters just beyond. There are so many wonderful small towns in the Outer Banks that are perfectly situated to take advantage of the islands' assets. These must-see adorable towns in the Outer Banks are ideal for those looking to experience the North Carolina shoreline for themselves.
Small but beautiful, the town of Duck is an excellent entry point into the enchanting outcrop of islands that are the Outer Banks. The town got its name due to the wonderful confluence of women’s fashion and local waterfowl at the turn of the 20th century. The region was once one of the largest sources of colorful duck feathers for women’s hats, albeit briefly.
Today, Duck attracts visitors with its inviting and low-key atmosphere. The town’s one-mile boardwalk gives plenty of opportunities to sample the local flavor, such as the very first location of the famed Duck Donuts. Duck’s beaches are amazing, but are limited to those renting a local house or staying at a local hotel, so be sure to plan ahead before packing your swimsuit.
With no relation to the popular Japanese sub-compact, besides its immense popularity, Corolla is a fantastic beach destination that has been steadily picking up steam as a premier Outer Banks town. Corolla was formerly known as "North Carolina’s last beach frontier," but this could not be further than the truth today, as the town’s population of roughly 500 reaches the tens of thousands during peak season.
A destination wedding in North Carolina may sound strange at first, but Corolla often hosts wedding ceremonies due to its picturesque houses and beaches. The top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse offers a fabulous panoramic view of the surroundings. Visit the four-wheel-drive-only areas and see the cherished wild horse of Corolla before taking a refreshing dip in the Atlantic.
What makes Ocracoke special is how untouched the island feels. From the lack of hotels to the miles of undisturbed beaches, this village is a paradise for nature looking for an alternative to the all-inclusive offers found elsewhere. Ocracoke can only be reached by ferry. The village at the island’s southern tip is laid back and revolves around the 14 miles of beaches there.
Fresh seafood is always available and is best eaten under an umbrella outdoors. The Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the oldest in North Carolina and is open during the summer months. Springer’s Point Preserve offers wonderful views of the Pamlico Sound, and its lush maritime forests are the perfect place for birdwatching.
Relaxed and more secluded than some of the busier towns on the Outer Banks, Southern Shores is a great place to catch your breath by the rejuvenating rhythms of the seaside. The town is between Kitty Hawk and Duck but should not be overlooked. The town’s many Eichler homes evoke the feeling of desert oasis towns like Palm Springs. Here, the maritime forests have been lovingly preserved, giving Southern Shores a rugged, unspoiled feel.
Walking and biking are common pastimes for the townsfolk, and for a good reason. There are quiet and relaxing trails near the Sound, perfect for collecting one’s thoughts and getting exercise at the same time. A visit to Southern Shores would not be complete without a trip to the water. The beaches here are some of the best in the Outer Banks, and the cottages along the coast have exceptional access.
Water sports lovers definitely need to check out Hatteras. Besides its beautiful nature, Hatteras is prized for its amazing windsurfing and kite surfing among enthusiasts. The town is the southernmost on Hatteras Island and was a former fishing town. As the "Blue Marlin Capital of the World," the town remains popular with sports fishers as well. These enormous fish can weigh over 1,000 pounds and make for mighty adversaries to even the most adept anglers.
On land, the Sea Breeze Trail winds through the nearby salt marsh upland into the maritime forest, where hikers can survey the herons and kingfishers who live there. For an educational experience, visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum for a family-friendly scavenger hunt through the exhibits.
Some of the best attractions in the Outer Banks are in Manteo at the heart of Roanoke Island. Manteo is one of the oldest towns in North Carolina and was named after Chief Manteo of the Croatan Native American Tribe. History is important here, and nowhere is that more evident than in the architecture. Houses in the Victorian and Craftsman-style are commonplace, and a smattering of bed and breakfasts sit among them.
The main attraction in Manteo is the water, but there is plenty to do on land. Stop by the rum distillery and walk out to the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse before boarding a catamaran for a sunset tour. There is an English-style garden as well, perfect for picnics. The Lost Colony is the oldest outdoor symphonic drama in the nation and is performed every summer. It is definitely worth seeing.
With the shoreline charm of its neighbors, while also touting an added geographical benefit, Nags Head is so much more than your typical beach town. A popular Outer Banks vacation spot, Nags Head is an absolute gem thanks to its many great restaurants and pristine beach. The architecture of Nags Head is a classic beach town yet unique, ideal for a relaxing walk around town.
Afterward, visit Jennette’s Pier for world-class fishing or its public bathhouse. The pretty shoreline in Nags Head extends for nearly seven miles, but Jockery’s Ridge State Park deserves mention as well. The park is home to enormous sand dunes, hiking trails, and a museum.
At the bend of Hatteras Island lies Buxton, a burgeoning beachfront community with plenty going for it. Cold water seashells wash up along its shores and are soon buried, waiting to be found just beneath the surface. The iconic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is nearby with its barber’s pole design and offers an unbeatable view of the Diamond Shoals and beyond.
Hike through the Buxton Woods Coastal Reserve and the tranquil maritime forests. Or check out Kite Point and Canadian Hole, fabulous for windsurfers and kiteboarders alike. Try the Apply Uglies from Orange Blossom Bakery for the quintessential Buxton experience.
The name Kitty Hawk is no doubt familiar to fans of aeronautic history. In the early 20th century, it was here that the Wright Brothers first took to the skies on the sandy beaches due to their soft, level surfaces. State license plates continue to pay homage to the breakthroughs in engineering which were made in Kitty Hawk.
For those constrained by gravity, this charming town is no less magical. The Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is a 461 acre maritime forest perfect for losing track of time. Inside, there are otters and sea turtles who call the reserve home. Kitty Hawk is also home to some of the largest waves in the Northern Outer Banks.
Kill Devil Hills
Try not to let the name fool you; Kill Devil Hills is as friendly as they come. This Outer Banks town is the oldest and largest, though with only 7,500 residents, it is hardly a bustling metropolis. The town’s name likely came from a cask of exceptionally strong rum which washed up on shore, which locals said was strong enough to kill the Devil.
All the beaches in town are accessible to the public. The Avalon Fishing Pier stretches far into the water and offers a great view. It is a perfect place to catch some dinner too! Visit the Run Hill State Natural Area, where visitors will find 123 acres of dunes to explore. As one of the benefits of being so popular, Kill Devil Hills has plenty of bars and restaurants which allow for cinematic viewing of the sunset.
The Outer Banks are a precious part of North Carolina’s incredible geography. The beaches and white sand dunes are marvels that are best enjoyed repeatedly and in large doses. The islands are also full of maritime forests and marshes. The always-inviting shoreline towns of the Outer Banks are the ideal place to unwind on holiday. Lay beneath a broad umbrella and let the sounds of the waves wash over you, bearing your troubles back toward the sea and disappearing with the outgoing tide.