Aerial view of beach homes in Rodanthe North Carolina with pilings in the water at high tide on a sunny day.

The Outer Banks's Most Charming Beach Towns

A 200-mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, the Outer Banks serve up some of the most spectacular beaches in the East. Offering a blend of natural areas, historic sites, and charming coastal towns and villages, the extensive island chain is an alluring destination, no matter the season. In addition to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, to the west, the Outer Banks is bordered by five interconnected sounds, offering ample opportunities for watersports like paddleboarding, kayaking, and kiteboarding, away from the ocean waves. Conveniently, approximately 150-mile Highway 12 traverses much of the island chain, making the Outer Banks an ideal getaway for road trippers. There are countless idyllic waterfront hamlets sprinkled throughout the Outer Banks and many charming beach towns.

Nags Head

Jennette's fishing pier is an all concrete, 1000 foot long iconic landmark on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Nags Head, North Carolina
Jennette's fishing pier, Nags Head.

The original resort town in the Outer Banks, the village of Nags Heads has been hosting vacationers since the 1830s. The seaside community is still anchored by a chain of beach cottages built in the 1850s, in part, with materials sourced from local shipwrecks, now preserved as the Nags Head Beach Cottage Row Historic District. Today, the charming town still offers a mix of natural assets and amenities, including a wide array of restaurants, cafés, and ice cream shops. At the southern end of town, historic Jennette’s Pier, a 1,000-foot boardwalk offers sweeping ocean views, an onsite tackle shop for visiting anglers, and ample space to cast for resident croaker, flounder, and trout in the water below.

Beyond the beach, Nags Heads also has plenty to offer on dry land. For hikers and birdwatchers, the trail-threaded Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve protects a large swatch of maritime forest, frequented by 250 bird species. Just north of Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the highest sand dune system remaining on the East Coast, and it is not far from the towering dunes at Kitty Hawk, the location of the Wright brothers’ inaugural flight in 1903.


View of the town of Manteo's waterfront marina at daybreak in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Manteo's waterfront marina.

Anchoring the northern portion of Roanoke Island, the charming waterside town of Manteo is a convenient base camp for exploring the island’s rich history and natural assets. For starters, there is the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, preserving what remains of the first English settlement in the so-called New World. It is now also famed as the site of the Lost Colony, a community of colonists that mysteriously vanished in the 1580s. The island’s nearby Elizabethan Gardens, an ornate botanical wonder, is dedicated to the settlers who disappeared more than four centuries ago.

In town, the Roanoke Island Festival Park is home to both the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. Beyond the rich history, the sound side town also offers waterfront restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques. Manteo hosts free downtown festivals on the first Friday of every month, from April to November, a celebration series known as First Friday.


Duck a town on North Carolina Outer Banks, the boardwalk 1 mil. walking trail along the Currituck Sound
The boardwalk and 1-mile walking trail along the Currituck Sound in Duck, North Carolina.

While Duck is officially the newest town in the Outer Banks, incorporated in 2002, the waterfront hamlet has been luring outdoor lovers since the early 1800s, particularly hunters drawn by the region’s resident avifauna. Today, the family-friendly town still has plenty to offer. The nearly mile-long Town of Duck Boardwalk, paralleling the Albemarle Sound, provides easy access to a variety of amenities, including restaurants, coffee shops, and beachy boutiques.

The town also hosts a variety of seasonal festivals, including the Duck and Wine Festival, a culinary celebration held every April, and the Duck Jazz Festival, in October. Just north of Duck, the Audubon Center at Pine Island features a 2.5-mile nature trail and guided kayak tours, along with a wide variety of educational programs.


Wild horses on the beach on the Outer Banks North Carolina
Wild horses on the beaches in North Carolina.

Located near the Virginia border, Corolla is the northernmost town in the Outer Banks. The pavement portion of the Outer Banks’ main artery, Route 12, ends in Corolla, and to the north, are the remote beaches of Carova, only accessible in four-wheel-drive capable of driving on sand. Just north of the town, the Currituck Banks Reserve is also still roamed by a troop of wild horses descended from a group of Spanish mustangs shipwrecked along the Outer Banks in the 1500s, and their story is also displayed at the Corolla Wild Horse Museum. Right in town, the Historic Corolla Park offers a diverse collection of sites showcasing the region’s history and ecology, including the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, the Currituck Maritime Museum, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, dating back to 1875, and the Whalehead, a century-old mansion turned museum.                       


The Pier and waterfront in Beaufort North Carolina
Harbor in Beaufort North Carolina.

Situated in the Southern Outer Banks, also often referred to as the Crystal Coast, Beaufort has been an enticing destination for more than three centuries. Among the oldest colonial towns in the state, Beaufort was founded in 1709, and the waterside hamlet has a rich history. For a sampling, the Beaufort Historic Site features a recreation of daily life in the hamlet in the late 1700s, and the region’s extensive maritime history is showcased at the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Beaufort.

Offshore, the Rachel Carson Reserve preserves a handful of barrier islands, including Carrot Island, home to a band of wild horses introduced to the atoll in 1940. Beaufort is also a strategic launch point for visits to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, offering more than 50 miles of pristine beachfront, spread over four barrier islands. The National Seashore was also recently certified as a Dark Sky Park in 2021.


Fishing boats at dock in Ocracoke Village, Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Fishing boats at dock in Ocracoke Village. Image credit Malachi Jacobs via Shutterstock

A world away from the mainland, stunning Ocracoke Island is steeped in history and lore. Ferry service to the atoll didn’t begin until the 1960s, allowing the place to evolve with a degree of isolation. Historically, the island was regularly frequented by Edward Teach, better known as the pirate Blackbeard. In 1718, the marauding pirate was killed in a skirmish with privateers hired by the Virginia governor, just off the coast of Ocracoke, at a spot appropriately nicknamed Teach’s Hole.

Today, the entirety of Ocracoke Village is a National Register of Historic Place, and there are historic spots all over the atoll. The island’s British Cemetery is the final resting place of four English sailors, who lost their lives defending the Outer Bank from German U-boats during World War II. The Ocracoke Lighthouse, now managed by the National Park Service, is the second oldest operating lighthouse in the country. For an overnight stay on Ocracoke, there are a handful of bed-and-breakfasts and rental cottages, along with the Ocracoke Campground, a unit of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.


View of people and vacation homes on the beach as seen from the Rodanthe Pier in the Outer Bank, Rodanthe North Carolina
Rodanthe Pier in the Outer Bank. Image credit Kyle J Little via Shutterstock

Located on Hatteras Island, the tiny town of Rodanthe gained notoriety as the idyllic backdrop for the 2002 novel, Nights in Rodanthe, which was later turned into a film, in 2008. The charming coastal town has plenty of cinematic appeal. The laidback village offers an escape from the summer crowds, while still providing conveniently-located amenities for travelers, including waterfront restaurants overlooking the Pamlico Sound. The town is also home to the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station Historic Site, which features two historic station buildings, the first built in 1874, and the second in 1911, along with three outbuildings, now operated as a museum. Just miles north of Rodanthe, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a hotspot for birdlife, an ideal destination for birders, with marked trails and strategically situated observation blinds.


Aerial view along North Carolina Outer Banks showing Buxton to Avon
Aerial view of the Outer Banks at Avon.

The largest hamlet on Hatteras Island in the mid-1800s, the village of Avon was once known as Kinnakeet, an Algonquin word reported to translate as a place that is mixed, as the village once hosted a hodgepodge of settlements. Today, the town is a surfer’s paradise in the middle of Hatteras Island, and the perfect basecamp for exploring the stunning beaches of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, established in 1937 as the country’s first national seashore. Despite the natural backdrop, the town has plenty of creature comforts, including a handful of eateries and boutiques.

With some of the most superb beaches in the East, interspersed with charming coastal towns and villages, the Outer Banks is an idyllic destination, no matter the season. From the popular resort town of Nags Head, and the newest town Duck, to the stunning beaches in Avon, there is a beach town in the Outer Banks for every adventure and vacation.

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