Manteo at a Glance

A quiet Southern town rich with history and attractions.

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Manteo may seem like a typical North Carolina coastal town, but the area is as rich in attractions and fun as it is local history. The area is home to one of the world's greatest mysteries, the birthplace of English colonization in American, (literally), and a collection of Outer Banks attractions that have wowed vacationers for generations.

A visit to Manteo, whether it's for a day or for a week, can be a veritable visit back in time with historical attractions like the Roanoke Island Festival Park, the Island Farm or the Elizabethan Gardens setting the scene of a bygone era. For vacationers more interested in modern fare, the downtown offers blocks of homegrown boutiques, book shops, gift stores, and some of the region's most celebrated restaurants, all located conveniently in one downtown stretch adjacent to the bustling but beautiful Manteo waterfront.

The history of Manteo is storied and deep, beginning with the town name's origin itself. "Manteo" was a chief in the local Roanoke Island community of Native Americans who made a long trip oversees as an ambassador of goodwill to the late 16th Century English explorers. Chief Manteo was, in fact, one of the first American residents to travel to Europe as an honored and distinguished guest.

Shopping and restaurants in downtown Manteo

Surprisingly, this is not the most notable footnote of the town's history. Manteo is the home to one of the world's longest running historical mysteries, specifically, the disappearance of the Lost Colony. In 1597, after a series of surface explorations, including one commandeered by Sir Walter Raleigh himself, a new colony was sent to Roanoke Island to settle and begin the English expansion of the New World. Led by John White, the colonists arrived in Manteo and quickly set to building and creating a new settlement. In the process of building a new civilization, John White's own daughter gave birth to the country's first English child, Virginia Dare, for which the Outer Banks home county is named.

Months later, however, supplies had run short, and John White had to make a hesitant trip home to England to resupply the camp. Once in Europe, White found himself bogged down by both government inquires and bad weather, and it wasn't until 1590 that he was able to make the long voyage back to Manteo to bring help to his colony, his daughter, and his new granddaughter. Sadly, when he returned, he found the entire colony had been virtually wiped off the map, with only a minor clue to their fate carved into two neighboring trees: the words "Cro" and "Croatan."

Manteo waterfront

Many modern historians take this as a sign that the colonists, either as a desperate move to escape starvation or outrun threats from neighboring Native Americans, relocated to the southern beaches of Hatteras Island, where the Croatan Native Americans thrived peacefully. However, after long coastline explorations, John White found no sign of his daughter, grandchild, or any other living soul of that first original Roanoke Island Colony.

Today, the drama of the Lost Colony is honored in Manteo with, quite appropriately, an Outdoor Drama. "The Lost Colony" show is the nation's oldest running outdoor drama and features a prestigious cats of former players, including Andy Griffith who starred in the show for several years before becoming a star, and then later returned to the Outer Banks to live out his days as a happy, retired resident.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

These days, the show is performed nightly in the summertime to sold-out crowds who enjoy the Broadway worthy singing, dancing, acting and pyrotechnics. Reservations are strongly recommended in the prime June, July, and August months as the legendary show, which also features a post-show meet and greet with the cast of characters, tends to sell out fast.

Elizabethan era lovers can also make a day trip to neighboring Roanoke Island Festival Park, which features a real-life recreation of everyday life in an early American colony. Visitors can explore the workings of the settler's village, a neighboring Native American camp, and the elaborately constructed replica of the Elizabeth II, a fantastic and detail-perfect example of the ship that brought the original colonists to Manteo. The ship can be explored in person during the prime summer months, guided by costumed interpreters, or can be admired by anyone who strolls along the downtown Manteo docks. Stationed right in the forefront of Manteo's harbor, adjacent to the wooden bridge that leads visitors to the waterfront park, the Elizabeth II is an unmistakable and alluring site to any downtown visitor.

Elizabeth II at Roanoke Island Festival Park

The neighboring Elizabethan Gardens also casts a spell over history buffs and nature lovers alike, with acres of perfectly manicured gardens and sculptures, as well as wild-growing native species of plants, flowers and trees. Every season brings a new show-stopper in bloom at the gardens, and visitors who frequent the Outer Banks are encouraged to make multiple visits during different times of year to enjoy the full display. Hydrangeas, Camelias, roses, tulips, and magnolias all make regular appearances, and guests can also marvel at the Elizabethan Era-inspired sculptures, gazebos and garden settings throughout the park. A self-guided walking trail leads visitors in a circular route that borders the Roanoke Soundfront, and a gift store and plant shop are also on the premises for Elizabethan and natural, locally grown souvenirs. Open year-round, the Elizabethan Gardens is a must-see for anyone who wants to take a natural step back in history, and enjoy the stunning Manteo view.

The other major attraction in Manteo is the North Carolina Aquarium, located just a half mile or so away from the Elizabethan Gardens, Lost Colony Drama, and the Roanoke Island Festival Park. The aquarium presents a slice of natural island life, and features exhibits on everything Outer Banks, from the marshy inland habitats to the deep waters of the Gulf Stream. Of course, every exhibit has a healthy sample of the critters that inhabit these areas as well, and guests can expect to see river otters, land and sea turtles, alligators, local and tropical fish, and even a number of different kinds of sharks. The aquarium was designed with kids in mind, and special exhibits and programs are offered year-round to allow the future scientists in your group an opportunity to explore the natural world of the Outer Banks. Open every day, all year round, the aquarium is accessible to visitors of all seasons, and definitely worth the trip.

The Elizabethan Gardens

Downtown Manteo, located just a few blocks off the main road of US Highway 64, is a destination in its own right, and the small streets that lead to the harbor are filled with gorgeous gardens, manicured lawns, and charming bed and breakfasts. The Pioneer Theater, a fixture in the town for decades, is located along these side streets and claims the honor of being the oldest single-screen and family owned movie theater in America. Unmistakable by its Tudor-style exterior, the theater is open year-round and features a budget-friendly feature as well as a historic theater setting.

The waterfront portion of downtown is lined with locally and nationally renowned restaurants, water sports companies, gift shops, antique stores, book stores, galleries, and many more shops and attractions with doors wide open for patrons. The waterfront is usually stocked full of sailboats, skiffs and yachts of both visiting mariners and year-round locals, as wSell as several local tour companies that allow visitors to hop on board for an afternoon or evening waterfront view of the Outer Banks. Many restaurants have outdoor seating overlooking the harbor, presenting guests with maritime watching at its best, and everyone is encouraged to take a stroll along the waterfront, or simply pull up a bench or a gazebo seat and enjoy the views.

North Carolina Aquarium at Manteo

At the edge of the harbor front lies Roanoke Marshes Light, the Outer Banks' only example of an "in-shore" lighthouse, and a squat but charming one-story backdrop for fantastic Manteo photos.

Summer visitors should also be on the lookout for seasonal events, including monthly "First Night" celebrations, and Saturday Farmer's Markets that invade the downtown with fresh locally grown produce, homemade goodies, and local arts and crafts.

The Lost Colony drama

On the outskirts of town, along the causeway in between Manteo and Nags Head, fishermen will find a popular marina and access to some of the best off-the-bridge fishing and local crabbing on the Outer banks. Water sports lovers will also enjoy the area's array of rental and tour companies for an afternoon of jet skiing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, or even parasailing over the barrier islands.

Many Outer Bank vacationers find Manteo a full and satisfying day trip, however OBX visitors who want to relax and stay a while will find plenty of opportunities to do so. The area features a variety of accommodations, such as motels and hotels, bed and breakfasts, waterfront condos and even vacation rental homes, so any sized party can enjoy a local stay for a day, a week, or even a month.

The area is also home to the majority of the county's local government offices and services, including the county courthouse, the DMV offices, and the administrative county offices. In addition, vacationers in Manteo will find everything from small grocery stores to pharmacies to bait and tackle shops, for any items they might need during their vacation.

For a day trip that's overflowing with the area's most treasured historical attractions, or a relaxing vacation that's off the beaten path, a trip to Manteo should definitely be on the Outer Banks agenda. Vacationers find that after a full day of exploring the shops, sites and attractions, there's still plenty left to see, as well as plenty to love, about this small town with a lot of coastal character.