It might seem tricky to fit in all the attractions, historical sites, and fun activities off the beach into an Outer Banks vacation, and still have plenty of time left over to just lounge on the sand. That said, there are a number of attractions up and down the North Carolina coastline that any new visitor would be remiss to miss.
Vacationers can opt to stick to the attractions in their vacation home town, either in the northern, central, or southern Outer Banks regions, or take a scenic day trip along the oceanfront highways and try to hit all the highlights on the beach.
Regardless of how much time you devote to off-the-beach excursions and adventures, you're sure to find that any of the attractions on the Outer Banks "Must-See" list are definitely worth the trip.
Northern Outer Banks
Carova's Wild Horses
The 4WD beaches just north of Corolla offer more than just deserted beaches, quiet vacation home communities and miles of natural landscape - they're also home to Currituck's most famous residents, the Carova Wild Horses. These herds of horses are believed to be the direct descendants of shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs from the late 1400s and early 1500s, and thanks to Carova's isolation, these mustangs are able to freely roam the beach, sand dunes, and small wooded communities with ease. Take a 4WD ride down the sandy beach path, or book a Carova Wild Horse tour for optimal spotting. It's not unusual for visitors to find clusters of the horses munching away in the sand dunes, or simply strolling down the beach. An incredible sight, be sure and take plenty of pictures but please keep your distance. These majestic mustangs may look docile, but make no mistake they are as wild as their Spanish ancestors.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is the most distinctive of the four lighthouses stationed throughout the Outer Banks, as its exterior was left unpainted, making its red brick facade one of a kind on the North Carolina Coast. It's also one of the few lighthouses of its size on the East Coast that is open for climbers. From late spring until early fall, visitors can make the trek all the way to the top for panoramic views of the northern Outer Banks, from Southern Shores all the way to the distant Virginia border. Bring your stamina, camera, and a little extra dough for both the small climbing fee as well as the bookstore and gift shop on the premises, housed in the historic lighthouse keepers' quarters. The grounds surrounding the lighthouse are also ideal for bikers, walkers, and nature lovers, and are open year-round for quiet strolls through parcels of maritime forest.
The Whalehead Club
The sprawling yellow plantation is a gem of the Currituck Beach landscape, and represents the beginnings of Outer Banks tourism. Built in the 1920s by conservationist Edward C. Knight Jr. and his bride Marie Louise, the club was originally a gathering place for the couples' wealthy northern friends who made the long trek to the Outer Banks for its scenic beauty and exceptional hunting and fishing. Today, the 21,000 square foot residence has been painstakingly restored to its former glory, and is open during the summer season for visitors to explore for a taste of the decadent life of the Outer Banks' first tourists. The Whalehead Club is also available for weddings and special events that are truly one-of-a-kind celebrations that attendees will ever forget.
Currituck Heritage Park
The grounds bordering the Whalehead Club and Currituck Beach Lighthouse comprise the 39 acre waterfront Currituck Heritage Park. This park is a "Must See" even without the famous lighthouse and Whalehead Club on the premises, and features quiet ponds for crabbing, towering live oaks ideal for romantic picnics, and acres of soundfront beaches for watersports of all kinds. Enjoy the great outdoors off the beach and take a stroll through the parks' numerous nature trails, or simply curl up with a good book in the shadow of the Whalehead Club, and enjoy the natural and tranquil Corolla setting that attracted the original Knights in the first place.
The Shops of Duck
When it comes to unique one-of-a-kind shopping excursions, it's hard to beat the tiny town of Duck. This popular vacation destination is also home to some of the Outer Banks' best collections of charming shops and restaurants, ranging from the completely quirky to the upscale and elite. Swing by the cluster of wooded or waterfront shopping centers, such as the Scarborough Faire Shopping Center or the Osprey Landing Sound Front Shops, and you'll find dozens of beach boutiques, charming galleries, cutting edge water sports shops, and so much more. When it comes to retail therapy, Duck has the ideal relaxing setting, as well as a world of goods that Outer Banks shoppers won't find anywhere else.
Central Outer Banks
Wright Brothers National Memorial
In 1903, the Wight Brothers made history by flying the first engine-powered airplane on the sandy windswept dunes of Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. The Wright Brothers originally came to the Outer Banks for its phenomenal wind and weather conditions, and stayed for years perfecting their flying experiments because of the landscape as well as the generous local hospitality. Today, aviation and history lovers flock to the Wright Brothers Memorial, which features a granite towering statue honoring where flight was first achieved, a small museum with a replica of the first plane as well as artifacts from their early experiments, and the new Millennium museum, which was constructed on the hundred-year anniversary of flight in 2003 and celebrates the past century of aviation. The park is open 7 days a week, year-round, from 9:00 - 5:00 p.m., and is a must-see for anyone with an inherent love of flying.
The Jennette's Pier in Nags Head isn't just a great destination for anglers who want to reel in the big one. It's also a historical treasure, a cultural attraction, and an educational showpiece, all wrapped into one sprawling and scenic oceanfront pier. The pier was originally built in 1939, and prided itself on being the first pier on the Outer Banks. After decades of deterioration due to regular storms and occasional hurricanes, the pier was reconstructed and revitalized in 2009, with the NC Aquarium stepping in to make the pier an all-concrete educational center. Today, visitors can go fishing, or explore the 1,000 foot pier which is filled with educational marine exhibits, and offers seasonal programs for children and adults alike. For a fantastic view with a little learning thrown in, Jennette's Pier is definitely a Must See on any ocean lover's list.
Jockey's Ridge State Park
The Jockey's Ridge State Park is home to the tallest series of natural sand dunes on the East Coast, and as such, is easily visible from virtually any spot in Nags Head. The dunes might be a challenge to climb, but at the top, adventurous visitors are rewarded with unparalleled views of the central Outer Banks spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Albemarle Sound. (On clear days, some visitors attest that they can even see all the way to Manteo.) Hang gliders consider this locale one of the best spots in the country to take to the skies, and visitors are welcome to take an afternoon hang gliding lesson and join in the fun.
Off the dunes, visitors will find acres of maritime forest, nature trails, and soundfront beaches ideal for kayaking, kiteboarding, windsurfing, stand up paddle boarding, or even just relaxing with a few toes in the Albemarle Sound. The park caters to every kind of outdoors-lover, and new Outer Banks vacationers will find a visit to Jockey's Ridge State Park worth the trip just for that phenomenal view.
The Lost Colony
The country's longest running outdoor drama, The Lost Colony, has played to sold-out crowds every summer for decades, and it's easy to see why. The play, which is performed nightly in Manteo from Memorial Day to Labor Day, has over 100 actors, dancers and singers, whirling on stage, spinning fire, and presenting the fascinating true story of Manteo's first and fastest-departing residents. Centuries later, the fate of the historic Lost Colony settlers is still unknown, but visitors can revisit the mystery every night under the canopy of stars by the Roanoke Sound. The play is so popular, in fact, that it has even bolstered the careers of some of America's favorite actors, including longtime Manteo resident Andy Griffith who spent a summer as a feature player well before he became sheriff of Mayberry.
Tickets are required, and visitors are encouraged to reserve well in advance due to the popularity of the show, but the reward is an enthralling outdoor stage and drama that captures the tumultuous history and the outdoor culture of the Outer Banks.
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Family members of all ages will love a leisurely stroll through the North Carolina Aquarium, where visitors can get up close and personal with some of the Outer Banks' favorite residents, including local saltwater and freshwater fish, frolicking sea otters, turtles, and even alligators. The series of exhibits pays homage to local North Carolina wildlife, as well as tropical species, hurricane history, and a "touch tank" room where visitors can dip their hands into the water to feel smooth sting rays or hard-shelled horseshoe and hermit crabs. However, the biggest attraction, literally, is the giant saltwater tank which is home to the largest of the Outer Banks marine species, including sharks, drum, and meandering sea turtles. Visitors are encouraged to stop by during feeding times, when divers descend into the tanks, or to swing by for seasonal educational programs which are offered almost daily during the summer season.
The aquarium is open year-round, seven days a week, ensuring that all visitors have an opportunity to get a first-hand look at the local fish, mammals and reptiles that call the Outer Banks home.
The Elizabethan Gardens
The acres of perfectly landscaped formal gardens or wild patches of local foliage at the Elizabethan Gardens are a breath of fresh air for any Outer Banks vacationer. This attraction pays homage to Roanoke Island's Elizabethan roots as well as its natural landscape and beauty by showcasing a number of regional and rare plant species throughout the acres of landscape. Every season is different, adding to its beauty, and ensuring that visitors will enjoy a spectacle of local flowers, including hydrangeas, camellias, and roses, during any time of the year. The Elizabethan Gardens also has a gift shop and plant shop on premise so visitors can take a bit of the Outer Banks home to grow in their own yard, and also offers seasonal classes, including watercolor classes, wreath making classes, kids' workshops, and everything in between. For flora lovers who want to explore the very best plants the Outer Banks has to offer via a scenic stroll that borders the Roanoke Sound, there's no better peaceful yet enthralling nature walk than at the Elizabethan Gardens.
Historic Downtown Manteo
Over the years, the town of Manteo has done an exceptional job of preserving its historic collection of waterfront homes, gardens, and scenery, and visitors are welcome to wander the streets and enjoy the results. Pass a series of side-streets that are home to historic personal residences and bed and breakfasts, both bursting with overflowing gardens, and visitors will come across the busy Manteo waterfront. This section of town is home to the town's best restaurants, shops, and acres of waterfront boardwalk to explore. Stroll along the docks and watch the sailing ships and tour boats roll in, or grab a meal at one of the area's many waterfront restaurants. On the outskirts of the waterfront, visitors will find the Roanoke Marshes Light Lighthouse, a public soundfront gazebo, and plenty of picnic tables and green manicured lawns to go around. For a lazy afternoon of strolling, shopping, dining, and simply enjoying the waterfront views, Manteo's bustling downtown is certainly a "Must See."
Roanoke Island Festival Park
The Roanoke Island Festival Park is a veritable playground for children and history buffs alike, as the expansive ground bordering the Roanoke Sound feature a world of costumed interpreters, historical buildings, and interactive exhibits, all replicating the Roanoke Island of the late 1500s. Visitors can watch English settlers at work constructing a colony, visit with local Native Americans who have mastered living on the tricky coastal landscape for centuries, and view artifacts and replicas from the Outer Banks' very first residents. The park is open daily for visitors for a small fee, offers acres of interactive activities to explore, and serves as a real life example of Outer Banks history at its earliest stages.
Elizabeth II Replica
The Elizabeth II, a historic replica of the exact ship the Lost Colonists travelled on en route to the Outer Banks, is a spectacle to historic downtown Manteo visitors. The ship is clearly visible from almost any vantage point along the waterfront, allowing all Manteo visitors to enjoy the craftsmanship and intricate detail involved in creating the 16th century vessel. For a true experience, however, Manteo visitors are encouraged to climb aboard and explore the ship that transported the Outer Banks' first European residents. On board, visitors can interact with deck hands, officers, and passengers as they help swab the decks, chart a course to the new world, or simply explore the deep confines of the ship. History lovers will marvel at the intricate detail that is evident at every turn, and kids will love lending a hand to help keep the ship functioning and ready for its next voyage back to England. In Manteo, history always has a little fun thrown in to entertain every visitor, and the Elizabeth II is clearly no exception.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
The Bodie Island Lighthouse is located just south of Nags Head, and while the black and white striped towering structure can be easily admired from NC Highway 12, visitors are encouraged to turn down the shaded soundside road to the lighthouse for a closer look. After years of reconstruction, the lighthouse is expecting a Spring or Summer grand reopening in 2013, hoping to welcome visitors to climb to the very top for unparalleled views of Oregon Inlet, the Albemarle Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Regardless of when it becomes open for climbing, the lighthouse, which has been in operation since 1872, is still a popular attraction for visitors and features a small visitors' center in the original lighthouse keepers' quarters, as well as acres of nature trails bordering the 15-acre site. Visitors are welcome to explore, climb, or simply marvel at the towering lighthouse, visible from the edge of Nags Head to the plateau of the Bonner Bridge.
Southern Outer Banks
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, spanning the area in between the Bonner Bridge and the town of Rodanthe on Hatteras Island, is the temporary home to over 400 species of migratory birds. One of the most diverse and populated wildlife refuges in coastal North Carolina, passerbys on NC Highway 12 will spot dozens of snow geese, pelicans, cormorants, and dozens of other shorebirds frolicking in the roadside saltwater ponds that border the edges of the refuge. Dedicate a couple hours to exploring further, and you'll find hundreds of rare or infrequent feathered visitors to the Outer Banks, including great blue herons, ibises, and even occasional white pelicans.
The refuge has plenty of nature trails that lead all the way out to the Pamlico Sound, as well as seasonal programs and even a week-long birding festival, Wings Over Water, which attracts birders from all along the East Coast. For Hatteras Island at its most wild, a stroll through the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge will give nature lovers a tutorial on the species that call the Outer Banks home, for a week, or for a lifetime.
Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station
The Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station is one of the best preserved examples of the historic Life Saving Service stations, predecessors to the modern US Coast Guard. The Life Saving Service protected the Outer Banks shores and the passing ships that dared to travel through the treacherous Diamond Shoals. Filled with two centuries of daring rescues and proud homegrown history, the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station comprises of the main building, which is home to the museum and gift shop, as well as a series of outbuildings including the crews' quarters, the kitchen, and the original storage building stocked with antique rescue equipment. All buildings remain virtually unchanged from their original late 1800s service, and summer visitors can catch exhibitions by current US Coast Guard members on historical lifesaving techniques. The station is open from April until November, Monday through Friday, and visitors are welcome to swing by, explore the grounds, and honor Hatteras Island's proud history as a model for life saving stations around the world.
Ask any local or visiting windsurfer or kiteboarder, and they'll easily guide you to Canadian Hole, a wide swath of Pamlico Sound that has been revered as a world-class playground for water sports enthusiasts of all types. On a breezy spring or fall day, visitors will spot dozens if not hundreds of multi-colored kites streaming across the waters in front of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. You don't have to be a kiteboarding or windsurfing expert to enjoy the view - simply pull up a lawn chair, stick your toes into the sound waters, and enjoy the aerial acrobats. Around sunset, the show just gets better with fantastic soundfront views seven days a week. For fantastic photo opts, ideal soundside beaches for the young ones, and miles of open water vistas, Canadian Hole, located in between Avon and Buxton, is clearly a local favorite for both waterfront fun and scenery.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most famous lighthouses on the Outer Banks for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation, and its diagonal black and white striped pattern has inspired lighthouse art and trinkets for decades. For another, it is one of the tallest lighthouses that allows climbing visitors, under the watchful supervision of National Park Service rangers, who provide guided tours from spring until fall.
The climb up and down, with plenty of room in between to enjoy the views that stretch from Avon to Hatteras, takes only an hour or so, but many vacationers consider it the highlight of their vacation. Combining history and sightseeing, the climb allows visitors to view a 19th century Fresnel light at work, as well as panoramic views from the safety of the lighthouse's metal guard rail. The lighthouse is open seasonally for climbers seven days a week for a small fee, and vacationers are advised to be on the lookout for special full-moon tours, that give vacationers a one-of-a-kind look at the Outer Banks at night from an aerial perspective.
Travel just a mile or so past the lighthouse and you'll find the entry point to one of the Outer Banks' most famous beaches, Cape Point. Accessible only by a 4WD vehicle or by adventurous visitors who don't mind a two-mile hike, Cape Point is located at the exact location where Hatteras Island veers to the west, and intersects with both the offshore Labrador and Gulf Stream Currents. As a result, the fishing is simply incredible and anglers can expect to reel in drum, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, and even sharks. This area has attracted anglers for decades, and is arguably one of the first visitor "hot spots" on Hatteras Island, enticing anglers from all over the country to explore the waters and cast a line. Be prepared to have company, particularly during the spring and fall seasons when the drum runs are in full swing, as the secret is out that this is the best fishing spot on the Outer Banks.
Hatteras and Ocracoke Ferry Docs and Harbors
Enjoy a slice of the Outer Banks' maritime culture at the Hatteras Village waterfront docs. Spanning almost a mile from the Hatteras / Ocracoke free ferry to the smaller commercial and privately owned docks of Teach's Lair, Hatteras Harbor, Oden's Docs, and Village Marina, this section of Hatteras Village is what life on the water is all about. Watch the charter boats roll out with the sunrise, or take a stroll in the late afternoon to watch the day's haul being loaded onto dockside fish cleaning and weighing stations. The Harbors of Hatteras Village is where local commercial fishing meets modern tourism, and visitors will love the collection of boats, fishermen, seafood restaurants, and amazing waterfront views. If your vacation falls in September, be sure and visit for the annual Day at the Docks event, a two-day festival held along the waterfront that celebrates the history and culture of Hatteras Island Watermen.
Ocracoke's Wild Ponies
Ocracoke Island is another of the Outer Banks' barrier islands where wild horses were cast ashore centuries ago, only to thrive and survive for hundreds of years. Unlike Carova, on Ocracoke the ponies are closely monitored and guarded by the National Park Service, and a large section of the soundside between the ferry docks and Ocracoke Village has been fenced in to provide a safe and protected environment. Visitors can spot the wild ponies by stopping by the Ocracoke Pony Pen. Here, lucky visitors can catch glimpses of the horses as they head to feeding stations or simply graze in the pasture. Bring a camera, and remember to stay outside of the fenced-in area. The ponies are beautiful, but are definitely feral, so human contact is not allowed by the National Park Service.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
The Ocracoke Island lighthouse may be the shortest lighthouse on the Outer Banks, at just 75 feet tall, but it is also one of the most loved, and as charming as the village the surrounds it. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is also the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina, and its Fresnel light can be spotted from all areas of the small, 4 square mile village. While not open for climbing, visitors can stroll or bike to the lighthouse for amazing photos, and a serene walk around the white-picket fenced property. A small parking area is nearby, and there is no charge to explore the lighthouse grounds.
Ocracoke Village and Ocracoke Harbor
Every Outer Banks visitor should plan a day trip to Ocracoke Island. The southernmost island of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore has a personality all its own, and is filled with historical charm, quirky culture, and plenty of laid-back attitude. Due to its small size, a stroll around the entire village can be accomplished within a couple hours, and visitors will find dozens of unique shops, locally renowned restaurants, and historic residences along the way. Take a detour through Springer's Point, a small nature trail that leads all the way to the Pamlico Sound, and be sure and spend some time meandering along the Ocracoke Harbor. This area is the busiest on Ocracoke, and is always filled with sailboats, charter fishing vessels, tour boats, and ferries jetting in and out of the harbor. Cap off the day with a visit to one of the harbor's waterfront restaurants, and enjoy a drink and a spectacular sunset. After a full day of exploring, you'll see why Ocracoke is a frequent mention on "Best Beaches" lists across the county.
Naturally, if you have specific interests that attract you to the Outer Banks, your personalized "Must See" list may vary from the above suggestions. For example, kiteboarders will want to check out the world famous Kite Point beach adjacent to Canadian Hole, while anglers will want to head to the Oregon, Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlets to see what's biting. Regardless, there is no shortage of activities, attractions and entertainment to fill an Outer Banks vacation, and newcomers will find a world of history, culture and fun just waiting a few steps off the beach.
And while it might be hard to fit in all of the "Must See" locales on the Outer Banks, the best part is it's easy to cross a few off your list, and simply plan another vacation to tackle all the lures and attractions the Outer Banks has to offer, both on and off the sand.