The drive to your Outer Banks destination can and should be part of the fun of heading to the beach, and with the wealth of roadside attractions, iconic destinations, and hidden gems, it’s easy to transform a long drive into an integral part of your getaway.
So instead of making a beeline to the beach, take some time to check out the variety of activities and sites that are found along both the main routes and just slightly off the beaten path. Whether you come to the Outer Banks from the north, south, or west, you’ll find that there’s tons to discover along the way.
Routes to the Outer Banks
From the South – Visitors who are heading to the Outer Banks from the southern states have a scenic drive in store. After cruising up the coastline and passing by other tempting beach communities like Cape Fear and the Crystal Coast, visitors will connect with one of two ferry routes – the Cedar Island Ferry or the Swan Quarter ferry – before embarking on a roughly 2.5 hour cruise across the Pamlico Sound and landing on Ocracoke Island. From here, guests can linger and enjoy the Ocracoke scene, or follow NC Highway 12 north to the free 1-hour ferry to Hatteras Island, and eventually, the rest of the Outer Banks.
From the West – Visitors heading to the Outer Banks from the central and western regions of North Carolina and beyond will typically follow US Highway 64 which makes a direct beeline across the state. Addition routes include US Highway 158, which veers towards Elizabeth City and is a slightly longer, but which is a more leisurely-paced drive.
From the North – Many visitors to the Outer Banks hail from the northern states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and even New York. While these visitors will take different interstates and highways to reach the coastal area – like I-95 or I-81 – they’ll generally all land on the outskirts of Norfolk, and from there follow 168/158 across the North Carolina border to the “Inner Banks” before eventually connecting with the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge and the barrier island beaches.
This trek can be a long one, depending on the departure point, but visitors will find a wide realm of great stop-over locales as well as cool spots that can easily break up a drive.
To make a long road trip to the OBX a bit more fun and stress-free, make a stop in one of these cool towns, and / or pay a visit to one of the many esteemed attractions in the area.
Nauticus in Norfolk – The town of Norfolk has a rich connection with military history and visitors can discover an authentic battleship, (the Battleship Wisconsin), as well as a host of science and marine-themed exhibits at this extensive museum. Iconic components of this extensive complex includes the 80,000 square foot Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, the WWII era battleship, and hands-on displays, interactive theaters, an aquarium, and much more. Nauticus is found roughly 1.5 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Downtown Norfolk – Downtown Norfolk is blossoming into one of the hottest waterfront regions north of the Outer Banks, and the multi-block area features a wealth of shops, activities, and attractions. Dozens of museums and / or attractions call the area home, including the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Battleship Wisconsin, the Hermitage Museum & Gardens, the MacArthur Memorial Museum, and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, and the area is stocked with theatres, live music venues, and top rated restaurants. Downtown Norfolk is found roughly 1.5 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Virginia Beach oceanfront – For an entirely different beach scene, visitors travelling to the Outer Banks can make a stop at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Encompassing roughly three miles of shoreline, and bordering towering high-rise hotels, this destination feels miles away from the OBX atmosphere. The area is also home to a popular boardwalk, which connects more than 40 hotels as well as a number of attractions, food vendors, event venues, and other hot stops. The Virginia Beach Oceanfront is found roughly 1.5 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Busch Gardens/Water Country USA Williamsburg – Kids who want to get out of the car and run wild for a while will love making a stop at Busch Gardens/Water Country USA Williamsburg. Located in Virginia, this extensive pair of theme parks has miles of fun, which includes 17 water-themed rides at Water Country USA, more than 50 rides at Busch Gardens, and a total of 7 thrilling roller coasters. With famed and award winning coasters that include Griffon, Alpengeist, and Apollo's Chariot, a visit to Busch Gardens will delight thrill seekers of all ages. Busch Gardens/Water Country USA Williamsburg is found roughly 2.5 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Colonial Williamsburg – Visitors can step back in time at this 301 acre living history museum where the early roots of Colonia America comes to life. The outdoor region is home to a collection of historic homes and structures that date from the 1500s to the 1800s, and feature three main thoroughfares that make exploring the intricate homes that are stocked with period antiques a breeze. A central Visitors Center is located on site where visitors can discover all the different ways to tour the neighborhood. Colonial Williamsburg is found roughly 2.5 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Jamestown, Virginia – Visitors can tour the location of the first permanent English settlement on American soil with a visit to the Virginian city of Jamestown. Historic Jamestowne, located at the original site of this settlement, is a good first stop to learn more about these roots and view remnants of the historic 1607 James Fort, as well as visit the Archaearium Museum which is overflowing with Jamestown artifacts. The rest of the town is equally charming, and features a wealth of restaurants, lodgings, shops, and other enticing amenities. Jamestown is found roughly 3 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center – The Virginia Aquarium in the city of Virginia Beach is one of the largest aquariums in the state, and features countless freshwater and saltwater marine life in more than 800,000 gallons of glass display tanks. More than 12,000 different animals call the aquarium home – (which includes roughly 700 varying species) – and the site features a wealth of unique attractions that highlights the distinct environments in which these critters are found. Highlights of the aquarium include a Bay and Ocean Pavilion, a Marsh Pavilion, and an Aviary. The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is found roughly 1.5 hours from the Wright Memorial Bridge to the beach.
Route 158/168 in NC – The four lane highway that heads to the Outer Banks from the north – route 158/168 – is stocked with unique souvenir stores, golf courses, and other attractions that will inspire visitors to start exploring before they reach the beach. Points of interest include the Gravedigger monster truck exhibit, roughly a half dozen varying golf courses and golfing communities, historic gift shops, grand souvenir shops that are on the VA / NC border, and a wide array of restaurants, farm stands, and other roadside attractions.
Things to Do and Places to Stop on the way to the Beach
In addition to the big-name amusement parks, historic sites, and museums, virtually every neighborhood en route to the beach has its own charms that will entice drivers to pull over and explore. As a result, visitors will have a chance to dine, shop, and load up on necessities miles before they reach the Outer Banks.
Souvenirs en Route to the Beach – There are a wide range of souvenir and gift shops found along the way to the beach, regardless of which direction you’re coming from. From the south, visitors can check out the unique gift stores in Harkers Island, where a myriad of hand-carved decoys and nautical themed artworks and gifts can be found. From the north, visitors will want to stop at iconic gift shops like the Cotton Gin where local eastern NC history is celebrated, as well as several vineyards like the adjacent Sanctuary Vineyards. The area also features fireworks stands, pottery vendors, and many more souvenirs or goodies at a typically steep discount. From the west, visitors can take a detour along the Manns Harbor Bridge to connect with Manteo, where the historic downtown area is stocked with antique shops, art galleries, watersports shops, and much more.
Farm Markets En Route to the Beach – In the summer and early fall months, the roads to the beach are lined with seasonal produce stands and local markets that sell armfuls of fresh goodies. Highway 158/168 seemingly has the highest number of seasonal farm stands and markets, with a number of farms that provide produce to the local grocery stores, farm stands and restaurants along the Outer Banks. Visitors will also find make-shift stands along Highway 64, (especially in Dare County), as well as several stands in mainland Hyde County just before they reach the Swan Quarter ferry.
Restaurants En Route to the Beach – The restaurants on the Outer Banks are naturally famed for seafood, but on the mainland, visitors can enjoy a decadent collection of other North Carolina staples as well. Eastern NC and the “Inner Banks” are well known for their famed Eastern North Carolina BBQ, (which is vinegar based), and visitors will find plenty of budget-friendly restaurants and BBQ joints along US Highway 158/168 where they can indulge. Just south of the OBX, the small Down East communities of Cedar Island are home to a number of hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurants and eateries, where fresh oysters, shrimp, and other coastal NC staples are regularly on the menu. In virtually all areas, the restaurants tend to be on the rustic side, with plenty of home cooking, good prices, and family-friendly fare to go around.
Boat Routes and the Intracoastal Waterway
Visitors who are making an extensive East Coast trip along the Intracoastal Waterway will breeze just inland of the Outer Banks, and it’s not unusual for a number of mariners from the neighboring mainland towns of Oriental, Little Washington, or even Beaufort to make regular trips to the barrier island shorelines as well.
If you’re travelling to the Outer Banks via a sea-worthy vessel, there are a few key towns, marinas, and stops along the way that will make your ensuing travels a breeze.
From the North – Visitors who are heading from the northern regions of the Intracoastal Waterway will want to dock in the inland towns of Currituck, Barco, Jarvisburg, Point Harbor and Poplar Branch. These communities are stocked with local BBQ joints and farmer’s stands, small grocery stores, and privately owned marinas that are generally small in nature and which may also offer on-site motel accommodations. For a scenic detour, head to the historic town of Edenton, where the downtown waterfront is stuffed with historic homes and museums, art galleries, cool shops and restaurants, and the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse.
From the South – Visitors heading to the Outer Banks from the south will find ample opportunities to dock and explore, especially in the Crystal Coast towns of Beaufort and Morehead City. Both of these Carteret County destinations have downtown waterfronts where mariners will find a myriad of marina options, as well as walking-distance access to locally acclaimed restaurants, nightlife venues, shops, service, and historic or cultural attractions. For a detour while en route, check out the town of Oriental, which is a definitive maritime community, and which has dozens of marinas, repair services, boat sale businesses, and more amenities designed specifically for passing mariners.
Overnight Docking at Marinas on the Outer Banks – Once a mariner has arrived on the Outer Banks, they’ll find that there are a number of options for docking and relaxing for a night, a weekend, or even a full week or more. Head to Downtown Manteo via the Albemarle Sound for a nice array of options and easy access to cool attractions, restaurants, or shops, or head to the maritime community of Hatteras Village on Hatteras Island. Hatteras Village is home to roughly a half dozen marinas which offer on-site restaurants, motel or hotel accommodations, ships’ stores, fuel services, and / or all of the above.
There are several ways to get to the Outer Banks from far-flung places due to several international airports that are a relatively easy drive away, as well as local air charters and airports / airstrips that can get high flyers directly to the beach.
ORF – The ORF Airport (Norfolk International Airport) is located just 1.5 hours away or so from the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge to the beach, and is relatively small international airport that has one terminal with two concourses. Major airlines that service this airport include American Airlines, Delta, United, and Southwest, and the airport has a number of food and beverage purveyors, other concessions, and restaurants within the terminal.
RDU – The RDU Airport (Raleigh Durham International) is located on the edge of Raleigh, NC, about three hours away from the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge which leads to Manteo and the central Outer Banks. RDU is a much larger international airport with two distinct terminals and non-stop services to several major international cities, including London and Paris. Most of the major airlines utilize this airport, including American, Delta, JetBlue, United, and Southwest, and both terminals feature a wide array of shops, concessions, food and beverage purveyors, and restaurants / lounges.
Local Airports - The Outer Banks also has a series of local “airports” although they are mostly unmanned and only accommodate small personal airplanes. Even so, high flyers who want to land in the area will find runways and ample space to do so at any of these locations. These “airports” or airstrips include the Ocracoke Island Airport just north of Ocracoke Village, the Dare County Regional Airport in Manteo – which is the largest airport / airstrip in the region – the First Flight Airport in Kill Devil Hills, and the Billy Mitchell Airport in the town of Frisco on Hatteras Island. Three of these airports, (Billy Mitchell, Ocracoke, and First Flight), are managed by the National Park Service, and have limited facilities that include on-site restrooms and / or small lounges.
Charter Flights – Visitors who don’t want to drive from RDU or ORF to reach the beach will also find several airline charter services that call the Outer Banks home, and which generally depart to and from the Dare County Regional Airport. (Although visitors may also be able to access other airports, depending on the service.) These businesses, which include Coastal Helicopters, Outer Banks Air Charters, and Barrier Island Aviation, are perfect for couples and / or small families who want to reach the shoreline in a hurry. (In addition, many local air charter businesses also offer exceptional tours, which is a thrilling sightseeing experience for any visitor.)
Regardless of how you land on the Outer Banks – by car, boat, or plane – the route to the beach can provide miles of fun if you take the time to pause and explore. Make your travels to the Outer Banks part of the fun, and reserve some time to discover all the unique destinations that are found just minutes or hours away from your ultimate destination.
By relaxing and enjoying the ride and the surrounding terrain, it’s easy to start a vacation as soon as you start your trip.