Every vacation destination has its own unique draw to potential visitors, whether it's a national monument, a fantastic shopping or dining scene, or an exotic locale that's meant for total relaxation. Many newcomers to the Outer Banks are surprised to learn that this destination has all of these attributes and more, and it can be hard to narrow down the overflowing list of "must-sees" or "must-dos" that have to be squeezed into a 1-2 week OBX vacation.
With that in mind, Outer Banks visitors will want to make sure the following items have top priority on their vacation agendas. While vacationers with special interests and tastes are welcome to explore the other attractions or activities that cater to special visitors, like phenomenal bird watching or coastal art classes, the following unofficial "Top 10 Things to do in the Outer Banks" are sure to keep everyone in your vacation crowd happily entertained, and eager to come back to the beach for more.
1. Hit the Beach
This top 10 entry is a no brainer, as the beach is the Outer Banks' biggest draw to visitors from all over the country. Unlike rival vacation destinations, where beachgoers may be elbow to elbow on the sand, on the Outer Banks there is plenty of room to spread out a beach blanket, a beach chair, or even a shaded cabana. Every region from the northern beaches of Corolla and Carova to the southern destinations of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands have literally miles of shoreline to go around, so visitors can enjoy unspoiled and definitively uncrowded beaches wherever they stay.
Soak up the sun, delve into a good book, help the kids build a sandcastle, take a long shore side walk, or dive into the breaking waves - there are no shortage of activities to enjoy once you're on the sand, and a typical Outer Banks vacation is generally filled with completely fulfilling beach days.
Best of all, the majority of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals are located just yards from the seashore, allowing visitors to hop across the dunes and access the ocean within minutes. Oceanfront vacation rentals are plentiful, and even a soundside or soundfront accomodation can provide exceptional access to a sound facing beach. With water in every direction, and unlimited beaches to explore, the Outer Banks lifestyle is quintessentially a day at the beach.
2. Pick up a new sport
Being surrounded by water has its advantages, not the least of which is a fantastic variety of watersports that spans the islands from the local sounds to the Atlantic Ocean. On the Outer Banks, fun revolves around the water, and various portions of the islands have been designated over the decades as incredible destinations for some of the most popular watersports in the world, including kiteboarding, surfing, windsurfing, kayaking and even recently, stand-up paddle boarding.
With hundreds of miles of open water, consistent breezes along the ocean and sound, and seasonal storms that kick up the waves, watersports conditions are truly at their best on the Outer Banks, and even newcomers can easily join in the fun.
The Outer Banks has become the home base for a number of regional and nationally recognized watersports companies, as well as dozens of locally owned businesses that specialize in saltwater adventures. Trying out a new sport can be an affordable adventure, as a number of these companies offer hourly, daily, or even weekly equipment rentals, as well as local lessons or even day camps. Visitors can even embark on area tours that launch via a kayak, jet ski, or even a parasailing trip, enhancing their introduction to the OBX's waterfront environment.
Why not spend your vacation days exploring something new, and take advantage of the hundreds of miles of ocean and sound that border these barrier islands? Novice and experts, and young and old visitors alike, will find countless avenues to explore, and may very well become hooked on surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing or stand-up paddle boarding by vacation's end. Grab a board or a paddle, hit the water, and discover first hand why watersports lovers of all genres flock to the Outer Banks.
3. Spend time with the family
The Outer Banks is distinguished as one of the most family-friendly vacation destinations on the coast, and a vacation on these islands typically entails plenty of time to reconnect and spend time with your nearest and dearest.
Because the majority of accommodations on the Outer Banks are vacation rentals, visitors will find they can stay in a home away from home, with all the comforts and amenities that lead to full vacation days and comfortable, restful nights. Full kitchens, common areas, and plenty of deck room all typically come standard with a vacation rental, and some properties even feature private pools, game rooms, and even hot tubs for additional family fun.
Outside the home, there are a world of activities to explore that are fun and entertaining for family members of all ages. Museums and area attractions specialize in creating educational but fun environments for visitors of all ages, and a number of area restaurants cater to large parties, and offer menus with family-friendly fare. Perhaps best of all, the majority of family activities on the Outer Banks are absolutely free, from digging for sand cabs in the ocean wash, to burying the family patriarch in the sand. A family beach vacation is also the perfect time to plan a family photo, and the area has dozens of expert local photographers who are pros at capturing both the beauty of the ocean or soundside background, as well as the smiles of a happy family on vacation.
4. Go Exploring
With a shoreline that extends over 100 miles from the North Carolina / Virginia border to the southern beaches of Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands, new vacationers will find there's a lot of ground to cover on the Outer Banks. Dedicate a day or an afternoon to hit the road and explore someplace new, and enjoy a full and diversified Outer Banks experience.
One of the most popular day trips for visitors is a ride over to Ocracoke Island via the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry. This scenic drive takes visitors along quiet two-lane NC Highway 12, across Hatteras Inlet via a 40 minute free ferry ride, and to the picturesque beaches of Ocracoke Island, a recent #1 beach on Dr. Beach's famous annual "Top 10 Best Beaches List." Drive 13 miles south after departing the ferry, and explore the scenic 4 square mile village of Ocracoke that has a culture and charm all its own, with waterfront restaurants and art galleries, a lighthouse that's visible throughout the town, and miles of busy waterfront harbors and Pamlico Sound shoreline to explore.
For road warriors, a visit to all four lighthouses on the Outer Banks will fill a vacation day with an expansive tour along all regions of the Outer Banks. Start with the red bricked Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla, then travel south past Nags Head to Whalebone Junction to check out the black and white striped Bodie Island Lighthouse, recently reopened to climbers after extensive years of renovations. If you're up for another lighthouse climb, cross the Bonner Bridge and head south to Buxton on Hatteras Island to view the black and white diagonally striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the world. The final stop is Ocracoke Island, where the smaller white Ocracoke Island lighthouse provides the ideal backdrop for fantastic family photo ops. Expect to spend a full day tackling this adventure, but in the process, drivers will enjoy uncovering virtually every inch of the Outer Banks shoreline.
Whether you try to visit every beach town in a single day, or simply take an evening nature walk through your local national wildlife refuge or town park, an exploration of the Outer Banks is sure to provide plenty of treasured memories to take back home.
5. Dive into history
For such an unpopulated and off-the-map destination, the Outer Banks has an exceptionally rich history that dates back thousands of years to the original Algonquin residents. Take a trip back in time, and tour the sites, attractions, and museums that pay homage to the Outer Banks' legacy in national and worldwide historical events.
The Frisco Native American Museum on Hatteras Island honors the early native residents with a host of exhibits on local, regional and national tribes, while the nearby Graveyard of the Atlantic explores centuries of notorious shipwrecks along the deadly offshore region known as the Diamond Shoals. The Roanoke Island Festival Park, Elizabethan Gardens and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site all pay homage to the late 1500s settlers, who were the first English colonists in the New World and set the stage for larger colonies in Jamestown, VA and Plymouth, MA. Visitors can even visit the spot where aviation began at the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, where in 1903 two Ohio Brothers achieved man's first successful flight.
There are centuries of history to uncover, and every area of the Outer Banks has its own unique story, from the ancient Spanish mustangs of Carova to Blackbeard's old stomping grounds on Ocracoke Island. Turn your summer vacation into a summer school session that's completely engaging, and discover the centuries of history that lay just beyond the beaches on the Outer Banks.
6. Indulge in the local cuisine
The restaurants on the Outer Banks feature some of the freshest seafood on the East Coast, obtained from the numerous fishing docks and marinas located all along the coastal area. With moderately-sized but robust commercial fishing ports in Wanchese, Hatteras, and even Avon Village, patrons will find plenty of fresh catches on the local menus that were hauled out of the ocean or sound waters just hours before dinnertime.
For the culinary experts in the family, a home-cooked meal can easily be transformed into a gourmet event, with plenty of fresh ingredients available throughout the Outer Banks. Stop by a local seafood market to pick up some fresh filets or shellfish, ready for grilling, or pop by the area farmers markets or gourmet delis to pick up some delicious accompaniments and side dishes. With seafood this fresh, a seafood dinner is all but required during an Outer Banks vacation, and with dozens of restaurants that specialize in turning those fresh catches into truly spectacular dishes, you'll surely want to dine out every night of the week.
7. Shop till you drop
Unlike other beach vacation destinations that have the typical knick-knacks and beach gear, the Outer Banks is home to a number of regionally and critically acclaimed galleries, shops and boutiques that can't be found or duplicated anywhere else.
Indulge yourself and your credit card with a day of exploring the local shopping scene. Every region has its own unique selection of shops, and patrons will find shopping carts of goodies from gourmet candies and coffees to exquisite beachy fashions and artisan jewelry.
Several areas in particular are known for their shopping opportunities, specifically the town of Duck which has dozens of one-of-a-kind shops concentrated within an easily walkable half square mile area. At these small coastal shopping plazas, you can wander through thickets of Live Oaks or stroll along an extensive Currituck Soundfront boardwalk as you hunt for unique treasures to take back home.
The art galleries of the Outer Banks are particularly exquisite, with incredible pieces created by local and regional artists. Swing by Nags Head's Gallery Row, a small road in between the US 158 Bypass and the Beach Road that features a selection of notable galleries, for a concentrated sample of the local art scene. Downtown Manteo, Ocracoke Island and Corolla are also art hot spots, with collections of galleries that features spellbinding prints, photos, watercolors, sculptures, and even completely original jewelry pieces.
Whether you're just window browsing or enjoying a little shopping spree to load up on treasures to take back home to family and friends, a day of shopping on the Outer Banks can be therapeutic, scenic, and always rewarding.
8. Go Fishing
The Outer Banks is an angler's paradise, and the home of a number of world record breaking catches from the area beaches, the local fishing piers, and the offshore waters of the Gulf Stream. As a result, fishermen have been flocking to these beaches for decades, heading to the nationally renowned local fishing holes, or booking a half or full day offshore charter trip on the hunt for big game. Come explore what all the excitement is about, and get your lines wet during your next Outer Banks vacation.
From the beaches and area fishing piers, anglers can reel in a number of seasonal species including cobia, mullet, croaker, flounder, bluefish, pompano, mackerel, and even the occasional shark or two. Arguably the best (and tastiest) prizes for local anglers, however, are the red drum who make seasonal appearances in the fall and winter months as they migrate along the East Coast, and who can clock in at a whopping 40-50 lbs., making them a challenging but incredibly rewarding catch.
Offshore, dozens of local charter fishing businesses stock the waterfront docks of Hatteras village, Wanchese and the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, eager to take vacationers out for a full day of fishing on the open water. With the Gulf Stream located just 15 or so miles away, depending on region, Outer Banks vacationers can expect exceptional access to some of the ocean's biggest and baddest catches including blue and white marlins, dolphins, tunas, and amberjacks. Best of all, a number of charter fishing businesses are happy to clean and cut your catches, making it easy for you to take them back home and whip up a huge fresh seafood feast.
On your next OBX vacation, Make sure you do a little casting from the shoreline, or book a trip for a deep sea odyssey, and you'll find out why the reputation of the Outer Banks as one of the best fishing destinations in the country is more than just a fish tale.
9. Go Shelling
The Outer Banks has been deemed by a number of experts and national publications, (including Coastal Living magazine), as one of the best shelling destinations in the US, and beach bums and modern treasure hunters should spend a portion of their beach days digging through the shoreline in search of mantle-worthy finds.
Ocracoke, Portsmouth and Hatteras Islands are especially popular shelling destinations, as these areas are generally unpopulated, making it easy for shell hunters to root through the freshly washed-up shell piles along the shoreline. Carova is also a solid shelling destination, as with beaches that are only accessible by a 4WD vehicle, shell hunters will find miles of sandy stretches that have been untouched and undiscovered.
While any shelling expedition after a low or high tide will generally yield some fruitful results, the best time to comb the beaches is several days after a storm or hurricane, when thousands of shells are deposited on shore, giving beachcombers hours of entertainment sifting through the piles. That said, virtually any beachcombing trip can turn into a lucky shelling venture, with countless southern and northern species of shells congregating along the Outer Banks' shores. With its central location in the middle of the East Coast, beachcombers can expect to find whelks, olive shells, augers, sand dollars, scallops, and even Scotch Bonnets, the elusive state shell of North Carolina.
Pick up some free souvenirs to take home that you'll surely prize well after your vacation is over, and make sure beachcombing is a top priority on your daily beach agenda.
10. Check out the nightlife
Unlike larger and more popular resort areas, the Outer Banks nightlife isn't packed with wide-open night clubs, crowded bars, amusement parks, or other typical attractions for night owls. Instead, visitors will find that when the sun goes down, the area lights up with a canopy of stars, moonlight bouncing off the ocean waves, and distant rotating lights from the local lighthouse or fishing piers.
Discover the joys of the Outer Banks after-hours, and plan a nighttime stroll to soak in the quiet and completely tranquil scene. The local fishing piers are open until midnight or later in the prime fishing seasons so anglers can stay out late, and many coastal areas of the OBX also allow beach bonfires for a fun family night out under the stars.
Ghost crab hunting is also a popular nightlife activity, as evening strollers with a flashlight in hand are likely to spot dozens of these almost-white crabs scattering across the beaches after dark. Bring a camera along, and you're sure to capture some incredible shots of your up-close-and-personal encounters with the Outer Banks' wildest nocturnal locals.
For a relaxing evening that encompasses a star-filled sky, a distant roaring ocean, and miles of empty beaches that are ripe for exploration, become an Outer Banks-style night owl during your next vacation.
One of the most problematic aspects of an Outer Banks vacation is fitting in all the incredible attractions and activates that are waiting around every sand dune. When in doubt, take a deep breath of salt air, pull up a beach chair, and just relax and enjoy the atmosphere. While it's essential to fit in as much fun and sight-seeing as you can during your vacation, never forget that on the Outer Banks you're always on island time, and for many visitors that fact alone is a breath of fresh air.