There are so many things to do in the Outer Banks that you can’t possibly do it all but we have some ideas to get you started.
The Outer Banks is a popular vacation destination. This set of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina features a plethora of beaches, shipwreck diving sites and protected state parks, all just a half days’ drive from Charlotte, Washington DC, Raleigh or Richmond making it especially appealing for East Coast residents. The Outer Banks region includes the Northern Beaches (including Kitty Hawk and Nags Head,) Roanoke Island, Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island, each with several beaches to choose from. While the beaches here are the main attraction, there are lots of other fun things to do in the Outer Banks, too.
Unique Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Sometimes, it might seem like all beach towns look alike, with t-shirt shops, ice cream counters, and miniature golf courses, ready and waiting for tourists to arrive. However, there are some unique spots on the Outer Banks that you won’t find anywhere else.
- Wright Brothers Memorial – There was only one first successful airplane flight, and it was here at Kitty Hawk that the Wright brothers achieved that milestone in 1903. Today, you can visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial and visit the spot where the Wright brothers first took flight, see what camp life was like for the Wright brothers, and see the monument dedicated to the brothers’ achievement.
- Nag’s Head Hammocks – looking for a unique souvenir to bring home and remember your Outer Banks vacation? Nag’s Head Hammocks has been making hammocks in the Outer Banks for over 40 years. They now have three locations, in Kill Devil Hills, Corolla, and Duck.
- Hang glide the biggest sand dune on the East Coast- replicate what the Wright Brothers experienced and fly down an 80-foot hill at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in a replica 1902 Wright Glider.
- Country Deli – don’t miss this Outer Banks classic sandwich shop. For over 30 years, Country Deli is an Outer Banks institution in Kill Devil Hills.
- Wild Horse spotting – the Corolla and Carova areas of the Northern Beaches have a herd of Spanish Mustang horses dating back to this area over 500 years ago, from early Spanish explorers. You can hire a 4×4 tour to view the horses, but you can also just drive around on your own, hoping to spot them.
- Wild Horse Museum – the Corolla Wild Horse Fund operates the Wild Horse Museum, where you can learn more about the wild horses of Corolla. There are children’s activities such as horse painting and mustang rides, and of course a gift shop where you can buy souvenirs to remember your visit.
- Kayak with Alligators…or not! There are many kayak rentals and kayak tours available. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can take a guided kayak tour of the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge. If that is perhaps a bit too adventurous, check out a Roanoke Island Historical Tour, or a relaxed paddle through the Kitty Hawk Woods Maritime Forest.
- Forget the gym while you’re on vacation and climb America’s tallest brick lighthouse. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the most recognized coastal icon in the U.S. and one of three you’ll see in the Outer Banks!
- Camp on the beach – these days, there aren’t many places where you can pitch a tent next to rolling ocean waves. However, Cape Lookout National Seashore offers primitive beach camping, accessible by private boat or ferry. Talk about exclusive beach-front digs!
Plus, did you know TWO North Carolina towns have ties to Andy Griffith? He spent his boyhood years in Mt Airy NC (read our post on things to do) and later years on the Outer Bank’s Roanoke Island.
Free Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Let’s face it – taking a vacation can put a dent in your wallet, even if you find good deals. Getting there by car or plane, overnight accommodations, eating out, it all adds up! So, there’s nothing wrong with seeking out some free things to do while you’re on vacation. Here’s a list of some of the free attractions in the Outer Banks.
- Beaches – Many beaches offer free public access and depending on where you stay, you may have private beach access as well. The blue and white signs with an orange sun indicate public access to the beach. Since there are so many beaches on the Outer Banks, the crowds are well distributed so that no one particular beach gets all the visitors. Have fun checking them all out, and pick your favorite!
- Discover a new island – that’s right! Sand and water shift and reshape constantly, especially when tropical storms come through. In 2017, satellite images showed a new island, which was then named Shelly Island. A year later, Shelly Island has once again merged into the sea, but you never know what new islands or sandbars can pop up!
- Drive through Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, one of the only places on the Eastern Seaboard where you may spot Black Bear. You’ll find paddling trails, a wildlife drive & trail to explore and interpretive programs offered at the 159,000-acre refuge.
- Visit Oregon Inlet around 4:30 in the afternoon to see the fisherman bring in their catch of the day. Fascinating for visitors of all ages.
- Watch Beach Nourishment in Action – likewise, with sand shifting constantly, beach nourishment is required. These projects involve pumping sand from the ocean floor to build up eroded areas of the beach? If you have little boys, or even grown boys, on your Outer Banks vacation, they will surely get a kick out of watching giant bulldozers in a life-size sandbox!
Romantic Things to Do in the Outer Banks
Perhaps your Outer Banks vacation is a special occasion for you and your significant other. Looking for romantic things to do in Outer Banks? The Outer Banks islands are so romantic they inspired a Nicholas Sparks novel and movie starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Nights in Rodanthe, anyone?
- Sunrise on the beach – may be obvious, but obviously romantic! Assuming you and your S.O. are morning people, that is.
- Elizabethan Gardens – 10 acres of botanical and sculptural gardens that change with the seasons, these gardens are a living memorial to Queen Elizabeth. Turn your visit into an entire day and stick around to check out the nearby outdoor play, The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest-running outdoor symphonic drama.
- Outer Banks Scenic Byway – pack a picnic lunch and set off for a romantic drive along the coast. This is also where you can spot the beach house that was featured in “Nights in Rodanthe.”
- Reserve an outdoor table overlooking the Pamlico Sound at sunset and experience fine dining in a casual atmosphere at Cafe Pamlico on Hatteras Island. Add to the experience by booking a stay at the onsite boutique hotel, the Inn on Pamlico Sound.
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park has some of the largest living sand dunes on the East Coast and is a great place to watch the sun go down.
- Boat charters – there are lots of options for chartering a sailboat to take a spin on the water. Choose from a fishing excursion, a sunset dinner, or whatever suits you.
Things to Do in the Outer Banks When It’s Raining
While we hope your Outer Banks vacation is filled with sunshine, there’s a chance you might get a rainy day, especially if you go in the shoulder season to avoid crowds or save money. In that case, it’s best to be prepared with a backup plan should it decide to rain on your trip to the Outer Banks. Here are a few ideas to occupy a rainy day in the Outer Banks.
- North Carolina Aquarium – located on Roanoke Island, the North Carolina Aquarium focuses on sustainability and quality, the long-term health of their animals. The aquarium offers summer camp programs for kids, and shark dives for open-water certified divers.
- Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum – the waters off the shore of the Outer Banks are called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the unusually large number of shipwrecks that have occurred here. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum showcases the history of the shipwrecks and also hosts special events such as lecture series’ and diving symposiums.
- Pioneer Theater – a movie theater is always a good bet on a rainy day, but this isn’t just any movie theater. the Pioneer Theater in Manteo is the country’s oldest family-run theater, dating back to 1918. Today, the theater still shows one movie per night, at prices that are easy on your wallet!
- Paint Your Own Pottery – there are several “paint-your-own-pottery” studios throughout the Outer Banks, where you can turn a rainy day into a fun art project. Not only will you get to express your creative side, but you’ll also have a unique souvenir to bring home from your Outer Banks vacation.
Looking for more things to do in the Outer Banks? Read these posts:
And if you’d like to explore more of North Carolina, we have more suggestions for you! If you enjoy history and learning about the military, check out things to do in Fayetteville NC and if you enjoy the outdoors and hiking, Hanging Rock State Park and Pilot Mountain State Park are amazing!