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After experiencing many of the fun things to do in Outer Banks and its natural beauty, we can report that this destination is just heaven.
There’s over 100-miles of some of the best beaches in North Carolina and so much of it you can have to yourself, or at least enough room to spread your large blue sunshade.
Full of enough adventure, history, water sports and culture to keep you from getting bored, but not too much to distract you from quiet moments spent appreciating natural beauty.
Because it sure does have a lot of that. It’s just another reason we love living here in North Carolina.
What Are the Outer Banks?
The Outer Banks (OBX) is a 130-mile stretch of barrier islands just off the coast of North Carolina, from Corolla in the north to Ocracoke in the South.
Like Wrightsville Beach, it has the ocean on one side and the sound on the opposite side of the coastline offering even more opportunity for water activities.
The Outer Banks is only a three-hour drive from our home in Raleigh, making it the perfect getaway for any season, and for any length of time!
We recently visited for a three-night stay and discovered many amazing things to do in the OBX, including some of the highlights, and a few hidden secrets.
The secret is out now about the Outer Banks NC, thanks to the Netflix series of the same name, which was filmed down in South Carolina. But the scenery is remarkably similar.
Just so you can get down with the lingo, OBX is the cool term for Outer Banks.
We have a lot of Outer Banks bucket list experiences listed for our next visit. So, stay tuned for that. We’d love for you to add to that list by sharing your top tips in the comments below.
And the OBX would also be a great place to work online and school your kids online.
A few firsts about the Outer Banks of North Carolina
- The first English Colony at Roanoke Island. Later known as the Lost Colony as they all disappeared. I know you’ll want to disappear into the Outer Banks, but we promise you won’t get missing Bermuda Triangle style.
- The first successful flight in motor-driven, heavier-than-air machines by the Wright Brothers. These historical flights took place on the sloping sands of what is now known as Big Kill Devil Hill, located just south of Kitty Hawk.
- The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, encompassing more than 28,000 acres along the Outer Banks, was the first to be established by the US government.
- Richard Etheridge became America’s first black lifesaving station keeper with his appointment to the Pea Island post in 1880. He served as keeper until his death in 1900. He was a former soldier and surfman.
Please note: we visited during August 2020 – you know what that means! All social distancing guidelines, mask regulations, and safety precautions were strictly adhered to. We were impressed with how responsibly this region handled it. Our visit to Outer Banks was hosted by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau.
Please check all experiences and activities before you visit as things are always changing.
The Outer Banks is is included in our best USA road trips list!
Where to Stay in the Outer Banks?
When you visit Outer Banks for the first time, you may be wondering where the best place is to stay?
This guide is written for the area from Corolla Beach down to Cape Hatteras (it does not include Ocracoke Island.)
It depends what you want to experience during your visit. This is the best way I can explain it.
- Southern Shores – Nags Head to Cape Hatteras. This is for those who want a more remote, quieter experience with less facilities
- Duck to Corolla – For people who want a little more lux and style amidst small village vibes.
- The main area – Kitty Hawk to Nags Head. We stayed here and we liked being close to the major Outer Banks attractions and lots of options for eating out.
Next time, we’d like to stay in the Duck region to see what that is like.
If we were to stay in the Southern Shores, we’d do it in one of the Airbnb Outer Banks rentals so we wouldn’t be so focused on enjoying the local culinary attractions etc.
That kind of OBX vacation would be just for serenity and connection to those you love.
Watch Our Outer Banks Video. Press Play:
Now, let’s talk about all the fun things to do in the Outer Banks we suggest you do!
1. Sunrise over the Beach
A magical do-not-miss moment on your Outer Banks vacation is sunrise over the beach.
An Outer Banks sunrise is my favorite in the US so far.
It was gentle, humble and soft as it painted the sky in pastel pinks and oranges transforming the water to still glass. And, each morning a pod of about 20 dolphins swam out the front of the rising sun, one even leaping out of the water with joy.
Grab your coffee, plop yourself in the sand and relax and enjoy one of the best free Outer Banks attractions. Even go for a beach walk, or swim or a paddle.
We had equally beautiful sunrises at on the southern end of the NC coast at Ocean Isle, Brunswick Islands.
2. Hang Gliding at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
It’s not all surf, sand, and scrumptious seafood in the OBX.
All good vacations need a dose of adventure. A chance to step out of your comfort zone and create a story to share forever.
Hang gliding in Jockey Ridge State Park is the story you’ve been looking for.
The tall dunes of Jockey’s Ridge comprise the tallest natural dune system on the East Coast, ranging from 80 ft. to well over 100 ft. tall and provide the perfect platform for learning to hang glide.
They have plenty of height for beginners, and are soft for landing and offer beautiful views of Roanoke Sound and the Atlantic Ocean
Kitty Hawk Kites have been providing lessons at this site for over 25 years. Not only is this super fun and one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks with kids, but it will connect you to some of the history of the area as it was in these parts that the Wright Brothers took the first flight.
I’ll admit, when we walked up to the top of the sand dune and looked down over the area we’d be flying – realizing I wasn’t doing it as a tandem, my stomach started to churn. “What was I thinking?”
To showcase bravery to the two strong, independent women we’re raising, I took a deep breath and volunteered to go first, silently repeating the instructions in my mind we learned at the 30-minute school beforehand.
“Move the bar 2 niches forward to go up, 2 inches back to go down. Hips to the side to turn. Flair – arms and legs outstretched – to land“
Micah, our lovely guide, ran along beside me holding the ropes in case of an accident and calling out instructions.
“We’re walking, we’re running, we’re flying ….”
Wahoo. I’m up in the air. I’m flying! On my own.
That short lived magical feeling of flying didn’t last long before I saw the ground arriving, my sidekick disappearing, and my instincts shouting, “flair, flair flair.”
Just in time for a soft sand landing. (You can see that in our Reels).
It was thrilling. Savannah jumped up to go next.
Don’t fear It’s looks scarier than what it is. I don’t think you could hurt yourself. Savannah got excited on one turn going high up and crashing down – she popped up giggle, excited to share she survived a flight crash.
We flew with perfect landings more than we didn’t. Kalyra had a near perfect execution each time.
Hang gliding was the type of adventure we seek as a family.
What was more enjoyable than the flying, was seeing my girls conquer their fear and move one more step into empowered women living a full life.
To further connect to this historic site and flying history, you can visit the Wrights Brothers National Memorial, monument, and visitor center just near here to learn of the historic first flight of Wilbur and Orville. Unfortunately the museum was closed due to current circumstances, so we chose to wait until our next visit.
3. Breakfast Views at Freshfit Cafe, Nags Head
If you enjoy a healthy breakfast with stunning views, find your way to Freshfit Cafe overlooking the sound on Nags Head-Manteo Causeway.
It’s tucked away as all hidden secrets should be.
Health conscious eaters will be stoked to find keto and paleo versions of their favorite food with a range of nutritious smoothies.
Our vegetarian omelet was delicious, and Savannah wanted to go back the next day for more pancakes.
What is most beautiful though are those views. Grab an outside table and maybe take your paddle boards as this is the perfect calm waters for it. We just missed dolphins.
4. Surfing at the Outer Banks
Admittedly, we did not get to check out all the surfing spots in the Outer Banks, nor at the time when the swell was happening, but from our observations on our short OBX trip, Nags Head Pier had the cleanest breaks.
It looked like a nice beach for swimming as well.
Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills are meant to be the best for surfing and skim boarding with the biggest waves. They were very dumpy and onshore at Kill Devil for us.
Surfing lessons at Corolla Beach
Corolla Beach seemed to be a popular place for surfing lessons. There were several groups out there when we visited learning on small rolling clean waves.
5. Paddle Boarding at the Outer Banks
Seeking fun things to do in Outer Banks, then be sure to pack your paddle boards (or rent some). It’s one of my favorite outdoor activities, especially with kids.
There are endless places to go supping, from the unsteady waters of the ocean to the calmer, sound waterways.
We took ours out at Corolla Beach, which seemed to be calmer, although I fell off my board a couple of times – the first time in a long time.
I would have loved to have taken the board out during sunrise like we watched some keen paddle boarders do every morning.
Paddle to the stairway to the sun – now there is an Outer Banks bucket list experience!
Kayaking is just as popular as paddle boarding and can be done in all the same places!
6. Tiki Bar at Mulligan’s Grille
Mulligan’s is set back from the ocean, but high enough to have views of the beach. You also get views over the dunes of Jokey Ridge on the other side. It’s the perfect place to come after your hang gliding lesson.
They have indoor and outdoor seating, but we preferred the laid back vibe of the Tiki Hut which also serves food.
My tuna salad was delicious. As was Craig’s burger. I could have definitely sat there all afternoon at the Tiki Bar wearing my relaxed OBX persona.
7. Visit Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
There are many lighthouses to visit and it’s one of the unique things to do in Outer Banks.
As this was a short visit, we added only one to our list – the most famous and popular of the Outer Banks attractions – Cape Hatteras Lighthouse at the very southern end of the Outer Banks on Hatteras Island before Ockracoke.
Cape Hatteras is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States at 208 ft.
It’s black and white stripes are unmissable, as you would hope its beam to warn nearby sailors as the waters off the Outer Banks are treacherous.
There have been approximately 3,000 shipwrecks in this area giving it the label of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village is part of the NC Maritime Museum system and showcases the history of the shipwrecks
Blackbeard the pirate loved roaming these parts – some of his treasure is said to be still buried in Beaufort, NC.
You can climb the 248-spiral staircase to the top for views – that’s equivalent to a 12-story building. It was closed when we visited.
We wished we skipped this on our short Outer Banks getaway. As it was a long drive (over an hour each way) and we didn’t really do much to explore the Cape Hatteras Seashore, we would have preferred to spend the day at the beach.
It depends on how much you love lighthouses if you want to explore more of the seashore and where you are staying!
The Bodie Island Lighthouse and Currituck Beach Lighthouse are other favorites for those visiting the Outer Banks
8. Get your Treats at Donutz on a Stick, Duck
Duck Donuts are a kids’ favorite attraction in Outer Banks. You can find them in other places around North Carolina though.
With ice cream and whipped cream piled on top of two warm donuts, our girls were happy we received that tip as one of the best things to do in the Outer Banks with kids.
9. Stroll the Duck Boardwalk
We did not have a lot of time to walk the entire 0.6 miles of the Duck boardwalk. But it’s one of the popular things to do in Duck.
Take your time, enjoy the calmer waters of the sound, peruse in the shops you pass by.
Near the boardwalk is the Treehouse Coffee Co which does great coffee and good breakfast food, especially if you love biscuits. They have an outside sitting area under the trees.
10. Eat Innovative Food at NC Coast & Grill, Duck
I recommend starting or ending your Duck boardwalk stroll with lunch at NC Coast Grill & Bar, a new restaurant in Duck.
You get superb Currituck Sound views and delicious food described as coastal and Southern with nuances from around the world. Our Mexican poutine and fish street tacos were evidence of that.
NC Coast Grill had the most modern and innovative food we had in the Outer Banks.
This would be a great sunset spot too.
11. Outer Banks Beaches
Pick a beach, any beach, and enjoy your day!
We wish we had of visited every beach and now that we live in Raleigh, we plan to become experts on the Outer Banks beaches and visit them all.
To be honest, I think it would be hard to find a bad beach. But for now, here are a couple of suggestions.
Jennette’s Pier (Nags Head Beach)
A family favorite for swimming is Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. It’s one of the most popular things to do in Nags Head not only for swimming, but for pier fishing and an educational experience.
After Hurricane Isabel destroyed it in 2003, this oldest fishing pier in OBX was rebuilt into this education complex in 2011.
The Aquarium-operated complex features educational classrooms and programs, alternative energy demonstrations, live animal exhibits, meeting facilities, a snack bar and tackle shop.
I loved the cove feel of this beach on the south side of the pier. It was different to the other beaches in the Outer Banks which are one long strip of sand. The pier was colorful too.
Kill Devil Hills Beach
The waves were very dumpy here – which can change every day – but the beach was nice and the kids had fun dragging each other around on their body boards.
I loved the more wilderness feel it had and as it wasn’t busy, you had a lot of space.
Outer Banks Fishing Pier
I’d say spend the afternoon swimming near the Outer Banks Fishing Pier and then head to Fish Heads Bar for happy hour (see below).
12. Don’t miss Fish Heads Bar & Grill, Nags Head
We’re not really pier people – Santa Monica kind of ruined that idea for us.
However, Fish Heads Bar & Grill at the Outer Banks Fishing Pier won us over. It’s now our favorite pier in the country and is how we think you should do piers.
Dump the tacky rides into the ocean and instead pop up some colorful umbrellas and a few tables, a Tiki hut with over 40 craft beers, live music, and 15 cent shrimp!
Yes. You read that correctly. Happy Hour 4-6pm every day, join the stream of people arriving on the jetty.
And what a story of how it started: in 2010 Garry, Mary, and Ryan Oliver decided to sell beer on the pier under a pop-up tent with 2 tables. That’s how you turn an idea into something special.
Make a night of it. Their food was cheap and good. You won’t get the sun setting over the ocean, but you’ll certainly get the colors if you want to make it a longer evening.
We say YES, put this on your Outer Banks things to do list!
13. Smoothie Bowls at The Spot
You know a place is good when there is a line.
Although I don’t like the lining up part, the delicious Acai bowl at the end makes it all worthwhile. You’re at the beach, be sure to grab yourself a smoothie bowl. It’s the OBX way.
You’ll find a wide variety at The Spot located in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head. See more here.
14. Explore Cape Hatteras National Seashore
If you drive down to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse you will be immersed in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
This 70-mile stretch of the Outer Banks from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island is the country’s first national seashore. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is one of the first things to do in the Outer Banks on Hatteras Island. If you love bird watching and beautiful views, you’ll want to walk some of the trails to explore this beautiful area.
I wish we dedicated more time to exploring its unique beach communities, historic lighthouses, and endless water based activities.
It is a beautiful area. I’d love to come back here for beach driving, hikes, supping in the quieter waterways and a beach house rental.
If you like Nicholas Sparks, be sue to take a peek at the Inn at Rodanthe in Rodanthe which was the setting for the book and move, Nights of the Rodanthe. You can even stay there.
15. Outer Banks Brewing Station
This is not just a place for great craft brew. It also has some of the best food in the Outer Banks, a pretty beer garden with a playground for the kids, and live music!
Want to up the ante a little on what makes this a great brewery – the Outer Banks Brewing Station is the first wind-powered brewery in America. Yet another Outer Banks first.
We love to celebrate and support all businesses that love and support Mother Nature.
Craig recommends the Lemon Grass Wheat Ale or Hugh Hefeweizen, Kalyra says don’t miss the bacon mussels, and I recommend the local puppy drum with sweet corn risotto, mixed vegetables and a smoked tomato pure.
16. Sunset at Millers Waterfront Restaurant
To be honest, we were not big fans of the food at Millers Waterfront Restaurant, but we were big fans of the sunset views. If we were to redo it, we’d come here for sunset drinks in the waterfront garden.
It’s busy and eating here is another of the most popular things to do in OBX and we had to wait for an hour for a table on the outside deck. And we ended up shoved in the corner under the stairs (Harry Potter style).
We know it can’t be helped and it’s just the luck of the draw, but as the food wasn’t great, I’d just go for the views with drinks instead.
The sunset view is spectacular. There will be other spots you can see the sunset in Outer Banks. This was the only one we experienced.
Where should we go next time we visit the Outer Banks? Tell us in the comments below.
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