The Outer Banks are fragile ribbons of sand tracing the coastline for more than 100 miles, separated from the mainland by sounds and waterways. From north to south, barrier islands Bodie (pronounced ‘body’), Roanoke, Hatteras and Ocracoke, essentially large sandbars, are linked by bridges and ferries. The far-northern communities Corolla (kur-all-ah), Duck and Southern Shores are former duck-hunting grounds for the wealthy, and are quiet and upscale. Nearly contiguous Bodie Island towns Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head are developed and more populated, with fried-fish joints, drive-through beer shops, motels and sandals and sunblock stores. Roanoke Island, west of Bodie, offers Colonial history and the quaint waterfront town Manteo. Further south, Hatteras Island is a protected national seashore with tiny villages and a wild, windswept beauty. At Outer Banks’ southern end, find old salts, shuck oysters and weave hammocks on Ocracoke Island, accessible only by ferry.
Top Attractions & Things to Do in the Outer Banks North Carolina
- Lounge on the Beaches
- Climb to the Top of Historic Lighthouses
- Camp near the Beach
- See the Wright Brothers National Memorial
- Play in the Sand Dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park
- Visit Jennette’s Pier
- Stroll on Duck Town Boardwalk
- Take a Boat Tour of the Outer Banks
- See the Corolla Wild Horses
- Explore the OBX on an Eco Tour
Where to eat at Outer Banks North Carolina
Lounge on the Beaches
For those who don’t want an endless feast of fried food served at many restaurants in the Outer Banks, it’s best to rent a house and make your own meals. There are plenty of fish markets throughout the island that sell freshly caught seafood and prepared meals to cook such as steamer pots.
The best restaurants and cafes are mainly found in the town of Duck. Book a table in advance at Blue Point and ask for an outdoor table. Set on the peaceful bay side, with a beautiful view of the water, this Duck institution that’s been around since 1989 offers fine but unfussy Southern fare. The solid menu includes dishes such as jumbo lump crab cakes, grilled pork chop and fried green tomatoes, available seasonally. For the ultimate comfort desserts, order warm pecan pie with bourbon ice cream and peach blueberry cobbler. They also offer simple dishes for children.
Try Treehouse Coffee for breakfast in the pretty Scarborough Shopping Village. It’s popular for locals who like to sit at one of the wooden benches in the courtyard surrounded by shady oak trees. Coffee beans are from Counter Culture coffee, Durham, NC and the breakfast menu ranges from omelet to french toast but the most popular items are southern biscuits, plain or in all forms of sandwiches. It’s only open for breakfast from 8am to 12pm from Tuesday through Sunday.
Duck’s Cottage is the local’s favorite coffee shop. Housed in the old Powder Ridge Gun Club built in 1921 by Wall Street brokers, this cute little cafe also serves as a book and souvenir shop. Their coffee beans are from a small artisanal roaster and they serve a variety of muffins and biscotti.
Duck Donuts is now widely franchised in the U.S. but Duck is where it all started. There’s often a line of people outside waiting to buy these sweet treats with all kinds of decadent coatings and toppings, including chopped bacon bits. Made-to-order donuts are also available.
Fun Facts About the Outer Banks of North Carolina
- The Outer Banks was the settling place of the first English Colony in the US
- That same colony mysteriously vanished
- The first child born to the New World was born on the Outer Banks
- The Outer Banks created the world’s longest-running outdoor symphonic drama
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast
- The tallest lighthouse in the US is in Cape Hatteras
- Bodie Island Lighthouse was built three times
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore preserves the coast for future generations
- Ocracoke Island Cemetery is actually on British ground
- The novel and film Nights in Rodanthe was set in the Outer Banks
- The Outer Banks are home to many wild horses
- The US Lifesaving Service was founded on the Outer Banks
- The Outer Banks feature the best windsurfing spots in the world
- The Wright Brothers’ first flight was flown in the Outer Banks
- The Outer Banks is a sandbar, not an island
- The oldest and shortest lighthouse in North Carolina is in Ocracoke
- Celebrities love the Outer Banks
- It’s an incredible fishing location
- Hatteras is home to many six-toed cats
- Nags Head got its name from pirate folklore
The Outer Banks was the settling place of the first English Colony in the US
Roanoke Island is where the first English colony settled in North America. Roanoke Colony was founded in 1585 by Sir Walter Raleigh and was inhabited by approximately 100.
As children were born, this grew to between 112 and 121. Mysteriously, the entire colony disappeared just a few years later, between 1587 and 1590.
That same colony mysteriously vanished
In 1587, settler John White left the Roanoke Colony on an expedition. Upon his return in 1590, he found the settlement deserted. Unable to determine what happened, the colony gained the nickname “The Lost Colony.”
The settlers’ disappearance remains the United States’ oldest unsolved mystery. Some believe they moved on, while others think they died from poor conditions or Native American attacks.
The first child born to the New World was born on the Outer Banks
The first English child of the New World was born in 1587 in the Roanoke Colony. She was named Virginia Dare and was the granddaughter of John White.
Nobody knows what happened to Virginia, but many people believe the Croatan Native American tribe took her in. Present-day Dare County is named after her.
The Outer Banks created the world’s longest-running outdoor symphonic drama
An outdoor play called The Lost Colony premiered in 1937. It is traditionally performed at the Waterside Theater on Roanoke Island.
In 2017, it was in its 80th season, making it the longest-running outdoor symphonic drama in the world. The play covers the history of the Roanoke Colony.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the largest sand dune on the East Coast
Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head on the Outer Banks features the tallest sand dune system on the East Coast of the US. The sand dunes have peaks of over 90 feet. This park is also the most visited in North Carolina.
The tallest lighthouse in the US is in Cape Hatteras
This Outer Banks fun fact is about Cape Hatteras. The town is home to the United States’ tallest brick lighthouse, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It was built in 1872 and stands at 210 feet tall. The lighthouse is also the second tallest in the world. It features a unique black and white swirl pattern.
Bodie Island Lighthouse was built three times
A lesser-known lighthouse, the Bodie Island Lighthouse, has a fascinating history. The lighthouse that stands today is the third version.
The first lighthouse was constructed in 1847, although it was demolished and rebuilt in 1859. It was then destroyed in the Civil War and built again in 1871. That lighthouse still stands today.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore preserves the coast for future generations
The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is stunning and attracts millions of visitors a year. But most don’t know that the government has a program to preserve the shoreline for future generations. Running for 28,000 acres along the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras National Seashore acts as a protected conservation area.
Ocracoke Island Cemetery is actually on British ground
When in Ocracoke, you can visit Britain! In a way. The British Cemetery of Ocracoke holds the remains of four British WWII soldiers.
The particularly interesting part is that the cemetery is technically on British soil as the land is perpetually leased to the British Commonwealth.
The novel and film Nights in Rodanthe was set in the Outer Banks
Rodanthe on the Outer Banks was the inspiration for the Nicholas Sparks novel and subsequent movie Nights in Rodanthe. The story features two strangers who meet at a Rodanthe inn during difficult times in their lives and begin a romance. The movie stars Richard Gere and Diane Lane.
The Wright Brothers’ first flight was flown in the Outer Banks
An interesting fact about North Carolina is that both the Wright Brothers’ first ever flight and their first powered flight were flown on the Outer Banks.
The latter happened in Kill Devil Hills (where you can find the Wright Brothers National Memorial), while the former occurred in Kitty Hawk. The soft sands made the perfect testing ground as the impact would be low if they crashed.
It’s an incredible fishing location
Another of many fascinating facts about the Outer Banks, North Carolina, is that it is a world-class fishing location. The fish here are known to be large in size and abundant. Most notably, it’s one of the best places in the world to catch Atlantic Blue Marlin, especially those weighing over 1,000 pounds.
Where to stay at Outer Banks of North Carolina
Most people visiting the Outer Banks stay in vacation rental houses (here are 11 of our favorites), which can range from 1920s cedar-shake cottages to palatial homes that sleep up to 20 people. If you don’t want to commit to an entire house, there are a handful of chain hotel brands and boutique inns. Just steps off the dirt road in Historic Corolla Village, the Corolla Village Inn (rooms from $265 per night) offers Cape Cod-inspired rooms and suites behind a veil of live oaks. A communal fireside lounge and spacious front porches invite guests to unwind with a glass of wine at the end of the day.
For a boutique hotel feel but with all the amenities of a resort, you can’t go wrong with The Sanderling (rooms from $399 per night), a longtime oceanfront favorite just north of Duck that’s family-friendly, and comes equipped with a pool, tennis courts, spa, and several spots for meals—from a casual poolside cafe to upscale fine-dining spot overlooking the sound.
Mom’s Sweet Shop in Kill Devil Hills has earned a spot at the cool kids’ table by pairing vintage clothing, accessories, and skate gear with a soft-serve/smoothie counter. This nouveau-cottage-style shop also surprises many with a one-bedroom apartment (rooms from $195 per night) available as a nightly accommodation. The shop’s boho aesthetic inspires every inch of the open floor plan, and its location just one block from the beach positions guests within 15 minutes of shops and restaurants throughout Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head—in other words, come here for that small-town flavor that brought you to the Outer Banks in the first place.