The Outer Banks Top 10 Attractions | Things To Do

Looking for things to do in North Carolina?  At The Outer Banks Current & Southern Shores Realty, we know all about the Outer Banks and are happy to announce another installment of The Outer Banks Top 10!  When picking your vacation destination there are many factors to consider; “What season will we vacation during?”, “What type of lodging fits your party best?”, “What types of activities and attractions are in the area?”,  “What attractions to see?”, etc.  The Outer Banks of North Carolina provides a fantastic tourist destination with numerous things to do, attractions, and activities. These top 10 are simply the standouts that we are proud to recommend ANY visitor!  From North Carolina parks to attractions that illustrate the rich history of the Outer Banks; you will find the best here!





    A question many who have never visited the area before often ask is “Where is the Outer Banks?”  The Outer Banks is a 200 mile long stretch of barrier islands on the coast of North Carolina and a small portion of Virginia.  The area has a fascinating history, and knowing the history of the beach can make your stay even more memorable.  The geographical makeup of the Outer Banks’ barrier islands has attracted numerous historical figures from pillaging, high-seas pirates to English explorers and settlers.  Over 400 years ago, under charter from Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh set sail from England to the new world in an attempt to establish a colony that would provide resources back to England as well as a base to raid treasures from Spain.  They settled on Roanoke Island and two years later, on a return voyage from England, the entire colony of 117 men, women, and children had disappeared without a trace.  The Lost Colony is America’s longest running outdoor drama and has become an Outer Banks tradition for many vacationers.  The production, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, is celebrating its 75th anniversary season.  The show runs from June until late August and is a can’t miss attraction for the entire family.  -MAP 

    wright-memorial2Credited with inventing the world’s the first successful airplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright were two American brothers that put Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on the map.  They selected the area for its steady winds for lift, and seclusion to stay out of prying public eyes.  It was after four years of experimenting, on the morning of December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made history when their machine took controlled and sustained flight!  Although lasting all of 12 seconds, the brothers made many other flights over the sands of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills.  Over 100 years later, the descendants of the Wright brothers’ work now usher us to most of our travel destinations like the Outer Banks.  A memorial now stands as a tribute to the duo who pioneered aviation and revolutionized the world.  The Wright Brothers National Memorial, in Kill Devil Hills, is managed by the National Park Service and offers more to tourists than a monument to honor the famous brothers.  The grounds include a visitor’s center, historic artifacts, exhibits, educational programs, and of course the famous field where hard work and ingenuity translated into airborne innovation.  Wright Brothers National Memorial is open seven days a week, year round. The visitor’s center and Centennial Pavilion are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. (closed Christmas Day, December 25).   -MAP

    Many years ago before the Outer Banks became a popular tourist destination, there was a large abundance of shrubbery, forests, and natural habitats for wildlife to flourish.  While the areas between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head have seen the majority of population growth and development, many areas of Pea Island south have been sectioned off and protected by the National Park Service to serve as wildlife refuges.  One of the largest is Hatteras Island.  Cape Hatteras National Seashore is actually the nation’s first national seashore and was established in 1953.  Since then, numerous efforts have been put forth to protect the pristine beaches and wildlife that lives there.  From sand-nesting birds to sea turtles, many species have been protected by the efforts of the National Park Service.  One of the benefits to the human race are the untouched and undeveloped miles of beaches that prove to be a relaxing alternative to trying to find a beach access parking spot or an area to erect your umbrella amongst a crowded beach.  There are still many available areas to park and enjoy the serenity of the beach, but you won’t find a burger joint or gas station unless you are in one of the villages (Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras).  Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a must visit attraction for anyone visiting the Outer Banks; especially if you enjoy the beach itself.  You need to get out and experience the feeling of walking out to the beach, and for as far as the eye can see – seeing nobody else but you!  Fisherman can enjoy what the locals have dubbed “The Point” in Buxton; the actual cape where you are as close as possible to the Gulf Stream as well as where the Labrador Current meets it.  This creates a large diversity of fish to be landed by onshore fishermen.  The individual towns and villages each offer unique shopping, dining, and activities to try!  It’s certainly worth taking one afternoon and heading south to find the seclusion and enjoy the natural beauty that is the Outer Banks.   -MAP

    wright-kite-festival_0Jockey’s Ridge State Park is one of the 29 North Carolina State Parks and is located in Nags Head, NC.  Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States and is one of the most recognizable landmarks on the Outer Banks.  The dunes are absolutely massive and are ALWAYS changing shape!  One of the best places to see a gorgeous ocean view is from the top of the dunes!  The park features a visitor center, museum, picnic areas, auditorium, and handicapped access.  The park also offers many programs such as kayaking, kite flying, and activities in the sound like fishing and crabbing.  The best part of it all is that the activities are FREE activities on the Outer Banks!  The park plays host to dozens of Outer Banks events over the summer and is also one of the best places to hang glide and fly kites.  For those of you taking a vacation from October through March looking for things to do, you can also enjoy some Sand-Boarding down the dunes!  Some tips to enjoy the park: 1) Be prepared; with the vast openness of the sand dunes make sure you wear sunblock and bring footwear – the sand gets HOT and there is limited shade. 2) Wear Bug Spray – anytime you have outdoor fun on the Outer Banks consider it, especially with the park’s location relative to the calmer sound waters and brush/trees. And 3) Pay attention to your location and park warnings – sometimes you can get separated due to the large size of the dunes and keep your ears open for lightning warnings in the summer months.  Overall Jockey’s Ridge State Park makes for a definite visit while you are on your Outer Banks Vacation!  -MAP

    The town of Manteo, NC is located in the heart of Roanoke Island and the downtown area provides visitors to the Outer Banks with a memorable dining, shopping, and cultural experience.  Named the governmental seat of Dare County in  1870, Manteo gets visitors on county business as well as on vacation.  The waterfront area is filled to the brim with dining, shops, and historical attractions making it an all-inclusive area to stop, learn, and savor the Outer Banks. If you have already hit the beach in the morning and are looking for things to do in the afternoon; one of the best times to experience Manteo is later afternoon/evening when businesses are open.  The shopping features local pottery, chic fashion boutiques, art galleries, and specialty stores.  The food ranges from quaint cafes to elegant waterfront eateries.  Historical attractions such as the Roanoke Island Festival Park can get your family hands on with a life-size replica of the Elizabeth II sailing ship, a replica settlement sight, the Roanoke adventure museum, and a live performance series.  Overall, the town of Manteo bundles together many of the aspects of the Outer Banks that many of us have come to love; this makes it a sure-stop destination on any Outer Banks vacation!  -MAP

    Bodie Island Lighthouse
    Bodie Island Lighthouse

    If you’ve ever received a box of saltwater taffy or postcard from the beach, I would wager the odds are quite high that there is a depiction of a lighthouse on it!  There is a very good reason for that: lighthouses have been an icon for the beach and the Outer Banks in particular for as long as they have been around.  The Outer Banks has been named the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks have claimed thousands of ships and lives of those caught in war, piracy, and nature.  The Outer Banks has one of the highest densities of shipwrecks in the world and one of the principal defenses against these wrecks and ships running ashore were lighthouses.  Before GPS and modern navigational tools, sailors used the stars and primitive cartography tools to steer clear of wrecking.  The advent of the lighthouse meant warning beacons of light could be broadcast for those far from shore to acknowledge the presence of shallow waters.  North Carolina is home to many lighthouses along its miles of coastline.  A north-to-south list of the famous Outer Banks lighthouses is as follows: Currituck Beach, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke.The Currituck lighthouse began signaling in 1875, is 158′ tall, and is actually located in Corolla, NC. Bodie Island lighthouse (pronounced “body”) is located south of Nags Head and was actually constructed several times.  First constructed in 1847 on Pea Island, it was later abandoned and rebuilt in 1859 south of Oregon Inlet only to be destroyed by Confederate troops.  Today’s Bodie Island lighthouse was erected in 1872.  Its light can be seen for approx. 20 miles over the ocean and the name “Bodie Island” according to folklore came from the “bodies” from the ships that would sink or run aground on shore. Cape Hatteras lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in America standing at 208′ and is probably the most recognized lighthouse in the nation.  Like Bodie Island lighthouse, Cape Hatteras lighthouse had its share of rebuilds; originally built in 1803, modified from 90′ to 150′ in 1854, only to have its lamp stolen in 1861 during the Civil War by Confederate troops.  In 1870 Civil War damages prompted the reconstruction of another lighthouse and in 1870 the iconic light we enjoy today was built.  In 1999, beach erosion forced the lighthouse to be cut from its base, lifted, and moved back onto safer grounds.  It stands today the same distance from the water as it did when constructed in 1870.  It remains one of the only two lighthouses on the Outer Banks that you can climb up (you can also climb Currituck lighthouse and renovations are in order to facilitate Bodie Island).  Climbing to the top of a lighthouse is one of the coolest things to do; for the view AND the workout! Ocracoke Island lighthouse is the lighthouse furthest south and is actually North Carolina’s oldest lighthouse, having been constructed in 1823.  It is also the shortest on the Outer Banks standing at 75′ tall.  Although visitors may not climb to the top of it, the lighthouse remains a very popular destination when visiting Ocracoke Island.  These tall structures are not only picturesque, they are a great token of nautical history.  It’s a definite top 10 activity to head out to as many as you can see while you are on your Outer Banks vacation!    -MAP


    Located in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island, the Elizabethan Gardens are another example of a memorable attraction that the Outer Banks has to offer.  The gardens are an enormous living memorial to Sir Walter Raleigh and the colonists of Roanoke who tried to make a living in the new world.  Over 10 acres of gardens hold 500+ plant species as well as Renaissance statues, gorgeous walks, fountains, and Elizabethan-style architecture.  The gardens are open year round and host beautiful blooms according to the season. Featured collections include camellias, hydrangeas, historic herbs and a variety of native coastal species. The location is a very popular tourist destination as well as a “budding” venue for Outer Banks weddings.  The Elizabethan Gardens are a beautiful  treasure to behold on the Outer Banks and a definite top 10 attraction on everyone’s list!   -MAP

    sanderlings1-300x187_1The Outer Banks plays host to hundreds of species of wild animals that thrive in the numerous habitats we have.  You can enjoy a majority of the wildlife in your everyday vacation encounters from fishing, walking the beach, and walking on the many trails throughout the towns.  There are several areas on the Outer Banks that provide fantastic opportunities to view and enjoy the wildlife that you could not anywhere else. Starting on the northern beaches, in the areas north of Corolla, there is an abundance of wild horses. Descendants of Spanish mustangs that were brought here over 500 years ago, these horses roam the beaches and woodlands freely where the pavement of the beach road ends.  There are numerous 4×4 tours and safaris to guide you to them, or you can choose a Jeep rental and go out and explore for yourself!  Either way, it makes for memories that will last a lifetime and is a great way to get in touch with the wild! Further down the beach between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a must visit destination for wildlife enthusiasts; especially birdwatchers! The refuge is almost 6,000 acres of protected land that is home to over  360 species of birds.  You will see many shorebirds here that are hard to find on the northern beaches due to the crowds on the beach.  Pea Island is especially populated with the winged creatures during the later months of the year as migratory birds are relocating south. There are also many observation platforms for those looking to get off the road and beach to take some time to enjoy the scenes.  Overall, the refuge is a great stop for the enthusiasts looking to escape the buzz of the beach and step onto the more tranquil turf. The largest wildlife refuge near the Outer Banks is Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.  The area is over 150,000 acres and is home to creatures ranging from ducks and waterfowl to alligators, black bears, and red wolves. The Alligator River refuge offers observation decks as well as designated fishing areas, trails, and water routes for kayaking/canoeing.  A fun opportunity to experience the wildlife as well as supporting preservation efforts is to go on a Red Wolf Howling that the refuge offers.  The area is a great opportunity to get in touch with nature and enjoy the animals around us.  If you are pursuing a true getaway that includes getting away from the faster pace of the beach, head on out and enjoy the wildlife around the Outer Banks!  -MAP

    A definite must-visit attraction is the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.  Nestled near the top end of Roanoke Island, the aquarium is a premiere destination for those looking for things to do and to get more in touch with the creatures from under the sea!  The aquarium boasts the largest collection of sharks in the state, as well as exhibits highlighting coastal wetlands, freshwaters, and the open ocean.  There are also hands-on exhibits where you can have close encounters with stingrays, skates, starfish and more!  This is a sure stop for anyone that wants to learn more about the waters around us as well as have a great time!  -MAP

    ocracoke-island-beachesOne of the best ways to spend a day on the Outer Banks is to head on down to Ocracoke Island.  Ocracoke Island is the island furthest south on the Outer Banks and requires a ferry ride (free) over from Hatteras Island.  The island is rich in history and was one of the favorite hangouts for Blackbeard the pirate (also known as Edward Teach).  One of the best parts about paying a visit to Ocracoke Island is the journey itself.  Most visitors to the northern beaches must traverse south through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, down through the several towns and villages along the way to Hatteras, journey across the Pamlico Sound by ferry, and finally travel along approx. 12 miles of pristine beach to get to Ocracoke village itself.  The island is the perfect mix of tourist attractions and things to do all wrapped into one!  You have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, fantastic shopping, and dining, as well as breathtaking scenery and twists of history spun throughout!  If you get the chance to do it at least once, take the opportunity to go visit Ocracoke – you won’t regret it!  -MAP