13 Great Beaches near Raleigh (within a 3 hour drive)

As someone who grew up on the beach in Australia and now lives in Raleigh, one of the many reasons I love living here is that we have plenty of amazing beaches near Raleigh whether you are looking for a day trip to the beach, a weekend getaway, or a week long beach vacation.

A group of people on wrightsville beach near ocean
Wrightsville Beach, the closest beach to Raleigh

Each of the beaches in North Carolina offer a unique experience no matter your style and budget, and if you are currently living in Raleigh like us and searching on your phone for the “closest beach to me”, we’ve got you covered! 

As much as we love summer in Raleigh, as Australians, escaping to one of the pristine North Carolina beaches for some fresh salty air, to swim in the ocean, feel the sand between our toes, and eat locally caught fresh seafood is part of our DNA. 

A group of people sitting on a pier  near the water
Creating family memories at the Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar in Carolina Beach

Raleigh locals love heading to the North Carolina coast in summer, and we like to think we know a good beach town when we see one. Down below I am highlighting the best beaches near Raleigh within a three hour drive, listed in order from the closest to the farthest away! 

1. Wrightsville Beach

an aerial view of wrightsville Island with buildings and  the beach on one side and the sound on the other
Wrightsville Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 132 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours

If you are wondering what is the closest beach to Raleigh, this is it, Wrightsville Beach, one of the most popular NC beaches and also known as one of the Wilmington Beaches (downtown Wilmington is just 12-miles away). 

A Raleigh to Wrightsville Beach road trip is one of the top getaways for Raleigh locals, and this beach town reminds us of home in Australia like no other in North Carolina.

Known for its laid back coastal living, what we love is that it’s a barrier island (4-miles long). On one side you have the Atlantic Ocean for all your beach activities, and on the other side lies the tranquility of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway – open sound water and narrow channels bordered by marshes, swamps, and small islands and a perfect spot for a paddle. 

A paddleboarding on the sound Wrightsville Beach
Paddle boarding on the Intracoastal Waterway, Wrightsville Beach

At Wrightsville Beach you get a pristine and spacious beach, stunning sunrises and sunsets, top notch local restaurants, art galleries, antique shops, boutiques, sightseeing cruises, and endless water activities – Wrightsville is recognized as the birthplace of surfing in North Carolina! 

  • Eat & Drink: SUNdays Cafe (coffee), Tower 7 Baja Mexican Grill, Shark Bar & Kitchen, South Beach Grill, Ceviche’s.
  • Things to Do: beach time, swimming, paddle boarding, surfing, bodyboarding, Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier, Crystal Pier, fishing, boating.
  • Accommodation: Our pick is Blockade Runner Beach Resort. For other hotels search here. For vacation rentals go here. 

Read More: 1 day itinerary for Wrightsville Beach

2. North Topsail Beach

North Topsail Beach at sunrise
North Topsail Beach at sunrise. Image courtesy of VisitNC.com
  • Distance from Raleigh: 135 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 20 mins

Topsail Island offers serene beaches, a small-town atmosphere, and is a haven for beachgoers searching for a vacation filled with rest and relaxation. This 26-mile long barrier island is home to three low-key and charming NC beach towns. You won’t find the carnival atmosphere like at Carolina Beach or overly crowded beaches like on the Outer Banks in the summer!

From north to south on the island you have North Topsail Beach, Surf City in the middle, then Topsail Beach in the south and each provides a unique beach experience.

North Topsail Beach is a favorite for quieter family beach vacations. You won’t find any high-rise hotels here, only small inns and vacation rentals which means gorgeous ocean views no matter which accommodation you choose, or when you dine at one of the local oceanside restaurants for fresh seafood.

And being surrounded by water on three sides, boaters and anglers also love to escape to North Topsail.

  • Eat & Drink: Splash By the Sea, Fat Turtle Tiki Bar, Seaview Pier Restaurant, Ocean’s Edge Restaurant.
  • Things to Do: beach time, boating, Permuda Island Reserve, Town Park.
  • Accommodation: Consider the Topsail Shores Inn. For other vacation rentals search here.

3. Surf City

Surf City, North Carolina
Surf City Beach. Image courtesy of VisitNC.com
  • Distance from Raleigh: 139 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 20 mins

Located in the middle of Topsail island, Surf City has been the commercial heart of the island for over 60 years offering plenty of dining options, shopping, and community events. Surf City’s clean and uncrowded beaches are the town’s main attraction, along with the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.

The Intracoastal Waterway separates the island from the mainland and this narrow body of water provides the perfect setting for canoeing, kayaking, water skiing and fishing. 

  • Eat & Drink: Shaka Taco, Sugar Island Bakery, SurfDog Bites & Brews, Daddy Mac’s Beach Grille, Salty Turtle Beer Company, Batson’s Galley, Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar, Sears Landing, Second Row, The Daily Grind, Hulas Bar and Grill, unWINEd Wine Bar and Beer.
  • Things to Do: The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Eco boat tours, Soundside Park, Kenneth D. Batts Family Park, Surf City Ocean Pier, On Shore Surf Shop.
  • Accommodation: Consider Loggerhead Inn & Suites. For other vacation rentals search here.

4. Topsail Beach

Jolly Roger Pier at Topsail Beach
Jolly Roger Pier at Topsail Beach. Image courtesy of VisitNC.com
  • Distance from Raleigh: 146 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 30 mins

Scenic and uncrowded, Topsail Beach is another of the best NC Beaches. An easy drive from Raleigh and about 40 miles northeast of Wilmington, it is home to a beautiful beach, several restaurants, a general store, unique shops, a fishing pier, a marina and boat ramp, and locally owned motels.

If you’re looking for a place to relax and enjoy some time in the sun, Topsail Beach is a haven for tranquil getaways from Raleigh. You also discover plenty of wildlife flourishing in their natural habitats here, a handful of locally-owned restaurants to satisfy your needs, and a small, quiet beach community.

  • Eat & Drink: Beach Shop & Grill, Cora’s Isle-End Deli, Breezeway Restaurant, Cora’s South End Deli, Dirty South Bar & Grill, Twisted Sister Bake Shop
  • Things to Do: relax on the beach, Jolly Roger Pier, Missiles and More Museum, Topsail Beach Skating Rink, Serenity Point.
  • Accommodation: Consider this highly rated oceanfront home. For more vacation rentals search here.

5. Carolina Beach

A group of people on carolina beach
Carolina Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 142 miles
  • Drive time:  Approx 2.15 hours

Besides Wrightsville, Carolina Beach is one of the other most popular beaches near Raleigh and just 20-minutes drive south of Wilmington. All of our Raleigh friends gush over their family vacations to Carolina Beach, we even have friends who moved there and love it.

Carolina Beach is also on an island (called Pleasure Island) and one of the many barrier islands that make up the NC coast. This beach town pops with color, either through the murals that are ever expanding, the boardwalk buildings, the beach shacks, or turquoise colors of the sea and sky.

With its famous wooden beachside boardwalk with shops, restaurants and amusement rides, craft coffees and cocktails, restaurants and tiki bars, summer concerts, and miles of beachfront this is a fun destination! Here is our guide for 17+ things to do in Carolina Beach

Walkable and bikeable, Carolina Beach offers miles of shoreline with gentle waves and plenty of beach activities that include surfing, shelling, and fishing (especially off the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier).

  • Eat & Drink: Malama Cafe (coffee), Britt’s Donut Shop (famous glazed donuts), Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar, Nauti Dog, Hurricane Alley’s, Kate’s Pancake House, Carolina Smokehouse, Surf House Oyster Bar, Good Hops Brewing, The Fat Pelican, Southern Biscuit and Pie, Soul Flavor Kitchen & Bar, SeaWitch Café & Tiki Bar.
  • Things to Do: Carolina Beach Boardwalk, relax on the beach, kayak or paddle board at Snow’s Cut, Carolina Beach State Park, North Carolina Aquarium, Riverfront Park Amphitheater, Freeman Park Recreation Area (where you can drive onto the beach with your four-wheel-drive).
  • Accommodation: Consider this gorgeous beachfront home. For hotels search here. For more vacation rentals look here.

Read our full guide -> What to do in Carolina Beach

6. Kure Beach

Kure Beach, North Carolina
Kure Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 145 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 20 mins

The neighboring beach to Carolina Beach, Kure Beach (pronounced (cur-ee) is a local’s favorite with a vibrant and bold personality of the more soft, pastel kind. It’s where you want to come for a more relaxed, quieter beach vibe where the natural features are the center of attention, and accommodation may be a little cheaper.

I love Kure Beach. It features miles of white sand and it reminds me of Tybee Island in South Carolina. Although much smaller, it had a similar friendly and chilled tropical vibe, and the Kure Beach Fishing Pier is one of the oldest on the Atlantic Coast.

Pier at Kure Beach
Pier at Kure Beach

Ideal for quiet family vacations to enjoy all the water activities like swimming, stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking.

  • Eat & Drink: Beach House Burgers, Kure Beach Diner, Jack Mackerel’s Island Grill, Freddie’s Restaurant, Big Daddy’s Seafood Restaurant, 
  • Things to Do: Kure Beach Fishing Pier, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
  • Accommodation: Consider this highly rated home. For more vacation homes search here.

7. Emerald Isle

Emerald Isle, North Carolina
Emerald Isle, Crystal Coast
  • Distance from Raleigh: 146 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 40 mins

Emerald Isle is on The Crystal Coast, an 85 mile stretch of coastline that is also known as the Southern Outer Banks due to its location on the North Carolina Coast directly south of the Outer Banks!

Here you’ll find stunning beaches and crystal-clear waters filled with dolphins, historical towns, port cities, and friendly communities – Emerald Isle is the biggest beach town.

Emerald Isle is one of the most under-rated beaches in North Carolina and offers 12 miles of pristine family-friendly shoreline and incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean and Bogue Inlet. 

Shrimp & Grits at The Trading Post
Amazing Shrimp & Grits at The Trading Post

With a focus on family fun, it is a haven for watersports, fishing (onshore, offshore and on the Bogue Inlet Pier), or simply relaxing on the beach and enjoying the sound of the waves rolling in.

  • Eat & Drink: The Trading Post, Rucker Johns Restaurant, Surf’s Up Grill & Bar, Snapperz, Flipperz Family Bar & Grill, Gaffer’s, Plaza Mexico Restaurant Bar & Grill.
  • Things to Do: Catch the sunrise, Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, The Point, soak up the sun on the beach, The Hot Wax Surf Shop, Hammocks Beach State Park, Salty Pirate Water Park.
  • Accommodation: Consider the Islander Hotel & Resort. For vacation homes search here.

8. Indian Beach

Grand Villas, Indian Beach
Coffee at the Grand Villas, Indian Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 149 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 45 mins

Just up the road from Emerald Isle is Indian Beach. Here you’ll find pristine sand and an uncrowded beach lined with oceanfront homes.

Soft, sandy beaches and emerald green waters lined by lush maritime forests make this small, upscale town a hidden gem of the NC beaches on the Atlantic Ocean.

Grand Villas, Indian Beach
Morning light at Indian Beach

Enjoy eating out at local restaurants, or grab supplies from a seafood market to cook up at your own beach cottage or vacation rental. 

  • Things to Do: Beach time, go boating, check out some boutique stores, watch baby sea turtles hatch (May to November), go fishing.
  • Accommodation: We loved the Grand Villas property. For more vacation rentals search here.

9. Atlantic Beach

Sunrise at Atlantic Beach
Sunrise at Atlantic Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 151 miles
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 45 mins

Atlantic Beach is another of the most popular North Carolina beaches. With a range of accommodation options and a central location on the Crystal Coast, it’s a favorite of the beaches near Raleigh for those who are looking for surf, sand, and fun.

Known for its sparkling water, wide sandy beach, and its can’t-miss Boardwalk, the area also has a rich history and is home to the fantastic Fort Macon State Park – an historic Civil War fort that attracts more than one million people a year and is the most-visited park in North Carolina.

There’s an array of local shopping and dining options, local events, and all the water based activities such as boating, fishing, surfing and more. 

  • Eat & Drink: Pier House Restaurant, Amos Mosquito’s Restaurant, Idle Hour Biergarten, The Shark Shack, Crab’s Claw Oceanfront Caribbean Seafood Restaurant, On The Rocks, Crystal Coast Brewing Company.
  • Things to Do: hit up the beach, stroll the boardwalk, Oceanana Fishing Pier, Fort Macon State Park, sport fishing, explore the coastal waterways by boat, Atlantic Beach Music Fest, Carolina Kite Fest, skatepark, 
  • Accommodation: Consider the Atlantis Lodge. For more vacation rentals search here.

10. Holden Beach

Holden Beach, North Carolina
Holden Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 167 miles,
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 45 mins

Holden Beach is regarded as one of the best NC beaches for a quiet family vacation and offers small-town charm and unspoiled beauty.

Families come here to spend time together in a beach vacation rental, to play on the beach, kayak or paddleboard along the picturesque Intracoastal Waterway, spot dolphins offshore, and chase ghost crabs with a flashlight during an evening.

Holden Beach, North Carolina
Holden Beach, North Carolina
  • Eat & Drink: Provision Company, Castaways Raw Bar & Grill, LouLous Waterfront Restaurant, Mini Jalapeno Mexican Restaurant, Dock House Seafood.
  • Things to Do: enjoy the sun, sand and the beach, Holden Beach Pier, charter a boat, golf at one of three courses, NC Festival by the Sea
  • Accommodation: Consider this beachfront rental. For more vacation homes search here.

11. Ocean Isle Beach 

Ocean Isle Beach, NC
Ocean Isle Beach
  • Distance from Raleigh: 175 miles,
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 45 mins

Ocean Isle Beach is the place to go when you want a relaxed beach vacation experience to create memorable family moments, but still with fun activities close by.

Located in the Brunswick Islands region, it’s considered the most family-friendly beach vacation area in the Brunswick Isles with access to miles of coastline, acres of marshlands, mini-golf, museums, zip line adventures, and options for eating and drinking with waterside views.

Ocean Isle Inn, NC
Ocean Isle Inn

Here you’ll find stunning beaches, maritime forests, fresh local seafood, expansive saltwater marshes and Intercoastal waterway. Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina was named “Best Tiny Town” in 2018 by Southern Living.

  • Eat & Drink: Jinks Creek Waterfront Grill, coffee & bagels at 59 Causeway Grill, Ocean Isle Fish Company Restaurant, Sharky’s Waterfront Restaurant, Drift Coffee and Kitchen, Makai Brewing, Coastal Wine Room.
  • Things to Do: watch a sunrise, play on the beach, fish from Ocean Isle Pier, paddle the waterways, Museum of Coastal Carolina, Shallotte River Swamp Park (ziplines), witness loggerhead sea turtles laying their eggs (May to August), Ferry Landing Park, Ocean Isle Beach Free Summer Concert Series.
  • Accommodation: Our choice is the Ocean Isle Inn. For vacation rentals search here.

Read More:

12. Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach, North Carolina
Sunset Beach, North Carolina
  • Distance from Raleigh: 178 miles,
  • Drive time: Approx 2 hours, 50 mins

We first visited Sunset Beach for a friend’s wedding in 2008, loved it back then and thoroughly enjoyed it again during a recent visit in 2021 and it is near the top of our best beaches in North Carolina list.

Besides the stunning beach and the opportunity to view a sunrise AND sunset, there’s a true laid-back vibe here ideal for families whether you want a lazy beach day, to go kayaking in the marshes, play a game of golf, or enjoy delicious locally caught seafood. 

A must do in Sunset Beach is a walk to nearby Bird Island Reserve to visit the Kindred Spirit Mailbox where visitors are invited to share their thoughts and stories in the pages of the notebooks within.

Sunset Beach, North Carolina
Sunset Beach, North Carolina
  • Eat & Drink: The Boat Landing, Crabby Oddwaters, Fibber McGee’s, House’s Place at the Beach, La Cucina, Sarah’s Kitchen, seafood restaurants 5 miles away in Calabash, a fishing village known for “Calabash style” seafood.
  • Things to Do: Sunset Beach Pier, Bird Island Reserve, Ingram Planetarium, Museum of Coastal Carolina, Silver Coast Winery, Oyster Bay Golf Links
  • Accommodation: Consider this large beachfront home. For more vacation rentals search here.

13. Lifeguard Beach

Man and woman sitting on beach chairs next to an umbrella on a beach on Ocracoke Island
Beach life on Ocracoke
  • Distance from Raleigh: 204 miles
  • Drive time: 2.45 hour drive to Swan Quarter Ferry Terminal, plus 2.5 hour car ferry

Ok guys, this beach involves some effort, but trust me, going to Lifeguard Beach on Ocracoke Island in the southern Outer Banks is totally worth it.

Ever wanted to step foot on the best beach in the USA? Lifeguarded Beach was voted best beach in America in 2022 by coastal scientist Dr Beach. Lifeguarded Beach won it mostly because it has three things that you must have to make a great beach: clean sand, clean water, and beach safety.

People sitting and walking along a beach.
Lifeguarded Beach, Ocracoke

And Ocracoke Island is awesome. We loved our 4-day stay there and getting around by golf cart or biking, going kayaking and paddle boarding, and eating and drinking local. Here are 11 reasons we loved Ocracoke NC.

  • Eat & Drink: SmacNalley’s Bar & Grill, Eduardo’s, Dajio Restaurant, Howard’s Pub, 1718 Brewing, Zellie’s Wine Bar.
  • Things to Do: Beach fishing, swimming and surfing, kayak and paddle board on Silver Lake, Springer’s Point, sunset sail in Windfall Schooner, cruise around by golf cart.
  • Accommodation: Consider these vacation rentals, boutique inns, or beachside camping.

I hope this list of beaches near Raleigh gives you ideas for your own summer weekend getaway. As mentioned, the beach closest to Raleigh is our personal favorite but I’m happy to return to any of these NC beaches to create memorable family moments.

Let me know in the comments, which of these North Carolina beaches do you recommend or our excited about visiting, and what is your favorite beach activity? 

Moving to Raleigh?

If you are considering living in Raleigh and need a realtor, we can connect you with a trusted realtor in Raleigh, click here. Then check out these other posts for more helpful info:

NC Bucket List
45 Unique things to do in NC + 4 destinations not to miss + insider travel tips. 
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