15 Fun Things to Do in Manteo & Roanoke Island, NC

On previous trips to the Outer Banks, we cruised right on by Roanoke Island, focused instead on soaking up the warm rays and salty vibe of the beautiful beaches in the OBX.

A winter vacation gave us the chance to turn our eyes inland a little and discover a different kind of treasure that the Outer Banks region offers – one that is uniquely rich in ecological, historical, and cultural diversity.

family sitting on giant chair under tree
Welcome to Roanoke Island

Something from every area of history of the USA happened on, or near to, this little island between the Outer Banks and the mainland of North Carolina. Some of which include the first English Colony, the first English born child in the New World, the first grape vine, and the first Light of Freedom!

We recommend you spend time experiencing these Manteo attractions at any time of year to gain a deep appreciation for what makes this one of the best places to visit in North Carolina and the USA.

We spent three nights in the Outer Banks for this winter vacation. However, you could easily experience most of the things to do in Manteo in one day.

Where is Manteo and Roanoke Island?

map showing roanoke island location

Roanoke Island sits between the barrier islands of the Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. You have the Roanoke Sound to the east and the Croatan Sound to the west.

It sits across the Roanoke Sound from the popular OBX beach town of Nags Head on the Outer Banks Barrier Islands. Giving you easy access to the beaches (about a 10–15 minute drive).

map showing raleigh to manteo driving times
Raleigh to Manteo

From Raleigh, it is about a 3-hour drive on Highway 64. Follow the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge straight onto the island.

Its main town, Manteo skirts Shallowbag Bay on the eastern Side of Roanoke Island. It is one of the oldest towns in North Carolina and was named the gateway to the Outer Banks.

“Manteo” is named after a Native American Croatan Chief who greeted and befriended the early English explorers of Roanoke Island in the 1580s. Manteo helped the first colonists survive their initial winter, and even traveled to England in 1584, and again in 1585.

Stroll Downtown Manteo

buildings on main street of downtown manteo
Downtown Manteo

Downtown Manteo (pronounced Man-ee-o) is made up of just a few streets surrounding the historic courthouse, which Andy Griffith, in his fictional town of Mayberry, will tell you, that’s the way a community should be.

Mayberry, and its characters, were mostly inspired by the life and people of Manteo, where native North Carolinian, Andy Griffith, moved in 1947 to take a job as a soldier in “The Lost Colony”. Manteo quickly became the home of his heart and his final resting place in a grave on his waterfront property.

Downtown Manteo is an easy place for a stroll at any time of day. You’ll find restaurants, bookstores, antique stores, cafes, and retail stores. The waterfront gives lovely views over the Roanoke Sound to the barrier islands with a small marina full of sailboats, skiffs and yachts.

historical courthouse building in manteo
Dare County Courthouse

The historic Dare County Courthouse sits in the center of the downtown area. Built in 1904, the courthouse has lived through hurricanes and fires, and although had to be rebuilt in parts, has lived to tell a pretty good tale.

It is now home to the Dare County Arts Council Gallery, a fine arts and craft gallery to showcase the works from emerging and established artists, providing a constantly rotating exhibit of local art.

Historical Walking Tour of Manteo with Chief

man leading a tour and showing photo book
With retired Police Chief, Francis D’Ambra

The best way to learn about the meteorology, geography, ecology, culture and history of the Outer Banks region is to join retired Police Chief, Francis D’Ambra for an evening stroll through the Historic Waterfront of Old Manteo. 

Chief will transport you through 400+ years of history, leaving you in awe over the resilience of this small barrier island region off the treacherous Atlantic Coastline the Land of New Beginnings and Firsts in History. 

We traveled through the stories of the native Algonquin, Lost Colony of Roanoke, First in Flight, the Underground Railroad, The Mother Vine, the crazy antics of Pirates and moonshine producers, and the wild hurricane weather that shapes land and culture.

Chief has been running the 90-minute, Original Manteo Walking Tour since 2003. He stopped the tours for a while to focus on his Chief duties, but, since retiring as police chief he has now returned to running his walking tours full-time.

tour group standing outside building

Chief had a way of bringing Outer Banks to life with his stories, both real and possibly real. His passion for the area pulled us into the Suck Zone of what makes Outer Banks so great

It’s the perfect starting point of your visit to Manteo and Roanoke Island.

Something from every era of the USA’s history happened on Roanoke Island, or near to this little island between the barrier islands of the Outer Banks and the mainland. 

Read more about the tour here.

BOOK YOUR MANTEO HISTORICAL WALKING TOUR WITH CHIEF HERE.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site: The First Colony Story

Exhibits inside museum

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is one of the top things to do in Manteo as it tells the story of how this small island made history as the site of the first English settlement in present day USA.

The northern end of Roanoke Island was the original home of Algonquin Indians before the English colonists arrived.

These original colonists were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s doomed efforts to settle the New World in 1585 and 1587. So doomed that these colonists disappeared without a trace. 

You can learn of this fascinating story through a 17-minute video in the visitor center as well as exhibits which contain artifacts excavated from the original sites. 

young girl standing in front of earthen mounds
Earthen Fort
people walking along a wooded trail
Thomas Harriot Nature Trail

The Thomas Harriot Nature Trail is a short loop walk that takes you to the restored earthen fort that would have originally been built here over 400-years ago. You’ll find interpretive signs about the Algonquin people who once inhabited the area, the English settlers, and the forest itself.

Not too much further north of here is Jamestown in Virginia, the site for the next attempt at English colonization. We all now this one survived (although nearly failed many times. You can read more in this post See history come alive in Greater Williamsburg.

ATtend The Lost Colony Outdoor Theater

waterside theater with views of the water behind it
Waterside Theater

During the summer months, you can experience the early settlement story through America’s longest outdoor drama, The Lost Colony at the Waterside Theater located within the Fort Raleigh historical site. First staged in 1937, the play tells the story of the first English colonies in North America on Roanoke Island.

More than 120 actors, technicians, designers and volunteers work together to bring The Lost Colony story to life. The stage is said to be three times larger than most Broadway stages in New York City.

The Lost Colony runs from May through late August and goes for about two hours. Unfortunately, we have not yet seen it, as it was closed for our winter Outer Banks vacation and closed during our summer vacation because of COVID! We’ll definitely make it happen on our next trip.

Elizabethan Gardens

Aerial view of the Elizabethan Gardens and fountain
Credit: VisitNC.com

Elizabethan Gardens, an elaborate 10-acre garden with sculptures and seasonal flowers was founded as a living memorial to the Lost Colonists, Queen Elizabeth I and the Elizabethan era.

Designed by the renowned firm of Innocenti and Webel, it contains elements of 16th-century statuary, indigenous plants and herbs.

You’ll find elaborate gardens fit for the Queen with year-round and seasonal blooms, and sculptures off Queen Elizabeth I, ancient Italian Renaissance, and Virginia Dare.

people standing on beach

The Freedom Trail connects the Elizabethan Gardens to the Fort Raleigh visitor center. The 2.5 mile round trip trail takes you through the forest to the Croatan Sound on the western edge of the park, where the Freedmen’s Colony and Civil War forts once stood.

The Winterlights Festival is a popular holiday attraction that runs from the last week of November, the entirety of December, and into January.

First Light of Freedom

plaque honoring the first light of freedom

After the Union’s first military victory of the Civil War at Fort Hatteras in August 1861, escaped slaves seeking the army’s protection began pouring onto the island.

Roanoke Island became known as a ‘safe haven’ and in 1863 a Freedmen’s Colony established to train and educate formerly enslaved African Americans so that they could participate in their own free and independent communities. It was the first community of its kind in North Carolina and was home to 3,500 formerly enslaved black Americans.

This area was also where the Freedmen’s Colony, a self-sustaining colony of free African Americans, was established in 1863. Their story is told in the visitor center and is honored 

At Fort Raleigh Historic Site, a First Light of Freedom Memorial acknowledges the site of the Freedmans as part of the National Underground Railroad Network.

Roanoke Island Festival Park

people walking along a nature trail by t he water
Trails on Roanoke Island Festival Park

Cross over the pedestrian bridge from downtown Manteo to the 25 acre Roanoke Island Festival Park and learn firsthand about the history and settlement of Roanoke Island.

During the warmer months at the park, you can experience firsthand how the early Algonquin people lived, explore a replica English settlement, and go aboard the boat.

replica schooner sitting in water manteo
Elizabeth II replica

Berthed at one of the Festival Park’s piers, is the Elizabeth II, a replica of the 1587 wooden, square-rigged sailing vessel that brought the colonists over. Help costumed 16th century sailors set the sails, find your latitude with an astrolabe, and swab the decks.

You’ll be amazed that this 69ft ship carried about 115 people on a trip that was “Journey of the Dead.”

The park also has walking trails and is a venue for concerts, festivals and weddings. To the locals, the island is unknown as Ice Plant Island as it was the place of the first commercial ice plant in the world – another Manteo first.

MAnteo Weather Station

weather station next to lighthouse cottage
Manteo Weather Station

Any budding meteorologist will want to see the Manteo Weather station in the George Washington Creef Park. The weather tower was established in 1904 by the Weather Bureau with Alpheus W. Drinkwater in charge.

Flags were flown to warn mariners of wind shifts or approaching storms, to foretell a rainy-day, gale-force winds, or flood tides. The weather station not only warns the country about impending weather conditions but was also the telegram tower where Alpheus let the world know, “man has flown in Kitty Hawk”. It was also the first place where radio signal was transferred over water.

Relevant Post: Fun Hang gliding lessons with Kitty Hawk Kites.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

lighthouse manteo outer banks

Manteo’s own lighthouse, The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a small and quaint white building with red shingled roof and sits on a board walk over the water 40 yards into the sound.

It doesn’t tower above the landscape like other lighthouses, as it’s a river lighthouse, the only one in Dare County. It’s a replica of the original lighthouse that was constructed in 1877 at the southern entrance of the Croatan Sound in Wanchese to help both passing sailors and local fishermen find their way to port.

Sunset is meant to be beautiful here. We did not get the right weather conditions for it!

TOP TIP: Sunset at Bodie Island Lighthouse is spectacular and not too far from Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island Maritime Museum

wooden boathouse with green roof
Roanoke Island Maritime Museum

While at the George Washington Creef Park you may wish to visit the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum to learn the fascinating boat building history of this region.

The museum is located in the George Washington Creef Boathouse nestled alongside the downtown waterfront. You may be wondering who George Washington Creef is? He’s the local builder who developed the Shad boat in the 1870’s.

A shad boat is small sailing craft ideal for maneuvering shallow water and rapidly changing weather conditions along the coast. They are known for their unique crafting, speed, and easy handling.

The museum has on exhibit a number of small watercrafts such as Ella, an 1883 Creef Shad boat, a clipper yawl boat, a 1960 era hydroplane, and other small boats.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

girl looking through binoculars for birds

While not on Roanoke Island itself, the Alligator River National Refuge is only a short drive across the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge and is the perfect opportunity to explore one of the most fascinating, ecologically diverse, and beautiful places to visit in the Outer Banks.

While this pristine 153,000-acre wetland environment may compete with the beauty of the Outer Banks miles of white sandy beaches for attention, it does not compete in terms of solitude, space and quiet.

Here’s a great story about the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It has the highest concentration of black bears on the eastern seaboard AND the last remaining red wolves in the wild.

sunrise over the alligator river wildlife reserve

This area used to be home to Buffalo City, which at the turn of the 19th century was the largest community in Dare County thanks to the abundance of sought-after cedar, cypress, and juniper covering the land.

It was the boomtown for logging and moonshine production (producing 1500 gallons a day) until the 1950s when it all dried up and the town was abandoned. 

The refuge was established in 1984 with the mission to preserve and protect this unique habitat and all the wildlife species that called it home. It’s now a place for hiking, kayak adventures, bike riding and wildlife watching.

Due to its geography and position in the eastern migratory flyway, the Outer Banks is a popular place for birdwatching and people flock to it from all over the eastern seaboard.

flocks of birds flying above the ground
rough legged hawk
rough legged hawk

We joined Jonathan Cooley from Native Birding Tours for a four-hour birdwatching tour of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This protected area consists mostly of a pocosin wetland, marshes, agricultural fields and a phenomenal amount of wildlife, especially birds.

Whether you are new to birding, have target species, or you want to go big day birding, Jonathan has a tour for you. He offers tours year round from full-day to half-day birding trips, shorter birding walks, and private tours!

You can read more about our birdwatching experience here.

TOUR IDEA: Alligator River Kayak Tour: Enjoy an unforgettable guided kayaking trip through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks. CLICK HERE TO BOOK.

Taste the Mother Vine (Scuppernong Grape)

twisting mother vine
The mother Vine in Manteo, NC. | Credit: VisitNC.com

The scuppernong grape vine, otherwise known as the Mother Vine, produces white muscadine grapes that begin to ferment on the vine due their high levels of sugar.

Estimated to be 400 years old, the Mother Vine, located on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, is believed to be the oldest grape vine in all of North America. It was planted by either Croatan Native Americans or settlers of the Lost Colony. It is on a private waterfront property in Manteo, well protected and cared for by the owners, octogenarians, Jack and Estelle Wilson.

And so, First in Grapes in the USA goes to the Outer Banks!

Vineyards on the Scuppernong has a tasting room located across the street from the Tranquil House Inn in downtown Manteo. When you visit their tasting room you will enjoy free tastings, wine accessories, specialty foods, as well as local art and jewelry. Hopefully they have some scuppernong when you visit to taste!

explore the flavors of local legends at the Lost Colony Brewery

outside of lost colony brewing

A place to stop for a drink or a pub meal, Lost Colony Brewery is located on Queen Elizabeth Ave in Downtown Mateo. Grab a seat on the outside patio to watch Manteo life amble by.

We ate lunch here on a previous summer visit, and during the winter we sat in the cozy bar for a drink. The burgers are good and the British and Irish style ales tell the local story.

Soak up local legends with a Nags Head IPA and Kill Devil Scotch Ale.

Burger with fries on a white plate with drinks on the side

Legend says that back in the day, ships were lured close to shore on dark nights by pirates (perhaps Blackbeard?). They would walk a horse, with a lantern tied to the neck of an old nag (horse) among the sand dunes of the OBX causing the ships to wreck on the shallow shoals. And now we have the name of another popular Outer Banks beach town, Nags Head (and an IPA to match.)

If you love Pirate towns (and Blackbeard), don’t miss Beaufort NC in the Southern region of the Outer Banks.

Drink Rum at Outer Banks Distilling

So if Kill Devil Scotch Ale is too soft for you, you can get a taste of the rum that put Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks map.

Folklore says that the rum in the Outer Banks, produced by sugar from the Caribbean, was so potent that it was proclaimed as “strong enough to kill the devil.” giving us the Kill Devil Hills area of the Outer Banks.

Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo is the first legal distillery on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, serving up their very own small-batch ‘Kill Devil Rum.’

Dinner: Ortega’z Southwestern Grill and Wine Bar

After a late evening exploring Manteo, we popped in for a quick meal at Ortega’z. It has a relaxed and casual Southwestern vibe with delicious nachos, great cocktails and a trivia night.

It’s bright and airy with two dining rooms, a covered outdoor patio and a long bar in the heart of the restaurant which was quite the local gathering spot.

More Helpful Outer Banks Vacation Ideas

Where to stay in manteo (or nearby)

Old Tranquil Inn

exterior of the tranquil inn
Tranquil Inn

The Tranquil Inn has seen guests such as Richard Gere and Diane Lane with the filming of Nights of the Rodanthe. It’s across the road from the rotunda, where the original Tranquil Inn once stood and  guests such as President Franklin Roosevelt and Orvill and Wilbur Wright.

Built in the style of the stately Outer Banks’ inns of old The Tranquil House Inn is complete with custom cypress woodwork and beveled stained glass at every turn. 

You are minutes from all the excitement and activity of the beaches, yet you can return to a private haven where you can rejuvenate and relax. They also have an onsite restaurant: 1587 Restaurant serving tapas style food.

The Roanoke Island Inn

Another charming and historic boutique hotel is the Roanoke Island Inn. Just a short walk from downtown Manteo’s boardwalk, at The Roanoke is the only property in Manteo featuring both a water view and nearly 1.5 acres of serene gardens.

Rent a beach cottage

row of cottages on the beach
Our beach vacation rental

Most attractive during the summer months is to rent a beach cottage. With Manteo only being 5 miles from Jannette’s Pier, it’s a great base for many Outer Banks attractions.

But, in the summer finding an affordable beach vacation rental is a bit like trying to find the wild horses way back in the dunes. However, in winter, prices fall back to affordable, and availability is usually as ubiquitous as the dolphins at sunrise.

It invites a slower morning sitting on the deck (or on the sand), coffee in hand watching the sunrise, or curled up in a blanket with a red wine listening to the waves crash at night.

man looking at sunset from outer banks cottage deck

Winter encourages you to use your vacation rental more: meals cooked-in rather than eaten out, family movie time on the couch rather than the higher energy, live music at a busy brewery. Slow moments are just as important on a vacation as the busy sightseeing and playing in the sun ones.

Our beach cottage was located in Nags Head, just south of Jennette’s Pier. It was an excellent base for exploring Manteo.

Comment: Have you visited Manteo and Roanoke Island? Do you have any tips

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