As Australians who grew up by the beach near Sydney and who now live in Raleigh, we are so grateful we have awesome coastal places to escape to, and down below we are sharing our favorite things to do in OBX (Outer Banks).
We recently watched the Outer Banks series on Netflix with our kids, and even though we already had an Outer Banks vacation high on our North Carolina bucket list, that show gave us the extra push to go there now!
In case you don’t know, the Outer Banks (OBX) is a 100-mile stretch of barrier islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from the mainland. And then there is the Southern part, otherwise known as the Crystal Coast.
These islands are dotted with some of the best beaches in North Carolina for your beach vacation, plus quaint towns, historic lighthouses, state parks, amazing sand dunes, delicious Outer Banks restaurants, fun watersports, and unique wildlife experiences!
This destination just speaks to us as a family who love nature and the great outdoors (and seafood). And being just a 3.5 hour drive, I know it’s going to be one of our top weekend getaways from Raleigh – in all seasons!
From our recent four-day visit, we came to realize that there is no shortage of fun things to do in Outer Banks, and whilst we didn’t have time for everything we think we did a good job of maximizing our time and down below we list our top suggestions for your own OBX trip!
Whether you’re looking for relaxing beach days or adventure, casual dining or a little romance, stunning sunrises or sunsets, the OBX has you covered.
Read on to discover why we think this is one of the best places to visit in North Carolina, and what you should add to your itinerary! And don’t miss checking out our list of 25 cool Airbnb Outer Banks vacation rentals.
- Play on the Outer Banks Beaches
- Jockey’s Ridge State Park
- Learn How to Hand Glide (safely) at Jockey’s Ridge
- Jennette’s Pier
- Explore all the Outer Banks Piers
- See the OBX Lighthouses
- Cape Hatteras National Seashore
- Go Stand Up Paddle Boarding
- Drink and Eat at Fish Heads Bar and Grill
- Wright Brothers National Memorial
- Watch a Sunrise by the Ocean
- Sunset Drinks at Miller’s Waterfront Restaurant
- Go Surfing
- Breakfast at Art’s Place
- Explore Manteo
- Historic Walking Tour with the Former Police Chief
- Outer Banks Brewing Station
- Walk the Duck Boardwalk
- Donutz on a Stick
- Breakfast at Fresh Fit Cafe
- Mulligan’s Grille in Historic Cottage Row
- Car Beach Driving
- Bird Watching in the Alligator River
- More Things to Do in OBX
- Book your Outer Banks Accommodation
Play on the Outer Banks Beaches
Most people visit the Outer Banks in the summer months for some beach time, and as Aussies we can definitely get on board with that! With 100-miles of wide-open shoreline, take your pick from one of the many beautiful Outer Banks beaches.
The sand is clean, the water is a perfect temperature through summer, they’re family-friendly, and they’re not too crowded – win, win.
As we were staying right on Kill Devil Hills Beach we spent most of our time on this beach (see sunrise tips down below).
But our favorite for our kids to go body-boarding would probably be Corolla Beach for the gentle waves and it seems like you can walk out forever (see stand up paddle boarding section down below). Also Nags Head Beach near the pier was great for waves too!
Kitty Hawk is also ideal for water sports, and Duck is known as one of the most pet-friendly beaches in the US.
But keep in mind beach and wave conditions change daily, depending on where you are on the islands.
Lifeguards are on duty on all beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day – be mindful of the tides and currents!
If you want calmer waters, consider one of the numerous sound front water accesses on the western side of the islands.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
An Outer Banks vacation is mostly about nature and coastal experiences, but not all are water based!
We love visiting unique state parks, and Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the tallest sand dune system in the eastern United States and is one of the most popular things to do in OBX.
The dunes here are constantly changing shape due to wind and reach up to 100 feet high from where you get spectacular views of the Carolina coastline on one side, and Roanoke Sound on the other.
Start at the visitor center and museum to learn about the ecology, then head out to explore the massive dune system by following the 360-foot boardwalk.
Popular activities here include hang gliding, sand-boarding and kite flying (bring your own), nature trails, sunset viewing, and learning to hang-glide (see down below about our experience).
Ranger-led programs throughout the year are mostly free, but some require pre-registration.
And during the warmer months it is highly suggested to bring your own shoes, sun protection and plenty of water – sand dunes get HOT.
There are no entrance fees to enjoy the park. But keep in mind, this is a day-use only park with no campgrounds!
Hot Locals Tip:
Go past the sand dunes to West Soundside Rd, it goes to a nice beach on the sound where you can walk in the water forever.
Learn How to Hand Glide (safely) at Jockey’s Ridge
Looking for fun things to do in Outer Banks? This is one of the coolest family-activities we have done in a long time.
You’re in the area where the Wright Brothers first flew a plane, so why not learn how to fly too!
And don’t worry, it’s very safe and easy. If our 8 year old Savannah can do it, you can too!
We had so much fun learning how to launch, fly, and land on the soft sands of Jockey’s Ridge with our instructor holding a rope all the way giving you a sense of safety!
Starting from $99, standard beginner lessons last 3 hours, including 1 hour of ground school.
Definitely put this on your list of OBX things to do and one of our favorite Outer Banks activities with kids.
Located in Nags Head, Jennette’s Pier stretches 1,000 feet into the Atlantic ocean and is one of the must-visit Outer Banks piers during your visit.
What’s particularly cool about this pier is that it is powered by wind (evidenced by the windmills on it) and it has an educational center and small aquarium attached.
I visited for some beautiful sunrise photos, and we also went swimming here in the afternoon.
This is one of the top things to do in Nags Head, and is popular for fishing, or for just taking a stroll out for great views back over the coastline.
All day walk-on fees: Adults $2, Children $1.
Explore all the Outer Banks Piers
You Americans love your piers, and in the Outer Banks the piers are one of the most striking features of this coastal area – there are seven in total.
Five of the piers are located in the central Outer Banks area; three in Nags Head, one in Kitty Hawk, and one in Kill Devil Hills.
The other two OBX piers are on Hatteras Island; one in Rodanthe and the other in Avon – the 600-foot long Avon Fishing Pier was the first pier on Hatteras Island.
Our favorite is the The Outer Banks Fishing Pier in Nags Head – we don’t fish, but we love Fish Heads Bar & Grille at the end of the pier (see more about that down below).
Besides fishing off the piers, beach fishing is also popular in the OBX. So if you love piers too, this is one of the best things to do in Outer Banks.
See the OBX Lighthouses
Another of the popular things to do in Outer Banks is see the iconic lighthouses.
When I think of the OBX, one of the first things that comes to mind is the lighthouses. They have guarded the coastline here for over 200 years and have played an important role in maritime history – this area is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic for ships for its treacherous waters.
There are five lighthouses in total and each one unique:
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
- Bodie Island Lighthouse
- Roanoake Marshes Lighthouse
- Currituck Beach Lighthouse
- and Ocracoke Lighthouse.
The easily recognizable Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its spiraling black and white stripes, protects one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic Coast and was officially completed way back in 1870.
One of the most popular OBX activities is to climb to the top of the historic Hatteras lighthouse to get stunning views from the tallest brick lighthouse in North America.
Unfortunately it was closed to climbing when we visited (August 2020 due to Rona) but you can still visit the grounds and visitors center.
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.
This area is home to unique beach communities, historic lighthouses, and endless activities such as beach fishing, kiteboarding, surfing, swimming, windsurfing, crabbing, shell-collecting, kayaking and paddle boarding, camping, and beach driving.
You can explore by vehicle, bicycle, foot, or by boat.
We didn’t spend much time down here, concentrating most of our time on the northern islands, but stopped in at above mentioned Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and a few beaches along the drive.
For more tips on things to do in Hatteras, go here.
The north entrance to Cape Hatteras is located in Nags Head at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and NC Highway 12, and there are many roadside public pull-offs along Highway 12 with beach access.
Hatteras Village is home to locally owned and operated restaurants.
Go Stand Up Paddle Boarding
If you’ve been following our travels for a while, you’ll know that stand-up paddle boarding is one of our favorite family-activities.
We recently bought two inflatable BodyGlove paddle boards, and couldn’t wait to use them in the OBX.
One suggested spot from the locals was Corolla Beach due to it’s gentle waves and shallow water, and it proved to be a great spot, although my balance needs work as I kept falling off – ocean paddling is different to lake or river supping!
Another popular place for paddle boarding/kayaking is the Historic Corolla Park at the Whalehead Club – there’s a public launch spot for small boats/kayaks/SUPs and there are shallow canals to paddle in.
In Nags Head, we got recommended West Soundside Road as another good soundside location – it’s close to Jockey’s Ridge.
If you don’t own your own SUP boards, consider a tour.
Drink and Eat at Fish Heads Bar and Grill
Listen up Santa Monica Pier. THIS is how you do a pier!
Back in our home country of Australia, we don’t have piers at our beaches (well, very few) and Aussies are most familiar with Santa Monica Pier. But we think that pier in LA is super tacky, crowded, and just a flat out tourist trap!
We’ve also been to many other piers on our travels across the USA and we think we have found our favorite pier right here in North Carolina – the Outer Banks Fishing Pier. And it’s mostly to do with Fish Heads Bar and Grill at the end of this pier.
When we first arrived at the beach here, there was a long line waiting (social distancing) to get onto the pier and we thought, “what’s going on here?”
Turns out, it was happy hour shrimp at Fish Heads which means 15 CENT SHRIMP between 4pm – 6pm. We put our names down immediately!
Not only that, but Fish Heads offers a great beer selection (40 beers in total), killer ocean views, chilled local vibe and music, and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Don’t miss it. This is a super cool local spot, and one of our best memories from our Outer Banks vacation!
And if you love tiki bars, don’t miss the Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar when you are in Carolina Beach.
Wright Brothers National Memorial
You’re in the place that had the first successful Wright Brothers flight, and if you value airplane travel like us, why not go and honor the birthplace of flying at the Wright Brothers National Memorial
In case you don’t know, the Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur) piloted four successful flights with their powered, heavier-than-air flying machine in Kitty Hawk, and you can visit the historic site to see a monument.
A 60 ft. granite monument sits high on the sand dune where the brothers did most of their gliding experiments (now covered in grass). The memorial overlooks the field where they piloted the four successful first flights in their heavier-than-air flying machine (not to mention the stunning panoramic view of the barrier island!)
Start your visit at the excellent museum on-site which brilliantly tells the inspirational story from dreaming the impossible to making it possible through the phases of skill and character traits needed to do it, rather than a numerical timeline.
And once outside, you can walk (or run like our kids did) along the actual marked flight paths pretending to fly, you’ll believe that you can do anything too.
Check the website for up to date info and costs.
Watch a Sunrise by the Ocean
Sunrise in the Outer Banks is definitely worth getting up for!
We know, when you’re on vacation rolling out of bed early can be tough. But we’re always grateful when we make the effort, especially when rewarded with a stunning sunrise like this at Kill Devil Hills Beach.
Sunrise is actually one of our favorite times of day. It’s peaceful, our kids are usually still asleep, and it just gives us so much more time in the day to do things.
When staying in the OBX do your best to stay on the ocean so you can just roll out of bed and walk onto the beach, or even sit on your deck and watch the magic happen!
Sunset Drinks at Miller’s Waterfront Restaurant
Looking for one of those famous OBX sunsets? You can’t go wrong here.
Miller’s is actually a highly recommended place to eat with a lot of positive reviews, but we felt our food fell a little flat. We dined downstairs in the restaurant, but next time we’d like to try upstairs at the Sunset Bar & Grill.
However, the sunset stole the show and at the very least come here for sunset drinks, sit outside on the grass area and watch the magic happen over the sound – it seems to be an Outer Banks tradition.
Looking to carve up some waves? The Outer Banks are known for having the largest waves on the East Coast of the US and is well known by surfers around the world.
Because the OBX coastline is uniquely situated, it receives swells from multiple directions with wintertime providing excellent conditions along the east facing beaches, whilst summertime swells sweep into the south side beaches.
We saw a few surfers enjoying the waves near Nags Head Pier, and a frequent visitor told us that Cape Hatteras has the best surfing when it’s on.
Want to learn how to surf? Consider a surfing lesson in OBX.
Breakfast at Art’s Place
This local’s favorite breakfast spot came highly recommended by several people in our Instagram community, especially for their pancakes which our kids loved, but the country ham breakfast and French toast also hit the spot nicely!
Located in Kitty Hawk, this long-running burger joint has ocean views from it’s rooftop and features live music and classic American bites. It’s a place where they call the tourists just out of town locals!
We visited during winter and sat downstairs in their cozy indoors, but would love to go back in the warmer months for a burger and beer and some live music!
Oh, and they’ve also been voted best burger on the beach!
Manteo was our first stop when we arrived in the Outer Banks driving in from Raleigh, and it’s definitely worth a look. We found it to be much quieter than other places in OBX with a few interesting points of interest.
There’s a nice waterfront area to walk along – the town wraps around Shallowbag Bay on the eastern side of Roanoke Island.
Way back in 1587, 117 English men, women and children came ashore on Roanoke Island to establish the first English settlement. But, In 1590, when English ships returned, they found the island deserted, hence the name the Lost Colony.
In normal times, there’s a Lost Colony Drama performed on the site but this season is cancelled due to the pandemic.
The small main street has a few shops and the Lost Colony Brewery (we had lunch here – the burgers are good).
Historic Walking Tour with the Former Police Chief
If you don’t want to explore Manteo by yourself, one of the best things to do in Manteo is a historical walking tour of the historic downtown with retired police chief turned tour guide, Francis D’Ambra.
Francis is super passionate about history and his town, and on the 90-minute tour we learned all about the fascinating history of not only Manteo, but the greater Outer Banks area.
Did you know that this region is home to all these firsts: first English Colony, first English born child in the New World, first hang gliding school in the USA, First in Flight, and First National Seashore.
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 – Francis was a personal friend of Andy’s, and can share many stories for devout fans of the show and actor.
Tours are limited to 25 and are catered to mostly adults, but our 10 year old Savannah was so taken with the stories on the tour, she asked me mid-way through the tour if she could write a blog post on it.
Outer Banks Brewing Station
We are always up for a good brewery, especially a family-friendly one, and the Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills is a must-visit.
This brewery is the first wind-powered brewery in America – how cool is that – and there’s a great beer garden area out the back with plenty of room for the kids to run around.
The draft beer selection selection is top notch (I suggest the LemonGrass Wheat Ale or Hugh Hefeweizen), plus there’s wine and specialty cocktails.
The food is well above average, and they have live music – what’s not to love. In “normal times” there’s a jam-packed events calendar. Check their website for current events.
Walk the Duck Boardwalk
This was one of the top recommended things to do in Duck NC, but I think we did this at the wrong time, just after lunch on a HOT day and I’m guessing this would be best to do either early morning or early evening at sunset.
Regardless, it’s a pretty walk and easy for kids and stretches 0.6 miles. with plenty of places to stop and eat near the water (eat at NC Coast Grill & Bar by the way), their poutine and fish tacos are incredible.
The boardwalk begins at the southern end of the Village near Christopher Drive and continues to end at the Waterfront Shops
Best accessed from Town Park and other locations throughout the Town’s Village Commercial District.
Donutz on a Stick
Ok guys. When most donut lovers visit the Outer Banks, they go to the original Duck Donuts in the town of Duck.
Admittedly, we promised our kids a visit too (even though we can walk to a Duck Donuts near our house in Cary). But when I typed in the address in Google maps, it said the store closed at 1pm (it closes at 1pm each day) which I thought was crazy!
Luckily, one of our very good local followers on Instagram who had been providing excellent tips during our stay, suggested we go to Donutz on a Stick. He said it’s family-owned, not super busy, and better! And it turned out to be a great suggestion, trust us, our kids will tell you!
They serve up made to order donuts AND incredible donut sundaes which our kids had (two donuts topped with ice cream and whipped cream).
Plus sandwiches, gluten-free and vegan offerings, coffee, espresso, gifts and souvenirs.
We even got severed by David, the owner, and he is a super nice guy. Tell him we sent you, and be sure to put this on your list of things to do in the Outer Banks with kids!
Breakfast at Fresh Fit Cafe
Come for the healthy food, stay for the awesome water views!
Here’s another breakfast spot we enjoyed. Typically we’re pretty health conscious with our diet, but do let ourselves go a bit on vacation, but for the most part we like to start off our day with a healthy breakfast and we’re glad we found this place during our research.
Freshfit Cafe is located on the Nags Head-Manteo Causeway and is a health-oriented cafe and juice bar.
They serve breakfast and lunch daily with an awesome waterfront setting, and we thoroughly enjoyed our hearty omelettes – one of the best we’ve had actually!
Also on the menu is organic coffee, espresso, a full juice bar, detox drinks and smoothies, and they accommodate vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diets.
Mulligan’s Grille in Historic Cottage Row
This place is cool, and as soon as we walked in we had the feeling, “yeah, this could be our local”.
Mulligan’s offers several dining and drinking areas, but we ate in the casual and chilled Tiki Bar upstairs (we love Tiki bars).
With distant views of the beach, fresh coastal breezes, and a fun vibe, it was hard to leave and could have sat there for hours.
The burgers are great, they have good local seafood, there’s a nice selection of beers, a downstairs bar, and indoor and outdoor seating with views of Jockey’s Ridge (Note: Mulligan’s is operating under current Covid restrictions).
Car Beach Driving
If you want to go beach driving, it’s another of the popular OBX things to do and offers a fun and different perspective for exploring the ocean beaches.
Beach driving is allowed year round on Hatteras Island, and October 1-April 30 in Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills.
Bird Watching in the Alligator River
We are definitely not strangers to wildlife viewing, but bird watching is not something that ever came to mind when thinking about things to do in the Outer Banks. But on a recent winter trip to OBX, that’s exactly what we did.
And if you’re looking for a slower paced activity that takes in unique natural habitats, keep it in mind as we were pleasantly surprised at how much we enjoyed it.
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.
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 wetland, marshes, agricultural fields and a phenomenal amount of wildlife, especially birds.
We were thrilled to experience the Tundra swans and a few rare encounters such as a bald-headed eagle’s attempt to catch a duck, two rough-legged hawks flying together, and a sandhill crane lost on his way from Texas.
Fun fact: the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has the highest concentration of black bears on the eastern seaboard AND the last remaining red wolves in the wild. We’ll be back to see the bears next time!
Whether you are new to birding or experienced, Jonathan has a tour for you.
More Things to Do in OBX
As mentioned, we only had four days for our Outer Banks vacation, so missed many things.
Below are highly suggested OBX activities and places to eat in Outer Banks from locals in the know, and the tourism board, that we plan to tick off on a return visit:
- See the wild Horses of Corolla.
- Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge kayak tour
- Horseback riding on the beach.
- Elizabethan Gardens delightful 10 acre garden
- The Shack Coffee Shop & Beer Garden (Corolla) unique hidden gem.
- Black Pelican Restaurant (Kitty Hawk) good views, amazing pizzas, fresh seafood.
If you didn’t previously know what to do in Outer Banks, I hope this post helps you with your own planning to visit Outer Banks.
We’ll definitely be back many times, so why not join our email community (form below with free NC Bucket List) and follow us on Instagram to see what we get up to on future visits, and all our other North Carolina adventures!
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