Carolina Beach is one of the best family beaches in North Carolina and at just over a two hour drive from Raleigh, it also makes for one of the best getaways from Raleigh. But if you’ve never been and don’t know what to do in Carolina Beach, we’ve got you covered!
With its famous wooden beach-side boardwalk, restaurants and amusement rides, craft coffees, tiki bars and summer concerts, this Carolina beach town pops with color and is a fun-loving and free-spirited family destination.
On offer is miles of shoreline and the intra-coastal waterway with all the water activities you can think of, plus fresh seafood, cool bars, gorgeous sunrises and fun around every corner.
Where is Carolina Beach?
In case you don’t know, Carolina Beach is actually on an island (Pleasure Island) which is one of the many barrier islands that make up the North Carolina coast.
Located just south of Wilmington and north of the Brunswick Islands region, it is centrally located on the East Coast, midway between New York and Florida.
Driving times to Carolina Beach:
- Wilmington to Carolina Beach: 20 minutes (12 miles)
- Myrtle Beach to Carolina Beach: 1 hour, 50 mins (87 miles)
- Raleigh to Carolina Beach: 2 hours, 15 mins (141 miles)
- Charlotte to Carolina Beach: 3 hours, 40 mins (212 miles)
- Asheville to Carolina Beach: 5 hours, 30 mins (346 miles)
What to Do in Carolina Beach
Carolina Beach Boardwalk
The vintage and famous Carolina Beach Boardwalk has been the place of family fun for nearly 100 years, and was named one of the most awesome boardwalks in America.
The historic (but now modern) boardwalk encapsulates the Carolina Beach spirit. The wooden boardwalk offers fantastic amenities like showers you won’t be afraid to stand under, pagodas, and swinging chairs.
During the summer season there’s a free concert series, amusement rides – including a Ferris Wheel – and weekly fireworks!
Behind the wooden boardwalk and beach is the rainbow-colored Carolina Beach Arcade, a fun spot to go shopping in Carolina Beach which is lined with local stores, restaurants, ice cream, and arcade parlors.
Don’t miss Fuzz Love, a laid back boho vibe store with a cool selection of clothes, tapestries, carved wooden animals, and other fun stuff from Asia and Africa sourced by a surfer who loves to travel the world and in doing so helps support the artisans and makers of the community.
Enjoy the beach
With miles of shoreline and gentle waves, Carolina Beach is one of the best beaches near Raleigh and offers plenty of water based activities that include surfing, shelling, and fishing (especially off the Carolina Beach Fishing Pier).
If you don’t feel like getting wet, lay out your towel or beach chair, read a book or listen to music and just unplug from the city life you left behind.
The north end of the beach tends to be more local and has less sand to relax on and a rock wall protecting the homes from washing away, but it’s a great place to escape the crowds when the tide is lower.
If you’re interested in surfing lessons, the Tony Silvagni Surf School is highly recommended.
Carolina Beach State Park
One of the top things to do in Carolina beach is explore the 761-acre Carolina Beach State Park and its nine miles of hiking trails.
Located on the Cape Fear River side of the island, it incorporates the marina which gives you access to some of the best local fishing spots. And campers will love the secluded campsites available beneath towering trees (reserve well in advance).
For hiking, the 3-mile loop Sugarloaf trail encompasses an evergreen forest, coastal fringe sandhill forest, tidal cypress-gum swamp, and longleaf pine savanna on your way to the Sugarloaf Dune with views of the Cape Fear River – this 50-foot sand dune was where over 5,000 troops camped during the Civil War.
Alternatively, the Flytrap trail is a 0.5-mile loop through pocosin wetlands and longleaf pine and wiregrass savanna communities.
Freeman Park Recreation Area
On the northern side of the Carolina Beach pier is Freeman Park Recreation Area, a place where you can drive onto the beach with your four-wheel-drive. And it’s also popular for swimming, surf fishing, crabbing and beach camping – permits and reservations required!
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area
Fort Fisher Recreation Area takes in the southern end of Pleasure Island and hugs the Atlantic Ocean from Kure Beach over to the Cape Fear River.
Here you will find six miles of pristine shoreline offering sun and surf-seekers plenty of fun. This is a place where Loggerhead turtles love laying their eggs, and where you can drive your 4WD along the beaches – permit required.
Two of North Carolina’s most visited attractions also reside here – the North Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
Fort Fisher State Historic Site protected the trading routes of Wilmington during the American Civil War until its capture by the Union in 1865.
Only 10% of the original fortress remains today which you can tour on a beautiful scenic trail lined with gnarly live oak trees and winds past the earthworks to fort remains.
Pop into the Visitor’s Center to see exhibits, artifacts and videos to learn more about the history of Fort Fisher.
There are more trails through the marshes to explore other Civil War monuments and a WWII bunker that was built to be the primary firing range for nearby Camp David during the Second World War.
North Carolina Aquarium
The North Carolina Aquarium is one of the other fun things to do in Carolina Beach with kids and one of the top Carolina Beach attractions.
The aquarium showcases the marine life of the region’s aquatic life such as stingrays, eels, sharks and baby sea turtles via interactive exhibits and live programs
Kayak or paddle board at Snow’s Cut
One of our favorite summer activities is stand up paddle boarding and the intra-coastal waterway on the Carolina coast offers adventurous paddle boarding opportunities
Our friends who live in Carolina Beach took us to Snow’s Cut, a man-made canal connecting Myrtle Grove Sound to the Cape Fear River – it’s what separates Pleasure Island from the mainland. Launch spot near the Marina.
Here you can paddle in three different directions: under the bridge towards the Cape Fear River, up the Intra-coastal Waterway to and to the ocean (south of Masonboro Island), or down the much calmer inlet towards a small marsh island and the town.
For more paddling or kayaking options consider Carolina Beach Lake Park (11 acre freshwater lake / on-site rentals), Carolina Beach State Park Boat Ramp (on-site seasonal kayak rentals / easy launching site / miles of Cape Fear River terrain), Carolina Beach Boat Basin (no wake zone) or, the super steady paddlers can head to the beach and take on the ocean swell.
If you want an alternative beach vibe, then neighboring Kure Beach (pronounced (cur-ee) is one of the best beaches near Carolina Beach (just an 8-minute drive away and a local’s favorite).
Kure Beach has a vibrant and bold personality of the softer, pastel kind and people come here for a more relaxed, quieter beach vibe where the natural features are the center of attention – accommodation may be a little cheaper too!
Play on miles of white sand, embrace the chilled tropical vibe, and for the pier lovers, Kure Beach Fishing Pier is one of the oldest on the Atlantic Coast.
Eat & Drink
Southern Biscuit and Pie
We stop in at The Southerly on our way in from Raleigh after leaving early and it’s a great spot to grab a quick breakfast of biscuits and grits.
You won’t find a better budget breakfast in Carolina Beach than their buttermilk biscuits, with creative offerings such as the brisket and slaw (my favorite), sausage and cheddar, or fried chicken for only $6. (even more options available).
Gluten-free options available, check out the filling $6 sausage & bacon over cheddar grits, which was delicious!
They also have a variety of whole pies, oatmeal cream pies, and seasonal cookie selections.
Coffee: Malama Cafe
Our favorite coffee shop in Carolina Beach is Malama Cafe. Each of our mornings were spent taking a short 5-minute stroll along the boardwalk to get our coffee fix (we are fans of their bulletproof coffee which we make at home too!)
Also on the menu are healthy bites like smashed avo toast, smoothie bowls, and breakfast burritos. And we love the happy beach decor of Malama.
Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar
The Ocean Grill & Tiki Bar is the hidden local gem in Carolina Beach and the type of bar you always hope to find when on vacation!
Built on the ruins of Center Pier, destroyed by Hurricane Fran in 1996, whilst it does serve a limited menu it’s all about the amazingviews and atmosphere that you come here for. You’ll find live music here at sunset during the season, what’s not to love!
One of the most famous things to do at Carolina Beach is to eat one of the famous, warm, and fresh glazed donuts from Britts Donuts on the Carolina Boardwalk.
Started by the Britts and Wrights in 1939, this donut shop has long been the cornerstone of the Carolina Beach Boardwalk area and continues to draw crowds from near and far.
They only make glazed or unglazed donuts, but if that’s your style judging by the lines that queue up and around the boardwalk each morning they’re guaranteed to melt in your mouth.
Note: they do so much business during the summer months they are able to close for the winter months – keep that in mind if you visit Carolina Beach in the off-season!
For amazing beach views head to the rooftop at Carolina Smokehouse and indulge in some comforting Southern BBQ.
Featured on PBS and the Food Network for its BBQ recipes and homemade tomato-based barbecue sauce (spicy and nice), they specialize in hardwood-smoked brisket, pork, ribs, and chicken.
Soul Flavor Kitchen & Bar
We haven’t dined in yet at Soul Flavor, but have ordered take out to enjoy in the coziness of our friends’ beach house, it hit the spot nicely, and are interested in dining in next time!
A diverse menu of fresh catches to ribs, seafood, pho, and more is on the menu including gluten free and vegan options.The Nana Maria Paella is their signature dish!
If you do dine in, they’re known for their neighborhood-gathering bar for a favored sangria and cocktails with friends.
Wake n Bake Donuts
Britts is not the only donut shop in town, and for an alternative donut treat (without the boardwalk location) check out Wake n Bake Donuts who make more Voodoo Doughnut style with gourmet fillings and unusual flavors.
They also bake a gluten-free donut for those who are intolerant, which wasn’t too bad.
Other Carolina Beach restaurants on our list for next time:
Below are more places to eat in Carolina Beach (and drink at) that we haven’t tried personally, yet, but come highly recommended by our local friends and we’ll be eating and drinking there soon enough:
- Nauti Dog – colorful beach shack with a patio, offering a selection of creative gourmet hot dogs and nacho.
- The Fat Pelican – voted best dive bar in North Carolina and top 25 in the nation. A self-professed dive bar with a beach trailer park chi with the belief that “beer is love.”
- Hurricane Alley’s – a favorite for live music on its rooftop deck overlooking the ocean.
- SeaWitch Café & Tiki Bar – an outside deck built around lush palm trees. It’s a famous Carolina Beach bar.
- Michael’s Seafood – regarded as one of the best restaurants in Carolina Beach and known for their award winning chowder, this popular casual seafood spot also serves steaks plus seafood pasta, beer and cocktails.
- Good Hops Brewing – small batch rotating seasonal beers and the only brewery in Carolina Beach.
- Squigley’s Ice Cream & Treats – long-running, cash-only dessert spot offering an extensive range of housemade soft-serve ice cream.
- Kate’s Pancake House – laid-back breakfast and lunch diner with nautical decor and specialty pancakes.
- Island Burgers & Bites – love burgers? This old-school, local fast-fast joint serves up hefty burgers, hot dogs and other grub in a simple space.
Where to Stay
There’s no shortage of Carolina Beach vacation rentals to choose from and there’s no better place to stay on a Carolina Beach vacation than at your own beachfront vacation rental.
As a family we always appreciate having our own space, separate bedrooms, kitchen facilities and a deck to sit on for morning coffees and evening drinks.
Plus, having easy access to the beach and your own parking spot saves so much hassle in carrying all your beach gear and fighting for car parking spaces.
Consider this gorgeous beachfront home at the northern end of the beach with uninterrupted ocean views and two decks. For even more vacation rentals look here. And if your looking for hotels in Carolina Beach search here.
Carolina Beach Parking
Carolina Beach Town offers multiple public parking options to visitors and residents year round.
Note: paid parking is in effect March 1st-October 31st, 8AM-8PM, and November 1st-February 28th, 9AM-5PM and may be done by using a credit or debit card.
For detailed information and a map with parking locations click here.
There you have it. If you didn’t know what to do in Carolina Beach, now you know! Please share with us in the comments below some of your favorite things to do at Carolina Beach, or ask any questions you may have!