12 Best Coastal Towns in North Carolina
Authors Michael and Lana Law find their way to these lovely towns as often as they can on regular trips to North Carolina.
North Carolina's coastal towns offer a mix of experiences, from quaint historic communities with 18th-century homes and tree-lined streets to thriving beach scenes and fun activity-based destinations for families.
The Outer Banks are where many people head, but there are numerous options. Depending on the type of vacation you're after, you can find small towns lining the Atlantic Coast or along the sounds.
These places make ideal escapes from the heat and humidity of summer. Fresh breezes off the ocean and cool waters to swim in make for a refreshing retreat. There are reasons people have been coming to this stretch of coast since the early 1800s. Take some time to discover why for yourself. Begin with our list of the top coastal towns in North Carolina.
Highlights: North Carolina's first capital, lovely 18th-century architecture, 2,000-year-old trees
Set on Albemarle Sound, Edenton is a peaceful escape from the stress of everyday life. The first Colonial capital of North Carolina, this 300-year-old town is replete with wonderfully restored historical homes and buildings. Some of these beautiful treasures are now bed and breakfasts, shops, and restaurants.
Most of the main attractions are within walking distance of one another, and many are free to enter. An ideal way to begin your tours is to view a 15-minute video at the tourist information office at the top end of South Broad Street.
One of the highlights is the Chowan County Courthouse. Not to be confused with the replica courthouse, this original structure looks out over a large green space and faces out onto the sound with cannons at the water's edge. The trees you see growing in the water are bald cypress trees, ranging in age from 500 to 2,000 years old.
Most of the action is found at the base of South Broad Street. From here, you can catch the trolley for a tour of the town, take a boat tour on Albemarle Sound, or stop in at the historic Cupola House.
If you are looking for a romantic getaway, Edenton is the perfect place. Book a stay at one of the charming old bed and breakfasts and spend a leisurely day exploring the town.
2. Nags Head
Highlights: Historic pier, shopping, miles and miles of beautiful beaches, nearby state park
Nags Head is the largest town in the Outer Banks and also one of the best-known beach towns. This is a great place for families, with numerous things to do, including mini golf, family-friendly restaurants, and one of the best beaches in North Carolina.
Attractions for mom and dad are in the form of outlet malls, beach shops, Gallery Row, and the Historic District, with its unpainted traditional cedar shake beach cottages.
Nags Head is one of the few towns on the Outer Banks where you can find a good selection of hotels, including resorts. Other forms of accommodation include vacation rentals and comfy bed and breakfasts.
The town's most popular fishing pier and one of the major attractions is Janette's Pier. This impressive concrete structure extends 1,000 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean. A token fee is charged to walk out on the pier and is a worthy investment for the fine views you'll encounter. If you love fishing, bring your gear, you might land any one of the following: Spanish mackerel, bluefish, triggerfish, sea mullet, croakers, and pigfish. Parking is free and plentiful here.
The other pier in town, Nag's Head Fishing Pier, is as the name suggests: mostly about fishing. It's located at the northern end of town not far from Jockey's Ridge State Park.
One of the main attractions off the beach is Jockey's Ridge State Park. It's fun for all ages. Activities include walking, running, and even surfing down the tallest sand dunes in the Eastern United States.
Be prepared for a bit of exercise on your visit. You will need to follow the boardwalk just past the visitor center until the very end and then walk another 10 minutes to the base of the dunes. It's at this point that the hard work begins. Ascend the sand dune step after sliding step to the top, where you are rewarded with commanding views out over the surrounding area and the Atlantic Ocean.
If the wind is up, which it frequently is in the Outer Banks, you may be lucky enough to see the hang gliders launching themselves off the dunes. If you feel this is something you just have to try, lessons are available right at the park.
Nags Head is well located for easy day trips. Straight south of town is the Bodie Island Lighthouse, and just a few miles north is the Wright Memorial National Monument.
Highlights: A low-key classy town with a waterfront boardwalk, upscale shops, and great dining
Duck is unique from many of the towns in the Outer Banks. It is a calm, green place with large trees and stately homes. You won't find any big box stores or chain restaurants here, it's all local and sometimes eclectic establishments with a low-key scene.
The main town area of Duck is set on the broad and flat Currituck Sound and is protected from the worst of the Atlantic Ocean weather. Duck is also unique for its extensive, elevated, one-mile boardwalk out over the water that connects various restaurants, shops, and parks while providing great views out over the sound.
A wonderful walk along the Duck Boardwalk starts at the kayak launch parking area and heads south along the shoreline ultimately ending at Aqua Restaurant, where you can have a leisurely lunch on their wonderful outdoor patio.
The best way to truly soak up the atmosphere here is to stay at an oceanfront resort. One of the top choices is the Sanderling Resort, with its three pools, spacious rooms, and an on-site spa.
In addition to dining, shopping, and walking, additional things to do include fishing from the boardwalk, crabbing on the sound, cycling along the six-mile Duck Trail, or catching a free show at the Amphitheater. One of the town's major musical events is the Duck Jazz Festival. This free event takes place the second week of October each year.
4. Kitty Hawk
Highlights: Wonderful long beach, Wright Brothers National Memorial, maritime forest
Kitty Hawk is located just north of Kill Devil Hills, and if you are driving along Highway 158, with its big box stores and shops, you could be forgiven for not noticing that you are in a new town. Kitty Hawk is the place where Orville and Wilbur Wright first managed to fly. Just south of town, you'll find the impressive Wright Brothers National Memorial.
The beach at Kitty Hawk is long and wide with golden brown sand, ideal for long beach walks. Similar in nature to Nags Head, most of the services are along the main highway. Here, you'll find an extensive assortment of family restaurants, mini golf, a Children's Museum, and beach shops.
Kitty Hawk has a small pier at the northern end of town, right where Highway 158 joins up with Highway 12. The pier is located behind the large Hilton Garden Inn, one of the best oceanfront places to stay in Kitty Hawk.
One of the most unique features of Kitty Hawk is the large maritime forest in Sandy Run Park. For a change of pace from the beach, you can walk along the wonderfully serene boardwalk, where you'll have a good chance of spotting the local wildlife, including yellow-bellied slider turtles, deer, otters, and egrets. For an even closer look, launch a kayak or canoe and explore the twisty waterways.
5. Carolina Beach
Highlights: Surfing hotspot, famous boardwalk, amusement and carnival rides
Just a short drive from Wilmington brings you to golden sands and warm waters at Carolina Beach.
The famous vintage Carolina Beach Boardwalk is full of fun things to do, including carnival rides, a carousel, an arcade, ice cream shops, and restaurants with beachfront patios. In the summer, there are fireworks every Thursday night and live music concerts featuring a variety of musicians across the musical spectrum.
Carolina Beach is known as one of North Carolina's top surfing destinations. The beach here is wide, and the sand is soft. Carolina Beach is perfect for families, with the ocean in front and fun and games behind. Camping is nearby at Carolina Beach State Park.
6. Wrightsville Beach
Highlights: A famous pier, golden sands, clear water, and lots of water-based activities
Often described as one of North Carolina's best beaches, Wrightsville Beach, lures visitors with its easy access and wonderful waterfront. The beach is wide, and the water here is clear with an aquamarine color.
The beach is a popular destination for those who like to surf, stand up paddleboard, and kayak, so bring your gear. Some of the attractions around town are the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History and the Fred and Alice Stanback Coastal Education Center.
A farmers market takes place throughout the summer, from the middle of May to the end of September on Mondays beginning at 8am. It's located on the municipal grounds near the town hall.
Wrightsville Beach is one of the best beaches near Wilmington, and getting here is easy and quick; parking is in well-marked lots, and you can pay by the hour and recharge your time via your phone. The main gathering spot is at Crystal Pier. Here, you'll find people fishing, strolling hand in hand, or just hanging out gazing out at the ocean.
Highlights: A lively dock area with fresh seafood, 17th-century homes, a maritime museum
There's a reason people come to Beaufort and almost immediately plan a return trip. Beaufort is full of history and is North Carolina's third oldest town. Surrounded by water on three sides, the town has a maritime feel about it. Homes dating from the 17th century are on beautiful tree-lined streets that entice you to stroll along and think about what life used to be like here over 200 years ago.
Down at the dock areas there is always something to see or do, whether it's a fisherman showing off his catch or people catching up on an outdoor patio. One of the fun things to do here is take a harbor tour, where you'll almost certainly be able to see dolphins racing in your bow wake.
Nearby, the Rachel Carson Reserve has wild horses, birdlife, and turtles among other wildlife. One of the highlights of a visit to Beaufort is a stop at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, where treasures from Blackbeard's sunken pirate ship discovered just offshore are on display.
8. Morehead City
Highlights: Great offshore fishing, fun waterfront scene, exceptional seafood restaurants
One of the larger towns along the North Carolina Coast, this vibrant outdoorsy place reels you in and makes you want to stay a while. Fishing is king here, with a fine collection of charter boats taking customers out for a day of fishing.
Be sure to stop by the weigh-in area in the afternoon when the boats return with their catches, some of which are enormous. In fact, the world-famous Big Rock Blue Marlin Fishing Tournament takes place here each year in the second week of June.
All that great fishing translates into great seafood at the many fine restaurants spread throughout the town. Fresh catches are prepared in ways that will delight your taste buds. If you can plan for it, the North Carolina Seafood Festival happens the first weekend in October each year and is considered one of the most popular festivals in the state.
The town itself is easy to navigate by foot. Stroll past the various shops, stop by the waterfront to catch the action, and then retire to a waterfront patio to soak up the views of Sugarloaf Island. Head over the bridge to Atlantic Beach for a little sun and sand.
Highlights: A wonderfully walkable small town with 19th-century architecture and a famous pier
Strategically located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Southport has a maritime heritage dating from 1795. The town, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is wonderfully restored to its original glory, and over 40 movies and television shows have been shot here.
The best way to capture the town's essence is to walk around. The main things to see and do are easily reached by foot, and if you find yourself tired out by the adventure, stop in at one of the restaurants and recharge with a fine seafood meal.
History is everywhere here, from the Old Brunswick County Jail Museum to the Maritime Museum, right through to the Fort Johnson-Southport Museum and Visitors Center. Be sure to check out the Southport Pier and Riverwalk with its great views and fresh breezes. It begins at the City Pier.
A great way to get to Southport from Wilmington is to take the historic Southport-Fort Fisher car and passenger ferry. This 30-minute ride across the mouth of the Cape Fear River is a cheap way to see the seaside scenery and much better than taking the long way around to get to town.
Highlights: Top-notch seafood restaurants, summer concerts, excellent nearby golf courses
If you are a foodie and like charming small towns, Calabash should be number one on your destination list. The town makes a somewhat outrageous claim as the "Seafood Capital of the World," but there is some substance to the statement.
In addition to dining, the town offers great opportunities for shopping across a wide variety of retail shops. In the summer, every Tuesday, a free concert takes place at the town park, with bands providing a mix of musical styles. It's a fun family thing to do. Vendors set up nearby selling everything from homemade ice cream to savory dishes.
Activities just outside of town include golfing, dolphin cruises, and deep-sea fishing.
Highlights: Relaxed town with spectacular beaches backed by dunes and a zig-zag pier
Avon is another wonderful beach town in the Outer Banks that is a great place to base yourself to see the best of the area. Although the town is really a collection of retail stores and restaurants along the highway, it's the stunning beach and nearby attractions that make it a popular place to visit.
The main public gathering place in town is at the Avon Pier. Pay your dollar and wander out onto the pier. The crazy zig-zag nature of the walkway will have you snapping pictures almost immediately.
Views up and down the coastline from here are spectacular. On the days the waves are large, keep an eye out for surfers doing their thing beside the pier. Avon Pier is also a hot spot for fishing, especially for record-setting catches of drum.
One of the most interesting things to see near Avon is the towering Cape Hatteras lighthouse, about eight miles south of town. This black-and-white beacon can be climbed, and the reward for the effort of going up 257 stairs is amazing views up and down the coast.
Just a short distance north of Avon brings you to the tri-cities of Waves, Rodanthe, and Salvo. You'll know you are in the right spot when you see the colorful kites of the kiteboarders just offshore. For an interesting free show, stop in for lunch at Good Winds, located upstairs in the Kitty Hawk Kites complex, where you can sit on the patio and watch the crazy kiters zip across the waves and perform aerial tricks.
Avon is a great place to stop and park yourself. Most of the accommodation is in elevated beach houses that can be rented through one of the local real estate companies. You can check the inventory and house features online and make bookings there as well. If you prefer a hotel room, there are a few places just south of town in Buxton.
12. Buxton and Frisco
Highlights: Wide-open beaches you can drive on, views from Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Located at the tail end of the Outer Banks on Hatteras Island, these twin towns sort of meld right into one another. The main street, also known as Highway 12, has an assortment of unique shops, restaurants, and hotels spread along its length.
The towns are ideally positioned to allow you to make the most of the North Carolina seashore. Getting to the ocean via 4WD vehicles is easy through multiple beach access roads, allowing you to access some of the finest beaches in the Outer Banks. Don't have a 4WD vehicle? Not a problem. Just drive your car to the access road area, and walk a short distance to the beach.
Buxton is home to the famous black and white Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Climb up the 257 steps to the top for 360-degree views of the surrounding area. You can choose to stay in one of the local hotels or vacation homes, but many people prefer to camp. Two nearby campgrounds are some of the best places to camp in the Outer Banks. In fact, the campground near Frisco is so close to the ocean, you'll be able to hear the waves crashing on the shore as you drift off to sleep.
Best Time to Visit North Carolina's Coastal Towns
The best time to visit North Carolina's coastal towns is in the summer months of June, July, and August. At this time the temperatures will be in the mid-80s Fahrenheit, making a trip to the beach an ideal way to spend an afternoon with the family. You'll also enjoy clear, sunny skies and long days with cooling ocean breezes providing an escape from the crushing humidity found inland.
The months of September and October have shorter days but are also good times to visit, as most of the summer crowds will have departed. But, the heat is still on and temperatures remain warm — your only watch-out at this time of year could be a wayward hurricane.
Spring, especially the months of April and May, is a very pleasant time to visit, with the temperatures mild in the mid-70s Fahrenheit with low humidity. You'll also have the bonus of seeing spring flowers in bloom everywhere. If you are into wind sports like kiteboarding, May is the windiest month.
The winter months are cool and rainy and most things shut down for the season. Expect temperatures in the mid-50s Fahrenheit.
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Camping in the Outer Banks: Staying in coastal towns is a great way to enjoy summer in North Carolina. If you want a more outdoorsy experience, you may also want to consider camping in the Outer Banks. The area has several good campgrounds for tenters or RVs.