I adore visiting the Outer Banks, but even after vacationing here over multiple summers, I haven’t gotten to stay in every town I would like to! So if you’ve never been here before, it can be hard to know which are the best Outer Banks towns for your vacation.
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The Best Towns in the Outer Banks
While every OBX town is charming in its own way, these are the best ones!
Buxton (Hatteras Island)
Located on Hatteras Island, Buxton is home to the beautiful and historic Hatteras Lighthouse. And as far as lighthouses go, this one is kind of a big deal. Literally, I might add, as it’s the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States.
First built in 1802 and reconstructed in 1868, the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service operates the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea in the old lighthouse keeper’s quarters. This is a great place to learn about Outer Banks’ maritime history!
While you should visit the lighthouse, you can see it from Cape Point and the beaches in Buxton. As far as charming goes, there isn’t anything more charming than a view of a historic North Carolina lighthouse!
Buxton is also great for anyone hoping to get some fishing in, as Cape Point has some of the best fishing in the area.
Corolla (Northern Beaches)
Corolla has a bit of a reputation as one of the more upscale places to stay in the Outer Banks. Its location as the second most northern town in the Outer Banks also helps keep it generally more secluded than the rest. The town also has more nice restaurants, boutique shopping, and luxury spas compared to the rest.
Corolla is one of the best OBX towns to stay in if you’re interested in seeing the Outer Banks’ wild horses. The horses, which primarily stay in Corolla and Corova, are wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs.
There are Corolla Horse Tours available during the tourist season that gets you up close with them. Because they are wild, you should not approach them. Local guides will show you how to enjoy them with your safety and the horses’ safety in mind.
You can also visit the Currituck Beach Lighthouse for gorgeous views of the shore below.
Kill Devil Hills (Northern Beaches)
Kill Devil Hills, beyond its simply outstanding name, is the oldest official town in the Outer Banks. So if you’re looking to stay in a historic beach town, this is the one for you!
One of my favorite things to do here is going to the Wright Brothers National Monument. Even though their flight is famous for taking off from Kitty Hawk, it left from Kill Devil Hills. Which town is which here can get a bit confusing at times when you have so many lined up, one after the other, and at the time they were practically indistinguishable.
A great photography spot in the Outer Banks is the Avalon Pier. If you’re more into the outdoors and less into the Gram, you can pay a fee to fish off of the pier instead.
Kitty Hawk (Northern Beaches)
The most famous name among the towns of the Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk is not the home of the Wright Brother’s first flight, but it does have a fabulous coastal reserve, making it the perfect town for anyone who wants to spend time on beautiful nature walks or spend their time bird watching.
The Kitty Hawk Coastal Reserve is over 1800 acres and has great trails to explore. Even though the OBX gets crowded in summer, you can still expect to find some solitude here!
From here, you’ll also have access to the great shopping in Duck and the Wright Brother’s National Monument in Kill Devil Hills, so you won’t have to go far to enjoy a little bit of everything.
The Kitty Hawk Pier is a great photography spot any time of day, but it’s fabulous at sunrise!
Manteo (Roanoke Island)
Manteo boasts a charming town center and serious American history. What more could a girl want? There’s also a picturesque harbor and cute beach homes to drool over.
Essentially, the town’s layout offers more options for a quintessential small-town feel than the townships in the Northern Beaches, so keep that in mind if you want a town you can stroll around that has historic spots like its vintage movie theater.
This is the best town to stay in if you want to visit Fort Raleigh National Historic Site where the lost colony of Roanoke was. Here you can see the earthworks of the fort, stroll the Elizabethan Gardens, and even watch an evening performance of The Lost Colony, an outdoor drama depicting the events.
Manteo even boasts its own lighthouse. While it’s not tall like some of the other ones mentioned here, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is simply charming.
Nags Head (Northern Beaches)
One of my favorite places to stay in the Outer Banks, Nags Head is so much more charming than just its silly-sounding name. Here you can climb up Bodie Island Lighthouse and visit Jeanette’s Pier. Both of these attractions have been newly reinvigorated by the tourists in Nags Head.
From here you can also visit Jockey’s Ridge State Park, which is beloved by photographers for its gorgeous views of the town.
Ocracoke (Ocracoke Island)
The southernmost part of the Outer Banks, Ocracoke is on its own island and separated from the rest of the Outer Banks, so if you’re looking to truly getaway from it all, this is a great place to start! Especially since the island isn’t connected by a highway. You’ll have to take a ferry to get here.
Ocracoke is an animal lover’s dream. They have their own herd of wild ponies and great birdwatching.
The lighthouse is the second oldest lighthouse that’s still being operated in the country (and the oldest in North Carolina), so you get to enjoy a bit of history here as well. Many of the homes date back to the 1800s. Areas of Ocracoke, including the lighthouse and part of the town center, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places!
So Which is the Best Outer Banks Town to Stay In?
I have always stayed in one of the Northern Beaches, switching between Nags Head and Southern Shores. Though I love visiting Manteo and Kill Devil Hills and exploring their historic sites!
If you’re a large group or family, I’d suggest staying in the Northern Beaches so that you have access to tons of different kinds of activities. This way there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
If you’re a couple looking for a romantic getaway, I suggest Ocracoke. Here you will feel like you’re far away from stress and can just enjoy each other’s company.
History lovers and anyone wanting a true small-town feel should head to Manteo, which is truly one-of-a-kind.
Of course, they’re all fabulous, and you really can’t go wrong!
Outer Banks Travel Tips
If you’re planning on renting a beach house, start looking early! Many of the most popular places get rented by the same families year-after-year. Even our group of friends rented the same house more than once!
Don’t overthink it. Your accommodations and your access to the water are what will have the biggest impact on your stay. If you want to see Hatteras but you find the perfect rental in Nags Head, take it! You can always visit the other towns during your stay. I would rather have a great beach right outside and drive to a cute area then stay in a bad house to be closer.
Pick out a few historic sites or tours you know you want to visit. Once you get here and start relaxing, you might find the time escapes you! I’ve missed a thing or two that I wanted to see here.
Finally, plan for gas to be a considerable part of your budget. Even if you plan on just enjoying your rental and not getting out much, it’s almost impossible not to end up driving around more than you anticipated.
5 Things to Bring to the Outer Banks
Packing for a North Carolina beach vacation shouldn’t be stressful! Just make sure you bring these five things:
Explorer’s Guide North Carolina’s Outer Banks guidebook. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you land, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
Full-Sized Travel Towel This is the best travel towel in the world. It’s pretty enough for the beach, large enough that you forget it’s a microfibre towel, and quick-drying so you can enjoy it day after day.
A Go Pro for underwater and action photography. Why go all the way to the beach and not be able to capture some of the most exciting parts of your trip?
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS, and general travel genie.
More North Carolina Travel Resources
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for North Carolina make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging enjoying time at the beach. Accidents happen, after all!
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for three years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.