History drips from the Outer Banks: Here, aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright took their famous first flight (at Kill Devil Hills), the pirate Blackbeard fought his last battle (at Ocracoke) and the mysterious Lost Colony disappeared (where is anyone's guess). But this chain of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina – affectionately dubbed OBX – isn't just for history buffs. Fishing, windsurfing and wildlife watching attract adventurous types, not to mention the 3,000 shipwrecks you can explore by scuba diving. Families gravitate toward the beaches, mini-golf courses and the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island.
Each island has its own charm: The old lighthouses, rugged dunes and secluded beaches in the south couple with vacation rentals, water sports and kitschy beach shops, such as the Stop-N-Shop Beach Shop, in the north, all to form a unique seaside destination. If you come to the Outer Banks expecting action, you'll be disappointed. OBX is ideal for those looking to skip the overly touristy attractions and head straight for the unspoiled beaches. You won't find big nightlife, but you will find an abundance of natural beauty. Beaches are more populated during the summer months, but with so many destinations spread out along the barrier islands, you likely won't experience big crowds.
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Most locals and out-of-towners arrive during the summer months when the temperatures are the warmest. But the best times to visit the Outer Banks are from March to May or September to November, when rates drop and crowds dissipate. Similar to other parts of the Southeast, the temperatures stay relatively warm and humid – with average highs hitting the upper 80s in the summer – until the winter months, when the weather dips into the 40s and 50s. Keep in mind that during the offseason some attractions, as well as restaurants and shops, may close or operate under more limited hours.
Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center
The Outer Banks have a long history, as home to everyone from Native American tribes to the Wright brothers. And because of all the ships that have sunk here, it's also known as the "graveyard of the Atlantic." According to local lore, one such ship crashed off the Outer Banks coast in the 1600s, spilling its cargo of Banker horses into the water. The horses made their way onto shore and have stayed ever since, mostly in Ocracoke. Although they are not native to the islands, they remain an important and visible vestige of the region's storied past.
Today, the OBX has become a huge tourist destination, which still offers a bit of a rustic feel for those who want both a relaxing and an active getaway. There are miles of coastline here, where swimsuits are acceptable. But plan to throw something else on when you go into town.
Many families who rent homes for their vacation make a trip to the local grocery stores and seafood markets and cook most meals at home. When you do venture out, you'll find that fresh seafood with a southern twist is an Outer Banks specialty. Most establishments are independent and locally-owned like Blue Moon Beach Grill in Nags Head and the cleverly named I Got Your Crabs Seafood Market & Steam Bar in Kitty Hawk. More casual and quick service establishments are also scattered around the barrier islands and all are generally reasonably priced, ranging from sandwich shops like Bros Sandwich Shack in Avon on Hatteras Island to Eduardo's Taco Stand in Ocracoke.
A local favorite for sweet treats is Duck Donuts, which has multiple locations in the Outer Banks, including one in Duck, where it borrows its namesake from. Originally established in OBX, the chain has expanded to other locations up the mid-Atlantic coast. You'll find a bigger selection of restaurants in more tourist-oriented communities like Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, just be mindful that some establishments close or operate under more limited hours outside of the peak summer season.
Only swim in the Outer Banks when a lifeguard is present (here's a chart of where lifeguard stations are). Also pay close attention to any warnings that may be raised about the water conditions. If a red flag is flying, you're prohibited from entering the water; you can even be fined for trying to do so. If there are surfers nearby, make sure that you do not swim too close to them, as this could be dangerous to both you and the surfer. Jellyfish are sometimes a problem in OBX waters. If you are stung, you might want to try a couple of home remedies, such as sprinkling vinegar or meat tenderizer on the affected area.
Crime is low at the beach and in town, but still, use common sense. Keep valuables close to you or locked away.
There is no public transportation available along the Outer Banks, so the best way to get around is by car. The North Carolina Department of Transportation runs a ferry service, but we strongly recommend renting a car or driving in your own vehicle. Most attractions are spread out, the ferry routes can take more than two hours one-way and the boats can get crowded, especially during the peak season. The closest major airports are Norfolk International Airport (ORF) about 120 miles north and Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) about 230 miles west. Both airports offer car rental agencies on-site.See details for Getting Around