May 24, 2024 - Things to Do

The best beaches in North Carolina

Oak Island north Carolina

Oak Island. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

We've rounded up a dozen of North Carolina's best beaches — as decided by readers in a recent bracket — from the northern Outer Banks to Sunset Beach.

Why it matters: It's nearly summer, and we live in one of the finest states in the land for beach season.

In no particular order:

Oak Island

Oak Island North Carolina
Oak Island. Photo: Zachery Eanes/Axios

Located 30 minutes south of Wilmington, near the mouth of Cape Fear, Oak Island's small-scale charms have remained even as Brunswick County's population soars.

Great for: Hard-core beach lovers who enjoy sitting in the sand all day and marveling at one of the few East Coast beaches where, during spring and fall, you can catch a sunset over the water.

Check out: On the island itself — the Oak Island Lighthouse (which, yes, looks sorta like a cigarette), the Oak Island Pier and restaurants like Island Way or Koko Cabana.

  • Off island: The nearby port town of Southport offers a host of shopping and eating options — including the famous Yacht Basin Provision Co. — in its historic downtown overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

Distance: About 2.5 hours from Raleigh; 3.5 hours from Charlotte.

Emerald Isle

emerald isle north carolina
Emerald Isle. Photo courtesy of VisitNC

A favorite of Triangle residents craving a nearby getaway from the city.

Great for: Laid-back family hangouts and ditching the city for a long weekend. And for following in the footsteps of renowned writer David Sedaris, who grew up in Raleigh and bought a house at Emerald Isle called The Sea Section.

Check out: The remote end of the island called The Point, Fort Macon State Park and the restaurants and bars clustered around downtown Morehead City.

Distance: About 2.5 hours from Raleigh; roughly 5 hours from Charlotte.

Nags Head/Kitty Hawk/Kill Devil Hills

Kitty Hawk pier at sunrise
Kitty Hawk pier at sunrise. Photo courtesy of VIsitNC

A stretch of well-traveled beaches is synonymous with the OBX acronym, flush with sand dunes, wildlife and boardwalks.

Great for: A classic North Carolina beach trip, mixed with lots of modern businesses.

Check out: The Wright Brothers National Memorial, which commemorates where brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright took the first successful airplane flight. Or head to Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve for hiking, birding, kayaking and exploring.

Distance: About 3 hours and 15 minutes from Raleigh; 6 hours from Charlotte

Duck

Duck North Carolina
Kayakers on the Currituck Sound in Duck. Photo courtesy of VisitNC

A northern Outer Banks town people return to every year for its beaches, local shops and walkability — especially its boardwalk, a mile-long pet-friendly way to enjoy a post-dinner sunset along the Currituck Sound.

Great for: People who need the beach but also want to stroll through other natural elements, including lots of oak trees in a maritime forest.

Check out: The annual Duck Jazz Festival, a free event in October featuring national, regional and local jazz musicians. Attendees can bring their own food, blankets and beverages. Also, the beloved doughnut shop Duck Donuts originated in Duck and now has locations throughout the state (including in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head) — stop in to fuel up before your beach day.

  • And of course, there's the Sanderling, one of North Carolina's top resorts, complete with a spa and fantastic dining options.

Distance: 3.5 hours east of Raleigh; 6.5 hours from Charlotte

Hatteras

hatteras lighthouse
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is actually in Buxton, a couple of towns north of Hatteras, but it's an icon of the coast that's for decades helped boats steer through the treacherous shallow waters of what was known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Photo: Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The jewel of the Outer Banks rests where the cool-water Labrador Current meets the warm-water Gulf Stream.

Great for: Fishing and small-community life

Check out: Take a sport-fishing trip with the Albatross fleet, a family-owned business that dates back to the 1930s and remains the longest-running charter fishing operation on the Outer Banks. If you're really into fishing, get up at 5:30, grab a cup of coffee at Oden's Dock and listen to the captains tell stories (mostly true).

  • For dinner, try a possessive — Sonny's or Dinky's — or eat whatever you caught in the morning, of course.

Distance: About 4.5 hours from Raleigh; 7 hours from Charlotte

Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville Marina
Wrightsville Marina. Photo courtesy of VisitNC

The No. 1 beach as voted by our readers, Wrightsville is the closest beach to Raleigh.

Great for: Plentiful dining options and coffee shops, beach bars, nature trails and surf-friendly waves.

  • If your group is the type to want a mix of a relaxing beach day paired with a late night of bar hopping, Wrightsville Beach is the way to go.

Check out: The south end of the beach for access to most of the dining options, including Tower 7 Baja Grill (go early or expect a wait), SUNdays, a cafe on top of a surf shop with a view of the ocean and South Beach Grill. The west end of the beach is more secluded and residential.

  • Get in a walk on the Wrightsville Beach Loop and refuel afterward with an açaí bowl at Zeke's or brunch at Drift Cafe. For nightlife, check out popular beach bars like Jimmy's, Lagerheads and The Palm Room.

Distance: 2 hours from Raleigh; about 3.5 hours from Charlotte. You'll likely pass roadside produce stands along the way — break up the drive for a pit stop for fresh peaches.

Carolina Beach

carolina beach north carolina
Carolina Beach. Photo courtesy of Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau

Just south of Wilmington, Carolina Beach feels like a postcard from a midcentury beach town.

Great for: Families and nostalgia

Check out: The classic boardwalk with rides or the state park with miles of hiking. Britt's Donut Shop for glazed doughnuts, and Havana's for seafood, steaks and pasta in a "polished casual dining" setting.

Distance: Roughly 2 hours from Raleigh; 3.5 hours from Charlotte.

Bald Head Island

Bald Head Island
Paddle boarders at Bald Head Island. Photo courtesy of VisitNC

Bald Head Island is a lush and luxurious beach that feels chiseled off from the rest of the state, abundant with wildlife, from sea turtles to osprey to gators.

Great for: People who dream of a car-free life. Cars aren't allowed on the island and you'll need to take a ferry.

Check out: Climb to the top of Old Baldy — a 108-step trek to the top of North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse. Rent a bike and explore.

Distance: The ferry terminal is at 1301 Ferry Road, Southport, roughly 2.5 hours from Raleigh and 3.5 hours from Charlotte.

  • Ferry tickets can be purchased online or in person. General lot parking is $12 per day.

Ocracoke

ocracoke island lighthouse station
Ocracoke island Lighthouse station and boardwalk. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

You can only reach this 14-mile-long island by ferry, but when you arrive, the rewards will wash over you.

Great for: A true island retreat

Check out: Maybe the purest beach you'll find in the state, Ocracoke's shoreline is maintained by the National Park Service and has no hotels or houses. Camp on a moonlit night and feel the immensity of the ocean.

  • Howard's Pub is the classic Ocracoke bar and grill. Dajio is your fine-dining destination. Look out for music from longtime locals Marcy Brenner and Lou Castro, and listen for their song "Five Minutes." It was inspired by their meeting, when Marcy was in remission from cancer, and Lou told her he'd rather love her for five minutes than never at all.

Distance: Northern routes from Raleigh: A 4-hour drive along I-40 to U.S. 64 and down the Outer Banks along famed Hwy. 12 for the short Hatteras to Ocracoke ferry; or a nearly 3-hour drive along I-40 to U.S. 64 to N.C. 45 to Swan Quarter for a 3-hour ferry.

  • Southern route from Charlotte: It's a 5.5-hour drive from Charlotte to Cedar Island, plus the 2.5-hour ferry ride across the Pamlico Sound.
  • Check the ferry schedule.

Holden

Holden beach north carolina
Holden Beach. Photo courtesy of VisitNC

Holden remains a popular destination for the whole family, even your furry ones.

Great for: Families, seashell hunting, bike riding, fishing and golfing.

Check out: Ride your bikes to Bridgeview Park for a view of the Holden Beach Bridge and stick around for the playground, splash pad, bocce ball courts and picnic tables.

  • The nearby town of Shallotte is a 15-minute drive from Holden and has restaurants, shopping and a golf course (Rivers Edge Golf Club).
  • Holden Beach is pet-friendly (leash required) at any time from Sept. 11- May 19 and before 9am and after 5pm from May 20 - Sept. 10.

Distance: Roughly 2.5 hours from Raleigh; 3.5 hours from Charlotte.

Sunset Beach

View of the Sunset Beach bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway
The Mannon C. Gore Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway was completed in 2010. Before that, a one-lane swinging bridge opened every hour for boat traffic — and gave residents and visitors a built-in excuse for being late to a meeting. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

North Carolina's southernmost beach resists commercial development and invites you to drop a dream in a mailbox.

Great for: Families, small-town lovers, birders, letter writers

Check out: Walk about a mile south of the Sunset Beach pier and join the tens of thousands of people who've left notes in the Kindred Spirits mailbox. Remain anonymous if you want, but drop your hopes and dreams and confessions.

  • Sunset has a wonderful union with its inland neighbor Calabash, the fried seafood capital. Go to Bennett's Grill for lunch and try the Calabash burger (crab cake topped with shrimp) and, for dinner, try Oyster Rock, one of the North Carolina coast's best restaurants.

Distance: 3 hours from Raleigh, 3.5 hours from Charlotte

Ocean Isle

Ocean Isle Beach along the Intracoastal Waterway
Ocean Isle is a busy place in summer, but still you can find places to be alone, like here on the waterway on the east end of the island. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Once a remote destination that was nearly washed off the map during Hurricane Hazel in 1954, Ocean Isle now has many amenities you might see in larger cities, from large grocers to a wine shop. But it still feels small and far away.

Great for: Families, fishing, eating

Check out: Kayak solo through the marshlands at high tide, find a charter fishing trip with friends, eat and drink on the third-floor deck at Ocean Isle Fishing Center, fill the morning with bagels at 59 Causeway or coffee at Drift, make a locally caught dinner with fresh seafood from Island Seafood, or just sit for hours on the south-facing beach and snack on Sunset Slush.

  • This spring the town finished upgrading its park and playground, complete with two ziplines for kids, and it's good for hours of entertainment.

Distance: Just under 3 hours from Raleigh, 3.5 hours from Charlotte

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