The Best of Nags Head, North Carolina
Start planning your trip to this barrier island town now.
With its gorgeous beaches, fresh seafood offerings, and kid-friendly attractions, it’s no wonder that Nags Head, North Carolina, has long been a go-to destination for family beach vacations. People began coming to the barrier island town in 1830, when it was established as North Carolina’s first tourist colony by a planter who wanted to get his family away from the malaria that was so prevalent in his home fields. And they’ve been coming ever since, seeking time in the sun and sand under their toes. Read on to find out what makes Nags Head such a primo vacation destination, from good eats to dreamy beach house rentals, and everything in between.
Where is Nags Head?
Just off the North Carolina coast, there’s a trio of sliver-thin barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Nags Head is perched on the southern end of the northernmost of the three islands, sandwiched between the towns of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills to the north, and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a 70-mile stretch of protected shoreline, to the south. The tiny beach town, which is home to fewer than 3,000 full-time residents, makes an ideal base camp for Outer Banks visitors, as it’s a ten-minute drive from historic Roanoke Island (home to the infamous – and mysterious – “Lost Colony”) and is the closest of the northern Outer Banks towns to the freewheeling, laid-back Hatteras Island just south.
Tips for the Perfect Beach Getaway
As with most beach towns, Nags Head is an easy place to spend a weeklong vacation, as it feels like a true retreat for rest and relaxation, a dreamy destination for whiling away the hours with no real agenda. However, if you’re the type that likes to be on the go constantly, an extended weekend getaway is plenty of time to take in the natural beauty of the island town and check out the major attractions, like Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the Bodie Island Light Station. For an old-school Nags Head experience, rent an oceanfront cottage along historic Cottage Row, the so-called “Unpainted Aristocracy” of late 19th- and early 20th-century cottages that served as summer escapes for wealthy planters.
Things to Do in Nags Head
1. Nags Head Beach
One of the main attractions of the island town is, of course, its nearly 12 miles of sandy shores. With more than 30 public beach access points (10 of which have lifeguards), there’s plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy Nags Head’s natural beauty. Plus, the beaches are dog-friendly (as long as they’re leashed), and stocked coolers are always welcome (just leave the glass at home).
2. Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Home to the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern United States, Jockey’s Ridge State Park offers its visitors a veritable playground that’s one of Nags Head regulars’ favorite points of interest. Families can build sand castles, fly kites, or climb to the top of the dunes for a stunning sunset show, while thrill-seekers can go sand-boarding or hang-gliding (permits from and/or registration with the park office are required).
3. Bodie Island Lighthouse
Climb the 200-steps to the top of this circa-1872 lighthouse on Cape Hatteras National Seashore for a stunning birds-eye view of tall pines, fresh water marshland, and the Atlantic. You can also take a peek inside the historic keepers’ quarters, as they now serve as a ranger office and visitor center.
4. Jennette’s Pier
Anglers won’t want to miss a chance to fish from this 1,000-foot-long concrete pier that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. And you don’t even have to bring your own rod: Visitors or first-timers can rent rods and buy bait right on the pier. As for what to do when it’s raining, a LEED-certified aquarium and education center with interactive science exhibits is fun rain or shine.
5. Kayak and Stand-Up Paddleboard Tours
Experience the beauty of Nags Head by water. Book a kayak or paddleboard tour with Outer Banks Kayak Adventures for a morning or moonlight paddle through the marshes of the Roanoke Sound and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The outfitter also offers rentals if you want to explore the area’s waterways on your own.
Unique Restaurants and Bars
Top Nags Head Restaurants
1. Old Nags Head Café
Family-owned and operated out of a converted old-school grocery, the 33-year-old café serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a casual, wood-paneled dining room that feels just right for family dinner. Plus, it’s perched right across the street from historic Cottage Row, so you can check out the Unpainted Aristocracy while you eat.
2. Blue Moon Beach Grill
“Once in a blue moon, you get to taste life on a sandbar,” say the folks at this laidback spot, which serves up a boatload of seafood offerings alongside a long list of cocktails and nostalgic beachy décor (think buoy garland and surfboards everywhere).
3. Tortugas’ Lie
When it comes to Outer Banks restaurants, this is one tourists and locals return to time after time.
Discover a little piece of the Caribbean at this dive-y Nags Head staple, where they dish out everything from conch fritters to sushi. Head out back for a game of beach volleyball while you wait.
Best Nags Head Bars
1. Fish Heads Bar & Grill
When it comes to Outer Banks nightlife, it’s hard to beat this salty spot on the end of the Outer Banks Fishing Pier, which offers live music, a long list of brews, and karaoke on Fridays. And if you’re not a night owl, swing by between 4 and 6 for 15-cent steamed shrimp.
2. Lucky 12 Tavern
When a place sells its signature drinks in a souvenir cup, you know it’s a good time. In addition to floater-topped piña coladas and cocktails made with locally made rums from Outer Banks Distillery, Lucky 12 also offers 20 beers on tap, and 90 more in bottles or cans. Oh, and they serve pizza until 2 A.M., too.
3. Outer Banks Brewing Station
While it’s not technically in Nags Head, this brewpub in neighboring Kill Devil Hills is worth a stop: Their handcrafted beers are made on-site in a wind-powered brewery. Plus, they serve wine and cocktails for those few who aren’t riding the craft brew train.
Nags Head Accommodations
Whether you’re staying for a week or popping in for a long weekend, there are plenty of beautiful places to call home base while you’re in Nags Head. Here, we’ve rounded up the best Nags Head hotels and rentals on the market.
Top Beachfront Hotels
Holiday Inn Express Nags Head Oceanfront
When it comes to that dynamic duo of affordability and location, it’s hard to beat this oceanfront option, which features four acres of dunes, sandy beach, manicured lawns, and barrier island gardens, plus an indoor pool and an oceanfront sun deck made for lounging.
First Colony Inn
Just a block short of being beachfront (the beach is only a 4-minute walk away via a private access), the circa-1932 First Colony Inn feels like an historic beach house, so you get to enjoy all of that nostalgic charm, plus the delights of staying in a boutique beach hotel, like a pool, beach chairs, and a daily afternoon social with wine and cheese.
Oasis Suites Hotel
While it’s not beachfront, there’s no shortage of gorgeous water views from this 16-suite boutique hotel, which is surrounded by marsh and the Roanoke Sound. Guests can fish or crab off the hotel’s docks or have a picnic on the lawn (the hotel offers a service where they’ll stock your suites’ fully-outfitted kitchens before you arrive!)
Beautiful Vacation Rentals
Frank Wood Cottage, Village Realty
There’s no shortage of Nags Head beach rentals to choose from, but do yourself a favor and embrace the old-school experience with a vacation rental on historic Cottage Row. This cedar-shingle cottage was built around 1923; and with its bright, airy interiors, wide porches, and abundance of rooms (you can comfortably sleep 15!), it’s the perfect place to spend a low-key week with family and friends. Plus, its oceanfront location is impossible to beat. Rates start around $2,000 per week. Learn more about the cottage here.
Treefrog Tower, Airbnb
This loft among the trees is ideal for a pair of outdoors adventurers looking for a more active Nags Head experience. Tucked into the pine forest that borders Jockey’s Ridge State Park, this boho stay is a dynamite base camp for those who want to explore hiking trails or try kayaking on the sound that’s just 500 feet away. Rates start at $110 per night. Learn more here.
Oceanfront South Nags Head, VRBO
Any closer to the beach and you’d be sleeping in the dunes! Outfitted with a kid-friendly bunkroom and a dining room for 8, this cozy house is suited for large groups of all ages. Wraparound decks on two of the three floors offer prime spots for curling up with a cup of coffee or taking in the sunset with a cocktail in hand. Rates average $99 per night. Learn more here.
From exploring Nags Head’s gorgeous beaches and waterways to eating fresh seafood on the pier, there’s so much to discover in this Outer Banks gem. But don’t say we didn’t warn you: Visit once, and you’ll want to stay forever!