The Best Beach Towns in North Carolina

Nags Head

Because North Carolina has 3,000 miles of coastline (including more than 300 miles of barrier beaches alone), there are many wonderful beach towns and harbors that are just a short boat ride away from the sand. Some of these towns are quiet getaways focused on surf and sand, while others offer shopping and strolling along old-timey boardwalks and adventures on the water. They have plenty of sites to explore, whether you're a pirate fanatic, intrigued by early colonial history, excited by sea turtles, or anxious to see herds of wild horses. No matter which of our favorites you choose, you'll feel restored by an escape to small-town life at the beach.

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Emerald Isle

This westernmost community on Bogue Banks is a treasured vacation getaway for families, with its 12 miles of clean shores, clear waters, and old-fashioned neighborhoods and vibe. Recently named one of the best North Carolina towns for buying real estate (
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This westernmost community on Bogue Banks is a treasured vacation getaway for families, with its 12 miles of clean shores, clear waters, and old-fashioned neighborhoods and vibe. Driving on the beach is allowed here (with a permit), and there is plenty of public water access and parks. You'll find both hotels and vacation rentals in which to enjoy a classic beach vacation.

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Southport, North Carolina Yacht
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There's a reason this tiny harbor town at the outlet of the Cape Fear River was voted America's Happiest Seaside Town in 2015. Bright white cottages with red roofs, stately sea captains' homes, two lighthouses, local shops, and water in seemingly every direction (what with the confluence of the river and the Intracoastal Waterway) create vistas at every bend in the road. Southport has three museums, but the town itself is a vintage postcard sent from a halcyon past. Ferry service to Fort Fisher provides a fun all-in-one outing to the Fort Fisher historic site, aquarium, and beach.

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North Carolina’s third oldest town certainly has much to brag about in the history department (it was founded in 1709 as a fishing hub and was once a frequent haunt of Blackbeard). But it’s also the quaint old homes, charming boardwalk, and environmental
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Not to be confused with the South Carolina town of the same name (and pronounced differently), this small and charming harbor town at the southern end of the Outer Banks has a lively downtown marina, is dotted with historic buildings dating back to the 1700s, is home to a wonderful North Carolina Maritime Museum, and is a stone's throw from the natural riches of the Rachel Carson Reserve—look for wild horses and dolphins across the water while you stroll on boardwalks downtown. Rent kayaks to explore the islands or take a ferry for prime shelling on Shackleford Banks.

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Bald Head Island

Aerial view of lighthouse, Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Despite lying only two miles off the North Carolina coast and due south of Wilmington, this three-by-one-mile barrier island feels like a secret hideout from a Robert Louis Stevenson story. With nearly 85 percent of its total area a preserved landscape of salt marshes, tidal creeks, and scrubby, subtropical forest, plus 14 miles of pale sands, the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina, locally owned shops, and a community of beautiful beach houses, this is most certainly a Treasure Isle. Only electric carts and bicycles can travel the roads, making sure you catch everything while you're in paradise.

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Oak Island

scenic views at oak island beach north carolina
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This family-friendly island near Wilmington has 10 miles of south-facing beaches, not to mention a fishing pier and nostalgic pleasures that include ice cream and miniature golf. There's plenty to do, with a lighthouse and nature center to visit and prime paddling on the Intracoastal side of the island. Oak Island is also a dog lover's dream: Four legged friends are allowed on the beaches year-round, and they can be off the leash from October 15-March 15.

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Ocracoke Island Lighthouse
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A cult favorite, this Outer Banks island is accessible only by boat or ferry from Hatteras and Cedar islands and has a relaxed romance imbued with salt air. This is an escape complete with pirate lore; long stretches of pristine sands all protected by the National Park Service; a fishing village with summer pleasures like ice cream, seafood, and boat charters; and its own bright white, picturesque lighthouse. Most families rent a vacation home for a week or more, meandering around town, fishing, swimming, and relaxing around the bonfire.

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Atlantic Beach

Atlantic Beach
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With history running through its veins (including pre-Civil War Fort Macon), the oldest town on Bogue Banks—with its back to Bogue Sound and facing the Atlantic Ocean to the south—is also home to the nostalgic (and 1,000-foot-long) Oceanana Fishing Pier, plus a steady swell for surfing. This barrier island town has amenities to please the entire family, like a town park with splash pad, skatepark, and mini-golf, and the nearby aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores.

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Wrightsville Beach

Wrightsville, North Carolina

At the southern end of the coast and a quick hop from buzzy Wilmington, this laid-back beach town on a 4-mile-long barrier island has charm in spades, from a bird nesting sanctuary at the south end to its iconic Johnnie Mercers Pier. Mix in a surf vibe on the Atlantic, a boating and SUP-centric world on Banks Channel, miles of broad beaches and a deep bench of old-fashioned Carolina beach cottages for sale and rent, and you've got a sense of the magic that makes Wrightsville Beach all-out fun.

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Yes, named (with a smile) for the abundance of waterfowl that traditionally lured hunters to this northern end of the Outer Banks, this resort town has low-key sophistication that's utterly winning, including a vibrant small community of independent shops and restaurants (and a respected jazz festival). Duck has devoted extensive energy and funds to the nourishment of its beaches (named among the Best Restored Beaches for 2018), but it's important to note that access is for residents and vacation property renters only.

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Nags Head

Nags Head

The first stop on the Outer Banks for many, Nags Head has beautiful beaches with free parking, an iconic fishing pier with a conservation focus, and a funky arts and culture scene. It's also home to the Jockey's Ridge State Park, which is the East Coast's tallest natural dune system and an incredible place to try hang gliding. Whatever you're seeking, this lively beach community has plenty of watersports, family activities, and beachside events in the summer.

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Carolina Beach

Ocean Runners and Fishing Trawler

It's not just all about the fun to be had driving on the broad sands of this southern coast getaway at the northern end of Pleasure Island; or hitting its vintage boardwalk (which features old-school amusement rides in summer), lively beach bars, and superb seafood spots. This classic summer vacation spot is also home to natural gifts, including Carolina Beach State Park, with some of the area's finest fishing and the Flytrap Trail, named for the carnivorous Venus Flytrap plants along its path.

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Topsail Beach

Topsail Island, North Carolina
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With no high rises and an emphasis on conservation, this small town at the southern end of the 26-mile-long barrier island that shares its name is a magnet for families seeking old-fashioned escape and beach life. Topsail Island was not even accessible by car until WWII; the Missiles and More Museum shares the island's history as the former home of a secret missile operation. Now this "Mayberry by the Sea" is an idyllic spot to meander, eat out at area restaurants, and soak up the sun—everyone's welcome to enjoy beaches on both the Atlantic and Intracoastal Waterway sides, including dogs, who can hit the beach with their masters year-round (but must stay on a leash from May 15-September 30).

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Downtown Wilmington
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This riverfront port is technically a city, but there are so many things to love about visiting and enjoying Wilmington, it's impossible to leave it off the list. With its romantic historic mansions; a thriving downtown with great shops, restaurants, and bars; a picturesque Riverwalk on the Cape Fear River; and a youthful vibe thanks to the local University of North Carolina campus, this magnet is also a quick drive to the sands of Wrightsville and Carolina beaches.

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Sunset over the Harbor in Oriental, NC

What's not to love about Oriental, a town with more than three times as many boats as year-round inhabitants? That connection to water—fishing, pleasure boating, paddling, and sailing (Oriental is known as the sailing capital of North Carolina)—defines the maritime charm of this village-like spot on the broad Neuse River as it opens into Pamlico Sound. Those who need a beach in their life will find tiny Town Beach a quick fix, and the broad strands of Atlantic Beach aren't far away.

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Holden Beach

Holden Beach
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This little, eight-mile-long barrier island on North Carolina's southernmost stretch of coast is a laid-back escape that families love, and a $15 million beach replenishment project in 2017 doubled down on its sandy gifts. Largely a residential isle, Holden Beach is all about simple pleasures, from biking and kayaking along with playing on the beach during the day, to ghost crabbing at night.

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Calabash North Carolina
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This fishing town off the Intracoastal Waterway and Little River Inlet at the South Carolina border is dubbed the "Seafood Capital of the World" for a reason. Calabash-style seafood is lightly breaded right off the boat, and there are plenty of restaurants featuring the local fare. Stroll along the picturesque docks on the Calabash River or join a deep-sea fishing tour to catch your own dinner.

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Harkers Island

Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Harkers Island
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Just south of Beaufort, this quiet fishing community known for retaining the Down East dialect has also become a popular spot for retirees. Harkers island is served by a post office, a few restaurants, and a grocery store, but is primarily known for slowing life down to a pace that's nice and easy. Stay in a home on the sound side for a great view of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

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Bear Island, Hammocks Beach State Park, Swansboro
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This quaint, historic town is full of local shops and restaurants where you can happily while away the day. The Olde Town Square is the social center of downtown, drawing crowds for festivals and other family-friendly events. Initially named for a politician by the name of Swann, the town has since enthusiastically adopted the swan as its mascot, and you'll see the graceful bird displayed on signs and in private gardens. Swansboro sits at the confluence of the Water Oak River and Intracoastal Waterway, just minutes away from Hammocks Beach State Park and Emerald Isle.

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