10 Best Beach Towns in North Carolina, According to Locals (2024)

Beach towns are famously laid-back. They’re the type of places where time moves a little slower, itineraries are flexible, and the only required decision is figuring out what to eat for dinner. This is particularly true in North Carolina, a state with more than 300 miles of coastline and countless beach towns that embrace this leisurely lifestyle accented by surf, sand, and the most beautiful sunsets you’ve ever seen.

Choosing which seaside destination to visit, however, can be difficult. Some travelers prefer the Outer Banks, where you’ll find towns like Duck and Nags Head. Others like to retreat to the Crystal Coast, Topsail Beach, or the Wilmington area in the summer months. There’s also the Brunswick Islands, a collection of barrier islands, tiny towns, and wide, sandy beaches that feel hours away from any major city. It all depends on what you’re looking for.

To help narrow the search — whether you’re planning for a week-long family vacation or a quick weekend getaway — we called in a few residents to share their top picks. Read on to discover the best beach towns in North Carolina, according to local experts.

15 Best Beach Towns in the South

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Wrightsville Beach

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Wrightsville Beach, which comes recommended by Dean Neff, chef and co-owner of Seabird in nearby Wilmington, is the perfect place for anyone who feels at home at the water —or is interested in local shopping, casual eats, and fresh seafood. ‘[I] like Adapt Kitchen & Juice Bar for tuna poke bowls, juices, and good coffee — and if you are looking for a more rowdy beach bar scene, Red Dogs is the place,” says Neff. “I also love Motts Channel, an amazing family-owned seafood market right on the water that sells all kinds of local fish, like hogfish, when it's in season. I like to enter through the back loading dock so I can chat up the mongers about what they just brought in.”

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Oak Island

For Ryan Shelton and Josh Lemke, North Carolina locals and owners of vacation rental @BeachPlease_OKI, Oak Island tops the list of best beach towns thanks to its dog-friendly nature. “Dogs are welcome, on a leash, anytime,” says Shelton. This laidback lifestyle also extends into every facet of life on Oak Island, and most visitors spend their days lounging on the beach, traversing the town’s bike paths, or fishing from Oak Island Pier. Come mealtime, Lemke says you have a few options: “Make your own coastal shrimp boil or visit Koko Cabana, Salt 64, or Ruby's, which are some of our locally owned favorite restaurants.” And while summer is a highlight on Oak Island, they recommend coming in the spring and fall, when “you’ll have milder temperatures and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets.”

This North Carolina Beach Town Might Just Be the State's Best-kept Secret

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You can stay as busy or do as little as you wantwhen visiting Corolla, an Outer Banks village tucked between the Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. If you fall into the former category, start by booking a two-hour adventure with Corolla Wild Horse Tours, whose guides will help you witness the magic of the area’s wild horses (which are descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs). A visit to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, where you can climb the 220 steps to the top, is also a popular activity, as is an afternoon spent at Whalehead, a bright yellow, 1920s-era mansion-turned-museum. Finally, no trip to Corolla is complete without catching some rays on Corolla Beach, exploring Historic Corolla Village, and enjoying a barbecue platter from Corolla Village Barbecue.

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“Salvo is one of the most scenic and rural untouched beach areas I have ever visited,” says Neff. Technically a census-designated place with a population of just over 200, Salvo has a few small grocers, tackle shops, and an art gallery —but that’s about it. “Off the beaten path and just north of an uninhabited section of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, it’s the ideal place to unplug and get in touch with nature. It’s just you, the beach, and the water. And at night I've never seen so many stars,” he adds.

Nags Head

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If the phrase “North Carolina beach town” conjures up images of towering sand dunes, you may be thinking of Nags Head. A long-time favorite for family vacations, the barrier island town is not only charming in its own right, but it’s also the ideal base camp for exploring other Outer Banks towns and nearby points of interest — like Hatteras Island and Roanoke Island. But if you want to stay in town for your entire trip, that’s okay, too. With 12 miles of sandy shoreline and over 30 public beach access points, you can easily spend each day in a beach chair with a good book. However, if you want to discover the aforementioned dunes — known as the East Coast's tallest dune system — head to Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Here, you’ll likely see other visitors trying their hand at flying kites, kiteboarding, or windsurfing.

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“Only 15 minutes from Oak Island, Southport has a quaint main street for shopping, and there are great restaurants on the water,” says Shelton. If you’re craving Southern fare and fresh seafood, he says you can’t miss the “absolute gem” Mister P's Bistro. Outside of its culinary scene, Southport leans heavily into its role as a picture-perfect harbor town (it’s located where the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean converge). In fact, you may even recognize it as the setting of a few movies and TV shows, including "Safe Haven” and The Summer I Turned Pretty. To properly get your bearings, book a room at the Robert Ruark Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast in downtown Southport, and request a tour from the owner, who will help point out film locations and other points of interest in the area.

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Bald Head Island

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If you’re staying in Southport and want to explore a different beach town for the day, Lemke recommends taking the ferry to Bald Head Island. While it’s not your typical beach town — no passenger cars are allowed — the village is one of the most unique and relaxing destinations in the state. Home to North Carolina’s oldest still-standing lighthouse, Old Baldy, Bald Head Island is best explored by golf cart or bike, both of which can be rented on the island. “Cruise around in your rented golf cart, climb the lighthouse, play golf, and enjoy the expansive beautiful beach,” he says. “The ferry ride alone is worth the adventure.”

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Beaufort, North Carolina,pronounced like “bow-furt,” is a historic fishing village with unbeatable water access, a walkable downtown, and a roster of local restaurants you’ll remember long after your beach vacation. To fuel your tour of the Beaufort Historical District — or a day on the beach — pop into Beaufort Grocery Co. for pancakes and a BeauGro Bloody Mary, if it’s that kind of morning. For lunch, Black Sheep makes homemade, coal-fired pizzas, but you’ll definitely want to save room for something sweet from Beaufort Creamery. Travelers who like to pair a bit of education with their travels can spend an hour at the North Carolina Maritime Museum on Front Street or take a boat-building class at Harvey W. Smith Watercraft Center.

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Carolina Beach

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“If you’re looking for something a bit more remote, I recommend Carolina Beach,” says Neff, who describes the beach town as a destination with “lots of character.” In classic seaside fashion, the Carolina Beach Boardwalk is populated with carnival games, amusem*nt rides, and street food vendors. For a bit more nature, head to Carolina Beach State Park (home to the Venus flytrap) to try your hand at kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. After working up an appetite, follow Neff’s suggestions and have some of the famous glazed donuts from Britt’s Donut Shop or a fish sandwich from The Sandspur.

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There is perhaps no North Carolina beach destination as fit for family vacations as Duck, the northernmost town on the Outer Banks. Travelers of all ages can take advantage of the mile-long Duck Boardwalk along the Currituck Sound, paddleboard and bike rentals from Duck Village Outfitters, and the selection of beach reads from Ducks' Cottage & Downtown Books. As far as accommodations, you’ll have a few options. Those with larger groups should consider renting a beach house from Southern Shores Realty or Twiddy & Company Realtors — but Sanderling Resort is also a popular choice, particularly if you’re interested in luxurious amenities and an unbeatable beachfront location. No matter where you choose to stay, one thing’s for certain: You absolutely cannot leave Duck without grabbing a fresh donut from the original Duck Donuts.

10 Best Beach Towns in North Carolina, According to Locals (2024)
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