Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, many of my summer vacations included New Jersey beaches filled with long, beach days and strolling the lively boardwalk at night playing games, eating an orange creamsicle twist ice cream cone and buying my annual spray painted beach t-shirt. So, when my family made the switch to the Outer Banks of North Carolina one summer, I was incredibly disappointed and worried that I’d be “so bored” in comparison. Little did I realize it would turn into my happy place that I now venture to annually with my husband, two children (ages 9 and 4) and Winston, our Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever.
From wild horses to incredible sunsets, the Outer Banks of North Carolina (OBX) is a perfect get-away for the whole family–even the furry ones– as a lot of the rental properties are dog friendly! The 100-mile stretch of barrier islands are lined with beaches, quaint towns, incredible food, local shopping and plenty of historic sites for your family’s next adventure. If you’re looking for a new place to explore with your family I’d highly encourage checking out OBX!
Where To Stay
There are three main areas you can stay in the OBX: the Northern Beaches, Central Beaches and Southern Beaches. While you will find a few hotels/motels in the area, the majority of vacationers rent vacation homes through various property management companies.
Northern Outer Banks
The northern end of the Outer Banks towns — Corolla, Duck & Southern Shores — tend to be a bit swankier (larger homes), and a bit more “uptown” looking with lots of “must have” amenities (like pools, walking paths, tennis courts, etc.). But you can also find good deals on smaller homes to rent and enjoy walking paths or short drives to various shops, restaurants and access to the 4×4 driving beach to try to spot a wild horse!
Central Outer Banks
If you’re looking to spend your vacation right in the middle of the action, you’ll want to stay in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, or Nags Head. These areas tend to be the busiest, with plenty of beach access and a short drive to restaurants, bars, shopping, and activities. I’ve stayed in all three and would recommend this area if you’re looking for something that resembles a busy, beach town!
Southern Outer Banks
The southern end — Rodanthe, Salvo, Avon, Hatteras, Ocracoke — is where to stay if you are looking for quiet, secluded beaches where the amenities are more about simple pleasures. I’ve stayed in Rodanthe once and while it is beautiful and there are very few people on the beach around you, the drive to restaurants, shopping and excursions is way too long to do with little kids (in my opinion). But, you’ll get more house for less money.
Best Places To Eat With Kids
Truly one of my favorite parts of traveling to OBX is to eat at the local restaurants! There are SO MANY to choose from, and honestly, most of them are worth it! Here are a few of my family’s favorites.
The Black Pelican
Located in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, The Black Pelican offers panoramic ocean views from the dining rooms and outside deck. You’ll find fresh seafood, steaks, vegetarian dishes, sandwiches and wood oven personal pizzas (the BEST pizzas) offered on the menu. Plus, the kid’s meals are served in bright-colored frisbees! And if you want to just grab some take-out and hang outside and play yard games, that’s an option, too!
Goombays Grill & Raw Bar
If you’re looking for an Outer Banks restaurant with a casual, island-style vibe and a crowd-pleasing menu, look no further than Goombays Grille & Raw Bar. A locals favorite since 1992, this Kill Devil Hills restaurant stands out in its vibrant chartreuse and aqua building on the Beach Road. Try the alligator bites or the fish tacos–and I promise you won’t be disappointed! And the fun drinks for kids, come with toy sharks or turtles in their cups for some entertainment. But get there early–it’s a small restaurant with a large following.
Bernie’s Brother Tropical Grill & Bar
Bernie’s Brother specializes in island cuisine with a classy, yet casual tropical ambience located in Corolla. This is my FAVORITE place to get coconut shrimp. Ever. You have to trust me on this one. Throughout the summer, you’ll find live entertainment on the deck and plenty of fun cocktails to indulge in!
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
Jockey’s Ridge State Park is home to the tallest living sand dune system on the Atlantic coast and provides an ideal location for flying kites, watching sunsets, hang gliding and getting in some exercise on vacay. While my family is a big fan, keep in mind, you’ll end up needing to carry littles at some point–so a baby carrier/child backpack would be ideal with young children on this adventure. And if you’re looking to fly a kit here, right across the street you can pop into Kitty Hawk Kites to find the perfect one for your kiddo.
It wouldn’t be a trip to the OBX without visiting one of the 5 light houses: Currituck Beach, Roanoke Marshes, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke Island. With littles, it is worth just visiting them to see how tall they are and learn about how they are used. Once they get a bit older though, it’s fun to climb them!
Corolla Wild Horse Tours
Something that makes the OBX unique is the fact that wild horses roam the northern beaches! You can feel the ocean breeze and taste the salty, beach air as you cruise in an open-air-vehicle (with or without a guide) in search of the Colonial Spanish Mustangs! My kids were AMAZED at the horses running free on the 4×4 driving beach located just above Corolla. And if you don’t want to spend the money on the tour, take your own 4×4 vehicle on the beach to explore (just remember to deflate your tires a bit beforehand)!
The Wright Brothers National Memorial
The Wright Brothers National Memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills, Outer Banks, and is perfect for those into aviation, history, or just looking for something to qualify your vacay as an educational trip. Naturally, the Wright Brothers National Memorial would never exist without the astounding flying feats of the Wright Brothers, two brothers from Ohio that ran a bicycle shop while they dreamed of mastering the still just-out-of-reach achievement of flight. This is a must-do for first-times at the OBX!
Best Sweets & Treats
The OBX is filled with great places to pop in for dessert. Below are a few of mine (and my kid’s favorites)!
Kill Devils Frozen Custard & Beach Fries
Come by, say hi and dig in! Kill Devils is the place to be all day, every day! You and the family can grab homemade soft-serve ice cream and some traditional beach food (like fries, chicken tenders and burgers) most days starting at 11 AM. Don’t forget to bring your furry family member, as their doggy dish is sure to delight him, too!
Warm, delicious made-to-order donuts are a great way to start your day and you can do just that at Duck Donuts! The first Duck Donuts opened in The Outer Banks in 2007, but can now be found in 100+ locations across the country. But there is just something about having that sweet, staple of happiness where it originated. You can find locations in Corolla, Duck and Kitty Hawk. It’s a must-do for my kiddos.
Try My Nuts
This family-owned business started in 1999 and has become a huge hit with 5 locations throughout the OBX! Offering various nuts, chocolates, seasonings and more it has became a must-do stop on our family vacations. You have to try the Dirty White Trash–an Irresistible mix of pretzels, crisp cereals, and pecans covered in a creamy white chocolate confection and drizzled with milk chocolate. You won’t be disappointed–promise!
Best Spots For Grown-Ups (But Still Kid-Friendly!)
Outer Banks Brewing Station
OBX Brew Station located in Kill Devil Hills might sound familiar if you’re a fan of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives as Guy Fieri visited the local restaurant. Not only is the food and beer amazing, but the building itself is a modern interpretation of a turn-of-the-century Lifesaving Station (It’s so cool!). The bar represents a lifesaving boat, ready to be deployed down the tracks (made of beach brick) to save the crew of a floundering ship. If you stop in here, be sure to order the Shrimp & Grits–they are INCREDIBLE (and I don’t even like grits!).
The Beer Garden
The Beer Garden comes alive each afternoon and evening in Corolla! You can stop by to try one of their 17 constantly rotating brews on tap or fill your growler to take home. This outdoor hangout is the perfect place to grab a beer while taking a break from the hot sun. Kids will enjoy tagging along as the seating is all outdoors filled with picnic tables and Adirondack chairs where you and the family can pack a picnic lunch or bring takeout. Don’t forget to pack a game or two to keep busy while enjoying this unique scenery.
Northern Outer Banks Brewing Company
Stop in for locally, crafted beer from the Northern Outer Banks. This hole-in-the-wall brewery is a hidden gem we found on one of our stays in Corolla. While you won’t find any seating inside or any food, there is plenty of outdoor seating in the plaza with access to two, yummy restaurants if you need an app or dessert while you grab a beer flight on a sunny afternoon.