North Carolina’s 13 Best Beaches: Plan Your Next Coastal Vacation

green grass on brown sand near cape hatteras beach during daytime

North Carolina boasts a stunning 300-mile coastline, two-thirds of which are accentuated by the Outer Banks string of barrier islands. This geography allows for a diverse range of beaches to suit every vacation style, with ample opportunity to tap into the power and energy of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you’re moving to the area, perhaps lured by affordable opportunities in near-coastal cities like Raleigh, these East Coast beaches are enough to confirm you made the right decision.

Here we showcase 13 of North Carolina’s most captivating beaches, highlighting their unique features and qualities.

The Most Talked-About North Carolina beaches

We’ll start with the top five beaches, those that consistently rank high because of their natural beauty and amenities, although here they are not in order of preference.

  • Bald Head Island: This exclusive barrier island offers pristine beaches, championship golf courses, and a car-free environment. It’s a high-end location, ideal for those seeking seclusion and relaxation while maintaining a sense of luxury.
  • Emerald Isle: The calm and clear waters of Emerald Isle are part of the reason why this section of the NC coastline is known as the Crystal Coast. These qualities make it a haven for wildlife tourism, giving rise to an abundance of quality vacation rentals and family-friendly beaches.
  • Corolla: Known for its wild Spanish Mustang horses and tranquility, this beach provides a unique and unforgettable experience. A standout feature is the historic Currituck Beach Lighthouse, whose panoramic views add another dimension to the beach experience.
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore: This 70-mile section of the Outer Banks has more of a wilderness feel, with a series of secluded beaches and dramatic dunes that many consider to be the most visually stunning part of the North Carolina shoreline. Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a protected area with diverse ecosystems and relatively untouched hiking trails, as well as the famous “Graveyard of the Atlantic” diving area, where numerous shipwrecks attract an array of marine life.
  • Duck: This Outer Banks gem boasts wide, soft-sand beaches, perfect for families and watersports enthusiasts. Based around a walkable, friendly small town, the community spirit in this area is evident in the general cleanliness of its public spaces.

Best of the Rest

If the other North Carolina beaches don’t make the top five, this is partly because they attract crowds. But there is of course a reason for that, and you will miss out if you skip them purely because of their popularity.

Let’s see which ones fall into this category:

  • Carolina Beach: This lively beach town boasts a vibrant boardwalk, amusement park, and plenty of family-friendly activities. The nearby Carolina Beach State Park offers forest trails, including the Venus flytrap trail where these plants can be seen growing wild, as well fishing, bird-watching and boating on the Cape Fear river.
  • Wrightsville Beach: A haven for surfers and sports enthusiasts, Wrightsville Beach offers a lively scene, with bars and restaurants to match. Wrightsville hosts numerous community events, including the North Carolina Holiday Flotilla, paddleboard races, and various beach music festivals.
  • Topsail Beach (North Topsail Beach & Surf City): This area offers a relaxed atmosphere, perfect for families and nature lovers. North Topsail Beach is more secluded, ensuring tranquility, while Surf City is more of a commercial hub, but still with a laid-back charm.
  • Atlantic Beach: This beach town provides a balance between relaxation and active experiences, with opportunities for fishing, kayaking and exploring nearby attractions.
  • Holden Beach is often cited as the budget-friendly option because it hasn’t yet been targeted by high-end resorts or large hotel chains, but its beautiful beaches are no less attractive than the rest in this list. It is also relatively free of the typical tacky seaside entertainment attractions, which means it has fewer crowds.
  • Ocracoke Island: Steeped in history, with one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the United States and reputedly a haunt of the pirate Blackbeard, Ocracoke Island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore area, and is also known for its wild horses. It is only accessible by ferry, guaranteeing a unique and unspoiled beach experience.
  • Bodie Island Lighthouse Beach: This is another of the less crowded options, but is particularly suitable for families because it offers educational programs centered on the area’s history, wildlife, and environmental preservation efforts. And of course there’s also the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

Honorable Mention: Kitty Hawk

Beyond these highlights, North Carolina’s coastline is sprinkled with a hoard of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. History buffs will be particularly interested in the Kitty Hawk area, which has its share of beaches, but also features the Wright Brothers National Memorial and visitor center at Kill Devil Hills, where the intrepid brothers made their first successful powered flights in 1903.

Where to Stay and When to Visit

All of North Carolina’s Beaches are well served by a broad range of vacation rentals, from charming cottages and bed & breakfasts, to budget-friendly motels and spacious beach homes. Ocracoke and Holden are the only ones lacking luxury oceanfront condos, the former because it is only accessible by ferry, which guarantees a unique and unspoiled beach experience.

Of course, you can appreciate the spaciousness and bracing quality of a beach vacation at any time of year and in any weather, but in North Carolina you can find the best combination of warm weather, manageable crowds and affordable vacation rentals in May and September.

North Carolina Awaits!

North Carolina clearly offers a diversity of locations and landscapes that rival the best beach destinations, but it can be so much more than a vacation spot.

There are plenty of other reasons why this state attracts people intent on moving to this part of the East Coast, where they can be relatively close to important hubs like Washington D.C. and New York, without submitting to astronomical living costs.

If you have decided on North Carolina for relocation, particularly the fast-growing cities near state capital Raleigh, Armstrong is one of the prime moving companies in the area. Be sure to get in touch with our local office to plan your move.