The Tar Heel State may be known for its BBQ, mountains, and aviation history, but some of the best eastern beach towns might be North Carolina’s secret sauce. This part of the Atlantic Coast has a deep history that goes back before the US was even a country, so it’s not hard to see why it appealed to early settlers and explorers.
The weather in North Carolina is primarily temperate, with mild winters and steamy humid summers, making time at the beach ideal all year long. Most towns consider their peak season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that’s when there are usually lifeguards on duty and more crowds.
Permanent residents in these towns enjoy living in tight-knit communities and a quieter life by the water. Get the most out of your Carolinas vacation by stopping at one of these salty towns. Indulge in the relaxing atmosphere, and maybe you’ll find your next hometown along your journey.
Here’s a look at the top beach towns in North Carolina to live and visit, in no particular order:
Founded in 1984 and incorporated in 2002, Duck is the Outer Bank’s northernmost town and an attractive place to disengage from the fast-paced world. Thousands of tourists venture here annually for the beaches, maritime forests, quaint shops, and Jazz Festival.
Duck got its name from the high number of wild ducks found in the area, as it is a focal point for the birds migrating on the Atlantic flyway. The town had 746 permanent residents as of the 2020 census, but that number of people skyrockets to over 20,000 during peak tourism season.
Visitors flock to the cozy atmosphere of Duck for access to their nationally-recognized family-friendly beaches and strolls on their coastal boardwalk through town. Another popular attraction is their 11-acre natural park with many trails through the willow swamp, woods, and green space with incredible vistas in every direction.
The beaches on Duck are beautiful and great to use, but they are limited to residents, vacation renters, and guests to those people. From May 1 to October 1, lifeguards are on duty from 10 am to 6 pm. In addition to beach rentals, the luxurious Sanderling Resort is another excellent accommodation.
Emerald Isle, NC
Situated on a part of North Carolina’s famous Crystal Coast, Emerald Isle is a beach town on the barrier island of Bogue Banks. The friendly community welcomes as many as 50,000 visitors every week during tourist season, who come for the spotless beaches and bright-colored waters.
Emerald Isle is the whole package for a vacation with family or friends. There are accommodations in town and endless activities by the water and on the 12 miles of pristine shore. After swimming at the beach, visit the island’s water park or stroll down a classic row of shops that take you back to the olden days.
Native Americans initially inhabited the region from at least 1 AD to the colonial years, but today the town is home to roughly 3,847 residents (as of the 2020 census).
The 2020 US News and World Report claimed that Emerland Isle had the #1 North Carolina beaches. With several beach access points with public amenities, visitors can plan to stay all day on the clean sand and transparent water. This part of the coast is ideal for those that like calmer and less crowded beaches with plenty of opportunities for boating, fishing, and scuba diving.
Carolina Beach, NC
Step back into time at this traditional American seaside town, complete with a boardwalk of activities including a merry-go-round, an arcade, ice cream stands, carnival rides, and lovely beaches, of course. The family-oriented town has day and night events that will entertain all ages and provide quality time with a beautiful backdrop.
According to the 2020 census, the town of Carolina Beach had a population of 6,564. Like much of the east coast, the area had experiences in the Civil War, World War II, and the Colonial Period, and artifacts from this period and others are showcased in the Federal Point History Center.
Visitors can witness another unique type of history by arranging a charter dive down to one of the 65+ shipwrecks within 50 miles of shore. For a laid-back afternoon, stroll down the street and window shop at the many vintage storefronts.
There are 44 public beach access points of different sizes in Carolina Beach. Some have large parking lots, while others include small boardwalks, and many are near hotels. The soft clean sand and surf-ready waves are fantastic for fun in the sun while fishing, playing watersports, or working on that tan.
Oak Island, NC
Oak Island is south of Wilmington and a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts that like to spend time by the water. This town of 8,396 (as of the census 2020) reminds visitors to indulge in the simpler things in life, like playing in the ocean, fishing off a pier, or going out for ice cream.
The Brunswick Islands offer a lot to tourists, and Oak Island’s primary industry is tourism. For years, people from all over the country have been escaping busy city life by heading to the island to enjoy the waters.
Kayaking is very popular in this town; there are places to rent equipment for that and other watersports nearby. Feel the nostalgia of the local shops when browsing them while taking in that thick salty air.
There are 65 public beach accesses, 40 nature viewing areas, and six boat launches on Oak Island. Many access points have free parking, and a few have changing rooms. These pathways to the ocean are only open from 6 am to 8 pm.
Wrightsville Beach, NC
Located only six miles east of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach is a friendly town with wide beaches and so much to see, do, and eat. Surfers and stand-up paddleboarders can get their fix here with endless opportunities to ride the water, then turn in for the day and dine at a locally owned seafood restaurant.
Around 2,473 people (according to the 2020 census) permanently reside in Wrightsville Beach, which is an ideal place to vacation or live, being so close to bigger cities. Along the coast are numerous hotels, resorts, and vintage beach cottages that add to the personality of this laid-back, welcoming beach community.
The local Carolina Yacht Club is the 7th oldest in the country, and it was founded in the late 19th century by a few men who lived in town. More of the area’s past and culture can be discovered by visiting the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History or the many surf and specialty shops.
There are several miles of soft sandy beaches in Wrightsville Beach; it’s the perfect place to go when you don’t want the pressure to book a heavy itinerary of activities. Many activities year-round are in town, along with numerous waterfront restaurants and watersports gear rental places. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and leashed dogs are allowed on the sand from October 1 to March 31.
Sunset Beach, NC
When modern life in the 21st century gets too hectic, take a step back in time at Sunset Beach, located on the coast north of Myrtle Beach. Spend a day or a week browsing beach boutique shops, eating at a coastal restaurant, hitting the greens at a championship golf course, or watching a sunset as the waves roll in.
Sunset Beach was first established in 1955, but it wasn’t incorporated until 1963, partially thanks to a bridge connecting the island portion to the mainland. About one-third of the town is located on the southernmost of the Brunswick Islands, while the rest of the community extends north on the mainland.
Accommodation types vary, including ample resort-style lodging to standard hotels and salty cabin rentals on the shore. As of the 2020 census, the population is roughly 4,175 year-round residents.
About three miles of white sand and teal waters at Sunset Beach call visitors to its coast all year long. It’s important to note that the island is home to nesting loggerhead turtles, and strict rules are in place to protect them.
Kitty Hawk, NC
Kitty Hawk is one of the Outer Bank’s finest beach towns and has many amenities, including many beach accesses, stores, and restaurants, from locally owned options to chains. With a population of 3,689 (census 2020), this town is the largest in the OBX and has a great mix of year-round homes and vacation rental units.
Many history buffs will recognize Kitty Hawk for its ties to the world-famous Wright Brothers, who made their first successful controlled powered airplane flight just south of town in 1903. After walking back to Kitty Hawk, Orville and Wilbur sent a telegram announcing their victory, so the town is credited for the first powered flight.
Visitors enjoy stopping by the Monument to a Century of Flight, hiking or biking in the Kitty Hawk Woods Reserve, and souvenir shopping at the cute coastal shops.
Kitty Hawk has many beach access points, and surfing is a popular year-round sport. While alcohol is allowed on the beach, glass containers and bonfires are prohibited. Lifeguards man the beaches from Memorial Day to Labor Day at three set locations, and dogs must be leashed those same months from 10 am to 6 pm.
Kure Beach, NC
Situated on 556 acres about 30-minutes south of Wilmington on Pleasure Island, the town of Kure Beach is a destination for a traditional seaside break. There is a lot to explore outdoors on land and by the sea, with attractions like an aquarium, an oceanfront park with storytime for kids, trails to walk, and the Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
The Kure Beach Pier was originally built in 1923 and is one of the oldest piers on the Atlantic Ocean. While there’s no charge for spectators visiting the pier, those who want to fish off the old structure will have to pay a fee. S
cuba diving, SUP boarding, surfing, and kayaking are available throughout the beach with places to rent gear, so even a first-timer will have all they need. There are accommodations to suit every budget, from luxury apartment rentals to oceanside inns, hotels, and motels with plenty of access to town.
Kure Beach is at the tip of the island where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Cape Fear River, but these waters are clear and popular with locals and visitors alike. The spacious beach is ideal for vacationers who like fewer crowds and a more relaxed time in unspoiled natural scenery.
According to the 2020 census, this town only had a population of 2,191 at that time. Inside the recreation area is six miles of pristine beaches, and taking the scenic ferry ride gives visitors a great overall view of the region.
Atlantic Beach, NC
The small beach town of Atlantic Beach, with a population of about 1,364 (2020 census), is located on Bouge Banks, an island off the state’s shore in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s situated beside the larger port town of Morehead City. With features like a town park, a nearby aquarium, and plenty of waves for surfing, this area is popular for families or folks who want to focus on spending time on the shore.
Discovered in 1996, one of the most famous sites in the Atlantic Beach area is the shipwreck location of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. It’s an 18th-century vessel that the pirate Blackbeard once used. Fort Macon State Park is North Carolina’s second most-visited and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Accommodations on the island include mostly hotels, inns, and vacation rentals, but this kind of lodging adds to the rural seaside charm. Many places to eat and shop are also dotted along the island town.
Many public beach accesses are in Atlantic Beach, and there is recreation on the sand for everyone. The azure waters are clean and clear, making it easy to see the world underneath the waves. Sand areas are wide and spacious, providing plenty of room for sunbathing, frisbee, and good old-fashioned quality beach time.
Bald Head Island, NC
Formally known as “Smith Island,” Bald Head Island is a village set on the banks of Cape Fear. It’s an excellent destination for a vacation or a relocation to a more peaceful environment.
Most of the 268 residents (census 2020) drive golf carts to get around, because the town is only accessible by a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland or a four-wheel drive on the shore, making it feel more remote.
The island has a lot of interesting historical aspects about it, including a fort that was used in the American Revolution by the British and then repurposed as a Confederate building. The lighthouse known as “Old Baldy” was constructed in 1817 and is the oldest one in the state that’s still standing.
Many movie buffs will recognize the scenery on the island for being the central filming location for two films, “The Butcher’s Wife” (1991) and “A Weekend and Bernie’s.” (1989). Lodging options at Bald Head Island include a couple of inns and many vacation home rentals with ocean views and direct beach access.
The island has 14 miles of immaculate beaches, wide open spaces, and plenty of room for biking, running or playing in the waves. Activity options on Bald Head include watersports, shopping, nature programs, historical sites, and even a ghost walk tour. The three main beaches are West Beach, East Beach, and South Beach.
Nags Head, NC
Home to the famous giant sand dunes in Jockey Ridge State Park and many types of flowers, Nags Head, is a scenic beach town with a population of 3,168 residents (census 2020). Since the early 19th century, it has been a vacation destination, with the first beach home plots being designated in 1855.
The town was officially incorporated in 1923 and again in 1961 and is now a very developed tourist area. There are many vintage seaside cottages as well as vacation homes that draw people in for an escape from metro life.
Activities include numerous watersports, sunbathing, walking the shore, and spending time in the Nags Head Nature Reserve. Jockey Ridge State Park has the largest living dunes on the east coast and hosts various water and land recreation opportunities.
Numerous pristine beaches are around Nags Head, just south of Kitty Hawk. The Outer Banks is a popular area for pier fishing, and there are a few locations in this town as well. Cap off the day with dinner at a fresh seafood restaurant, or find live music at a local venue.
Whether it is winter or summer, don’t forget to stop in one of these top beach towns on your next trip to North Carolina. Between the sea breeze and numerous activities to choose from, there’s undoubtedly something to be enjoyed by everyone.