The Best Beach Towns in North Carolina
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 (due in part to low property tax rates compared to other coastal towns in the state), this beachy Crystal Coast town is an ideal place to stay for a week—or a lifetime.
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, 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. It’s a vintage postcard sent from a halcyon past.
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, is home to a wonderful North Carolina Maritime Museum, and is a stone’s throw from the natural riches of the Rachel Carson Reserve.
Bald Head Island
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, and a community of beautiful beach houses, this is most certainly a Treasure Isle.
Founded more than 300 years ago, this tiny harbor town is a beacon of historic preservation and is known for its friendly traditions (including two nights’ complimentary docking for boaters traveling through Albemarle Sound). Outdoor life here centers—appropriately—around boating, paddling, and casting, but the famed beaches of the Outer Banks are just an hour to the east.
Named one of the best places to retire in North Carolina, this island near Wilmington has 10 miles of south-facing beaches, not to mention two fishing piers and nostalgic pleasures that include ice cream and miniature golf. 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 16-March 15 from 6am to 8pm.
A cult favorite, this Outer Banks island is accessible only by boat (unlike other OBX stars) 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.
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.
At the southern end of the coast and a quick hop from buzzy Wilmington, this laid-back beach town on a four-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 one of the best real estate investments on the NC coast.
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.
A gem on the rustic and windswept Outer Banks, 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.
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, 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. No wonder Carolina Beach was named one of the best small towns for retirement in the state.
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 top pick for real estate investment and a magnet for families seeking old-fashioned escape and beach life. Everyone’s welcome here to enjoy the pale-sand beaches on both the Atlantic and Intracoastal Waterway sides, including dogs, who can hit the beach with their masters year-round (but on a leash from May 15-September 30).
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 historic architecture; 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.
What’s not to love about 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.
Meet North Carolina’s earliest capital—and an utterly charming harbor town with plenty of historic architecture (more than 160 homes on the National Historic Register and four historic neighborhoods), waterfront fun, arts and culture, and a deep legacy of Southern hospitality. Set along the Trent and Neuse rivers in a central stretch of Carolina coastline, New Bern’s leafy streets played a starring role in the film version of The Notebook, and it’s considered one of the best places to retire in North Carolina. (P.S. Pepsi was invented here. Just saying, America.)
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 doubles 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.