As the birthplace of flight and the home to nearly 100 wild horses, the Outer Banks appeal to travelers of all ages. This stretch of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina attracts travelers throughout the year with its rich history, laid-back vibe, and easy access to adventure.
Whether your family is into unwinding at the beach or checking every lighthouse off the bucket list, it’s hard to go wrong with a family trip to the Outer Banks. This beach oasis is home to hundreds of things to see, do, and eat, but today, we’re highlighting the top 11 things to do with the whole family in the area.
1. See The Wild Horses
The Outer Banks’s wild horses will fascinate family members of all ages. The region is home to roughly 100 wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs, and a guided tour is the best way to see them up close. Outfitters like Wild Horse Adventure Tours offer safari trips to the beaches of Corolla. Along the way, guides discuss the history and legends of the area. Aside from the horses, you might see dolphins or foxes, so keep your eyes open for wildlife.
Tours start at $44 per guest, take around 2 hours, and are available most months of the year. According to the website, there are no tours from December through February.
2. Explore Island Farm
The Outer Banks are chock-full of history, and visiting Island Farm, a family-friendly living-history site, is a great way to experience it. The site takes visitors back to the mid-1800s, when islanders relied on the land to feed and support their families. The experience centers on a family that faced struggles during the Civil War and assisted the Wright brothers with their first flight.
Island Farm is open from April 2 to November 30; admission costs $8 but is free for children under 5 years old.
3. Learn About Marine Life At The Aquarium
The Outer Banks are home to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, which features animals like river otters, turtles, and American alligators. The family-friendly aquarium runs a Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center where you can witness the work being done to save local sea turtles. The whole family can marvel at sea jellies and sharks -- and touch stingrays!
Those brave enough -- and with proper certification -- can even swim with sand tiger sharks, nurse sharks, and sandbar sharks in the aquarium’s 285,000-gallon Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit. This program is for guests 15 and older and takes about 2 hours.
The main aquarium is open daily. Admission starts at $10.95 for children and $12.95 for adults.
4. Take A Dolphin-Watching Tour
People of all ages love seeing dolphins in the wild -- that’s why the Outer Banks’s dolphin-watching tours are the perfect multigenerational experiences. Outfitters like Captain Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours take guests on 2-hour, kid-friendly adventures complete with scenic views and lots of information about the Atlantic Coast’s bottlenose dolphins. While a dolphin sighting isn’t guaranteed, Captain Johnny’s has a 99 percent success rate on its trips. Some lucky visitors have even seen dolphins giving birth!
Tours run from May through October, and there are morning, afternoon, and sunset options. Prices start at $10 for children and $30 for adults.
5. Go Sailing
Family time is great as it is, but on a scenic sailboat ride, it’s even better. An Outer Banks sailing adventure will give your family time to relax, reconnect, and bond as the coastline passes by. Companies like Sail the Outer Banks in Manteo offer 3-hour sunset cruises along the waterfront, with up to six guests allowed on board. These experiences are private, and guests are allowed to bring their own food and drinks; there’s a refrigerator on board to keep those cold ones, well, cold. You can also learn how to sail with a professional instructor, a great option for kids and teens while parents and grandparents sit back and relax.
Sailing tours average around $60 per person; spring, summer, and fall are the most popular seasons, although trips are offered into November and as early as March, weather permitting.
6. Visit The Wright Brothers Memorial
A family vacation to the Outer Banks wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. At this interactive visitor center, you’ll learn all about Orville and Wilbur Wright, how they learned to fly, and the historic events that led to their monumental December 17, 1903, flight.
Admission costs $10 for adults and is free for children 15 years old and younger.
7. Lighthouse-Hop Along The Coast
The Outer Banks are home to four beautiful lighthouses, including Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and Ocracoke Island Lighthouse.
Currituck Beach Lighthouse still operates as a guide for passing mariners and can be seen up to 18 nautical miles away. The lighthouse grounds are open throughout the year, and you can climb the 220 steps to the top any day between Easter and the day before Thanksgiving.
Just outside of Nags Head, along a row of cedar trees, is Bodie Island Lighthouse, with its black-and-white stripes that stand out against the blue sky. The 156-foot lighthouse is visible from 19 miles away, and you can climb the 214 steps to the top during the summer.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the Outer Banks’s most famous lighthouse, not to mention the world’s tallest brick lighthouse at 208 feet high. This destination attracts 175,000 visitors each year with its 257 steps that lead to 360-degree views of the Outer Banks. You can climb the lighthouse from late April until Columbus Day. Tickets are available at the adjacent gift shop.
Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the second-oldest lighthouse in the United States. While it’s not as tall and mighty as its peers, its beam is still bright; it can be seen up to 14 miles away. The lighthouse is 65 feet tall, although it’s not open for climbing.
8. Lounge At The Beach
While the Outer Banks offer history, wildlife, and adventure, the most popular thing to do at the coastal destination is to relax and sunbathe at the beach! The Outer Banks feature miles and miles of scenic coastline, but three of the most family-friendly beaches are in Kitty Hawk, Duck, and Nags Head.
Duck Beach, on the other hand, is slightly calmer in terms of waves. And it’s not only family friendly -- it’s pet friendly, too! Dogs can roam the beach off leash (as long as an owner is present, of course).
Nags Head is the most natural of the three beach towns. Dogs are allowed on the Nags Head beach as well, as long as they’re on leashes that are 10 feet or shorter. You can also bring beer to the beach, although wine and liquor are not permitted.
9. Go Fishing
Rock On Charters runs a children’s fishing trip where the boat’s captain teaches little ones the ins and outs of equipment, technique, and safety. Fishing excursions take place along the sounds surrounding the Outer Banks, and most trips include a dolphin sighting or two. You can catch up to 10 different species of fish during the trip; most fish are released, but if it’s a “keeper,” the captain will let you take it home for dinner.
Fishing trips start at $400 for 4 hours; trips are available seasonally, with a focus on the peak season of summer.
10. Play Mini Golf
For a fun night out with the family, play a round of mini golf at Frisco Mini Golf and Go Karts. This no-frills center is great for family members of all ages, with inexpensive mini golf ($9) and go-karts ($11). Bumper cars are also available ($6).
11. Relax At The Spa
If it’s time for a break from the little ones -- or you need some mother-daughter bonding time -- hit up AQUA Spa, a scenic, full-service spa with massage therapy and skin and nail services. One of the spa’s most popular offerings is the sunset-view Swedish massage, which includes warm stones set to the tune of crashing waves by the ocean.
Another spa option, Stillwater Spa & Wellness in Ocracoke, offers a range of spa treatments, including facials, body scrubs, body wraps, foot treatments, and a variety of massages.
After a weeklong adventure with the family in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, you may want to extend your stay in the state with a stop in Raleigh, just 3 hours away. Offering everything from art museums to outdoor adventures and history to craft beer, Raleigh would make the perfect end to your family’s Outer Banks vacation. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Raleigh. Happy travels!