Manteo, North Carolina is located on Roanoke Island right in the midst of the Outer Banks and is famed for having been the site of one of the largest mysteries in American history- the disappearance of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the first English settlement.
In 1585, after other failed attempts to colonize the New World by explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I sent a new group to Roanoke. John White led the group of English settlers and saw immediate success as the colony began to grow- first with the birth of Virginia Dare, White’s granddaughter.
After being forced to head back to England amidst a supply shortage, White eventually returned to Roanoke years later to find the entire settlement gone and only one clue left behind- a carved word in a tree.
Although he searched for years, White never found any living members of the original colony, including his daughter or granddaughter.
To this day, no one knows what really happened to the Lost Colony.
As you might imagine, Roanoke Island and Manteo in particular are brimming with historical significance and attractions.
While popular amongst visitors and tourists staying in nearby vacation rental homes, Manteo has somehow managed to retain its charm and beauty as a laid-back place to enjoy a quiet getaway.
Along with fantastic proximity to the pristine, world-famous beaches of the Outer Banks that everyone loves, there are many other things to do in Manteo, North Carolina that make it worth a visit.
1. Figure Out the Mystery of the Lost Colony
Manteo’s number one claim to fame is being located on the famed Roanoke Island.
This island happens to be the location of the first English settlement, created when 117 British settlers were exploring the New World. As such, for more than 85 years, Manteo has celebrated this momentous occasion in history by putting on a play called The Lost Colony.
Enjoy an immersive outdoor theatrical performance that is said to rival the likes of Broadway shows on the water in Manteo, and learn a little bit of history while you’re at it! The show covers Queen Elizabeth I sending English settlers to found the colony, along with the birth of the first colonist born in America- Virginia Dare.
Perhaps you’ll even find out what happened to the famed Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.
2. Explore the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on Roanoke Island was created to help protect the natural North Carolina wetland habitat and is home to a number of animal species, some of which are endangered.
Here, you can adventure through the Refuge’s visitor center, participating in a large number of hands-on activities, or explore the wetlands and see animals such as black bears, otters, American alligators, and wild red wolves.
There are no shortage of ways to explore the wildlife refuge. Take a scenic drive to see the famous black bears, or enjoy a quiet walk on one of the wildlife trails.
One of the best ways to explore, if you’re feeling adventurous, is to kayak or canoe through the area. Color-coded paddling trails are available to assist you.
3. Embark on a Dolphin Cruise
Cruise off the coast of the Outer Banks and enjoy a Dolphin Tour with Captain Johnny who runs some of the most premier cruises in Manteo.
These dolphin tours are suitable for all ages, and it is guaranteed that you will have a dolphin sighting on these two-hour cruises. In fact, often-times, visitors are lucky enough to view a live dolphin birth or mating.
If that’s not exciting enough, sign up for a more immersive experience and take a crabbing or shrimping cruise where you can learn the tricks of the trades that have been an integral part of Outer Banks history for decades.
4. Meander Through the Elizabethan Gardens
More than 400 years ago, gardens were created to entertain Queen Elizabeth I. As a testament to this piece of history, the Elizabethan Gardens were designed to pay homage to yet another piece of the Roanoke Island legacy.
Enjoy a stroll through the ever-changing gardens, regardless of what season it is.
The gardens offer a multitude of events throughout the seasons including bird-watching, butterfly releases, and an audio tour that walks visitors through the history and intrigue of Queen Elizabeth I and the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
5. Experience Living History at Roanoke Island Festival Park
Roanoke Island Festival Park has a little bit of everything.
Spend some time on the water exploring the refurbished Elizabeth II, a ship that will take you back in time where period actors as sailors help you hoist the riggings, raise the anchor, or explore below deck.
You can also take tours through the settlement site and American Indian Town where you just might find a settler honing their woodworking skills or a Native American practicing their basket-weaving.
Also on site is the interactive and kid-friendly Adventure Museum where kids of all ages can explore interactive exhibits.
6. Get Your Hands Dirty at Island Farm
Island Farm, a small community on Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks is a living history museum where visitors of all ages can get hands-on experience of what farm life would have been like there in the 1850s.
Each day, a multitude of activities are available to visitors including blacksmithing demonstrations, hearth cooking, and even animal feeding.
Depending on the day you visit, other experiences such as pizza night, a class on folk medicine, or rag doll crafting are also offered by the farm.
7. Make Sure The Rum Isn’t Gone
Making its mark in the area, Outer Banks Distilling was the first distillery founded in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
As legend has it, the Outer Banks is also known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the many shipwrecks that were found along its coastline. As you might imagine, these shipwrecks were filled with treasure…including bottles of rum!
From this legend, the Kill Devil rum at Outer Banks Distilling was born.
Head on down to the distillery to try a shot of this tasty libation and see whether or not it really is “strong enough to kill the devil.”
8. Catch a Flick at the Pioneer Theater
What’s a vacation without some popcorn and a good movie?
This one-screen, family-run theater has been serving up snacks and entertainment since 1918! In fact, it is the oldest family-run theater in the United States.
9. Savor Local Fare at the Downtown Market
On Saturday mornings, the downtown Manteo Waterfront is loaded with vendors and their wares for the Downtown Market. Enjoy this great space as you grab some local baked goods, find unique arts and crafts for souvenirs, or simply take a stroll along the water with a coffee.
You’ll be able to see the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse and walk along its dock for a few peaceful moments.
When you’re finished, enjoy the character-laden streets around the waterfront as well as the Manteo boardwalk as you explore dining and shopping options for everyone.
10. Head Out for a Deep-Sea Fishing Excursion
You’d be missing out if you didn’t hop on a boat and head out fishing during your time in the Outer Banks. There are a multitude of options and plenty of fish species to go after depending on what your interest is.
For example, head out into the water with Salty Charters to enjoy a full day of inshore or offshore fishing- your choice! Their excursion is family-friendly and includes the option to keep what you catch! They’ll even help you clean and filet it!
If that’s not enough, snorkeling equipment is on board for you to enjoy when you’re done reeling in your dinner for the evening.
If you’re looking for a certain type of fish, jump on a boat with Chasin’ Tyde Charters to find anything from Mahi to Speckled Trout to Triggerfish.
All of your reels, rods, and live tackle are included— so throw out a line and enjoy some beverages and snacks on board.
11. Uncover History at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
A National Historic Site in North Carolina, the grounds of Fort Raleigh have held historical significance to many people groups over the years.
History first marks this territory as being owned by the Carolina Algonquin peoples. The site also holds exhibits that span from the first English colonists to the Civil War and the freedman’s colony for formerly freed slaves.
Spend some time exploring the site and the current preservation and excavation efforts which are still uncovering history to this day.
12. Jump in the Sound at the Old Swimming Hole
Relive days of old while you frolic in the water of the Old Swimming Hole in Dare County.
Tucked into the waters of the Manteo Public Sound, this family-friendly swimming hole has been a staple in the area for decades.
Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy at the pavilion when you’re finished swimming, or grab some hamburgers and fire up one of the grills on site. A playground is also available for the enjoyment of little ones, and a volleyball court offers a space to enjoy a friendly match.
13. Take Your Pick at Kitty Hawk Watersports
About five miles from Manteo in Kitty Hawk is Kitty Hawk Watersports.
Here, take your pick of many exciting activities to enjoy on the water.
One of the most exciting outdoor activities to do while in the Outer Banks is to go parasailing. Head into the air a few hundred miles up and enjoy the scenery as you view the surrounding areas of Nags Head and Manteo from above.
If that’s not your jam, you can rent jet skis, sailboats, or surfboats.
Feeling like a really good time? Rent a tiki boat complete with speakers, a bar, and a bathroom on board. Throw yourself a party on the water without the stress of captaining your own boat….there’s even space for a hammock!
14. Get Spooked on an OBX Ghost Tour
The history of the Outer Banks wouldn’t be complete without some good old ghost stories…and believe me, they have them!
Meet up with your guide in the evening and enjoy a lantern walking tour of downtown Manteo that is spooky but still kid-friendly.
Word is that the Outer Banks are some of the most haunted beaches in America thanks to their history riddled with pirates, shipwrecks, and lost ghosts. Head on an OBX ghost tour to find out why!
15. Catch a Stunning Sunset on the Water
A few miles away from the Nags Head beaches you’ll find Pirate’s Cove Marina, home of the Outer Banks Sunset Cruises.
Spend a relaxing evening cruising along the Roanoke Sound as you keep an eye out for ospreys, dolphins, or pelicans playing in the water.
16. See Sharks at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
One of four aquariums in North Carolina, the aquarium on Roanoke Island has some incredible activities and experiences, making it perfect for a family-friendly afternoon outing.
Take some time to wander through the aquarium which includes a sea turtle rescue, shark, and stingray exhibits.
If you’re interested in a special experience, take a behind-the-scenes tour where you can see multiple exhibits from the view of an employee. Or, head over to the shark exhibit and participate in “Shark Bite” where you can view a feeding time for these huge creatures and get an overhead view of the tank.
17. Grab Some Sun on the Shore
You can’t visit the Outer Banks and not hit the beach!
The best beach access is a few miles away from Manteo towards the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Take your pick between the famous beaches of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, Duck, or Kitty Hawk.
All have fantastic beaches with sand and sun ready to give you a warm escape from reality.
Conclusion: Things to Do in Manteo, North Carolina
No matter what you choose to do during your vacation, Manteo has something for everyone.
History-lovers, adventurers, and children will all find themselves at home within the many places to explore in the Outer Banks.