While Roanoke Island is not a part of the main barrier islands of the Outer Banks, it offers plenty of great historic, natural, and entertainment opportunities for visitors year-round. Located between the Roanoke Sound and the Croatan Sound, the island is only eight miles tall and two miles wide, making it a very doable day trip for guests coming from other neighboring islands.
The island’s two main towns, Wanchese and Manteo, each have their own vibe. Wanchese is a smaller, more residential fishing village on the southern tip, while Manteo is home to historic parks, great restaurants, local museums, and even the North Carolina Aquarium. The rest of the island is more rural. It is home to maritime forests. The middle of the island consists of the Roanoke Island Marshes Dedicated Nature Preserve and other natural areas.
The island is popular with locals for its rugged landscape, tight-knit communities, and many charter fishing and maritime activities. Vacation rental guests, on the other hand, tend to focus on the unique colonial history of the island, other family-friendly attractions, and numerous events throughout the year. Settlers have been exploring the island since the 1500s, and there is still plenty to see today during your Outer Banks vacation.
Take a look below to see some of the best ways to experience the history and natural beauty of the area.
Take a trip through time at Roanoke Island Festival Park
- Address: 1 Festival Park, Manteo, NC 27954
- Hours: Open Tues-Saturday 9AM-5PM.
- Phone: (252) 423-5200
Roanoke Island Festival Park is a 25-acre fun historical educational park where adults and children alike can explore the early settler history of the island at their own pace.
Employees dress in period costumes and act out the everyday lives of people from the late 1500s, showing how the early settlers from the 16th century interacted with Native Americans and navigated the new world as they worked to build up the colony.
Guests can explore the park’s boardwalk piers and exhibits at their own pace. Don’t miss the period sailing ship docked on the west side of the island and the Outer Banks History Center, which interprets the area’s history. Parents looking to show their children what life was like in early settler America are sure to be impressed by the quality of the exhibits. A particular favorite is the expert blacksmith who is known to gift handmade nails to visitors.
A walk around the festival park takes anywhere between 1-3 hours. If you are looking to make a bigger day of the visit, take advantage of the Manteo waterfront and beautiful setting with a picnic lunch. Occasionally there are concerts and other events as well, so keep your eye on the upcoming calendar. They also host weddings and parties, so if you’re looking to tie the knot in a unique setting, Roanoke Island Festival Park has a lot to offer.
Learn All About Early American History at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
If you still can’t get enough of early American colonial history, you will want to visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. This former early settlement site of Roanoke Colony was the first English settlement in the present-day United States.
All summer long, the site is home to a theater show that centers around the story of a group of English settlers who disappeared and were never found and were thus called the Lost Colony. There are a number of artifacts and informational exhibits in the visitor center and they put on theater shows in the summer in the waterfront amphitheater.
Another fascinating site is the Freedmen’s Colony Monument. Around 3,500 former slaves from all around the area, including men, women, and children, found refuge at Freedmen’s Colony, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, a monument called The First Light of Freedom stands on the site as a marker to remember the spot’s history as the first stop for many former slaves on their way North.
Bloom and Blossom at The Elizabethan Gardens
- Address: 401 National Park Dr, Manteo, NC 27954
- Hours: Open Everyday 9AM-5PM (Gardens open until 6PM)
- Phone: (252) 473-211
The Elizabethan Gardens are located on the grounds of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and are truly a unique cultural and natural attraction in the Outer Banks. Admission isn’t free, but it is well worth budgeting a few dollars to experience this inspiring Botanical Garden.
Created to honor America’s earliest English colonists, it is home to many lush plants and trees, including azaleas, hydrangeas, a variety of annuals and herbs, and iconic southern live oak trees. The gardens also feature Italian Renaissance fountains, a waterfront pavilion, statues honoring Queen Elizabeth I, and an extensive main lawn. It is a rare and beautiful setting for a beautiful morning or afternoon visit.
There are frequent events and workshops at the gardens, so always check with the gardens to see what’s on the schedule.
Enjoy Sea and Seafood on the Manteo Waterfront
A trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina is not complete without at least one trip on the water.
If you are into watersports or are looking to try something new, many companies along the Manteo Waterfront Marina provide opportunities to go parasailing and rent jet skis or kayaks. Some shops also offer kayak tours around Roanoke Island’s perimeter which make for a unique and memorable waterfront experience for the whole family. The tours are suitable for people of all ages and ability levels and are especially beautiful after sunset.
If you prefer to leave the navigation to someone with a bit more experience, many charter boat companies offer private tours from both Manteo and Wanchese Marinas. Spend the day catching fish, sightseeing for dolphins, or sailing along the inner coasts with reliable companies like Croatan Charters, Harbor Star Dolphin Tours, and Downeast Rover Sailing Cruises.
With so many tour companies offering up quality experiences, you will want to research a company that suits your needs and has availability during your stay. The Manteo Waterfront Marina is right in downtown Manteo, so even if you don’t catch anything, you can set anchor at one of the delicious restaurants in the area and enjoy top-notch seafood in picturesque surroundings.
Foodies and drink connoisseurs looking for something unique and local might want to check out Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe or schedule a trip to coincide with the Lost Colony Wine & Culinary Festival in April of each year.
While downtown, you can easily detour to the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse as well. This is just one of many lighthouses we recommend you visit during your time in the Outer Banks. The original lighthouses were built in the mid-1800s but were eventually taken out of commission and sold. The current lighthouse, which looks more like an old cottage, was built in 2004 and is home to historical educational exhibits.
Wander in Wonder at the North Carolina Aquarium
- Address: 374 Airport Road, Manteo, NC 27954
- Hours: Open 9AM to 5PM daily
If you and your group don’t quite have your sea legs, you can still experience the majestic creatures of the Atlantic by visiting the North Carolina Aquarium. While the aquarium is not huge, its location can’t be beaten and at around $10-12 dollars for admission, neither can the price!
This aquarium is part of a group of North Carolina Aquariums throughout the state. It houses a diverse collection of local sea creatures, including horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, stingrays, and a 285,000-gallon saltwater tank for sharks. It is also home to “Operation Sea Turtle Rescue”, a rescue and rehabilitation gallery open throughout the summer. The aquarium is one of the best Roanoke Island attractions on the north end and is a great option for days when the weather makes exploring outside less pleasurable.
Get Wild at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
- Address: Miltail Rd, East Lake, NC 27953
- Hours: Operating hours: Daily, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m
- Phone: (252) 473-1131
While technically across the bridge in East Lake, we included the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge because it is such a unique attraction for anyone who loves being outdoors. Stretching across 164,000 acres, the refuge is massive and is easy to access from Nags Head.
The refuge’s knowledgeable staff put on a number of events throughout the year where they interpret the park’s unique ecosystem. From June through August you can book a van or tram excursion. Many of the seasonal tours and ranger-led programs throughout the year focus on the local population of wolves and bears (oh my!).
If you and your group are looking to get even closer to the action, there are endless opportunities for hiking, canoeing, and taking wildlife drives. Walking along the refuge’s two wildlife trails you might catch a glimpse of other animals, including river otters, owls, bald eagles, other waterfowl, and the alligators for which the refuge is named. The best times to visit are in the late afternoon or in the early morning because the weather is cooler and the wildlife is more active during those times. Enjoy the sights, just make sure to keep your distance from any animals and stay on the trail!
Experience a Different Side of the Outer Banks
Whether you love historic places, outdoor adventure, delicious food, or just getting out on the water, there is something to do for everyone on Roanoke Island. The island offers a different vibe from the barrier islands of the Outer banks and is only a short drive away, so whether you are staying in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, or Corolla, you can easily make a day trip out of the experience.
No matter what you choose to do, you will be sure to enjoy your time on Roanoke Island.