The Best Outer Banks Downtown
The Outer Banks has a lot that makes it such a wonderful place to live or visit. Fantastic beaches, the wonders of nature are everywhere, amazing restaurants, some great music. But one thing we don’t have a lot of are those downtown areas where stores, restaurants, and entertainment are all gathered in one compact area.
It almost can’t be any other way, given the way the geography of what is, after all, one of the longest continuous sandbars in the world. And because the tourist industry developed along that long thin line of sand, there never has been a real chance for a thriving downtown to develop in a lot of cases.
However, that doesn’t mean that the classic downtown doesn’t exist on the Outer Banks; it just means it’s not as common.
So with that in mind, here are three places on the Outer Banks that have managed to either create or retain that classic downtown feel.
Technically Manteo is not on the Outer Banks since it surrounds Shallow Bag Bay on Roanoke Island. It is, however, close enough to the Outer Banks—maybe ten minutes from Nags Head—that it’s not much of a stretch to include it. Plus, it is the county seat of Dare County, which is the heart of the Outer Banks.
Manteo has been around for quite some time. Actually, 2023 would qualify as the sesquicentennial anniversary of the naming of the town—1873 was when the cluster of homes and businesses of what had become the Dare County seat was officially named Manteo.
As a consequence, the town has had a lot of time to develop its own unique character. The waterfront docks have a wonderful boardwalk running beside it. The downtown itself is a thriving little area of brick buildings filled with locally owned businesses surrounding the 1904 Dare County Courthouse that is now the home of Dare Arts.
There’s a great little bookstore—Downtown Books—several restaurants with outdoor seating, art galleries, and more.
It is, in many ways, as close to an urban downtown as there is on the Outer Banks.
The Manteo downtown grew up organically, the commercial district taking shape as the town and county’s economy grew. It is a very traditional way for a downtown to develop.
Duck has taken a different route, but it also has a distinctive feel with a wide variety of locally owned shops and restaurants, much like Manteo.
When Duck was incorporated as a town in 2002, it consisted of shops and businesses spread along NC12, the highway that leads to Corolla. From the outset though, the town had a vision of creating a pedestrian friendly business district.
With that in mind, the town purchased land and developed the 11-acre Duck Town Park that parallels Currituck Sound. In many ways, the park is the heart of the town.
The town, recognizing the beauty of Currituck Sound was an important part of what makes Duck so special, built a one-mile-long soundside boardwalk with businesses interspersed along the way.
On the east (ocean) side of the highway, sidewalks connect shopping areas making it easy for pedestrians to get from one shopping area to the next. And with frequent crosswalks, there is plenty of opportunity to go from one side of the road to the other.
Nestled at the base of the Currituck Lighthouse, Corolla is a picturesque cluster of onetime homes that are now businesses. The town is actually one of the oldest on the Outer Banks, although it has never boasted a population even as large as 200.
It is a village area perfect for strolling along the road. Island Books is certainly worth a visit, as is the Corolla Wild Horse Museum that is right next door.
With shops featuring local art, a nice little coffee shop, and more, it is a very pleasant place to visit.
And the Winner Is—A Tie between Manteo and Duck
Sorry Corolla, but there just isn’t enough there to qualify as a true downtown shopping experience.
Duck and Manteo, on the other hand, have it all. A very good selection of locally owned shops, some art galleries, and great restaurants. Yes, the feeling is very different between the two downtowns, but each has a lot to offer.