The 12 Best Things to Do on Roanoke Island

NC Aquarium Boardwalk with Croatan Sound View

When visiting the Outer Banks in North Carolina, you should explore Roanoke Island. Being a meager 8 miles long and 2 miles wide, Roanoke Island is packed with water adventures, boutique shops, fantastic restaurants, and rich historical destinations. Here is everything you need to know about your next visit and all the things to do on Roanoke Island.

NC Aquarium Boardwalk with Croatan Sound View

What happened on Roanoke Island?

Let me share a little history lesson if you don’t remember what happened on this tiny island. Even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Sir Walter Raleigh sent ships across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World three times. The Roanoke Voyages’ missions were to locate a suitable place (1584 Discovery trip), explore its possibilities (1585 Exploration trip), and eventually settle its shores (1587 Settlement trip).

Led by Governor John White, 117 adventurous English men, women, and children wanted to establish a new place to set down roots. Unfortunately, John White had to return to England, leaving his family and the other colonists in Roanoke. Due to the pending war with Spain, it wasn’t until three years later that John White could make it back to his family on Roanoke Island. When he arrived, everyone vanished. All that was found were the letters CRO carved into a tree and CROATOAN carved into a wooden post.

What happened to the vanished colonists? This is the biggest mystery out there. Theories run the gamut from American Indians attacked them; they died from natural causes to leaving the island voluntarily. What do you think happened to those colonists? From spending time at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Visitor’s Center and the Earthwork, I believe it is a combination of those theories.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

I remember reading about Roanoke Island when I was younger, and I was curious to learn more about the mystery surrounding the past residents. The perfect place to learn about the mystery is by exploring Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, which is one of the best things to do on Roanoke Island. There are several places to visit, such as the visitor’s center, the Earthwork, the outdoor theater, nature trails, and a magnificent garden. Each site gives a perspective on what happened to the colonists, leaving you with an almost complete picture, except for one missing piece of what actually did happen. That is where your imagination comes in.

Lindsay Warren Visitor Center

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Visitors Center

The Lindsay Warren Visitor Center is a great place to start your journey on Roanoke Island. Inside the visitor center, you find interactive exhibits on the first habitants of the island, the Carolina Algonquin, the English colonists who arrived between 1584 and 1587, the creation of Freedmen’s Colony, and the battle during the Civil War. You will also see how archeologists have been digging around Roanoke Island and what they have found and learned from it. Make sure to watch the 17-minute video on the interaction between the Algonquian and the colonists.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Visitors Center

My favorite exhibit goes into the theories of what happened to the colonists and the evidence to support those theories. Whether they left voluntarily, there are theories that they went to Croatoan, continued to the Chesapeake Bay, or moved inland. For the question of whether they died of natural causes, the theories are that a hurricane swept them away, they died of disease, or they starved to death. For the question of were the colonists attacked, the theories are that the American Indians killed them or the Spanish killed them. The exhibit goes into the details of the evidence to support all of those theories, which makes it harder to pinpoint what exactly happened to them.

The Earthwork – The Lost Colony

Earthwork - The Lost Colony

A short walk from the Lindsay Warren Visitor Center is the spot of the reconstructed earthen fort, one of the coolest things to do on Roanoke Island. The soldiers from the 1585 Roanoke Voyage would have constructed a similar defensive structure. Archeologists believed this was where an English earthwork was and reconstructed it in 1950 using a similar approach that the 1585 explorers used. They restored the ditch and then formed the walls from the excavated soil. You can walk within the earthwork and stand where the colonists were over 400 years ago. It is eerily quiet and serene at the same time.

Earthwork and Wooden Gate on Roanoke Island

Thomas Hariot Trail

Thomas Hariot Trail on Roanoke Island

Next to the Earthwork is a 0.3-mile scenic wooded nature trail, Thomas Hariot Trail, with lovely views of the Albemarle Sound. The path is unpaved but easy to manage and navigate. The path is named after Thomas Hariot, one of the preeminent scientists in 1585. His task assigned by Sir Walter Raleigh was to document and determine if there was wealth and power to be had in the New World, how much, and where to find it.

Thomas documented the value of plants, animals, and minerals found on Roanoke Island. He relayed this information to Sir Walter Raleigh when he returned to England in 1586, enthusiastically letting everyone know how pleasant the people and land on Roanoke Island were. There are interpretive signs throughout the nature trial providing details of Thomas Hariot’s explorations and about the maritime evergreen forest, you are walking through.

Lost Colony Outdoor Drama

One must-see thing on Roanoke Island is watching the largest running outdoor drama in the United States since 1937. The performance dramatizes the 1587 colonists’ story of arriving on Roanoke Island and the subsequent mysterious vanishment. This dramatization is a must for every visitor; it is quite the show with over 100 actors, dancers, singers, and technicians. The Lost Colony reenactment happens every summer at the Waterside Theater on the grounds of Fort Raleigh.

The Freedman’s Colony

The Freedman's Colony Marker

Another place to visit for the best things to do on Roanoke Island is the marker for the Freedmen’s Colony. I don’t recall learning about this important part of Civil War history in school, but I was interested to learn more after this visit. Roanoke Island was the site of a historic experiment where the Civil War Union Army invited African Americans to stay as free men under their protection. The Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony became an additional safe haven in the huge network of escape routes and sympathizers and is now recognized as a historic National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site.

A marker was erected in 2001 to designate the site of the permanent colony on Roanoke Island. Most of its 3,000 residents between 1862 and 1867 had been enslaved people in northeastern North Carolina. The colony disbanded after 1867, but during their time on the island, significant gains occurred for the families that lived there. They had control of their labor and received an education they could use when moving to the mainland. If you are interested, a path through the woods north of Fort Raleigh leads you to a commemorative park along Croatian Sound.

North Carolina Aquarium – Roanoke Island

North Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit

One of the best things to do on Roanoke Island that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did was the North Carolina Aquarium. The NC Aquarium is 68,000 sqft, filled with alligators, turtles, jellyfish, sharks, and many, many fish focusing on their environments around the Outer Banks. I could have stayed hours watching the River Otters play.

However, the highlight of this visit is seeing Operation Sea Turtle Rescue at the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center. This is a fantastic part of the NC Aquarium that shows and teaches the importance of protecting and the conservation of sea turtles. It even includes an interactive Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit where you can diagnose and rehabilitate your own practice turtle before releasing them back into the sea.

North Carolina Aquarium

Advance tickets for the aquarium are required. You can purchase them online.

The Elizabethan Gardens

The Elizabethan Garden

Within Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, there is a place designed as a memorial and remembrance of Queen Elizabeth I and the first English colonists. Elizabethan Gardens is a tranquil and beautiful place to explore all year round and in any weather. When I visited, it started raining halfway through the gardens, but it didn’t stop me from walking through the rest.

Queen Elizabeth I statue in the Elizabethan Garden on Roanoke Island

The garden entrance is through a Tudor-era gatehouse designed to resemble a sixteenth-century orangery. Purchase your ticket while browsing through the gift shop. Look at the Queen Elizabeth I oil portrait on the wall. Dated in 1592, it might be the oldest portrait created during her reign. Many other treasures adorn the wall, including a list of the colonists staying on Roanoke Island. Once you explore the gatehouse, head outside to the courtyard to experience the fragrant gardens.

View of the Albemarle Sound at the Elizabeth Gardens

Wandering the treelined paths of the 10.5-acre garden, you will see lovely herb gardens, a sunken garden, interesting statues, amazing views of the Albemarle Sound, a butterfly house, ancient ornamentals, hydrangeas, roses, and so many other plants and flowers. I love that the canopy of the trees overhead shows a lace pattern on the ground when the sun shines through the leaves and protects you from the rain. The garden path is a giant oval, so you won’t miss any important stops, especially the rose hedge garden, where you’ll see the rose bush Queen Elizabeth II gifted from her gardens at Windsor Castle.

The Sunken Garden in the Elizabethan Gardens one of the best things to do on Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island Festival Park

Elizabeth II Replica Ship at Roanoke Island Festival Park - best things to do on Roanoke Island

For family fun enthusiasts, you must visit Roanoke Island Festival Park. This historical fun playground is a 25-acre attraction with an interactive historic experience and one of the best things to do on Roanoke Island. You will be able to board the Elizabeth II, a 16th-century replica ship, and learn how to set the sails, swab the deck, and maybe a few more surprises can be found on board.

In addition, you can explore the first English settlers’ site and see what daily life was like for the soldiers and sailors, creating a new town; and even discover Coastal Algonquian culture and history in American Indian Town. Don’t forget to stop into the Roanoke Adventure Museum for another great place to learn about the 400 years of Outer Banks’ American Indian and English colonists’ history.

Battle of Roanoke Island

Battle of Roanoke Island Memorial

The Civil War affected almost every state in the United States, including the little island of Roanoke. The Battle of Roanoke Island memorial plaque is a little hard to find. It is on the side of Mills Landing road at the intersection of U.S. Highway 64 and 345, with parking across the street. Make sure to watch for traffic when crossing to the memorial.

Roanoke Island was a Confederate stronghold (400 men) to control the North Carolina Sound region. In February 1862, 7500 Union forces came ashore and forced the Confederates toward the island’s north end, where swamps surrounded them on each side that they thought would protect their flanks.

A fierce fire battle at the front between the Confederates and the Union infantry stalled the Union forces. To move this battle along, Union General J. L. Reno ordered his forces to go through both swamps to surround the Confederate troops. The Confederates had additional forces arrive, but it was too late. With additional Federal troops at the front line and surrounded on three sides, the Confederate Army surrendered 2488 men within two days.

Things to Do in Manteo NC

Manteo Marina

Roanoke Island has more than historical sites to explore. And it all can be found in downtown Manteo. With a historic waterfront and walkable downtown full of specialty boutiques, restaurants, and a beautiful marina, it is a must-see town on Roanoke Island.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

If you love photographing lighthouses as much as I do, you will love visiting Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. This photogenic lighthouse looks great with its reflection in Shallowbag Bay. The current 2004 lighthouse is a replica of the 1877 lighthouse that was on the southern end of the Croatan Sound in the village of Wanchese. There is a lovely boardwalk that goes through the marsh toward the lighthouse, which you have to walk out 40 yards to explore inside. The lighthouse has an 1800s Fresnel lens and educational and historical exhibits for discovery. If you participate in the lighthouse passport, you can get your stamp at the Maritime Museum.

Roanoke Marshes Boardwalk in Manteo

Roanoke Island Maritime Museum

Maritime Museum in Manteo

Opened in 1998 and located in the George Washington Creef Boathouse, the Maritime Museum is free to explore. Walking inside, you instantly smell the wood used to create the magnificent boats. Plenty of small watercraft exhibits display Manteo’s maritime heritage, and you might even see small crafts being restored or even a new boat construction. The Roanoke Island Festival Park’s Elizabeth II was built here between July 1982 and November 1983.

The boats designed and built for this area must be able to glide through the shallow waters and the constantly changing weather patterns in the Outer Banks. George Washington Creef developed the 1870s Shad boat using a traditional split-log technique combined with conventional plank-on-frame construction to navigate the Sound waters. These boats were so well-made that you might even see one on the waters today, even 100 years later. Within the museum, you can see one of Creef’s Shad boats, the Ella (1883), a clipper yawl boat, and a couple of 1960s-era hydroplane vessels.

If you time it right, you can attend one of the annual events, like the Annual Regatta on the last Saturday in July, the Kids Fishing Tournament in August, and the last Saturday in October Wooden Boat Show.

Avenue Waterfront Grille

Avenue Grille & Goods

A wonderful place to eat is downtown by the marina, the Avenue Waterfront Grille. The menu has locally sourced caught seafood; however, if you see our lunch photos, we didn’t all choose the daily fish special. But every one of our dishes was fantastic, and with the view of the marina, it was a great spot to relax.

Kill Devil Rum

Kill Devil Rum Outer Banks Distilling

Two of my favorite things are combined at Kill Devil Rum – Shipwrecks and Rum. I was fortunate to tour the facilities and see behind the scenes how they make these incredible rums without grain. Kill Devil Rum uses molasses as its base, and each batch they make is dedicated to a shipwreck. There is a little story on the bottle about the shipwreck and what makes that rum unique. Oh, and yes, we did try the rum!

Kill Devil Rum Wheel House Lounge

Opened in 2015, Kill Devil Rum is located off U.S. Highway 64. They produce their original recipe rums on-site, have a gift shop where you can get merchandise, and enjoy their delightful cocktails in the Wheel House Lounge, like the Rum Ting, That’s My Jam or the Honey Badger. They definitely embrace the Outer Banks shipwreck legacy (over 3000) with several photos of shipwrecks on the walls.

Kill Devil Rum Outer Banks Distilling

Kill Devil Rum has three signature rums; Silver, Pecan, and Gold. We tasted each of them and learned the difference between their three flagship flavors and how the environment affects the finished product. They keep the back of the distillery open to allow the salt air to filter through the distillery. The co-owners, Matt Newsome and Scott Smith, poured a little bit of each rum for us to sip and savor the flavors.

Kill Devil Rum

The Silver Rum is made out of molasses from Louisiana. The goal of this rum is to highlight the flavor profile of the raw ingredients, which has hints of crème brulée and toasted marshmallow with a smooth finish. Since there is not a lot of coconut around the Outer Banks, they have pecan-infused rum instead, where the pecans are grown right across the sound. The Pecan Rum starts with a nutty flavor and then turns to a subtle honey finish. The Gold Rum is barrel-aged for 18 months in American white oak barrels used previously for bourbon. The Gold Rum is so smooth with hints of oak and bourbon and was my favorite out of the three.

Kill Devil Rum is an establishment you must visit if you want to relax, sipping fabulous cocktails in a really cool environment.

Sail Outer Banks

Sailing with Sail Outer Banks on Ablemarle Sound in the Outer Banks

Sailing the Outer Banks is the ultimate ride and the best thing to do on Roanoke Island. I went on my first sailing adventure, and it was a thrill from beginning to end. Sail Outer Banks offers private charters from the marina in Manteo for up to 6 people to sail on the Roanoke and Albemarle Sound. Your captains are Katherine and Dan, who provide sunset cruises that last 2.5 to 3 hours and leave you with lasting memories of fun, excitement, and tranquility. Permission to come aboard? You betcha!

Pea Island

Memorial for Pea Island

Outside the entrance of the NC Aquarium is a memorial for Station Pea Island. From 1880 to 1947, the lifesaving station Pea Island was the only unit in the history of the Coast Guard, which was staffed by all-black crews. Today, Pea Island is a National Wildlife Rescue, where you can visit and see lots of birds and walk on the nature trails.


As you can see from this long blog post, there are many things to do on Roanoke Island. When visiting the Outer Banks, spend some time exploring this small slice of land with so much history. Adventures are waiting for your entire family; all you have to do is show up, as the colonists did over 400 years ago.

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Further Reading

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