The Coastal Carolina Road Trip Route You Need
Our Coastal Carolina Road Trip Adventure
We found Lowcountry, lighthouses, beaches, and more on our April 2019 North and South Carolina road trip. In eight busy days, we road tripped from Norfolk, VA to Charleston, SC and back again via the Outer Banks. Along the way, we visit one of America’s oldest cities, dipped our toes in the Atlantic Ocean, drank Pepsi Cola in its original store, saw iconic lighthouses, and visited the birthplace of flight.
If you want to explore North and South Carolina’s coast but can only get away from work for a week, this is the Carolinas road trip itinerary you’re looking for. We covered approximately 1200 miles total. This worked out to a little less than three hours in the car each day.
Although we did book all our night’s accommodations in advance, this road trip itinerary gave us plenty of flexibility to spontaneously find the Carolinas’ very best restaurants and things to do. Read on for our day-by-day travels on this North and South Carolina road trip, including our top eats, drinks, and adventures.
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Who should go on a Coastal Carolinas Road Trip?
Three specific types of travelers would enjoy a Coastal Carolinas Road Trip: foodies, families, and history buffs. We did this trip in our mid-thirties. With the exception of Wilmington, NC, we felt a little young for many of the Carolina destinations we hit up.
I really dislike the term “foodie.” While I’d never call myself one, there’s no denying that all three of us enjoy a good meal. From gourmet donuts to unforgettable grits, we thoroughly noshed our way through the Carolinas. If you enjoy seafood and barbecue, you’re in for a treat on a Carolina road trip.
We found so many family-friendly activities on this road trip. When you consider opportunities like touring a historic battleship in Wilmington and beach combing the Outer Banks, I think this would be such a fun road trip to take with older elementary school aged kids. With a nice balance of educational and just-for-fun activities, the Carolinas make a perfect family destination.
Pirates. Shipwrecks. The Civil War. You’ll find fascinating, complicated history in the Carolinas that will appeal to any history buff. On this road trip, you’ll visit where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. You can tour beautiful plantations and learn about the Lowcountry’s legacy of slavery. It’s also where the Wright Brothers successfully tested their plane prototype. Also, pirates. Shipwrecks.
When’s the best time of year to do a Coastal Carolinas Road Trip?
Mid-April proved a great time to visit North and South Carolina. For a trio of landlocked Minnesotans, we enjoyed weather warm enough for t-shirts and beach lounging, but not so hot that we turned into sweltering little puddles.
However, April falls firmly in spring break season. As popular a family destination as the Outer Banks is, if you chose to travel this time of year you don’t want to dilly-dally when it comes to booking lodging. Yet, despite its springtime popularity, we discovered many Outer Banks businesses still closed for the winter.
I suspect the sweet spot for visiting the Outer Banks when all restaurants and shops are open falls somewhere in mid-May before Memorial Day weekend.
As a popular family beach vacation spot, high season in the Outer Banks correlates with schools’ summer breaks. We actually hit Charleston’s during one of its busy seasons. Most people prefer to visit southern cities like Charleston and Savannah in the spring or fall, when temperatures are warm, but not unbearable.
Fall also sounds like a beautiful time to visit the Carolina coast and a good option for avoiding crowds. However, we were leery of scheduling our trip during hurricane season, which peaks from late August – early October. While the Carolina coast certainly isn’t as prone to hurricanes as say, the Florida panhandle, they’re not an uncommon occurrence. The Carolinas often escape hurricanes’ destructive winds, but they remain prone to massive rain events and flooding as storms work their way up the Atlantic coast.
Our Coastal Carolina Road Trip Map
Carolinas Road Trip Planner
Day One: Norfolk, VA to Charleston, SC
Outer Banks might be the birthplace of flight, but you’re in for a road trip if you want to fly into a major airport when visiting OBX. The closest airport to the Outer Banks is Norfolk, Virginia – about a 1.5 hour drive from the barrier islands. We took an early morning flight out of Minneapolis/St. Paul to Norfolk, grabbed our rental car, and made the seven-hour drive down Interstate 95 to Charleston, SC.
In hindsight, I wish we’d paid a little more for a multi-city flight and one way car rental. This was a long travel day. If we’d flown into Charleston, we’d have had another half day to explore.
Eat: We swung into the Swig and Swine BBQ joint near our West Ashley Airbnb for some al fresco dining. The roadside restaurant had a laidback vibe and delicious barbecue.
Waypoints: If you plan more carefully than us, you could make the drive from Norfolk to Charleston less of a grind with a few fun roadside stops. Averasboro Battlefield, a North Carolina Civil War battlefield, is located just eight miles off of I-95. Another absolute spectacle along the I-95 corridor is South of the Border. We didn’t stop, but this well-advertised theme park right as you cross into South Carolina gave me major Wall Drug vibes.
Day Two: A Day in Charleston’s Historic Downtown
We spent all day in the historic downtown district of Charleston and barely scratched the surface. You can read all about our day in Charleston’s Historic Downtown.
Eat: If you can only eat one thing in Charleston, make sure it’s the grits at Fleet Landing. Although this large waterfront restaurant doesn’t have much personality, the food was phenomenal.
Waypoints: There isn’t much to see once you reach the island, but I still recommend taking the ferry to Fort Sumter. While you might think the main draw is seeing the starting point of the American Civil War, I liked the ferry ride even more. You’ll enjoy great views of Charleston and have a chance to spot dolphins.
A horse carriage tour will take you past Charleston favorites such as Rainbow Row and the Pineapple Fountain.
Don’t forget to swing into the Historic Charleston City Market.
Day Three: Charleston, SC to Wilmington, NC
After lingering in the Charleston area for the morning, we slowly worked our way north to Wilmington, NC. Sometimes too slowly. We got stuck in stop and go traffic on our way to Myrtle Beach.
Tired of sitting at stoplights, we grabbed iced coffees and abandoned our attempt to actually see sand in Myrtle Beach. We pulled into Wilmington just in time for dinner.
Downtown Wilmington has a definite party vibe . . . mixed with a hippie demeanor. Bars, breweries, and CBD dispensaries lined Front Street near our Airbnb. Since it was Friday night, we spontaneously embarked on an epic pub crawl . . . at least epic for three ladies in their 30s.
Drink: The first official stop on our pub crawl was the Platypus and Gnome – mostly because Leah liked their logo and wanted a t-shirt. We grabbed pints at Slainte Irish Pub. Our final stop was the Ironclad Brewery to soak up their industrial, exposed brick vibe and craft brews.
Eat: The seafood restaurant (Dock Street Oyster Bar) where we ate supper has since closed permanently. However, we enjoyed late night snacks at Front Street Brewery.
Waypoints: To start the day, we took a southerly detour to the Angel Tree, the largest live oak tree east of the Mississippi River. (If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it’ll give you major “Whomping Willow” vibes.) The tree’s owned by the City of Charleston and operated as a city park. While it’s pretty lacking in any interpretative information, there is a gift shop!
We also swung by Boone Hall Plantation. Best known (today) as a movie setting for The Notebook, this plantation gives slavery era interpretation a stab, but the big house only dates back to the 1930s.
Day Four: A Day in Wilmington, NC
I didn’t know anything about Wilmington, NC before our visit. Located just inland on the Cape Fear River, this port city has been of strategic important since the American Revolutionary War. A small city with a population of approximately 115,000, Wilmington’s economy has historically been tied to the sea.
In recent years, it’s transformed into a tourist destination, in part because of its aforementioned nightlife. The town’s known both for its examples of antebellum architecture, including Bellamy Mansion, and its access to Cape Fear beaches.
Millennials may know Wilmington as the setting of the WB’s One Tree Hill series. Michael Jordan grew up here. The city also has a nasty legacy of racism, including a racial massacre in 1898.
Eat: Donut lovers, don’t miss Wake N Bake Donuts for interesting flavor combinations like Carolina Sand – maple iced donuts sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.
We grabbed brunch at The Basics in the Cotton Exchange.
Wanting to shake up our dining experiences, we headed to Little Dipper Fondue for a three-course meal. If you want a table (and it’s Saturday night), make a reservation. We ended up at the bar. Long lines and delicious ice cream greeted us at Kilwins Chocolates afterwards.
Waypoints: Wilmington’s most obvious tourist attraction is the USS North Carolina, a WWII battleship that saw action in the Pacific. The ship has been moored in Wilmington since 1961 and is accessed from the south shore of Cape Fear River. Back on the city side of the river, we explored the River Walk and the Cotton Exchange shopping complex. We also snagged some local produce and eggs at the Riverfront Farmers Market.
Day Five: Wilmington, NC to Outer Banks, NC
A full day was more than enough time to explore Wilmington. Provisioned with caffeine from 24 South Coffee House, we hit the road bright and early. We intended to have a beach day and slowly make our way to our final destination: North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Eat: Today wasn’t a spectacular eating day. We found limited dining options in Manteo and ended up at Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar. In Nags Head, Pirate’s Booty Ice Cream was a fun and extremely busy after-dinner stop.
Waypoints: We swung into Airlie Gardens on our way to Wilmington Beach. Hazy, cool weather cut our beach day short. Instead we pulled into Wrightsville SUP to enjoy an hour of paddleboarding on the sound. On our way north, we broke up the drive with a stop in New Bern to grab an ice-cold Pepsi at the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola.
Day Six: Southern Outer Banks
The Outer Banks surprised us a little, but I loved it. Of all the places we explored in the Carolinas, the Outer Banks would be the first I’d return to. I was so fascinating by these islands’ unique ecology and juxtaposition of tourism and community. For all intents and purposes, these narrow islands should be uninhabitable. OBX truly has a vibe all its own.
We headed over the Highway 64 bridge from our Airbnb in Manteo and turned south. When we couldn’t drive any farther, we caught a ferry to Ocracoke Island and drove a little farther.
Drink: We hit up 1718 Brewery in the village of Ocracoke Island for some brews and a delightful seafood stuffed pretzel.
Eat: I had my heart set on eating a hot dog at the beach, so we tried Fattys Treats and Tours in Buxton. We expected standard greasy spoon fare, but both the food and service was exceptional. Worn out by a long day in the car, we pulled into Café Pamlico in Buxton for dinner. The higher end dining was good, but somewhat lost on us.
Waypoints: By far the most popular thing to do as an Outer Banks first timer is visiting the islands’ five lighthouses. We hit up three: Bodie, Cape Hatteras, and Ocracoke. On Pea Island, we stopped for some beachcombing and did a little people watching at Rodanthe Pier. We got a crash course in Outer Banks history at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
Day Seven: Northern Outer Banks to Norfolk, VA
After spending the day before exploring the southern Outer Banks, we headed north today. This part of the Outer Banks is much more developed than what we explored the day before. You’ll find a pretty dense concentration of businesses and homes north of Nags Head. It feels like there’s a Super Wings (a t-shirt and beach supply shop) every couple miles. At times we hit heavy traffic.
Drink: We swung into Morning View Coffee House to caffeinate for the day. This colorful, independent coffee shop’s conveniently located next to a Forbes Candies shop. If you need to stock up on coffee and salt water taffy (we did), you’re in luck!
Eat: We couldn’t visit the Outer Banks and not get Duck Donuts! The made to order donuts didn’t disappoint.
I firmly believe you should end every road trip with pizza. We stumbled upon a local favorite, Pembroke Pizza, to close out our trip in Norfolk.
Waypoints: I found the Wright Brothers National Monument surprisingly fascinating. We finished our tour of Outer Banks lighthouses at Currituck. Despite our best attempts to book a wild horse tour in Corolla, all companies were booked several days out. Before hitting the road one last time, we soaked up some sunshine at Currituck Public Beach and got some beach reading in. We also visited a Corolla Volunteer Fire Station to pick up souvenir t-shirts. We were happy to support this fundraising effort!
Day Eight: Fly home from Norfolk to Minneapolis
We caught an early morning flight out of Norfolk and I was home by dinnertime. To be honest, I remember this trip being much longer than eight days. We saw so much in just a few days!
Lessons Learned on Our Coastal Carolinas Road Trip
If I could it again, I’d probably opt for a multi-city flight rather than the round trip flights we booked in and out of Norfolk, VA. If we’d avoided the seven-hour drive from Norfolk to Charleston on Day one, we might have been able to sneak Savannah, GA into this itinerary.
While I thoroughly enjoyed our chill day in Wilmington, NC, I’d say this small city just warrants an overnight. By far the most memorable thing we did in Wilmington was a pub crawl. None of us were in any condition to repeat that on our second night in town!
I’m not sure what I would do with that extra day the itinerary gains by letting go of a full day in Wilmington. I really loved the Outer Banks and hope to return for a longer visit sometime soon. But I’d probably advise using that time for another ½ day in Charleston and an honest to goodness visit to Myrtle Beach.
I could also be convinced to spent some time exploring Norfolk, VA instead of just flying in and out of it.
Can I add Savannah, GA to this Carolina road trip itinerary?
We hemmed and hawed about whether we wanted to include Savannah, GA on our coastal Carolinas road trip itinerary. Even though Savannah is only a two-hour drive from Charleston, Jenny finally concluded that we simply didn’t have enough time to swing that far south. I think she was absolutely correct.
We didn’t cover much mileage on this road trip, but had so much fun exploring our destinations that any time in the car really dragged. I’m glad we didn’t cram Savannah in since it would have meant we’d have cut our time short somewhere else. My long weekend in Savannah in December 2021 proved the perfect amount of time to explore the southern city.
If you’re looking to turn this coastal Carolina itinerary into a farther reaching USA Atlantic Coast road trip, you absolutely could add Savannah. However, to achieve a day in Savannah, you’ll want to add two full days, especially if you’re planning to fly in and out of the same airport. Remember, if you’re doubling back to where you started, adding Savannah will increase your driving time by four hours.
Have you explore the Carolina coasts? Do you like road tripping?
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