Nestled on the waterfront in the heart of Roanoke Island – one of the four barrier islands that make up the Outer Banks – the town of Manteo just couldn’t be any more appealing. Picturesque boardwalk, a historic lighthouse, colorful gardens, outdoor activities, high concentration of restaurants, and the literal birthplace of English colonization in American, Manteo is a veritable romantic weekend interlude for couples.
Manteo at a Glance
Andy Griffith was a long-time resident of Manteo prior to his death in 2012. Residents of Manteo claim that the quaint town served as the inspiration for the town in the hit TV series “Andy of Mayberry” which ran from 1960 to1968.
Brief History of Manteo
The town was named for a Native American Croatan Chief named Manteo, who helped the first 16th century colonists survive their initial winter, and later became a goodwill ambassador and liaison between the Roanoke Colony settlers and the Indians.
The first American-born English child, Virginia Dare, was born in Manteo and it’s one of the first English settlements in the New World.
The Colonists disappeared after supplies from England were delayed for three years, creating the ongoing mystery of “The Lost Colony.”
Manteo was named the seat of government for Dare County in 1870 and was incorporated in 1899.
History aside, we love being outdoors as much as possible, so here are our picks for the ten best things to do in Manteo.
#10 - Beaches
Manteo is located on the waterfront, but it’s a marina and technically there is no beach area. However, don’t fret because the nearest beach is a mere ten minutes away and there are tons of lovely pristine beaches and protected shorelines within an hour’s drive. Find a list of beach and sound accesses to make your planning a breeze.
#9 - Dolphin Watch
From the harbor front, visitors can hop on a two-hour cruise through the protected waters off the Outer Banks. Searching and discovering bottlenose dolphins in the shallow Roanoke Sound is a great family activity and a big hit with small children. Since the lagoon is close to where the dolphins live and play, the large pontoon boats have over a 98% success rate of seeing dolphins thriving in their natural habitat.
Two of the popular resident dolphins, Rake and Cola, can be identified by the naturalist on board by the shape and markings of their dorsal fins. The friendly mammals often swim in the calm water, getting quite close to the vessel.
#8 - Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, established in 1941, preserves the site of Roanoke Colony, the first British settlement in the US, established in 1587.
The colony, which was promoted and backed by Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh, was abandoned sometime between 1587 and 1590 when supply ships came too late. No survivors were found and the fate of the “Lost Colony” is a mystery to this day. There are old earthen walls on the original site, and the visitor center has a museum that contains exhibits and records about the history of Roanoke Island and artifacts excavated from the nearby fort.
#7 - Roanoke Island Festival Park
Directly across from the Manteo waterfront is Roanoke Island Festival Park, a tiny man-made island that features a real-life recreation of everyday life in an early American colony. Attractions include Settler’s Village and Native American camp, each with interpretive character demonstrations and interactive displays of the lives of the colonists as well as of Native Americans before English settlers arrived. Also on the island is the Roanoke Adventure Museum with interactive exhibits and displays that take guests through 400 years of Roanoke Island history.
Docked on the island is the colorful and meticulously constructed Elizabeth II, a highly-detailed replica of the ship that carried the original (lost) colonists to Manteo. Tours of the ship are available during the prime summer months, but you can also get a great view of the ship from the downtown Manteo harbor front. Stationed right in the forefront of the park, adjacent to the wooden bridge that leads visitors to the park, the Elizabeth II is a recognizable and fascinating site to any downtown visitor.
#6 - Parasailing
For those seeking outdoor adventure and activities in Manteo, there’s plenty to be had. If you want to get a birds-eye view of the marshes, beaches, and coastline of the Outer Banks, take to the sky on a parasail tethered to a motorboat.
Snuggled securely into a harness, you’ll soon be airborne and as the boat speeds up and the swift winds shoot the parachute up into the sky. As the boat skims the shore, the changing coastline offers a magnificent view. Looking for more adventures? Check out the best outdoor activities in the Outer Banks!
#5 - Elizabethan Gardens
Located on Roanoke Island, just a few miles from downtown Manteo, the beautiful 10-acre Elizabethan Gardens are found on the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Here, Sir Walter Raleigh sought to colonize the New World under Elizabeth I. History, mystery, and fantasy are combined in the beautiful Elizabethan Gardens. The gardens are a memorial to the courageous English colonists who came to Roanoke Island in 1584 and walked “away through the dark forest into history” as the Lost Colony in 1587.
A self-guided walking trail leads visitors through gardens that are delightful and elaborate, with over 500 different species of plants, gazebos, and Elizabethan era-inspired sculptures throughout. Every season has its own show-stopper; when we visited in June, blue, purple, pink, magenta, and white hydrangeas were exploding throughout the gardens. Other seasons bring camellias, roses, tulips, and magnolias.
#4 - Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse
Different than the other tall spiraling lighthouses in the Outer Banks, Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is also the most underrated, probably because of its much smaller size and remote location. Classified as an “in-shore” lighthouse, the one-story structure sits at the end of a 40-yard pier at the quiet east end of the Manteo waterfront. The bright white exterior is accented with black shutters and a red shingled roof. For me, the small size only adds to its charm and makes it the most Instagram-worthy background in Manteo.
#3 - Lost Colony Outdoor Drama
In the charming open-air amphitheater, the story of The Lost Colony has been told each summer since 1937. English Roanoke Colony is where Virginia Dare was born, and the entire colony vanished from Roanoke Island in 1587. The original colony was led by Sir Walter Raleigh on this very site in 1587, but the entire colony mysteriously abandoned with no survivors found.
The 2-hr. “Lost Colony” performance is the second longest-running symphonic outdoor drama in the United States; the play is an exciting family-friendly adventure commemorating the original pioneers. The amphitheater is a cultural focal point for much of the Outer Banks. Disclosure: The performance did not take place when we were there. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, some venues may have limited open times and regulations and others may be temporarily closed. Please call ahead to verify.
#2 - Kayak the Marshes
Kayaking around the marshes is one of the most enjoyable outdoor activities in Manteo. It’s especially serene early in the morning as your kayak quietly slips through the marshland with only local wildlife as your company. We rented a tandem kayak right on the Manteo boardwalk and launched just a few steps away. You can take a tour, but it’s also very easy to do your own paddle at your own pace.
We started our leisurely paddle by ducking under the bridge in Manteo Sound, then up and down some of the shallow cattail-lined canals. We glided through waters as calm as glass and let the serene, peaceful vibe engulfed us. You’ll glide past Manteo waterfront’s iconic sites: Roanoke Island Festival Park – a tiny island directly across from downtown Manteo, the Elizabeth II replica of the 16th sailing vessel that brought the first European residents to the Outer Banks, and the charming Roanoke Marshes Light, a beautiful reproduction of the small lighthouse that once guided sailors in the sound. As you approach town again, it’s a different and quite pretty perspective to see the quaint port village from your kayak.
#1 - Historic Downtown/Waterfront
My favorite thing to do in Manteo is spending oodles of time in the bustling downtown and harbor area. I love just strolling around, exploring the blocks of boutique shops, book stores, cafés, stores, and some of the Outer Banks’ most highly-acclaimed restaurants.
Behind the downtown, the small streets that lead to the harbor feature homes and B&B’s with stunning gardens. The historic Tudor-style Pioneer Theater is also located here and claims to be the oldest single-screen and family-owned movie theater in America.
Next to the waterfront is a boardwalk that meanders by parks, a playground, picnic areas, a boat ramp, watersport rentals, a gazebo for photos, restaurants, ice cream shops, and a marina filled with sailboats and yachts.
Where to Eat in Manteo
Easily our favorite place to eat, Avenue Waterfront Grille has scrumptious seafood served with a prime view overlooking Shallowbag Bay and the Manteo harbor.
Avenue Waterfront Grille is one of the few Outer Banks boat-up restaurants. Free dockage is available at the Manteo town docks. For pet-lovers, the outdoor patio is dog-friendly.
Overlooking the docks at Pirate’s Cove Marina Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar actually offers two restaurants with the same menu. Inside, on the second floor is the more formal restaurant offering seasonal seafood while gazing at the view of the water and Bodie Island Lighthouse. For more casual dining, guests dine outdoors with live music at Mimi Tiki Hut, located on the dock just outside the restaurant.
With a motto of “great brew, great chew,” the lively Lost Colony Brewery and Café is located on a busy corner in the heart of downtown Manteo. Dining is available inside the brewery or on the outside patio lined with umbrellas. Next to the café is their tasting room and bar.
Where to Stay in Manteo
While there are lots of places to stay in Manteo, hands-down my favorite is the Tranquil House Inn. The lovely boutique hotel is the only accommodation in Manteo located right on the water. The location right in the middle of downtown could not be more convenient, just steps away from all the restaurants and amusements.
Check out more places to stay in Manteo.
If you’re looking for an escape that is oozing small-town charm yet offers plenty of things to do and delicious dining experiences, you will fall in love with the coastal vibe of Manteo. I know I did.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Outer Banks Tourism during her stay in Manteo, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.