Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks: Which Beach Getaway is Better?

When you plan a beach getaway in the Carolinas, you might wonder whether Hilton Head or the Outer Banks are better. Both locations offer beautiful beaches, lots of activities, and plenty of dining options. Still, there are some differences. We compare Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks to help you decide which beach is perfect for your next trip.

Comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks as Beach Destinations

The most obvious difference in comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks is that Hilton Head is a moderately sized island, while the Outer Banks is a chain of barrier islands extending 175 miles from top to bottom. This fundamental difference will impact which of these Carolina beach destinations makes the most sense for you to visit.

Still, both beach destinations are worth visiting, so let’s dive into understanding the differences and which getaway location might be right for you.

Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks

Location and Geography: How Close Are Hilton Head and the Outer Banks?

While you might think of the Carolinas as one region, Hilton Head (in South Carolina) is about 500 miles south of the Outer Banks (in North Carolina). You may not have even known the Carolinas were so big, but the coastal vibe along the Outer Banks is much different than the Lowcountry of South Carolina, even if there are some similarities.

Hilton Head Island (HHI), South Carolina

Hilton Head is a beautiful island located on the southern coast of South Carolina. The Atlantic Ocean mostly surrounds the island, but the Broad River (a tidal channel) borders the northern edge of Hilton Head Island. One reason that I love the island is that it isn’t as overdeveloped as many beach communities. It’s a fairly big island covering 69 square miles and boasts 12 miles of beautiful beaches.

Massive oak trees cover the island, such that it doesn’t feel like you are on an island until you reach the beach. Still, there are plenty of palm trees and marshland too. The Hilton Head Island Trust preserves the natural habitat of the island. Its 300 acres include the Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy, Cypress Converancy, and Fort Howell.

While the beaches feature white sands and picturesque vistas, the entire island is stunning, with lush greenery and intimidating marshes. To offer a sense of the natural feel for the island, you find signs all across the island reminding visitors to stay away from alligators. I’ve never seen one while visiting, but they clearly thrive in the marshes.

Harbour Town Lighthouse is one of the many activities to do on Hilton Head Island.

The Outer Banks (OBX), North Carolina

The Outer Banks are a unique chain of barrier islands that extend over 175 miles along the coast of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. While a very popular tourist destination, the Outer Banks are, unfortunately, susceptible to sea level rise resulting from climate change.

For example, the beach on Hatteras Island receded about 2,500 feet in the past 150 years. That’s almost half a mile of erosion on a chain of already fairly narrow islands. Hurricanes have further contributed to this problem in recent decades.

And while it is important to understand the fragile state of the Outer Banks’ existence, that’s only more reason to make a visit soon. The chain of islands is truly beautiful.

The largest islands include Bodie Island, Pea Island, Hatteras Island, and Portsmouth Island. The islands separate the Atlantic Ocean from a series of sounds, including the Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound, and Pamlico Sound.

One of the most distinctive features of the Outer Banks is their length. It is one of the longest chains of barrier islands in the world. North Carolina Highway 12 is the main road that threads down the Outer Banks, connecting the peninsulas and islands.

Some of the most popular destinations along the Outer Banks include Corolla, where you can see the wild horses, and Cape Hatteras, where you can visit the lighthouse.

As a side note: Grayson Highlands is located 400 miles across North Carolina, just into the Virginia border. You will find wild horses at Grayson Highlands too. Our family is a sucker for a road trip to see wild horses. In our experience, there aren’t many more unique ways to explore.

In comparing Outer Banks vs. Hilton Head, the wild horses are a big win for the Outer Banks.

What is the Difference Between Hilton Head and The Outer Banks?

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks, you will find that Hilton Head is one large island that is relatively close to larger cities, including Charleston and Savannah. The Outer Banks are a long chain of barrier islands with many small beach communities but no big cities. In this way, the Outer Banks are more natural and secluded.

The Beaches! Comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks Oceanfront

While Hilton Head is a fairly big island, with 12 miles of pristine beaches, that pales in comparison to the more than 100 miles of beaches along the Outer Banks.

An Overview of Hilton Head’s Beaches

Perhaps its that access to the island is naturally limited by the one bridge entering the island, but the island feels more natural and untainted by humans than many beaches. Some beaches on the island, especially near the Broad River, look like you might expect them to have looked when explorers first found the island.

Marshes run near the coast such that reeds are pilled up on some of the shores, and the beaches are filled with shells.

Still, most of the beaches have the whitest sand I’ve seen anywhere along the eastern coast of the United States. I grew up in Florida going to the beaches, and Hilton Head’s beaches are much better, especially along the Atlantic.

And even so, something feels more natural than other beaches, even those in South Carolina. The last time I was there with my kids, a beautiful sting ray swam by about 5 or 6 feet away from where we waded into the ocean. Later we saw a cannonball jellyfish float on by.

I love Hilton Head Island because it feels so natural, even though thousands of beachgoers enjoy the island’s 12 miles of beaches daily. Hilton Head might have my favorite beaches in either Carolina.

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks beaches, there are many similarities.

An Overview of the Outer Banks Beaches

The Outer Banks are home to some of the most beautiful and unique beaches in the entire world. The most popular beaches include Corolla Beach (where you can see wild horses), Nags Head Beach, and Hatteras Island Beach.

While the Outer Banks is a hot tourist destination and home to some of the most popular beaches in North Carolina, three of the barrier islands are undeveloped. North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks are beautiful and natural islands used for conservation research.

The natural beauty and wildlife along the Outer Banks separate the destination from other beach communities along the East Coast. How many places can you go see wild horses along a beach? Not many.

Is Hilton Head Like The Outer Banks?

The Outer Banks are a chain of barrier islands, while Hilton Head is one island. The barrier islands are generally more narrow than Hilton Head Island, but both destinations have beautifully pristine beaches and inviting beach communities. Hilton Head is closer to large towns than the Outer Banks, which is generally more secluded.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most famous lighthouses on the East Coast. In comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks, both have famous lighthouses, but Cape Hatteras is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States.

Activities: Does Hilton Head Island or the Outer Banks Offer More To Do?

While hanging out on the beach or near a pool is relaxing, you might find you are actually after adventure. Fortunately, you will find plenty of adventure in comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks.

We recommend kayaking near Hilton Head Island and a guided tour to see the wild horses along the Outer Banks.

What Activities Are Available on Hilton Head Island?

Hilton Head Island is a true paradise for those seeking outdoor activities. The iconic red-and-white Harbour Town Lighthouse is a must-visit attraction that has served the island for more than five decades. Visitors can climb to the top of the lighthouse for breathtaking views of the Yacht Basin and island.

For those who prefer to explore the island by land, there are over 60 miles of bike paths to explore, as well as numerous hiking trails and nature preserves.

Golf enthusiasts will find plenty to love on Hilton Head Island, which is home to over 20 championship golf courses. These courses offer a range of difficulty levels and styles, and Hilton Head was voted a Top 10 golf destination in the world. In fact, the island is home to a PGA Tour event known as the RBC Heritage.

For those who prefer to explore the island’s natural beauty from the water, kayaking is a popular activity on Hilton Head Island. Visitors can rent kayaks and explore the island’s many waterways, including Broad Creek and the Calibogue Sound. Kayaking tours are also available, offering guided trips through some of the island’s most scenic areas.

Of course, no trip to Hilton Head Island would be complete without a visit to the beach. With 12 miles of white-sand beaches, the island offers plenty of opportunities for swimming or just relaxing.

There are so many activities on Hilton Head Island that there is something for everyone. This includes the massive Adventure Playground, which is a playground for kids made to look like a pirate ship.

There is a large pirate ship playground for children at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island.

What Activities Are Available in the Outer Banks?

I’ve alluded to this already, but the most popular activity along the Outer Banks is seeing the wild horses roam freely on the beaches and dunes. You shouldn’t approach the horses, so we recommend you consider one of several guided tours to see them and learn about their history.

The natural beauty and unique wildlife are two of the biggest reasons to visit the Outer Banks, so finding a local tour guide makes a ton of sense. You will also find guided hiking tours and kayaking expeditions.

Most people know about the iconic black-and-white Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. Far fewer people know that there are five shipwrecks that you can visit near the Outer Banks.

In fact, some estimate that there are nearly 3,000 shipwrecks in total along the barrier islands. Many of the shipwrecks date back to the first English settlements. The large concentration of shipwrecks is collectively known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

The Outer Banks represent natural beauty and adventure. Whether you are interested in seeing the wild horses, taking a kayaking tour, or simply exploring the sandy beaches and dunes, the Outer Banks offer an unforgettable experience.

The Outer Banks are home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. In comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks, both have picturesque beaches.

Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?

In comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks, you will find a variety of price points and experiences. For example, did you know that you can actually stay at the Inn at Rodanthe, where Richard Gere and Diane Lane starred in Nights in Rodanthe?

Where Should You Stay Near Hilton Head?

There are plenty of places to stay on Hilton Head Island, including luxurious resorts and beachfront rentals, so you will surely find something that fits your needs. One of the best ways to choose where to stay on Hilton Head Island is to consider the distinct neighborhood vibes.

Sea Pines is one of the island’s most well-known and picturesque neighborhoods. It’s home to the Harbour Town lighthouse, as well as a number of high-end resorts and vacation rentals. The vibe here is upscale and family-friendly, with plenty of outdoor recreation and places to relax.

Palmetto Dunes is another popular neighborhood on the island that has some of the most direct exposure to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s known for its beautiful beaches, as well as its golf courses and tennis facilities. Palmetto Dunes is active and sporty but still offers plenty of access to the beautiful island beaches.

Some of the neighborhoods on the island, like Mitcheville near the airport, offer more residential neighborhood experiences. This makes it a great place to find VRBOs and AirBnBs. This is also a neighborhood with more secluded beaches that attract fewer tourists. Neighborhoods like Mitcheville are ideal for visitors looking for a more low-key experience.

We recommend considering Bluffton if you are looking for something a little different. While not on the island, the town of Bluffton is only a few miles away, and it is one of our favorite towns in all of South Carolina. Bluffton has a historic downtown area that is only a few blocks from a public dock on the nearby May River. It may be the perfect place to go boating or kayaking.

Bluffton is near Hilton Head Island, on the May River. It is an excellent place to stay if you can't find somewhere on the island.

Bluffton Public Dock

Which Part of Outer Banks Is The Best to Stay?

While hotel high rises fill the coastline for some Carolina beach communities, rentals are the name of the game along the Outer Banks. After all, that’s why it was the perfect backdrop for the Hollywood adaptation of Nights in Rodanthe.

Many of the quaint beach towns are relaxed, offering the perfect place to unplug and unwind. Still, there are several upscale resorts located along the barrier islands. And even the more traditional hotel brands are expensive.

Space is limited along the islands, creating an exclusive and expensive dynamic. If you plan to stay in Outer Banks for very long, prepare to spend some money.

On the other hand, there are several locations along the Outer Banks that offer both RV campsites and more traditional tent campsites. Camping is one to truly immerse yourself in an Outer Banks adventure.

Dining and Nightlife: Where Are The Best Places to Eat and Drink

Eating out might be my favorite part of any vacation, and you will find plenty of high-quality options whether you choose Hilton Head or Outer Banks.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out on Hilton Head Island?

Hilton Head Island is a fun and relaxed place to hang out, with a wide variety of restaurants and places to eat. While some of these spots are high-end restaurants, I appreciate that there are also several local restaurants that are still affordable.

Coligny Plaza is one of the most popular areas to eat on the island. My family loves to stroll around Coligny Plaza in the evenings because there are plenty of low-key places to eat and shop (and eat ice cream!). And there is a massive play area for kids, including a huge pirate ship, across the street at Coligny Beach.

Another popular area for dining on Hilton Head Island is Shelter Cove Harbour and Marina. This waterfront destination is home to a number of restaurants and bars. Naturally, many of the restaurants offer outdoor seating with beautiful views of the marina.

Overall, Hilton Head Island has no shortage of dining options, from casual beachfront eateries to more high-end restaurants. Whether you’re in the mood for seafood, pizza, or something in between, you’re sure to find something to satisfy your appetite on this beautiful island.

Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head Island offers some of the best restaurants and shopping.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out in the Outer Banks?

For families with children, areas like Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills offer a range of casual dining options. You will find fine dining, but you will also find seafood, barbecue, and even pizza. These areas also offer fun family activities like mini-golf and go-karts.

Up the road in Duck and Corolla, you might find a few more fine dining establishments, but you will also find a good mix in these towns as well. The Outer Banks offer a wide range of dining and nightlife options, similar to what you will find in other beach destination towns.

The one difference we will note for the Outer Banks is that each town along the barrier islands has its own distinct vibe and feel. The local town you visit will impact your overall dining and entertainment options. All are good, but some are more relaxed, while others offer a more refined experience.

Is Hilton Head Island or the Outer Banks Better?

Hilton Head Island and the Outer Banks are similar because of the beautiful beaches and mild climate, but we recommend the Outer Banks as the perfect East Coast beach getaway because of the variety you will find along the 175 miles of the barrier island chain. We love Hilton Head Island because it has a laid-back vibe that is perfect for families, but you can see wild horses on the Outer Banks, and that’s just the start.

For those looking for something more lively than Hilton Head or the Outer Banks, compare Hilton Head vs. Myrtle Beach. They are both in South Carolina, but Myrtle Beach offers a bustling boardwalk and amusement park.

If you are traveling from the north, you might compare the Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach. Similar to Hilton Head Island, the Outer Banks are much more laid back than Myrtle Beach but offer fewer adrenaline-pumping attractions.

The Verdict: Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks

Myrtle the turtle honors the eggs buried on the beaches every two years.

There are reasons to love both beaches, but in comparing Hilton Head vs. Outer Banks, there are some distinct differences. I love Hilton Head because it is very family-friendly, and the expansive beaches provide plenty of room to spread out away from others. Still, for those seeking adventure, the Outer Banks is one of the most unique destinations along the East Coast.

Jeremiah moved to the Charlotte area with his wife, Erin, back in 2013. The family has grown over the years, and they now call the Carolinas home. They enjoy hiking and adventures, road trips, backyard fire pits, and pizza night. Jeremiah loves to explore, and looks forward to sharing tips, tricks, and resources for your next trip.