Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks: Where Should You Vacation?

The Carolinas are known for their beautiful mountains and beaches. Myrtle Beach and the Outer Banks are two of the most popular beach destinations, but the two coastal areas are very different. In comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, you will find that Myrtle Beach offers more lively attractions along its boardwalk, while the latter is more relaxed.

Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks as Beach Destinations

Myrtle Beach, located in South Carolina, features one of the most prominent boardwalks south of Atlantic City. It’s reminiscent of old beach movies featuring boardwalk games, souvenir shops, and lots of saltwater taffy. On the other hand, the Outer Banks represents a much larger region located along a series of barrier islands. The Outer Banks are well-known for outdoor activities, such as fishing, kayaking, and hiking.

We will take a deeper dive to compare Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, so you know where you might find wild horses and which beach destination makes the most sense for you.

Myrtle Beach at Sunrise

Location and Geography: How Close Are Myrtle Beach and Outer Banks?

While Myrtle Beach is located just south of the North Carolina border, it’s not as easy as you might think to make your way up to the Outer Banks. This is partly because there are only a few entry points to the barrier islands. Once you cross onto the islands, you’ll likely still need to drive for a bit to reach your intended destination.

In this regard, it’s worth noting that there are multiple cities located along the Outer Banks, and some of them are further apart than you might expect. Even so, as an example, it will take over 6 hours to drive from Myrtle Beach to Corolla, which is one of the most popular destinations along the Outer Banks.

Myrtle Beach (MYR), South Carolina

Myrtle Beach is the largest city located along the 60-mile stretch of South Carolina, which is known as the “Grand Strand.” The Grand Strand is one of the most popular beach destinations in the United States. Endless hotels, golf resorts, and other beach-themed attractions fill the stretch.

In fact, around 20 million people vacation along the Grand Strand each year. Myrtle Beach sits between the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, which makes it a great place to visit if you like water sports, boating, or even fishing.

The Grand Stand is located just south of the North Carolina state line, making it a popular destination for all of the Carolinas.

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.

What is the Difference Between Myrtle Beach and Outer Banks?

In comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach is lively and exciting. You will find the SkyWheel, and famous tourist draws like WonderWorks and Ripley’s Aquarium. In contrast, the Outer Banks is much more serene. It’s the type of place you go to bond with family and unwind. Whether you choose Myrtle Beach or the Outer Banks depends on what type of vacation you are looking to find.

In comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach offers more tourist-like attractions, like the SkyWheel.

The Beaches! Comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks Oceanfront

If you are heading to Myrtle Beach or the Outer Banks, you are obviously spending a little time at the beach. Good for you. Carolina beaches are among the most beautiful beaches along the East Coast, so you really can’t go wrong. Still, the vibes are definitely a little different. Myrtle Beach is generally a little more crowded (which some people prefer), and you won’t find wild horses at Myrtle Beach like on the Outer Banks.

An Overview of Myrtle Beach Beaches

Keep in mind that Myrtle Beach sits on a 60-mile stretch of beaches commonly referred to as the Grand Strand. So there are literally beautiful beaches as far as the eye can see. The most visited beaches are those within walking distance of the boardwalk activities, but there are several other spots worth checking out.

One of the most popular places for visitors to reach the beach is Myrtle Beach State Park. It’s a one-mile stretch of beach that offers a boardwalk, outdoor showers, bathrooms, and changing facilities. Here is a fun fact about Myrtle Beach State Park: Loggerhead Sea Turtles still use the state park for nesting.

We also recommend that you check out Surfside Beach, which is a town just south of Myrtle Beach and also part of the Grand Strand. Surfside Beach has been named “The Family Beach,” and it is a near-perfect location to make beach memories to think back on for years to come.

Here is my insider tip for visiting the local beaches: Go for a run along the boardwalk at sunrise. There are few around, and the cool morning beach breeze will propel you along the lights of the boardwalk. I love a good sunrise run, and the Myrtle Beach boardwalk is one of my favorite places for a morning run.

In comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, you will find both are beautiful, but Myrtle Beach is much more developed.

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 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 Myrtle Beach Like Outer Banks?

Myrtle Beach isn’t much like the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks are natural and serene. After all, you might see wild horses near the beach town of Corolla. Myrtle Beach’s coastline is beautiful but is much more developed and busy. Both are great destinations, but they are different.

In comparing the Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach, the boardwalk activities are the biggest difference.

Activities: Does Myrtle Beach or Outer Banks Offer More To Do?

When you start to compare the available activities at Myrtle Beach to those along the Outer Banks, that is where you really start to understand the differences between the two beach destinations. Myrtle Beach is alive and exciting, while the Outer Banks are inherently more relaxed.

Also, keep in mind that activities along the Outer Banks will vary depending on the city you are staying near. It’s a two-hour drive from Corolla, on the Northern part of the Outer Banks, down to Hatteras Island, near the southern section of the barrier islands. There are a whole variety of activities along this two-hour stretch. In comparison, most of the activities in Myrtle Beach are clustered near the boardwalk.

What Activities Are Available at Myrtle Beach?

The South Carolina coast is blessed with miles and miles of beautiful beaches, but Myrtle Beach is much different than most of the other beach communities. Why? Well, Myrtle Beach has positioned itself as a premier vacation destination and offers a plethora of activities beyond beachgoing.

The Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade run for more than a mile along the oceanfront in downtown Myrtle Beach. It’s here that you will find popular attractions such as the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel and the Sling Shot Thrill Ride. The SkyWheel rotates 200 feet above sea level, offering endless views of the ocean and surrounding area.

The Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade is a popular destination for festivals and a great place to do some souvenir shopping. I am always a sucker for saltwater taffy, and you will find plenty of it here. Still, the boardwalk is far from the only name in the game.

Myrtle Beach also boasts options such as miniature golf, go-karts, Ripley’s Aquarium, and Family Kingdom Amusement Park, to name a few additional options. Family Kingdom offers 35 exciting rides, including a steel roller coaster, as well as an adjoining water park.

Needless to say, Myrtle Beach is just different. You won’t find this selection of beachside attractions anywhere else along the beautiful Carolina beaches.

They SkyWheel at Myrtle Beach soars into the night sky.

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.

In comparing the Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach, you will only find wild horses along the beaches on the Outer Banks.

Places To Stay: Where Will You Stay?

Have you ever seen the movie called Nights in Rodanthe? In comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, you will find that Myrtle Beach is full of mid-rise hotels near the boardwalk, while the Outer Banks is much more likely to feature vacation rentals. In this way, the movie offers a nice depiction of what the Outer Banks vibe is like in comparison to Myrtle Beach.

Which Part of Myrtle Beach Is The Best to Stay in?

While the Grand Stand is one long stretch of beautiful beaches, hotels, and vacation homes, there are some distinct areas where you might consider staying the next time you visit. Some of the most popular areas to stay in Myrtle Beach include:

  1. Downtown Myrtle Beach: This area is located near the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and is a great option for families looking for a central location with easy access to the beach, restaurants, and attractions. There are plenty of family-friendly activities in this area, including the Family Kingdom Amusement Park and the Myrtle Beach SkyWheel. Plus, you can go for that sunrise run along the boardwalk.
  2. North Myrtle Beach: Downtown Myrtle Beach has more going on, but that might actually be too much for some families. North Myrtle Beach (which is the name of a town and not just a direction) is much calmer and family-friendly. Even so, you can still easily reach all of the fun activities near the boardwalk without much trouble.
  3. Murrells Inlet: Lastly, Murrell’s Inlet is a popular vacation spot for families that visit over and over again. It is located just south of Myrtle Beach and offers more of a small-town beach vibe from out of a movie. If you are looking for local seafood, boating activities, and a more low-key experience, consider Murrells Inlet.

Families may prefer the quieter atmosphere of North Myrtle Beach, while those looking for nightlife may prefer staying near the Boardwalk. Nearby areas such as Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island should also be considered for those looking for a more secluded vacation experience.

I love to run on the boardwalk at sunrise because you see the boardwalk lit up against the colorful sky.

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

There are several small towns featuring local restaurants along the Outer Banks. In this way, you will find a small beach town vibe when you visit the Outer Banks. On the other hand, in Myrtle Beach you are more likely to find chain restaurants that cluster in high-trafficed tourist areas.

Said another way, you are much more likely to find the same restaurant in Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach (like Señor Frog’s) than you are Las Vegas and the Outer Banks.

Where Should You Eat and Hang Out at Myrtle Beach?

When you think about things to do and places to eat on Myrtle Beach, the conversation really revolves around the Boardwalk. It is the most dense and walkable area in Myrtle Beach, which means you have options. Grab dinner, and then ice cream or drink afterward.

When you venture beyond the Boardwalk, there are still plenty of options, but you will likely have to hop in your car to get there and hop in your car to go anywhere else. The Pier House Restaurant at 2nd Ave. is one of the most iconic restaurants in the area, if for nothing else, because it overlooks the ocean.

Still, boardwalk options range from seafood to Italian and more traditional American fare. You will also find live music and other entertainment options to enjoy before, during, and after your meal.

Market Common and Broadway at the Beach are also popular places to grab some eats and drinks. Market Common is an entertainment center with food, shopping, movies, and bowling. You will find Ripley’s Aquarium and WonderWorks at Broadway at the Beach, in addition to excellent restaurants and bars.

Whether you are looking for a casual dinner with live music in the background or fine dining to celebrate a milestone, Myrtle Beach has plenty of options to choose from.

In comparing the Outer Banks vs. Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach has a more tourist-centric vibe.

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.

In comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, you will find that the beaches are beautiful at both destinations, but the Outer Banks are much more natural.

Is Myrtle Beach or Outer Banks Better?

When determining whether Myrtle Beach or the Outer Banks are better, it will come down to your personal preferences and family situation. Myrtle Beach offers more adrenaline-pumping activities and nightlife, while the Outer Banks offer natural serenity that will encourage you to unwind and relax. These are two very different beach destinations.

If you don’t want to travel the distance of the Outer Banks, but want a more relaxed vibe, we recommend comparing Hilton Head vs. Myrtle Beach. You will likely find that Hilton Head is much more relaxed than Myrtle Beach, and offers more outdoor activities, similar to the Outer Banks.

In comparing the Outer Banks vs. Hilton Head, you will find much more similar, laid back vibes, but everything is much closer together on Hilton Head Island than it might be scattered along the barrier islands. Depending on where you are traveling from, Hilton Head might also be more accessible.

The Verdict: Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks

I recommend the Outer Banks for most people. The Outer Banks offer more of a family-friendly atmosphere, as well as endless outdoor adventures. Myrtle Beach can also be fun, but as an introvert, I try to avoid crowded destinations. Some people love the crowds, and indeed, the busy nature of the boardwalk and its attractions might be a main draw. Still, in comparing Myrtle Beach vs. Outer Banks, there is something more mysterious and inviting about the Outer Banks. There are wild horses!

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.