Your family travel guide to Gulf Shores, Alabama

Neighboring cities Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in Alabama combine as a hidden gem family beach vacation destination. Located at the southernmost tip of Alabama, right by Pensacola, Florida, you’ll find gorgeous, white sand beaches, plenty of family-friendly fun, a laid-back atmosphere and an extra dose of Southern hospitality. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are often less crowded and more budget-friendly than other beach destinations but are definitely not short on special memory-making opportunities.

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Gulf Shores Main Public Beach

A visit to Gulf Shores is all about the beach, and this big, wide, uncrowded public beach does not disappoint. The sand is so soft that it literally squeaks when you walk. The waters are warm and blue, and the waves are ever-so gentle. There are restrooms and changing areas and tons of great restaurants in walking distance.

Sand Castle University

Ever wanted to up the ante on your sandcastle creations? Then Sand Castle 101 is just the ticket for your family! This castle building class takes place on the beach. The instructor brings everything, including awesome tips for erecting Instagram-worthy palaces with windows, stairs, bridges and more. My family of four had so much fun constructing in the sun. Plus, photos and a time-lapse video of your experience are included in the cost of class. 

Orange Beach Cat Boat Tours

Cat boats are the quintessential way to get around on the waters of Orange Beach. These zippy little boats feel like you’re gliding on the water and allow your family to get up-close views of dolphins and other marine life on 1.5-hour guided tours.

Mermaid Cruise

Have a mermaid lover or a seashell seeker in your family? You’ll all adore this ride on a pontoon boat to a quiet, little island where mermaids need your help finding magical seashells. 

Caribe Marina

Water sports galore are at your family’s fingertips at Caribe Marina. Jet skis, kayaks, dolphin cruises, deep-sea fishing, and more are available and easy to reserve at this friendly marina. My family had such a blast racing through the waves on jet skis.

Orange Beach Helicopters

What better way to see Orange Beach and Perdido Key than from above! Kind, experienced helicopter pilots whisk you up and around the area for a short, yet awe-inspiring excursion. We relished seeing the shore at sunset with pods of dolphins swimming below.

The Wharf Orange Beach

This shopping and dining destination is home to a huge Ferris wheel that offers your family sweeping views of the Gulf. There’s also plenty to see and do, like zip line, mini golf and many live events.

The Track

If go-karts, blaster boats, and arcades are your thing, then head on down to The Track, where you can find family-friendly thrills.  This small fun park with kiddie rides is right next to Lulu’s, one of the best restaurants around with plenty for the kids to do.

Eat

Lulu’s

Lucy Buffett, sister to “Cheeseburger in Paradise” singer Jimmy Buffett, knows how to make a restaurant experience fun for everyone. While there might be a wait for a table, there are picnic benches in the sand, where parents can relax with a cold drink while children play. The coastal cuisine is fabulous with a to-die-for smoked tuna dip and famous seafood gumbo. We greatly appreciated the allergy menus — so much easier than guessing or asking a million questions. 

The Hangout

True to its name, this is the place you want to hang out in Gulf Shores. This huge restaurant has tons of outdoor space for fun in the fresh air and hosts live music nightly. There’s a giant sandpit for the kids to run and jump in, family-friendly foam parties and games. Inside the lively restaurant, there’s music pumping and napkins flying from the ceiling in celebration. It’s definitely a place to live it up.

Southern Grind

We visited both locations of this specialty coffee house because it is a true Southern gem. Not only are the coffee specialties great, but the food is also fresh and delicious, and the eclectic coastal decor makes you want to bring back some of the home goods for your own house.

Matt’s Homemade Alabama Ice Cream

Even with two locations in the area, you’re likely to find a line at Matt’s Ice Cream because the treats are sweet, creamy and definitely worth savoring. They promise to have at least 40 flavors on hand, as well as floats, shakes, sundaes and splits. Our family happily licked it up and would return in a heartbeat.

The Gulf

The Gulf is a casual, chic waterfront dining destination. Sink your toes into the sand and enjoy the gorgeous Gulf of Mexico views while sipping cocktails and tasting fresh seafood dishes. The kids can play while you relax under the palm trees and enjoy the ambiance. Seasonal menu items are self-serve from shipping container walk-up windows.

Picnic Beach

This shabby chic, healthy, quick-service restaurant is just down the street from the Gulf Shores Main Public Beach. BBQ, salads and smoothies top the menu. Dine at a picnic table then play games like Connect Four.

Stay

Caribe Resort

We opted to stay in a luxury condo from Wyndham Vacation Rentals because it’s always nice to spread out, cook your own meals and have the kids in separate bedrooms. Caribe Resort is awesome for families because they have indoor and outdoor pools with water slides and a lazy river, hot tubs, on-site restaurants, a putting green, sport courts and games like bocce ball, ping pong and bags. Our condo was spacious and modern with beautiful views of the water. Located right next to the marina, it is a convenient home base with numerous amenities.

Explore

Gulf State Park

Hike, fish, bike, swim, paddle and explore the 28 miles of trails in this beautiful nature preserve. With nine ecosystems, there is plenty to do! Plus, the park recently underwent a major revitalization. You can even camp here or stay overnight in the lodge.

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is known as The Little Zoo That Could on the Animal Planet documentary of the same name because the zoo director evacuated all the zoo’s animals to her home during Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This non-profit zoological park is home to over 600 animals in its 7.5-acre oasis. It’s a great place to stroll and experience hands-on animal encounters.

Naval Air Museum

You’ll find the world’s largest aviation museum in nearby Pensacola, Florida. Admission is free. See 150 aircraft from the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard and have 37-acres to explore outdoors. There are flight simulators, virtual reality and a Kitty Hawk play area.

Flora-bama

Did you know you can literally straddle Florida and Alabama just down the road from Orange Beach? Flora-bama is one of the country’s most famous beach bars. Across the street, there are a few family-friendly restaurants where you can listen to live music, eat some fresh seafood and enjoy an adult milkshake. Buckwackers are a popular drink, similar to chocolaty pina coladas. Cheers!


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