When you get tired of hanging out on the gorgeous coast (that could happen, right?), you can also explore the marshes, swamps, and back bays in Gulf Shores. Or hit up classic family entertainment like movie theaters, arcades, a Ferris Whee, and zip lines, too. But really, this is a destination that’s all about taking things slow and savoring the sunny days. If a place to have fun and reconnect with family sounds like your jam, you should definitely consider this spot.
A Kick-Back Family Vacation on Alabama’s Gulf Coast
WHEN TO VISIT GULF SHORES
Don’t go to Gulf Shores over the winter holidays expecting a Caribbean-like experience. The temps are usually in the low 60’s then and don’t heat up until spring. The weather is better from March through October.
For 70-degree days, go in March or April. Just know that it’ll be more crowded over spring break as families and college students make the annual migration to seaside destinations, including Gulf Shores.
A better bet is to visit between May and September. You can expect temps to be in the 80’s and 90’s then, but it’s nothing a little splashing around in the water can’t fix.
WHAT TO DO IN GULF SHORES
Pack your swimsuit and bike shorts because Gulf Shores has plenty to see and do on and off the beach.
Gulf Shores and its surrounding area has 32 miles of powdery-soft beaches. The emerald water and dazzling-white sand is the same as Destin and Panama City in Florida. But unlike those popular spots, Gulf Shores is still a bit of secret, which means no fighting over space on the sand.
The Gulf Shores Main Public Beach is the biggest with volleyball nets, picnic tables, restrooms, showers and lifeguards (March through October). For a smaller, quieter beach head to Gulf State Park. Backed by rolling sand dunes and seagrasses, this two-mile beach has a snack bar and fishing pier in addition to restrooms and showers.
My tip here: Whatever beach you choose, keep your eyes out for wildlife. The Gulf of Mexico has the largest concentration of bottlenose dolphins in the U.S. So you have a really good chance of spotting them from shore. And, from May to October, sea turtle nests can be found on the beaches in Gulf Shores. Look for cordoned off areas.
There are lots of options for getting out on the sparkling turquoise water of the Gulf. Want to reel some big ones in? In the summer, snapper is biting all day long but there’s plenty to catch year-round, too. Distraction Deep Sea Fishing Charters in neighboring Orange Beach provides everything you need for a day out on the ocean. My tip here: If renting a charter boat isn’t in the budget, you can fish off the pier at Gulf State Park.
You can also go on a nature cruise with Cetacean Cruises. They know exactly where to find the local dolphin pod and are happy to point out eagles, turtles, and other wildlife in the back bays. The guides at Coastal Kayak Excursions, who help you paddle through the quiet waterways, are also excellent at spotting animals. My tip here: If your gang leans toward the rowdy side, choose The Fun Boats dolphin cruise. It includes a water-gun fight.
Does your family like to ride bikes? You’re in luck: It’s super easy to rent them from Beach Bike Rentals, which is next door to 26 miles of paved paths at Gulf State Park. Explore the park’s many ecosystems, from freshwater marshes to coastal hardwood swamps. My tip here: Keep an eye out for the resident alligator or swarms of monarch butterflies in late September.
Another option for landlubbers is The Wharf at Orange Beach. It’s not actually on the water – it’s a fun outdoor shopping center and entertainment complex. On summer evenings they put on a light-and-sound show that you can catch while dodging in and out of souvenir shops. The Wharf also has a movie theater and the tallest Ferris wheel in the southeast. My tip here: Be sure to duck into Southern Grind, a coffee house, and boutique filled with coastal trinkets worth making room in your suitcase for.
If you’re feeling spendy and want to take home a one-of-kind souvenir, book a glassblowing class at the Coastal Arts Center in nearby Orange Beach. With the help of a professional, you can turn molten glass into a paperweight, flower or cup. The center is housed in a stately white building on the waterfront of Wolf Bay and has a gallery displaying local artwork. My tip here: Relax on the back porch rocking chairs and let your kiddos run around the grassy area and go down to the water to look for dolphins – they sometimes swim super close to the shore.
Want even more ideas for incredible family activities you can do on vacation here? Check out this list of fun and offbeat things to do with kids in Gulf Shores.
WHERE TO EAT IN GULF SHORES
OMG, you will not go hungry in Gulf Shores. Between the seafood, the Southern dishes, and the beach grub, there are a ton of delicious eats in this destination.
Brunch at Foodcraft, a beachside restaurant at Gulf State Park, where their healthy offerings include fresh-squeezed juices. My tip here: If you don’t like buffets, you can also order things like avocado toast and eggs benedict from the breakfast menu.
Brick and Spoon in nearby Orange Beach is great morning stop too. Their deviled eggs, topped with fried oysters and sriracha, and build-your-own Bloody Mary’s are off-the-charts. Tamer options include omelets, French toast and pancakes. My tip here: For goodness sake, order the deviled eggs – they’re so good!
You can’t go to Gulf Shores and not visit The Hangout at least once. It’s a beachside eatery with a hang-loose vibe. There’s ping-pong and foosball tables, cornhole and a sand pit for playing if you have to wait. Otherwise, dig into fried pickles, burgers or a Caesar salad (if you must). My tip here: Order the Shark Attack, a cocktail with rum, blue curacao and pineapple juice with a toy shark breaching the surface (your kids will be so jealous!).
You can also grab a quick lunch at Picnic Beach. It’s the cutest BBQ joint you ever did see. But rather than all the fatty sides you normally get, they serve brisket, pulled pork and smoked sausages over bowls of roasted veggies or salad. My tip here: You can also get a vegan or tuna poke bowl.
Head to Fisher’s at the Orange Beach Marina to sample what’s coming out of the kitchen of Chef Bill Briand, a James Beard semi-finalist and protégé of Emeril Lagasse. The two-in-one restaurant has fine dining upstairs and a casual dockside eatery below.
Downstairs options include po’ boy sandwiches with Gulf shrimp and fried green tomatoes and the Bama Burger with fried tabasco onions, pepper jack and garlic aioli. My tip here: Wash it all down with lemon-lime margaritas topped with salty foam.
If you choose the second-floor scene, ordering the oysters (plucked from nearby Bon Secour Bay) with garlic-leek butter is a must. You also can’t go wrong with the grilled swordfish, seared scallops or filet mignon. My tip here: The pumpkin cheesecake with candied pepitas is a slice of heaven.
Another fantastic place for dinner in nearby Orange Beach is Big Fish Restaurant. The menu focuses on Asian-influenced seafood dishes that are a nod to owner Leck Lilayuva’s Thai heritage and years spent overseas. The firecracker shrimp fried rice (topped with a fried egg) and the scallops served in sherry soy broth over coconut rice are solid choices. My tip here: They have a classic kids menu with grilled cheese and chicken tenders, but it also includes some seafood options.
WHERE TO STAY IN GULF SHORES
You would never know that The Lodge at Gulf State Park has 350 rooms because the building seems to blend in with its surroundings, which include sand dunes and ocean right outside the building. With four restaurants, a pool, and the state park to explore across the street, what else could you need?
Plus, some of the room configurations offer bunk beds alongside a king bed or a room full of bunk beds, which is an ideal setup for many families. My tip here: You can also find a bunch of condo beach rentals in both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
With incredible views, food, and loads of opportunities to relax and have fun, Gulf Shores is a soon-to-be hotspot. Get there before everyone else does.
Guest Author Bio: Kristi Valentini is a Detroit-based travel writer who has been featured in national media including Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and MSN. She helps busy moms quickly book amazing vacations with her ready-to-go digital travel guides.