Although I’m a California girl now, I was born and raised in Alabama. When it was time for a spring break trip or summer vacation, my family did what many all over the Southeast did: load up the station wagon or minivan and drive south towards the beaches of the Gulf Coast.
The destination? Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.
My husband and I have returned often to the Gulf Coast, although we had not yet taken our kids to the coast of Alabama until recently. A summer family reunion finally gave us the opportunity to spend a full week in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores revisiting the Alabama beaches of my childhood.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are well known all over the South as a relatively inexpensive, family-friendly beach destination. Now that I live outside the South, however, I’ve come to realize that much of the rest of the country is clueless about this area! If they do vaguely know about the region, most people certainly don’t know just how much it has to offer. Now that I’ve been to hundreds of beaches around the country and the world, I realize Alabama’s sugar white sand beaches and calm turquoise waters have ruined me for nearly everywhere else.
What I also love about going to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is that a vacation doesn’t necessarily require a ton of planning. So many travel destinations in 2023 require advance bookings. Activities can sell out if you don’t plan super early, but that’s just not the case for an Alabama Beaches vacation. It’s entirely possible to just spend a full week in the area enjoying the sand, sun, and water. And there is also a lot to do in the area for families, even on a whim – particularly eating great seafood or embarking in a few adventurous activities.
If you are considering a trip to Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, this article has everything a first time Alabama Beaches visitor needs to know.
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Where are the Alabama Beaches?
So many people (especially those who live outside the Southeast) don’t even realize that Alabama is a beach destination. The panhandle of Florida eats up most of the real estate due south of the state, so Alabama’s swath of coastline is often missed after a quick glance at the map.
But Alabama has two counties along the coast – Mobile County on the west bordering Mississippi and Baldwin County on the east bordering the Florida panhandle. The two counties are separated by the Mobile Bay.
When most people refer to Alabama’s beaches, they are mostly referring to two cities in Baldwin County: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. There are a few other beaches in the area (particularly the beaches along Dauphin Island in Mobile County) but they don’t have a lot of lodging or dining options.
Sub-Regions, Major Cities, & Layout of Alabama’s Gulf Coast: Gulf Shores vs. Orange Beach
The Alabama beaches in Baldwin County lie along 32 miles of coastline, stretching from the Florida border all the way to the tip of the Fort Morgan peninsula. Many of the major attractions are located right on the beach road paralleling the coast, Alabama State Route 182 (known as Perdido Beach Road in Orange Beach and Beach Boulevard in Gulf Shores). The beaches are roughly intersected by State Route 59, which is the main thoroughfare that heads inland.
The entire area is very drivable from a home base in any location. And visitors can have the same type of vacation no matter where they stay in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores, or beyond. But there are some very minor geographical and historical differences to note.
Major cities and regions in the area include:
Gulf Shores is the older, more established beach area in the region that is still the center of most of the action. Gulf Shores sits at the intersection of State Routes 182 and 59. Some lodging locations may have activities and restaurants that are walkable or bike-able.
The stretch of beach that extends from Gulf Coast State park to Perdido Key, Florida on the east is known as Orange Beach. This area was developed later than Gulf Shores and still is a bit quieter (although the continued development makes it busier with each passing year!).
Keep heading west from Gulf Shores to travel along the Fort Morgan Peninsula. At the very tip is the historic Fort Morgan itself, the site of a Civil War battle. The neighborhood of Gulf Highlands you pass along the way is another popular cluster of vacation properties.
While not on the beach itself, the inland city of Foley is worth a mention as well. Foley is located about 12 miles due north of Gulf Shores on Highway 59. A lot of visitors to Alabama beaches will spend time in Foley because it is home to some popular outlets, a regional amusement park, and a number of restaurants.
What do I Need to Know about Road Tripping to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach?
The vast majority of visitors to the Alabama Beaches come in by car. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach serve a pretty broad drive market that includes most of the Southeast. I was pretty surprised to find out recently from a friend in Kentucky that many families from her area make the road trip regularly every year! Even Illinois and Indiana-based travelers are also frequent visitors.
With so many cars piling onto such a short stretch of beach, that can mean traffic congestion. Traffic on Saturdays and Sundays can be especially crushing in the summer as weeklong vacationers tend to arrive and depart on the weekends. Weekends are also when the grocery stores in the area are at their busiest as newcomers load up their condominiums to start the week.
If you are planning a road trip, allow for plenty of extra time on crowded roads – what might be the last 10 minutes of the drive sometimes can take you a full hour! Use apps like Waze to find alternate back road routes that can sometimes save you major time when beach roads are backed up.
What is the Best Airport Near Gulf Shores, Alabama and Orange Beach, Alabama?
While the area is definitely more of a drive destination, travelers who want to fly in have several airport options for flying to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama. Our family has flown into the vast majority of the airports in the region in our travels over the years, so we have a lot of experience with the options!
The best and closest airports to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach for an Alabama Gulf Coast beach trip are:
Pensacola International Airport (PNS)
The closest commercial airport for flying to Gulf Shores or Orange Beach is actually just across the border in Florida. The Pensacola International Airport (PNS) is served by Southwest Airlines, Delta, American, United, Frontier, Spirit, and Silver. Flight options increase in the summer months due to seasonal schedule changes.
The drive from PNS to the Alabama beaches is only about 35 miles but takes about 1 hour in no traffic. A car is pretty much a necessity in this region of the country, and rental cars at PNS are ample and cheap. The lines to pick up rental cars, however, can be very long at PNS during busy summer months. I highly recommend booking a skip-the-counter option if possible (tip: often you can do this simply by joining a car rental company’s frequent rental program at no cost). At the very least, send the fastest member of your traveling party to make a mad dash after deplaning to camp out in line.
Upon departure, give yourself plenty of time for bag check and security. Even though PNS is a small airport, it’s busy during peak periods. We were surprised on our most recent visit to find that Southwest Airlines had no electronic kiosks to check-in or self-tag bags. We had wait in a very, very long ticket counter line to check our bags and were grateful we arrived early.
Mobile Regional Airport (MOB)
The closest airport within the state of Alabama to the Alabama Beaches is the next county over is Mobile Regional Airport. As the name suggests, this airport is smaller than Pensacola and served by just three airlines – Delta (to Atlanta), United (to Houston), and American (to Dallas and Charlotte). The airport is located on the far west side of the city, making the drive from MOB to Gulf Shores about 1.5 hours long.
Destin/Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS)
Another viable option in a pinch for travelers to the Alabama Gulf Coast might be the small regional airport in Destin/Ft. Walton Beach (VPS). VPS is about a 2 hour drive to Gulf Shores, but if you can get a non-stop flight there, it would be quicker than booking a connecting flight into either PNS or MOB. VPS has service on Delta, American, Southwest, Allegiant, and Sun Country and is small and easy to navigate. I’ve used it often for trips we’ve taken to the Florida Panhandle.
More Airport Options Coming Soon?
While visitors arriving by air have to drive a bit to reach Alabama’s beaches, there are more options on the near-term horizon to watch for future trips.
Gulf Shores International
The general aviation airport in Gulf Shores just a couple of miles from the beach got a new air traffic control tower and a new name last year – Gulf Shores International. The airport authority is in talks to bring commercial service to the airport within the next two years. There are plans to construct a new passenger terminal as well.
Mobile International Airport
The Mobile Airport Authority is also in early stages of rebuilding another airport in the region, the Mobile Downtown Airport, into what is now called the Mobile International Airport (BFM). Commercial service is due to start on Avelo Airlines in late May 2023. Eventually all commercial service in Mobile will be moved to this airport (from MOB) because of its location closer to the city center. It will also be closer to Alabama’s beach destinations at about an hour away.
Are the Alabama Beaches a Good Destination to Visit with Kids?
Yes! When it comes to family friendly, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are about as good as it gets. Most of the accommodations were built with families in mind. Kid-friendly food and activities abound in the area. Restaurants all reliably have amenities for families like kids menus and high chairs, and no one is going to look twice at you taking kids just about anywhere in the area. The shallow water and normally calm seas of the Gulf of Mexico also make its beaches pretty safe for swimming as well.
That’s not to say there isn’t a scene, however, for other kinds of travelers. The area is increasingly popular for girlfriend getaways and golf trips. And there’s enough of a party and bar scene that spring breakers and 20 somethings can find something that works for them too. But family-friendly is definitely the dominant vibe.
Where to Stay on the Alabama Gulf Coast
For travelers used to beach vacation destinations in many other places, the lodging situation on the Alabama Gulf Coast might appear a bit strange at first glance. The vast majority of the accommodations available in the area are condos for rent from individual owners — not hotels. There is a fair mix of standalone beach homes available for rent as well.
For families, having a condo or a house with kitchen, laundry, living area, and multiple bedrooms is probably just what you want. Most travelers come and stay for a week, making these kinds of accommodations even more useful. But if you want a full service luxury hotel or resort vacation experience like you might be used to in a beach destination like Hawaii, the pickings are a bit slim.
You can certainly do an Alabama Beaches vacation on the very cheap by staying in a hotel that isn’t directly on the water. And when you want to get to the water, there are public beaches with 15 access points. But if budget allows it, I highly recommend lodging with a water view and direct beach access. There are literally hundreds of choices.
Best Condo Complexes on the Alabama Gulf Coast
Many of these condominium complexes are managed by the major realty companies in the area – Kaiser, Spectrum Resorts, Brett-Robinson, and many others. If you rent directly from the management company, you’ll sometimes pay a higher price but also get some amenities that you will miss out on if you rent direct from an owner (club access, beach umbrella rental rights, fitness centers, etc.). It is vital to read the fine print to find out what amenities you need and what you might be passing up depending on the method you choose for rental.
A lot of the management companies advertise or rent on sites like VRBO, Airbnb, and Vacasa, so it’s easiest to start there to compare all the options and locations. Check out VRBO rentals in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach to see the array of choices.
Most of these condo complexes are pretty indistinguishable from one another, with similar amenities and layouts. While most are beachside, there are quite a few resorts that are on the bay side which may or may not be what you want. Look at maps carefully!
From my experience, the nicest of all the condo choices is Turquoise Place, a newer high rise in Orange Beach managed by Spectrum Resorts. Each unit has a hot tub on the balcony and accommodations from 3 to 5 bedrooms are available. Spectrum also manages The Beach Club in Gulf Shores.
Another name you will see often is Phoenix – there are over a dozen condo complexes by this name in the region. Each Phoenix complex has a slightly different mix of pools and amenities.
Our family stayed in a complex called Summer House on Romar Beach on our last trip which is a mid-range option in Orange Beach.
Best Hotels in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
If you prefer a hotel, the most luxurious in the area is The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel. The property is built to blend in with the pristine natural surroundings of the state park that divides Gulf Shores from Orange Beach. A number of the room types have bunk beds in addition to a king, making them ideal for families.
Things to Do in Orange Beach & Gulf Shores
While I highly recommend spending a lot of lazy time at the beach and by the pool, there are so many activities in and around Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. While we were in the area for a whole week on our last vacation, there were quite a few activities we could not find time to fit in. Figure out your top 3 before you go, because you may run out of time once you discover how gorgeous the beaches are and how much time you will want to spend there.
Here are the activity highlights that I’d recommend to other Alabama Beaches visitors, particularly families.
Lulu’s (Gulf Shores)
Lulu’s Gulf Shores is both a place to eat and a place to play. This enormous outdoor restaurant founded by Jimmy Buffett’s sister has amazing seafood, cocktails, and live music, but also features an arcade and ropes course that is a must-do for kids. Expect very long lines for dinner in the summer – we found lunch time was much easier to find a table.
Tropic Falls Theme Park at OWA (Foley)
Tropic Falls at OWA is now a full sized amusement park and giant indoor water park in one. The amusement parks offering 23 rides, from roller coasters to kiddie classics. And the indoor water park comes in handier than you might imagine because it means it can operate in winter as well as on rainy summer days (heads up: thunderstorms are common in the region!).
There are a number of ticket options to make a day out affordable as well. Theme park only access is just $26.99 per person. Combination tickets with the water park included are $63 per person. Family four packs save more, as do two day ticket options or season passes. There is an adjacent shopping and dining district as well with an arcade, theater, restaurants, stores, and more.
The Track (Gulf Shores)
The Track is another giant entertainment complex perfect for a day out with the family. It features multiple go-cart tracks, a large arcade, bumper boats, and amusement park rides for younger kids. Buy points online in advance to save money and share among a larger group.
Adventure Island (Orange Beach)
Similar to the Track, Adventure Island is another family-friendly entertainment complex on the Orange Beach side of town. It’s an OG attraction in the area – having opened when I was a kid! Adventure Island has mini golf (practically a requirement at the beach), bumper boats, go-carts, and a couple of smaller attractions. Just be sure to watch out for erupting volcanoes if you visit.
Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo (Gulf Shores)
The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo – better known as “The Little Zoo that Could” – is just a few minutes off the beach. The zoo has a new larger location as of 2020 and packs a pretty big punch. It’s home to 300 animals, including 22 endangered species from a Bengal tiger to lemurs.
Pirates & Princesses Breakfast at the Hangout (Gulf Shores)
The Hangout is a huge open air restaurant, bar, and entertainment complex in the dead center of Gulf Shores. Most mornings in summer, the restaurant offers a character breakfast featuring pirates and princesses that is perfect for families. Portions are hearty and the prices are ridiculously cheap ($19.99 for adults, $8.99 for kids 6-10, free for kids 5 & under).
The Wharf (Orange Beach)
The Wharf is a shopping, dining, and entertainment district on the bay side of Orange Beach. There’s a ferris wheel, train, arcade, movie theater, evening laser light show, and marina on site, so there is plenty to take your pick from depending on your interests, time of day, and the weather.
The Yard (Gulf Shores)
After a hot day on the beach, take the whole family to The Yard for an enormous milkshake treat. The shakes here are pricey, but come complete with decadent toppings like a whole cupcake or brownie. I highly recommend sharing.
Flora-Bama (Perdido Key, FL)
Just straddling the state line is perhaps the most famous dive bar in America. But with multiple restaurants and shops, the Flora-Bama is now a destination unto itself. Country greats like Kenny Chesney play here regularly. Believe it or not, kids are also welcome in much of the complex. You can even attend church here on Sunday mornings.
More Tips & Tricks for First Time Visitors to Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
- Eat Out Early: The food in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is amazing all around, but top restaurants are very, very popular. If you arrive at peak dinner hour, you can often expect waits of 1-2 hours or more. If you want to beat the crowds, plan to eat very early – arriving at 5 or 5:30pm is pretty necessary. If you have a large group, consider restaurants that will take advance reservations or even book a private room.
- Consider the Off-Season: As much as I love taking a dip in the ocean or pool during the heat of Alabama summer, there are a few down sides to going to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in June, July, and August. First, if you are doing anything other than spending time by or in the water in a bathing suit, it’s really, really hot. And humid! Second, it can be very crowded during the peak summer months. So, definitely consider the area other times of year, especially in shoulder season. Just be aware that hurricanes last well into the fall too. And while it’s too cold (for me, at least) to swim from about November to February, the area is particularly peaceful in winter.
- Get a Discount: As you might find in a lot of beach destinations, activities in the area can be expensive. But it’s so easy to find a discount for a number of the things you might want to do in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. While plenty of specials are posted on company websites and sites like Yelp, you’ll often find the best deals by picking up the old-fashioned flyers in hotel lobbies advertising area attractions. Low tech coupons still abound there!
- Have a Plan for Groceries: With most of the lodging in the area being condos and home rentals, almost everyone has a kitchen. And that means everyone needs to stock it! Grocery stores and superstores can be a madhouse on Saturday afternoon when new guests arrive. Consider going to a smaller, more off-the-beaten path store to dodge some of the craziness. We found the Publix in Orange Beach to be a tad pricier, but well worth the markup for the shorter lines and less hectic atmosphere. There are also curbside pickup or delivery options that might save you time and stress. It’s possible to order Instacart at Publix or do curbside pickups at both area Walmart locations. Concierge services like the Beach Moms also will do grocery runs for you.
More Alabama Beaches Information
If you are headed to the Alabama Beaches, make the packing process easier with this beach vacation packing list from Stuffed Suitcase. And for even more perspectives on Alabama beach vacations, check out these guides from some fellow family travel bloggers I personally know and trust who have also traveled recently to the area:
- 29 Brilliant Things to do in Gulf Shores, Alabama from Crazy Family Adventure
- 31 Things to do in Orange Beach the Locals Love from 365 Atlanta Traveler
- Planning a Girlfriend Getaway in Gulf Shores from We3Travel
- Best Restaurants in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach from the TV Traveler
- What You Need to Know About a Trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama from Family Vacations US