“I didn’t even know Alabama had beaches. It reminds me so much of the Gold Coast in Australia.”
We heard this comment more than once from our Australian friends and followers.
To be honest, it was a long time before I realized Alabama had beaches too. And even though I knew it was on the Gulf Shores and close to Pensacola in Florida, I still didn’t believe the beaches would be any good.
Boy was I wrong.
In fact, Alabama has 32 miles of white sand beaches. And it turns out that the best things to do in Gulf Shores, and best things to do in Orange Beach Alabama, revolve around the water!
Alabama is a state that has surprised me on many levels. I have enjoyed the experiences we’ve had so far and the people we’ve met.
It’s a unique state and it’s hard to describe but they do lifestyle and entertainment things with such creative and fun flair.
Huntsville has some of the coolest nightlife spots I’ve discovered.
Mobile (blog post coming) is a city similar to New Orleans, that French sophistication and revelry on a smaller scale, and then you have the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Gorgeous beaches, wonderful weather, laid back and unpretentious vibe.
Mind you, we visited in the quiet season (February) so found it to be magical. It is probably a different story when the crowds come in the middle of summer.
But, still we found ourselves saying many times,
“let’s come back here and rent a beach house for a couple of weeks and just chill.”
Things to do in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach
Hang out on the beach
Just do it. You know that’s what you’re here for.
Pack your lounge chairs, towels, umbrellas and beach toys and find a spot on the miles of wide open beaches along Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
We actually stayed in Orange Beach, and had a lovely section of soft white sand out the front of our beach cottage, but the main Gulf Shores beach area is very inviting too!
Gulf Shores, Alabama has a slogan, Leave Only Footprints which encourages people to make sure they have removed all their beach gear by one hour after sunset each day.
It’s made a huge difference in cleaning up the beaches.
The rule was created to keep the Gulf beaches pristine but also to protect the nesting turtles who may lose their way due to a beach umbrella being in the way.
And it’s very kid-friendly here, with a cool toy box on the sand.
The surf was a little rough when we visited so we didn’t swim. But we were told it’s typically calmer and great for swimming.
Learn how to build real sandcastles with Sand Castle University
While you’re at the beach, why not finally learn how to make a real sandcastle?
I’ve always wondered how my sandcastles ended up looking like the ancient crumbling ruins of a lost city. There’s just a few simple techniques to becoming a sandcastle King!
We spent an hour with Janel from Sand Castle University learning those techniques. She was an engaging teacher and wonderful with the girls.
I loved hearing about how she has created a business around something she loves.
There are so many people doing cool things around the world.
If you think you can’t build a business around what you love, then just remember Janel who creates sandcastles every day, in the glorious office of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The girls had a blast building sandcastles. Definitely put this on your list of things to do in Gulf Shores, Alabama with kids!
I’ll be expecting great things from them this summer. Now that we know the techniques, our sandcastles will be attracting beach goers with their cameras near and far.
Bike Riding in Gulf State Park
Just across the road from the beach is the gorgeous Gulf State Park, which adds to the feeling that Gulf Shores is a relaxed beachside area focused on nature.
It reminded me so much of Australia.
We grabbed rental bikes from Mark at Beach Bike Rentals to explore one of the Back Country Trails.
Mark was great at showing us the bike trail and pointing out various points of interest to see along the way like the osprey Nest and Lefty the one legged alligator.
Unfortunately, I was not too great at following the map directions and somehow led us on the shorter trail that cut through the park instead of the longer one that took us around the lake – the best feature of the park!!
I still can’t figure out how I messed up.
I’m usually great at following maps and I really felt like I followed it right. It’s the map’s fault right?
But, the diversion led us onto the wooden boardwalk which was where we saw an alligator hiding the weeds.
It was the only one we saw on the trail. No I tell a lie. We saw Lefty the alligator babies basking on the rocks. Lefty, was no where to be seen.
The Gulf Shores State Park is a tranquil place to spend a few hours. It quickly became one of our favorite things to do in Gulf Shores.
I particularly loved the section that has gorgeous, overhanging moss trees like you’d see in Savannah.
Make Bath Bombs
If you want to take a break from the beach and engage in a fun learning activity with your kids, head to Harmony Creek Farm for a bath bomb making lesson.
Part of what makes our travel so special (and we intentionally do this) is to participate in activities where we learn new things together or pursue family interests like biking, hiking and stand up paddle boarding.
We loved learning how to make bath bombs together.
Even Craig enjoyed it and I thought he’d just check out and just film it. But he got right into making the bath bombs.
It’s not as difficult as you think and you can add your creative flair to them.
They’re all natural as well which makes it fantastic to use in the bath.
Ruta, co-owner of Harmony Creek Farms was a great teacher, taking us through step by step and making it easy to understand.
With an organic chemist father and a creative mother, Ruta has the perfect combination of science and art to create wonderful soaps and bath bombs.
We were able to choose our own scents, colors and herbs or glitter in our custom made soap.
The girls absolutely loved it and were ecstatic to pick them up the next day after they were dried.
We don’t have much trouble getting Savannah in the bath now we have the bath bombs to use. We just say “bath bomb time” and in she goes!
Now we have the recipe we can make them at home too.
Soap making and bath bomb classes last from 1-2 hours and are available for private groups and parties.
Why not take home an Alabama souvenir made from your own hands that smells fresh like the ocean you just walked out of.
Consider this another activity to put on your list of things to do in Orange Beach, with or even without, kids.
2 cool beach bar restaurants
1. The Gulf
Coming in at our favorite beach bar so far on our US road trip is The Gulf on Orange Beach.
The Guff has fused together everything that makes a beach bar great from the countries around the world who do them great.
The menu has a Mexican flair with fresh and locally caught seafood – their fish burger is a winner!
It has an Asian and Australian flavor with different seating areas and chilled out couches, palm trees, tiki flames, and fire pits. And just a good time US vibe and innovation.
The Gulf is a series of shipping containers reclaimed, recycled and salvaged building materials that contrast with the natural setting.
Cool tunes playing, incredible views of Alabama Point, and friendly service.
We went for diner one night and immediately connected to the vibe even in the dark and vowed to return the next day to take daylight photos.
We couldn’t help ourselves but to sit down with the views and a few glasses of wine. We could have stayed there all evening.
Definitely one of the best casual places to eat in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, and when we return to rent a beach house for a couple of weeks, the Gulf will be my evening event.
2. The Hangout
Another cool beach hangout, is The Hangout on Beach Blvd, Gulf Shores and co-incidentally is owned by the same people who own The Gulf.
Do they have style or what?
It reminded me of having lunch at one of our Surf Clubs on the beach back in Australia, and is one of the most popular Gulf Shores restaurants for the views, and seafood!
The Hangout inspiration came from the old boardwalk hangout that was here in the 50’s. You can see a photograph of it hanging on the wall.
It’s also where the annual Hangout Music Fest in May was created which now draws 50,000+ people. Previous artists include The Foo Fighters, and this year The Killers headline!
I want to come back to this music festival. Rent my beach cottage and hang out at The Gulf in between.
Other Places to eat in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach
For a quieter spot away from the beach and on the river, head to Lulu’s.
I loved the vibe of this place.
There’s an outdoor sand area with toys for the kids and in the seasonal months, a high ropes course, making it one of the best places to eat in Gulf Shores with kids!
There’s also a sand volleyball court and boat slips for boat-friendly dining.
Parents you can definitely come relax here with a few tacos and margaritas and know that your kids are having a great time – there’s live, nightly music.
Lulu’s is owned by Jimmy Buffets sister so except that tropical vibe.
Ruby Slipper Cafe
If you love eggs bennedict, go here!
We started off one morning with breakfast at the Ruby Slipper Cafe who are well known for their eggs bennie.
We ordered a serving of their hot smoked salmon bennie made on giant, fluffy southern-style biscuits!
And our kids enjoyed their French toast sticks, fried and tossed in cinnamon sugar served with bacon – they look like a game of Jenga.
The Ruby Slipper Cafe is family owned and originated in New Orleans.
“The Ruby Slipper Café was inspired by a powerful sense of homecoming when we returned to New Orleans after Katrina to be back with family and friends again.”
They have since expanded across the Southern Gulf Region since opening in 2008.
Hog Wild Barbecue
Love barbecue? How about Southern barbecue with a beachy twist!
Hog Wild rank in the Top 10 BBQ restaurants in Alabama, and Top 5 for wings.
We can vouch for their wings, some of the best wings we’ve had in the US – finger licking good!
Ok, we don’t normally allow our kids to have donuts for breakfast, but we were on vacation, at the beach!
We’re typically health conscious with what we eat, especially breakfast, but of course we allow our kids a treat here and there.
So one morning we headed straight for City Donut, another family-owned local business who have been serving donuts, and espresso for breakfast since 2013.
Be warned, as a fresh bakery, they make all their donuts just hours before opening and they do sell out for the day, so don’t sleep in too late!
I know you’re on vacation, but once they sell out for the day, they close up shop!
Put this on your list of things to do in Gulf Shores with kids. They, and probably you, will love it.
We were hoping to catch a sunset here during dinner on our first night in Orange Beach, but we were late arriving from our previous destination.
Cobalt Restaurant has prime position under the Perdido Bay Bridge, with undoubtedly spectacular views of the bay.
Unfortunately it was dark once we arrived so we couldn’t appreciate their full-potential, but just sitting outside again by the water was enough!
Cobalt is one of the best Orange Beach Restaurants that offers fresh local seafood, caught daily, in an open air dining room.
Our friends from New Orleans first told us about Flora-Bama. They said it’s an experience you just have to have in Orange Beach and the Gulf Shores region.
And they couldn’t stop raving about their specialty drink, a Bushwacker.
“You just have to get bushwacked with a Bushwacker drink at the Flora-Bama beach bar on the Florida-Alabama border!
Geez it’s strong. We settled for one bushwacker!
What’s in this drink? Five liquors in one frozen drink:
- white rum
- dark rum
- dark creme de cacao
And this bar is crazy interesting, I could imagine the crowds in peak season at sunset, as it’s one of the most famous beach bars in the USA.
Where to stay at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Alabama
Rent a Beach Cottage
There are plenty of Gulf Shores Vacation Rentals and Orange Beach Rentals – and condos too.
Although the stretch of them isn’t overbearing like you’d find in other US beach towns.
We only had three nights in our beach cottage. I wish it were longer. I want a house exactly like this.
I’m not sure if Kalyra or I said it first, but we definitely are in alignment with our home style and vision. (And yes we have been looking for beach style homes in Raleigh since!!)
Nothing beats the casual comfort, and practicality, of a beach vacation home.
This cottage was in a enclave of Orange Beach Vacation Rentals in between a couple of high rise condos.
It was so lovely to be a one minute walk to the beach – although they have some larger beach homes right on the beach front for rent as well.
It was cozy and comfortable and so stylish. We seriously did not spend enough time there to fully appreciate it.
And for those moments you don’t want to hit the sand, there was a pool too.
More places to stay in Gulf Shores (and Orange Beach)
Planning a trip to Gulf Shores
We visited the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach region as guests of Gulf Shores tourism. For even more tips on planning a trip, visit their website.
We know we will be back!