Historic district in Venice, Florida. Image credit Andriy Blokhin via Shutterstock

7 Most Scenic Small Towns on the Gulf Coast

Prepare for an adventure along the Gulf Coast and explore seven scenic towns bursting with coastal charm and vibrant culture. From the shell-strewn shores of Sanibel Island, Florida, to the historic sites of Port Isabel, Texas, each stop promises unique experiences and breathtaking views. Dive into Grand Isle, Louisiana's rich history, reel in the catch of the day, or hunt for fossilized shark teeth in Venice, Florida, the "Shark Tooth Capital of the World." Discover the artsy enclave of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and marvel at the beauty of Gulf Shores, Alabama, where beachfront fun awaits.

Sanibel Island, Florida

Aerial view of the historic Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park
Aerial view of the historic Sanibel Lighthouse Beach Park.

Sanibel is a barrier island off the southwest coast of Florida, near Fort Myers. Known for its beautiful white sandy beaches, abundant seashells, and wildlife refuges, the island is famous for its more than 400 types of clam, scallop, and tulip shells strewn across its shores. This makes it a popular destination for beachcombing and shelling enthusiasts and gives rise to the name locals use to describe the posture used by shell collectors as the “Sanibel Stoop.”

Once tucked into one of the island’s oceanfront resorts or cottages, visitors can rent bicycles from Billy’s Rentals, who’ll deliver bikes directly to resorts or rental properties, and explore the JN "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to egrets, spoonbills, herons, and pelicans, and other wildlife like otters, alligators, and manatees. Cycling through the refuge along the paths is the best way to explore it, as visitors can park their bicycles and indulge in photography at just the right moment.

The island is dotted with charming shops, galleries, and restaurants, providing plenty of opportunities for relaxation and exploration. Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille is a must for mojitos, crab cakes, and Doc’s signature dish, Yucatan Shrimp. For shopping, lock up the bicycle at the racks in front of Tahitian Gardens or Periwinkle Place and browse the beachwear shops like Tiki Jim’s, Everything But Water, and Sanibel Flip Flops.

Port Isabel, Texas

Seaside Clouds Port Isabel, Texas
Harbor in Port Isabel, Texas.

Situated on the southern tip of Texas, Port Isabel offers scenic views of Laguna Madre Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The town’s historic sites, such as the Port Isabel Lighthouse, the Port Isabel Historical Museum, and the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, are good places to learn about Port Isabel’s storied past, which dates back to 1554 when three Spanish ships met their fate in a severe storm off the coast near Padre Island. Over the centuries, various expeditions have tried to recover the lost treasure, adding to the area's allure and mystery. The iconic Port Isabel Lighthouse, built in 1852, is a historic landmark and boasts panoramic views of the surrounding area. It is the only lighthouse open to the public on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Hikers can explore the beauty of the Laguna Madre Nature Trail on Padre Island. The trail winds through coastal marshlands on a 1,500-foot boardwalk and provides excellent birdwatching opportunities to spot migratory and coastal birds that make their homes in the marsh. Fishing is a popular activity in Port Isabel, and Pirate’s Fishing Pier, the longest pier in Texas, is the place to go to charter a fishing boat, or fish from the pier. Or enjoy people-watching from Laguna Bob Bar Bay, happy hour at Dirty Al’s Pelican Station, or go all in with a stop at Pirate’s Landing Restaurant, whose motto is “You catch it, and we’ll cook it,” where visitors can bring their own fish to be cooked.

Grand Isle, Louisiana

Drone aerial photo of houses in Grand Isle, Louisiana.
Houses in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

On a barrier island along the Louisiana coast, Grand Isle is renowned for its natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. Known as a premier fishing destination with over 280 fish species and four seasons of fishing, Grand Isle offers both offshore and inshore fishing. Visitors can charter a boat or fish from the shore for speckled trout, snapper, redfish, and flounder if patience and luck hold out. For day trips, check out Capt. John’s Fin-Tastic Charters, Fish-N-Tell Charters, or Laid Back Charter. After a day on the water, visitors can experience the vibrant local culture and seafood at laidback places like the Starfish Restaurant or Jo-Bob’s Gas & Grill.

With miles of sandy beaches, Grand Isle is perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and beachcombing. Nature enthusiasts can head to Grand Isle State Park for its pristine beaches, diverse wildlife, and scenic coastal sanctuary teeming with birdlife and marine creatures. Explore the island's natural habitats, including marshes, dunes, and coastal forests, home to various bird species, dolphins, and even alligators. Visitors can rent bikes to hit the island’s trails or kayaks to discover the island’s waterways and estuaries for outdoor recreation.

Matagorda, Texas

Matagorda Bay, texas beach house sunset
Matagorda Bay, Texas beach homes.

In Matagorda, Texas, visitors can explore the bustling Matagorda Harbor—a hub for recreational and commercial fishing charters, boat rentals, and dining at the laid-back, tropical Waterfront Restaurant, where visitors can bring in their own filleted fish and have it prepared in the kitchen, or at Poco Playa Fish Camp where every Thursday is all-you-can-eat catfish night.

The nearby Matagorda Bay Nature Park offers birdwatching, hiking, and kayaking opportunities amid scenic wetlands and marshes. Visitors can spot local wildlife, play mini golf, kayak the wetlands, or join a guided adventure tour. The park has dozens of tours, including Paddle and Stroll, a guided kayak tour of the Colorado River. Visitors can stay overnight in the park in a beach bungalow or an Airstream trailer or pack a tent and pitch it in one of 17 waterfront campsites for a unique beach experience where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

For a glimpse into the area's past, the Matagorda County Museum showcases artifacts and exhibits highlighting its history, from its Native American roots to its role in Texas independence. In 1995, a group of archaeologists discovered the shipwreck of La Belle at the bottom of Matagorda Bay, and the museum displays artifacts from that ship, including a bronze cannon and navigational instruments.

Venice, Florida

The Jetty at Venice Florida along Florida Gulf Coast
The Jetty at Venice, Florida along Florida's Gulf Coast. Image credit Dennis MacDonald via Shutterstock

Known as the "Shark Tooth Capital of the World," Venice is a picturesque coastal town with powdery white sand and clear blue waters. Visitors to Venice won’t want to miss the opportunity to search for fossilized shark teeth, and according to local shark tooth collectors, the best place to find the not-so-pearly whites is south of the Venice Jetty, near Casey and Manasota Keys. Before digging for teeth, don’t forget to buy or rent a “Florida Snow Shovel” at Papa’s Bait Shop on the 740-foot Venice Fishing Pier.

Visitors not interested in shark-tooth pursuits can bring their own rod, reel, bait, and fish from the pier without a license; however, surf casting from the beach requires a license. Don’t forget to look up from either activity from time to time to enjoy panoramic views of the Gulf of Mexico, as the pier also offers birdwatching and sunset viewing opportunities. After a day at the beach, explore the charming Venice Avenue District with its array of shops, boutiques, and eateries like Brewburger’s Back Porch for signature burgers and fully-loaded Mac & Cheese bowls, ShuckNAle for coastal-inspired seafood and live music, and The Old Salty Dog for their famous ¼ pound fried hot dog.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Ocean Springs, Mississippi: A view of Ocean Springs, a city located near Biloxi in Jackson County, Mississippi.
Downtown street in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Image credit EQRoy via Shutterstock

Located just across the bay from Biloxi, Ocean Springs is renowned for its vibrant arts and culture scene. The historic Walter Anderson Museum of Art celebrates the life and work of the famous American artist Walter Inglis Anderson. Anderson is known for his depictions of the natural world, particularly the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he spent most of his life, finding inspiration in the local landscapes and wildlife. Today, he is considered one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. In the Walter Anderson Shearwater Pottery Studio, visitors can watch skilled artisans create handmade pottery using traditional techniques. Browse the gallery to purchase unique pottery pieces as souvenirs.

Fort Maurepas Park, situated on the site of the original French settlement in the area, commemorates the establishment of Fort Maurepas, the first French settlement in Mississippi. The original fort burned down in the early 1700s and was never reconstructed, so its location is unknown. However, the current replica is now a state park and a popular destination for locals and tourists interested in learning about the early European exploration and colonization of the Mississippi Gulf Coast region.

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Aerial view of Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Overlooking Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Gulf Shores is a city in the southern part of Alabama. It is approximately 45 miles west of Pensacola, Florida, and 55 miles southeast of Mobile. The town has numerous beachfront shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues along the Gulf Coast, including The Wharf, a premier shopping and entertainment destination in nearby Orange Beach with family-friendly attractions like the Wharf’s Ferris Wheel—because no beach vacation is ever complete without one—and the Spectra Laser Light Experience. There is also an attraction cheekily called The Axe Hole that requires participants to throw a hatchet at a wooden wall.

The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo calls the Gulf Shores home and is a popular family attraction. Located six miles from the beautiful Gulf Shores beaches, visitors to the zoo feel as if they have discovered an urban oasis filled with the sounds of the zoo’s exotic residents. The zoo's inhabitants are as diverse as the visitors they meet, and many of the animals were rescued for myriad reasons. The zoo offers educational programs, animal encounters, and a petting zoo, making it an excellent destination for animal lovers of all ages. After a visit to the zoo, families can cool off at Waterville USA, a 20-acre waterpark and amusement park with water slides, lazy rivers, wave pools, mini-golf, go-karts, and lots more.

Along the sun-kissed shores of the Gulf Coast, visitors can discover a host of serene experiences in these seven small towns. From stooping to collect seashells on a Florida barrier island to fishing for speckled trout in Louisiana to camping in an Airstream trailer on a white sandy beach, each destination has something new and different to offer visitors. Embrace the opportunity to explore diverse cultures, savor breathtaking landscapes, and enjoy the simple pleasures of coastal life along the Gulf of Mexico.

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