Visiting the old Gulf of Mexico towns is a must for anyone seeking a mix of history, culture, and natural beauty. These nine towns, steeped in centuries of tradition and influenced by Spanish, French, and indigenous heritage, offer a glimpse into the region's past. Warm temperatures, well-preserved architecture, and a lively local scene provide an opportunity to explore coastal life. Whether enjoying fresh seafood, exploring historic landmarks, or wandering along the coastline, these nine Gulf towns promise a memorable experience combining the best of the past and the present.
Founded by the Spanish in 1559, it is often considered the oldest European settlement in the continental United States. Pensacola is in the Florida Panhandle—a 200-mile-long stretch of land. Its location makes it vulnerable to hurricanes, and it has been directly hit by eight hurricanes since 1975 and even more tropical storms.
Pensacola's nickname is "The City of Five Flags," a tribute to the five governments that have ruled the city during its storied history: the flags of Spain, France, Great Britain, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America have all flown over the city at one time or another. Other nicknames for the city of Pensacola include "World's Whitest Beaches," "P-Cola," and the "Cradle of Naval Aviation."
Home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, the museum has curated over 150 aircraft, including Blue Angels planes like the A4 Skyhawk and the Curtiss NC4—the first plane to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Admission to the museum is free, and the world-famous Blue Angels practice over the museum on certain days throughout the year. A schedule of Blue Angel practices is available online, so be sure to book your visit to coincide with practice time.
The still active historic Pensacola Lighthouse, built in 1859, is a must-see if naval history is more your speed. If you're feeling energetic, you can climb 177 steps to the top of the lighthouse and enjoy panoramic views of Pensacola Bay. The Maritime Museum also exhibits the lighthouse keeper's quarters, which once housed the lighthouse keepers and their families.
Pensacola Beach, Florida
Adjacent to Pensacola is Pensacola Beach. With 18 miles of white powder sandy beaches and a rumored 343 days of sunshine on average, it's the perfect coastal getaway. Many outdoor activities and watersports include surfing, stand-up paddle (SUP) boarding, jet skiing, and snorkeling in crystal-clear waters.
Fishing is a popular sport, and there's no better place to do it than from the 1,471-foot-long Pensacola Beach Fishing Pier. During summer, you can expect to catch Bluefish, Pompano, Redfish, Spanish Mackeral, and spotted Seatrout. The pier is within walking distance of food, entertainment, and shopping. The Casino Beach Bar & Grill serves fresh seafood and tropical drinks outside under shaded umbrellas.
If you plan on staying at the beach for a few days, the Pensacola Beach Resort is the perfect place to relax and soak up the sun. Several restaurants are open daily at the resort, like the Windrose and The Salty Rose. Book the Beach, Bar, and Breakfast package for a special treat, including a weekday chair rental, breakfast for two, and complimentary drinks at The Salty Rose Beach Bar. Poolside, the Tiki Bar serves up flavorful cocktails.
The Portofino Island Resort is another excellent setting to experience complete relaxation. Named after a village on the Italian Riviera, Portofino Island has five Mediterranean-inspired towers with private luxury condos, outdoor pools, and whirlpool spas. The resort also has five tennis courts, two exciting adventure centers, several restaurants, and a full spa.
Alabama's only saltwater port, Mobile, is on the Mobile River on the north-central Gulf Coast. The city was founded in 1702 by the French as the capital of French Louisiana. During its first 100 years, Mobile was once a colony of France, Great Britain, and Spain until the United States finally seized it during the War of 1812.
Mobile is considered one of the Gulf Coast's cultural centers and has several museums, art galleries, and a professional ballet company. Mobile is known for holding the oldest organized Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations in the United States. The city still celebrates Mardi Gras, meaning "Fat Tuesday" in French. The festival begins two and a half weeks before Fat Tuesday and occurs between February and early March, depending on the year. In Mobile, visitors can expect to enjoy a more family-friendly celebration than the bigger Mardi Gras held every year in New Orleans.
You would need a whole week in Mobile to visit all the museums, but whether or not you're in Mobile for Mardi Gras, the Mobile Carnival Museum is a must-see for history buffs. The History Museum of Mobile contains more than 117,000 artifacts from the city, showcasing delicate porcelain, crystal and artwork, and miniature houses. The Mobile Museum of Art hosts exhibits throughout the year, highlighting local artists. The museum houses more than 6,400 pieces of art and offers art classes for adults and children in pottery, jewelry making, and other art forms.
A visit to Mobile is not complete without a stop at "the largest flea market on the Gulf Coast"—the Mobile Flea Market. It is held every weekend year-round, and hosts more than 800 vendors selling a variety of goods, as well as a few concession stands if you want a bite to eat. Note that the market is not pet-friendly and has a small entrance fee.
The French settled the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1699. Like many of the oldest communities on the Gulf of Mexico, the French, Spanish, and English settlers heavily influenced its early history. The Biloxi Lighthouse was operational from 1848-1968 and then deeded to the city of Biloxi, which opened its doors to visitors. The lighthouse has withstood many storms, including the devastating category 5 Hurricane Katrina, which engulfed a third of the 64-foot-tall lighthouse in water and has become a symbol of the city's resolve and resilience.
Thanks to its location on the Gulf of Mexico, the city was once known as the "Seafood Capital of the World." Today, Biloxi still produces 69 percent of the U.S.'s domestic shrimp. Also known as Royal Red Shrimp, they are the crown jewel of the Gulf shrimp. They are a deep crimson red, taste like lobster, and are found in the deep waters along the Gulf from the Florida Panhandle to the Mississippi coast. For an up-close look at the shrimping industry, visitors can book a Biloxi Shrimping Trip—a 70-minute trip through the Mississippi Sound to catch shrimp, blue crabs, flounder, and squid. The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum is a tribute to Biloxi's 300-year history in the seafood industry.
There are plenty of places to stay in Biloxi, including the historic White House Hotel or the family-friendly Margaritaville Resort, which includes a rooftop waterpark with a 450-foot Lazy River, waterslides, and a swim-up pool bar. If you want to roll the dice or try your hand at blackjack, the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino has 1,740 rooms and stands 32 stories high.
St. Marks, Florida
St. Marks is one of North America's oldest settlements. Founded by the Spanish in the late 16th century as a fort site, the city has a colorful history and was at times occupied by the Spanish, English, American, and Confederate forces. Long-time residents of St. Marks have intriguing stories to tell of the Apalachee Indians, Spanish explorers, sunken ships, and marauding pirates.
St. Marks was a vital shipping port during the cotton trade. Florida's first railroad connected the port to Tallahassee to export cotton, giving St. Marks the name "Tallahassee's Port City." Today, the town is a popular weekend destination for fishermen, boaters, and seafood lovers. The city welcomes visitors all year round with a historic bed and breakfast, a seafood market, and a marina where visitors can rent boats, charter boat captains, or bring their own boats and use one of the public boat ramps.
Pass Christian, Mississippi
The city of Pass Christian was named in 1699 by French-Canadian explorers. The name comes from a deep-water channel or "pass" directly offshore discovered by Nicholas Christian L'Adnier and named after him. While Pass Christian is less well-known than Biloxi, it is a charming beach town worth visiting. Pass Christian beaches are some of the softest and cleanest beaches along the Mississippi Coastline. The economy of Pass Christian relies heavily on seafood-related businesses, oyster and shrimp fishing and processing, and a busy small business community. There are boutique hotels, restaurants, and shopping in the downtown core, and the slower pace of the city and friendly shop owners make Pass Christian a relaxing day trip for visitors.
The Hotel Pass Christian is a popular small boutique hotel with ten rooms, many with large balconies overlooking the harbor. The hotel offers luxurious accommodations, a close walk to restaurants and bars, a full-service spa—the Elysian Salon Spa—and the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. The quaint waterfront city of Pass Christian is the perfect place to get away from the everyday, with beautiful beaches, boutique shopping, and many activities perfect for every age.
The Hotel Whiskey in downtown Pass Christian is renowned for its architecture, gorgeous seascapes, and sunsets. For dinner, the Whiskey Prime restaurant serves steak and fresh, local seafood, and you can enjoy a cocktail at the full-service bar inside the restaurant. Go for Happy Hour at 3 p.m. and enjoy appetizers and 2-for-1 drinks. In the Pass Christian downtown shopping district, you find several specialty stores like Cigars in the Pass, the Pass Books/Cat Island Coffee Shop, and Robin's Next in the Pass—a gallery gift shop where you'll find unique gifts, jewelry, local art, books, and pottery.
Apalachicola, Florida, is a small town on the shore of Apalachicola Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico. Apalachicola is a close-knit community of friendly people who appreciate historical preservation, beautiful wildlife, and easy access to the water. That city has small-town shops, restaurants, and bars for both residents and visitors. In 2020, the population was 2,341 residents.
If you'd like to stay in Apalachicola, you might want to check into the historic Gibson Inn, built in 1907 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The inn was purchased and refurbished in 2018 by siblings who grew up in the town and frequented the inn with their parents. The inn oozes authentic Southern hospitality, featuring beautifully appointed guest rooms, fresh local seafood, and live music. Explore the town with a rented all-electric Gibson golf cart, or enjoy a complimentary Gibson-branded bicycle.
Apalachicola boasts "the most comprehensive maritime collection of antiques east of the Mississippi," so be sure to drop in at Tin Shed Nautical & Antiques to rummage through baskets of glass fishing floats, buoys, and ship wheels. After antiquing, head over to The Franklin Cafe or Up the Creek Raw Bar and order local varieties of oysters by the dozen or enjoy a craft beer at the Oyster City Brewing Company.
The name "Pascagoula," which means "bread eater," comes from the Pascagoula Native Americans who lived in the area in the 16th century before the French settled it in the 18th century. Centrally located on the Gulf Coast, Pascagoula is a short distance to towns like Ocean Springs, Biloxi, and Gulfport, as well as popular Alabama towns including Mobile, Fairhope, and Daphne. If you're looking for a bite to eat, take a step back in time and visit Edd's Drive-In and try one of their milkshakes, malts, or chili cheeseburgers, or stop by Tay's Barbeque for their famous hand-rubbed, hickory smoked ribs and chicken.
If you want to go sightseeing in and around the city, the Round Island Lighthouse, built in 1859 and a beacon for sailors for over 125 years, has been restored and is open to the public. You'll find the Grand Magnolia Ballroom & Suites near the lighthouse, a 7-suite boutique hotel near downtown Pascagoula. Enjoy the Southern charm of this beautiful hotel that includes parlor rooms where you can meet and greet the other guests or take a stroll outside on the hotel's 3.5 acres of land. Pascagoula is a music-lovers paradise with regular concerts and live music in downtown dive bars and beachside restaurants. The birthplace of Jimmy Buffett, who wrote a song about his hometown called "The Pascagoula Run" and performed free concerts in the city over the years.
Galveston is an island city on the Gulf Coast of Texas. During the 19th century, Galveston was a major U.S. commercial center and, at that time, was the largest city in Texas, called the "Queen City of the Gulf." Galveston has some of the best attractions in the state, including Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark, and the Galveston Island History Pleasure Pier amusement park.
Open 365 days a year, Moody Gardens is a public, non-profit educational destination focusing on rehabilitation, conservation, recreation, and research. With lush tropical gardens, exciting wildlife exhibits, magnificent rainforests, and a discovery center, Moody Gardens invites visitors of all ages to experience the wonders of nature and learn about various conservation efforts.
The Galveston Island History Pleasure Pier is a paradise for amusement park enthusiasts and one of the few parks in the world that offers rides over water, soaring high above the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to amusement rides, there's a 5D theatre ride and an assortment of midway games where you can test your skills for a prize.
Like many of the old Gulf Coast towns, Galveston also has several unique museums you can visit, like The Bryan Musem, the Texas Seaport Musem, the Galveston Railroad Museum, and the one-of-a-kind Ocean Star Museum & Education Center—a museum dedicated to the Ocean Star drilling rig that operated in the Gulf of Mexico from 1969-1984. Galveston also has one of the largest and most-preserved concentrations of old Victorian architecture in the U.S., and touring historic mansions is a popular pastime for visitors.
Visiting the oldest towns on the Gulf of Mexico is a journey back in time, where history and charm meet to create a unique experience. These coastal cities, with their well-preserved architecture, rich history, and warm, welcoming atmosphere, offer a glimpse into centuries of maritime traditions, Spanish and French influences, and local culture. The combination of historical landmarks, scenic waterfronts, and a relaxed pace of life make exploring these towns an adventure for visitors.