Aerial view of Port Aransas, Texas.

9 Picture-Perfect Towns On The Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast is a pristine coastline region in the southern part of the United States. It stretches over 1,200 miles through five states that share the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico - Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The Gulf Coast is renowned for its white sugar-sandy beaches, warm temperatures, and breathtaking ocean views. The charming small towns that dot the coastline offer unique and unforgettable experiences to those who visit them. Whether you're admiring a stunning sunset, feeling a gentle wave caressing your feet, or simply sunbathing to work on your tan, these idyllic towns are our top picks for capturing a picture-perfect moment. If you long for a place to relax and rejuvenate the senses, these communities are as close to paradise as a person can get. 

Port Aransas, Texas

A scene from the overlook at Robert's Point Park in Port Aransas, Texas
A scene from the overlook at Robert's Point Park in Port Aransas, Texas.

This small town on the Texas coast is located on Mustang Island, about thirty minutes from Corpus Christi, and boasts over 18 miles of beachfront. As one of the longest barrier islands in the Gulf, the beaches are calm, clear, and exceptionally clean. Visitors can easily access the sand, and with excellent amenities provided by Mustang Island State Park, the beaches are usually uncrowded throughout most of the year. 

Make sure to visit the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center for an excellent chance to observe rare birds and other wildlife. The center offers a beautiful boardwalk that lets you get close to various bird species. The University of Texas also has a free aquarium that showcases local marine life. Fishing enthusiasts can visit any of the long piers where residents often go to cast their lines in hopes of catching a big fish. If you didn't bring your fishing rod, don't worry, as many places offer rod rentals. For those who prefer to go deeper into the Gulf, several charters can take you out to where the real monsters are. 

The finest seafood on Mustang Island is available at Tortuga's Saltwater Grill, a local favorite that has been revolutionizing the culinary scene for several years. If you fancy authentic old-world Italian cuisine, you should try Venetian Hot Plate, known for its exquisite fine dining entrees with an impeccable wine list.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Gulf coast beach in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Gulf coast beach in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

This picture-perfect place finds its way onto the best of lists year after year. Ocean Springs Front Beach is a quiet, unassuming beach for wading with the family. If the glorious sunsets don't spark your senses, the Davis Bayou Recreation Area offers a two-mile hike through a coastal forest and over two bayous brimming with wildlife. The Park's welcome center is a great place to start, with exciting exhibits and a film about the native species. 

One of the best things about Ocean Springs is the tree-lined downtown district with its artsy vibe. Filled with all sorts of shops and boutiques, this quaint community has become a haven for local and regional artists. Every fall, the town hosts the Peter Anderson Arts and Crafts Festival, which attracts painters, photographers, and crafters from all over the South. 

The fine galleries at the Pink Rooster or the Walter Andersen Museum of Art should not be missed. In addition, Shearwater Pottery features many unique pieces and sculptures if you want to pick up a keepsake. There are numerous dining venues downtown, but one of the best is Vestige, a James Beard-nominated restaurant that serves a five-course tasting menu several nights each week. 

Dauphin Island, Alabama

Aerial view of Dauphin Island, Alabama.
Aerial view of Dauphin Island, Alabama.

If you are fond of uncrowded beaches offering ample sun and surf, you should take the three-mile drive to reach this barrier island. The bridge that leads to the island runs over the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway and takes you to the charming town of Dauphin Island. Even though the town is small, it has numerous pristine and undisturbed beaches that you can explore. You can let the Gulf's warm waters tickle your toes as you wade through the soft sands or let your kids search for abundant seashells. As the day ends, take a walk along the beach and watch as the sun sets over the horizon, and you will understand why Dauphin Island is known as the "Sunset Capital of Alabama."

When you need a break from the beach, visit Fort Gaines, located on the island's eastern edge. This brick-built fort was crucial in guarding Mobile Bay, particularly during the Civil War. Many days, there are living history exhibits, which add to the experience. Additionally, you can explore the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, which spans 164 acres of natural wilderness and is an essential stop for various migratory bird species. For an exciting and educational experience, you can head to the Alabama Aquarium and learn about the local habitats of Coastal Alabama. Pirate's Bar and Grill serves some great handcrafted burgers and wings if you need a place to eat.  

Panama City Beach, Florida

The spectacular Panama City Beach in Florida.
The spectacular Panama City Beach in Florida.

Panama City Beach is a waterfront town in northwestern Florida that enjoys notoriety as one of the best beaches in the country. This popular resort offers miles of scenic waterfront, two protected nature preserves, and numerous hiking trails. St. Andrews State Park borders the Gulf and has white-sand beaches perfect for scuba diving, swimming, and surfing. 

The historic downtown of Panama City offers many options for shopping, dining, and visiting museums. The Social District extends along Harrison Avenue from the marina and is a great place to relax, sip a beverage, and browse the shops. Despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, the community is committed to revitalizing the area. The Bay County History Museum has fascinating exhibits that showcase the local history. With numerous antique stores, like the Main Street Antiques On Harrison and the Antique Cottage, there are plenty of nostalgic shops to wander through. 

Many restaurants along the beach with live music are perfect places for late-night partying. Three of the best with an ocean view are Schooners (reopening in January) or Uncle Ernie's in its historic building. 

Sanibel Island, Florida

Great blue heron at Blind Pass Beach on Sanibel Island, Florida
Great blue heron at Blind Pass Beach on Sanibel Island, Florida.

It has been over a year since Hurricane Ian struck Sanibel Island. Despite the impact, the community is recovering steadily, and the beaches have retained their stunning beauty. While some construction work is still visible, Bowman Beach and Blind Pass Beach offer breathtaking ocean views and are perfect for strolling along the tide or searching for seashells. The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is one of the largest undeveloped ecosystems in the country and a haven for countless bird species. 

The main street in Sanibel Island is Periwinkle Way, home to numerous shops and dining establishments. While the hurricane caused extensive damage to many local buildings, many shops and restaurants are reopening to tourists. For a great place to eat, try Doc Ford's Rum Bar and Grill, known for its tremendous Caribbean dishes. Since most of the area residents live off of tourism dollars, don't let the aftermath of a hurricane dissuade you from experiencing any of the natural beauty this area has to offer. 

Siesta Key, Florida

The white sand beach at Siesta Key, Florida, with a Christmas tree.
The white sand beach at Siesta Key, Florida, with a Christmas tree.

Siesta Beach is a beautiful island beach community about ten minutes south of Sarasota. This small town offers numerous activities like wading, parasailing, and fishing. The central entertainment district is Siesta Key Village, which boasts a variety of dining, nightlife, and shopping options. If you're looking for delicious seafood and live music, the Siesta Key Oyster Bar is an excellent choice for a frozen margarita. Ophelia's is a great option for a more romantic experience with waterfront views. They have a daily changing menu and a sophisticated wine list.

There are three beaches on Siesta Key, each boasting crystal clear sand and serene turquoise waters. Siesta Beach is the busiest of the three, making it the perfect spot for families who want to enjoy a picnic or play a game of beach volleyball. Crescent Beach is less crowded and provides a more peaceful atmosphere for families who wish to wade or board surf. Lastly, Turtle Beach has a steeper incline and is more secluded, but it is ideal for those interested in hunting for seashells and shark teeth. Once you visit, you'll understand why these beaches top the list of the best in the country year after year.  

St. Pete Beach, Florida

St. Pete Beach Florida.
Aerial view of St. Pete Beach Florida.

St. Pete Beach sits just west of St. Petersburg, Florida, with four miles of beachfront, and is generally less crowded than the nearby Clearwater Beach. This barrier island boasts unspoiled sands and gentle waters, making it a popular spot for locals to soak up the Florida sunshine. Families can enjoy the TradeWinds Grand Island Resort, a 16,000-square-foot floating water park with water slides, a floating obstacle course, and parasailing adventures. For adventurous people, renting a paddle board is a great way to spot dolphins who frequent the area. 

Pass-a-Grille is a charming historic district located at the southernmost point of St. Pete Beach. You'll feel the relaxed beach atmosphere as you stroll along the streets filled with pastel-colored buildings. There are many quaint shops to explore, but if you're looking for a unique outdoor dining experience, Paradise Grille is a great option. Enjoy a delicious burger, po-boy, or brew while enjoying the beautiful sunsets. Locals recommend visiting Hurricane Seafood Restaurant for a breathtaking panoramic view of the beach. If you're an art lover, you can check out the Little Room for Art or visit the renowned Dali Museum in the central district of nearby St. Petersburg.

Gulfport, Mississippi

Mississippi Gulf Coast sign in Gulfport, MS
Mississippi Gulf Coast sign in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Located on the south Mississippi Coast, this small town is near many casinos in nearby Biloxi, making it a popular year-round destination. With six miles of soft white sand and calm waters, visitors can enjoy a relaxing beach experience. There are plenty of spots to set up a beach lounger, and visitors can rent umbrellas, jet skis, or golf carts to explore the beach. Accessing the beach is easy as ample free parking is available, allowing families to park their cars and walk just a few feet towards the oceanfront. 

Families will enjoy visiting the Mississippi Aquarium, which features impressive displays of marine life, or the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, an interactive museum for children. For those interested in sampling made-from-scratch upscale entrees and a unique collection of bourbons, The Rack House Steaks and Spirits is an excellent choice in the historic part of downtown. Shaggy's is a family-friendly restaurant with a beach theme, offering freshly made po-boys, redfish sandwiches, and burgers. 

Tarpon Springs, Florida

Sponge diver statue landmark in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
Sponge diver statue landmark in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Tarpon Springs is a small town just north of Tampa and offers a rich Greek heritage. The town started when sponge beds were discovered in the early 1900s, and an influx of Greek immigrants built the town and industry. Today, Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek population of any town in the country. 

The Historic Sponge Docks is a bustling commercial center of the town that is home to several Greek restaurants, bakeries, and gift shops that sell fresh sponges. Visitors can explore the Sunshine Supply Company, a local gift shop, or enjoy authentic cuisine at Mykonos, a popular restaurant. (Though you may have to wait for a table, it's worth it). 

For a day of fishing, kayaking, or building sandcastles, Fred Howard Park is a 155-acre natural area many locals enjoy. Alternatively, you can take the causeway to Howard Park Beach, which has beautiful white sands and a pristine oceanfront. With its lovely Greek ambiance, this small town is an excellent spot for couples or families looking to reconnect over a weekend. 

There are many stunning places along the Gulf Coast, but the small towns near the seashore have plenty of unique experiences to offer visitors throughout the year. Whether you want to bask in the sun, splash in the water, or indulge in delicious cuisine, the Gulf has you covered. After a single visit, you'll likely be tempted to return again and again to discover all the beautiful memories that these small towns have to offer. 

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