When you picture a Gulf of Mexico getaway, you think sandy, white beaches and calm waters, right? And you think of fresh seafood and family entertainment. And you think of beach vacations. What state are you in? Alabama, right?
I know, I’m like you. I didn’t know Alabama had beaches, let alone glorious enough to compete with much larger (and touristy) sandy destinations. But, I’ve learned Alabama beaches are hidden gem of the U.S. south. And they’re perfect for a family getaway.
Disclosure: This trip was hosted by Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, and our stay was hosted by Meyer Vacation Rentals. This post may contain affiliate links. All thoughts, opinions and typos are my own.
UPDATE: This post was first published in March 2021 and updated in March 2022 reflecting a closure of one of the restaurants, Anchor Bar & Grill.
Things to know about Alabama beaches
While other states may have the benefit of direct flights for us Omaha people, Alabama has the benefit of being more affordable for everything else. So, if you’re willing to drive (it’s about 18 hours), or if you don’t mind a few layovers, you can have a relatively inexpensive beach getaway.
Alabama’s beaches stretch for about 30 miles, with the main beach towns being Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. They’re close to the Florida border, so if you’re familiar with Pensacola, you know the area where these two towns are.
They’re small towns, but they don’t lack any amenities that larger tourist destinations have. There are plenty, and I mean plenty, of souvenir shops, as well as restaurants, putt putt golf venues, and grocery stores. Heck, there’s a Target. I know this because we had to fill a prescription while on vacation (long story involving splinters and urgent care).
It’s pretty easy to navigate the area, though because of all the waterways, you may want to calculate an extra drive time to places since you may have to drive around rather than directly toward a place.
Where to stay near Alabama beaches
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are two small towns that are so close to each other, you can easily plan on staying at either one and get to most every attraction, restaurant or beach easily.
We stayed in a condo at Lighthouse Condos, located in Gulf Shores. The condo was managed by Meyer Vacation Rentals (they have a lot of properties).
Being a beach frequented by snow birds and families, there are A LOT of rental options, as well as condos, should you want to make visits a regular thing for you. There are also hotels, and just a couple had the luxury of being beachside like our condo.
A few hotel options in the mid-price range with beach proximity:
The perks to Alabama condo stays
We stayed at The Lighthouse, that had direct access to the beach, plenty of parking, and an incredible view.
- Usually a fully-equipped kitchen with a dishwasher and a washer and dryer (might not be the case for all condos)
- Many have beach access, plus hotel-like amenities like a workout center, pools & hot tubs, etc. The Lighthouse had two hot tubs, two outdoor pools and one indoor pool.
- Space. Oh, how we loved having the space of the condo with its two bedrooms (plus a third mini room with bunkbeds), two bathrooms, and a large balcony with four chairs that begged for beach gazing.
We’ve already started talking about our next visit. Next time, we think bringing a group of families would be fun, so we may look into a larger rental.
The downside? We had a hard time finding someone who could help us unlock a bathroom door before we had to checkout. The joys of kids who love to lock doors…
Browse more condos:
The beaches in Alabama
The biggest draw for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are, no surprise, the beaches.
You may be lucky and have a beachfront condo or hotel, but for everyone else, there are 14 public beaches in the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area. Parking is free unless otherwise noted.
- Gulf State Park, Florida Point (.3 miles east of Perdido Pass Bridge), Cotton Bayou (intersection of Highways 182 and 161), Romar Beach (6.8 miles east of Highway 59), Pavilion area (paid parking; 6 miles east of Highway 49), Lake Shelby Area (freshwater lake beach; 6 miles east of Highway 69)
- Gulf Shores West & East Beach Access (paid parking; end of Highway 59)
- Gulf Shores Fourth Street (no parking;4 blocks west of Highway 59)
- Gulf Shores Fifth Street (5 blocks west of Highway 59)
- Gulf Shores Sixth Street (paid parking; 6 blocks west of Highway 59)
- Gulf Shores 10th Street (10 blocks west of Highway 59)
- Gulf Shores 12th Street (12 blocks west of Highway 59)
- Gulf Shores 13th Street (13 blocks west of Highway 59)
- Lagoon Pass (paid parking; 2.9 miles west of Highway 59 at Lee Callaway Bridge)
- Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge Beach (12295 St. Highway 190 at Fort Morgan)
For more ideas, I’ll be sharing a few of my family’s favorite activities around the Alabama beaches soon. Check back on this blog!
I’m a Nebraska girl. Knowing the Do’s and Don’ts of going to the beach are not innate. Here are a few tips I learned while in Alabama:
- Pack well. While there are some restaurants around the beaches, you’ll want to bring along with you plenty of water and snacks. While the beach in front of our condo had loungers, you may want to bring some chairs, especially during peak season. Likewise, our sliver of beach had some umbrellas, but you may not get so lucky, so if you have one, bring a beach umbrella (like this portable umbrella that comes with a bag to carry it).
- Of course, other must-haves include beach towels, sunscreen, and beach toys (these foldable pails pack nicely!). I’d forgotten a hat, so I ended buying one from a souvenir shop. Bring one if you have it. And sunglasses, as well.
- What not to bring: Glass containers, tents larger than 10-foot by 10 foot, metal shovels, firearms, fireworks, fires, camping gear for overnights, vehicles, and pets. Yes, no pets. The only beach pets are allowed on are the Fort Morgan beaches.
- Mind the flags. We were visiting during a particularly rough patch of water conditions, so the flag was always red. Green flags mean calm conditions. You’ll never see a green flag, I’m told, since they give a false sense of safety. If conditions are moderate, you’ll see a yellow flag. Red flags mean the tides are high or the current is strong. Swimming is not allowed. Double red flags mean it’s so rough, the water is closed to the public. And then there is the purple flag, which indicate dangerous marine life is present like jellyfish or Portuguese man-of-war.
- Never swim alone.
A two-day itinerary Alabama beach vacation
Let me just get it out of the way: Two days is just not enough time. We left wanting more time there. But, if two days is all you have, you can fit in relaxation, good food and fun activities to make for a great little getaway. Here’s what we did:
Breakfast – Small breakfast in the condo/hotel, or get takeout from a café like A Sweet Secret Bakery & Café, 1538 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores.
Activity – Beach time. Plan ahead and schedule an hour lesson with Sandcastle University for your family. It’s a blast and they bring the tools to your location.
Lunch – The Original Oyster House Boardwalk, 701 Gulf Shores Parkway, Gulf Shores. Obviously, try the oysters. This restaurant is pretty kid-friendly; each kid’s meal included a little gator toy on top.
Activity – Bike ride around Gulf State Park, 20115 State Park Road, Gulf Shores. If you didn’t bring your own bikes, rent them at a nearby place like Beach Bike Rentals, 22989 Perdido Beach Blvd., Orange Beach.
If you have little ones on bikes, try these trails around Gulf State Park: Coyote Crossing, Gopher Tortoise Trail, Catman Trail, Rattlesnake Ridge, Cotton Bayou, Rosemary Dunes, and Gulf Oak Ridge. These trails have the least boardwalks. Many of these are all pavement (with only a short bridge in some places).
Be on the lookout for wildlife. We saw an armadillo, alligator, and turtles. You can also plan stops at beaches or the nature center.
Dinner – Fresh Off The Boat, 27267 Perdido Beach Blvd., Suite 105, Orange Beach. This is about as fresh as it gets with seafood.
Breakfast – Sunliner Diner, 100 E. Second Ave., Gulf Shores. This is a 1950’s-style diner that will fill you up with a lot of food.
Activity: Alabama Gulf Shores Zoo, 20499 Oak Road E, Gulf Shores. This little zoo was one of the highlights of our trip because of its animal encounters. We ended up with several memorable stories to share about the animals we met!
In addition to pop-up encounters like seeing a turtle out for a walk, there are quite a few ticketed encounters like feeding a giraffe to and feeding a sloth. The lemur encounter may soon be available, and once it is, I highly recommend it!
Lunch: Eat at the zoo at Safari Club Restaurant, Alabama’s first green-certified restaurant.
Activity: Beach time, again. Because, of course.
Dinner: Lucy Buffett’s LuLu’s Gulf Shores, 200 E. 25th Ave., Gulf Shores. LuLu’s is more than food, it’s a whole experience with a lot of sand, an arcade, a seasonal ropes course, live music and more. LuLu’s has outdoor seating when the weather allows (otherwise, they bring down temporary coverings).