Best Things to Do in South Padre Island Texas

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Gorgeous sunset on South Padre Island Texas - SheBuysTravel
Gorgeous sunset on South Padre Island Texas. Photo credit: Cindy Richards / Empty Nest SheBuysTravel

South Padre Island, a long, skinny barrier island off the southern tip of Texas near its border with Mexico, offers warm Gulf breezes, some of the best beaches in Texas, spectacular sunrises each morning over the Gulf of Mexico and equally spectacular sunsets each evening over the Laguna Madre Bay. There are enough fun things to do in South Padre Island to keep everyone happy and there’s even free public transit to get you from one end of the island to the other and back to the airport when you’re ready to go home.

Located 4 hours and 30 minutes from San Antonio and about 5 hours and 30 minutes from Houston, this beach retreat has a  subtropical climate–this Texas Gulf Coast spot is at the same latitude as Fort Lauderdale, Florida–so South Padre weather tends to be warm in the winter and hot and humid in the summer.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Don’t plan to visit during the two weeks in March when most Texas colleges have spring break. South Padre is a favorite spring break spot for college kids.

Read More: Top South Padre Island Hotels

The beach on South Padre Island Texas
South Padre Island beach. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Head to the Beach

This is, after all, a beach retreat. And the beaches here are wide and clean and the Gulf Coast waves are constant. The sand near the water is hard-packed and drivable in some spots (you’ll need a pass to drive onto the beach). A few feet from the water line, the sand is soft and makes great sandcastles.

Bring with you everything you’ll need. While it’s possible to rent beach chairs and umbrellas at spots along the beach, it’s just as easy to bring your own and find a quiet stretch of seashore to spend the day listening to the waves, building sandcastles or just basking in the sunshine while reading a book.

Indulge in Water Sports

With the calm Laguna Madre Bay on one side and the surging Gulf of Mexico on the other, there are plenty of water sports opportunities here. From surfing to stand up paddleboarding to kayaking to jet skiing to scuba diving to deep sea fishing to horseback riding on the beach, there are plenty of ways to get active in and around the island.

Read More: 15 Great Texas Road Trip Ideas (Including South Padre Island)

Jesus statue memorial to fallen sailors at the south end of South Padre Island.
Jesus statue memorial to fallen sailors at the south end of South Padre Island. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Take a Harbor Cruise

There are many dolphin watch cruise options in South Padre Island. Dolphin sightings are practically guaranteed in the Laguna Madre. I hopped onboard the XCape, a dolphin cruise operated by Breakaway Cruises. We saw several dolphins cavorting in the water and playing at the bow of the ships entering and leaving the harbor.

Our boat included a shaded first level and an open second level for a more expansive view. The tour included harbor highlights such as the Coast Guard station and the Jesus statue that commemorates fallen sailors and welcomes seafarers at Isla Blanca park at the south end of the island.

We motored out past the jetty into the rolling waters of the Gulf of Mexico and made a few heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to grab a bobber that had gotten away from a fisherman on the jetty. It was disappointing that we weren’t successful since the boat captain pointed out the dangers of fishing line for the marine life of the bay, including the sea turtles that end up at Sea Turtle Inc. (More on that in a minute.)

"Sandy Feet," a professional sand castle artist on the beach on South Padre Island TX - SheBuysTravel.
“Sandy Feet,” a professional sand castle artist, conducting a class on the beach in 2018. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Learn to Build a Better Sand Castle 

Sure, you’ve been building sand castles your whole life. But we’re not talking about a few lumps of sand here. We’re talking actual castles, with bridges and staircases, windows and doors. Castles that stand two feet high.

Building sandcastles is a real art in South Padre. And the pros are happy to share their expertise.

I got my sand castle lesson from professional sand castle artist Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga. She’s been building sandcastles on South Padre Island since 1985. Her 2-hour sand castle building lessons are a fascinating hands-on experience, definitely one of the top things to do on South Padre Island beach.

In the end, my castle looked nothing like hers, but it was a better sand castle than I have ever built in my lifetime of lumping sand into castle-like formations. Join sand sculpting here.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The sun can be harsh in SPI. Wear sunscreen — these are our favorite sunscreen picks for babies and kids — and make sure everyone wears a good sunhat and other protective gear.

An injured sea turtle swims at Sea Turtle Inc.
An injured sea turtle swims at Sea Turtle Inc. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Visit Sea Turtle Inc.

Sea Turtle Inc. is the first place in the world to rehab injured sea turtles. Many of the patients here became entangled in fishing line and ended up losing a flipper. Those that can be rehabilitated are released back into the sea. Those that can’t, including Allison, a sea turtle with a prosthetic rudder, are on display.

This charming attraction with a mission was founded by Ila Fox Loetscher, a female aviator pal of Amelia Earhardt. Loetscher died in 2000, but her legacy, Sea Turtle Inc., remains.

After moving to South Padre Island in the late 1950s, she discovered the wonders of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. These miraculous animals were fast disappearing. People were killing the mama turtles as they crawled out of the sea to lay their eggs on the beach — a really effective way to kill off an entire species. Their shells were harvested for leather products, their eggs used as aphrodisiacs, and their meat stirred into soups.

Today, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are protected and their numbers are growing. Their biggest challenge now: Mother Nature. The temperature of the nest buried in the sand determines whether a turtle egg will deliver a male or female turtle. In Australia and parts of Florida, rising temperatures have resulted in groups of baby sea turtles that are 99 percent female. (Fun fact: a group of sea turtles is called a “bale.”) In some places, it’s so hot that sea turtle tenders shade the nesting areas just to keep the eggs from cooking before they have a chance to hatch.

This facility with the wonderful mission is staffed by helpful docents who are happy to talk about the patients swimming in the tanks.

I have visited Sea Turtle Inc. twice now and been impressed and saddened both times. Impressed by the good work they do, but saddened that the passion for saving the sea and the sea turtles doesn’t seem to extend to the island. While the turtle hospital decries turtle-injuring plastic straws and plastic bags, we found only one South Padre Island restaurant that uses paper straws (Mahi Nic) and only the Blue Marlin grocery store packing customers’ purchases in paper bags.

A bird visiting SPI Nature Center on South Padre Island Texas - SheBuysTravel.
A bird visiting SPI Birding and Nature Center. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

See the Birds and Alligators at SPI Birding Center

The SPI Birding and Nature Center is the place to see the birds that call the Rio Grande Valley home –mat least for a few days on their migrations north and south. Meander along the boardwalk, stopping along the way to read the informative signs and peer into the leaves in search of birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

In 2019, the center expanded its charter to become a home for “nuisance” alligators. Those are the gators that some human has fed or otherwise interacted with in a way that makes the reptiles a danger to people. When the alligators moved in,the South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center renamed itself the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary.

Don’t miss the alligator presentation. It was informative and the presenter has a love and respect for these scary creatures that is downright contagious.

couple walking along the boardwalk at the Laguna Madre Trail, one of the best things to do in South Padre Island Texas.
Laguna Madre Trail boardwalk. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Walk the Laguna Madre Nature Trail

Park at the SPI Convention Center to take this trail and boardwalk. We did it after dinner to catch the breathtaking sunset over the Laguna Madre. Sadly, the boardwalk is suffering and needs some serious maintenance in several spots. Don’t lean on the railings — many are too rickety to support your weight!

But definitely take the walk to the end of the boardwalk, which juts out over the water. Look down (without leaning too heavily on the railings!) to spot entertaining crabs scurring along the sandy bottom. We joined some committed bird watchers and watched as the birds grew more active at dusk, entertaining us with their synchronized flying and dives into the water to catch their dinner.

This is a great spot for family photos and enjoying nature. Speaking of nature, don’t skip the bug spray for this stop!

Learn Some Local History

Across the two-plus-mile causeway to the mainland is the small Port Isabel Historical Museum. It tells the history of Port Isabel and the Champion family. One of the early settlers in the area, the family operated a store from the building that now houses the museum.

The museum is thick with historical displays sure to enthrall a history nut who wants to understand the politics and international dispute that led to the Mexican American War.

The kids' play area at the Treasures of the Gulf Museum on South Padre Island Texas - SheBuysTravel
The kids’ play area at the Treasures of the Gulf Museum. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Discover the Treasures of the Gulf

Treasures of the Gulf Museum tells the harrowing stories of shipwrecks, lost crews and treasure beneath the sea. What’s not to love about that?

As an added bonus, there’s a section just for kids. It has a stage, a table for drawing and a sandbox where they can dig for buried treasure.

View from the Port Isabel lighthouse on South Padre Island Texas - SheBuysTravel
Climb to the top of the Port Isabel lighthouse for an expansive view. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Climb the Lighthouse

Climb the 100+ stairs of the Port Isabel Lighthouse (including the final segment at the top that is basically a vertical ladder) and step out for expansive views of the area, the bridge to South Padre Island and the seas surrounding it all.

Shrimp 3 Ways seafood platter at Blackbeards,'one of the best South Padre Island restaurants.
Shrimp 3 Ways seafood platter at Blackbeards’. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Eat Some Incredible Food

This is the Gulf Coast, so the seafood is delectable. And it’s Texas, so there are steaks. Really big, juicy steaks. Many of the restaurants and bars that line Padre Boulevard and the Laguna Madre coastline feature live music.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Most of the meals are Texas-sized, meaning big. If you aren’t ravenous, consider ordering an appetizer, one main course and a dessert to share.

Black Dragon pirate ship, one of the best things to do in South Padre Island Texas
Have a campy good time onboard the Black Dragon pirate ship. Photo credit; Cindy Richards

Take a Pirate Cruise

What’s not to love about silly pirate humor, a silly pirate ship and a sunny afternoon sailing the calm waters of the Laguna Madre bay?

Captain Black-Hearted Andy, the “Scourge of the Laguna Madre,” skippers the Black Dragon pirate ship and the wenches and pirates who serve and entertain tell some super silly jokes and work hard to keep the passengers engaged (and filled with drinks).

I’m a sucker for these campy, kid-friendly pirate cruises. Aye, Matey, I have done 3 in various spots around Mexico and always find them exceptionally silly and entertaining.

Visit Isla Blanca Park

This state park at the southernmost tip of South Padre Island is the place to see parasailing, kiteboarding and surfing. But you don’t have to indulge in all that activity. It’s the place we went to set up our beach chairs and beach umbrella to spend the day watching all of the activity.

There’s an RV park here, along with showers and bathrooms (a rarity on SPI beaches). There’s also food service, but it wasn’t opened when we visited in late February.

Take the Kids to a Water Park

Have a splash day with the kids Beach Park at Isla Blanca, previously known as Schlitterbahn South Padre Island. They’ll love the slides and you’ll love relaxing. Families will be happy to know that you can bring in a picnic at no charge. Just leave the glass bottles and alcohol at home.

Island Adventure Park

If you’re looking for some more fun things that will get your adrenaline pumping check out South Padre’s Island Adventure Park. You can zipline, horseback ride on the beach and check out the animals in the petting barn.

The Island Fun Park section has mini-golf and go-karts. If you plan to do multiple activities check out their Bucket List option for the best deal.

If you head to Island Adventure Park plan a little extra time. They’re right next to some sand dunes that will wow your kids!

Defy Gravity

Gravity Park is a small area in the center of town with a short list of rides. The adrelin-fueled reverse bungee, a throw-back multi-level wooden go-kart track, a slightly rickety looking Ferris wheel and mini-golf are open in the evenings.

Sand sculpture in South Padre Island Texas
One of the impressive sand scultpures at Holiday Sand Sculpture Village. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Admire the Sand Sculptures

Sand sculptures are a way of life on South Padre Island, so it’s no surprise that there are some truly impressive sand sculptures. Find them at the Holiday Sand Sculpture Village near Gravity Park. It’s a suggested $1 donation and it’s worth every penny to see the incredible artistry of these sandy works of art.

two people walking on the beach in South Padre Island Texas
The pristine beaches of South Padre Island. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

Visit Andy Bowie Park

This is the place to go to drive on the hard-packed beach. It also offers two large picnic pavilions, BBQ areas, RV sites, food concessions, beach rentals, restrooms and showers. But the best is being able to drive onto the beach, turn left and drive north for miles until you find a secluded section of beach to set up for a day of walking, resting, reading, shelling and playing in the waves.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Driving on the beach is safest in a four-wheel-drive car. We took our front-wheel-drive Ford Escape SUV and did fine, but we weren’t able to drive nearly as far as we had hoped. The farther north we drove, the fewer vehicles to pack down the sand.

Where to Stay on South Padre Island

There are lots of options for non-hotel stays on South Padre Island, including vacation rentals, RV parks and campgrounds. In fact, a large percentage of visitors are what the locals call “Winter Texans.” Those are the northerners who head south and stay for a month or more to avoid the cold winter months.

When choosing a South Padre Island hotel you may hear the terms gulfside and bayside. Gulfside will have easier access to the Gulf Coast beaches, bayside has stunning bay views and the sunset. Both are great for their own reasons.

Visiting Texas During the Spring? Here’s Where to Find Texas Bluebonnets:

Although bluebonnets, state flower of Texas, bloom everywhere across the state, some of the best places to find them are a short drive away from South Padre Island. Bluebonnets bloom from late March to early April (varies depending on how cold the winter was.).

If you are visiting during spring, you could easily add on a day trip to explore the Texas Hill Country and check out the wildflowers. More on where to find bluebonnets here. 

Cindy Richards Avatar
Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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One response

  1. Thank you for all the great information! We loved the stunning views at the Port Isabel lighthouse. We stayed at a waterfront condo at Sea Vista and loved the walk to the beach!