We spent 3 weeks exploring all the best things to do in South Padre Island – one of our all-time favorite beach getaways. And while it was hard work to research (that’s sarcasm!) we are excited to bring you the deets on the very best ways for you to explore during your own adventure to South Texas.
And listen, we’ve heard the noise. SPI used to be a big spring break town (yes, it’s where MTV filmed many of it’s worst odes to college life), but it’s not like that anymore. The city is cleaned up, it’s super safe, and it’s filled with families. Don’t be shy – come see for yourself.
IN THE WATER
TAKE SURF LESSONS
The first thing our kids wanted to do when we arrived was try surfing. We’ve never tried before, but SPI is the ideal location to learn. The waves are less than waist high and not too powerful. The winds are ideal (most days) and the beaches are so large that you can learn in an uncrowded area.
Aarin, the owner of SPI Sessions, took us under her wing and got our entire family up on our boards within the first hour. The boys continued surfing with her 1-2 times a week for the 3 weeks we were here. They even competed in a Thanksgiving competition!
She brings the boards, the talent (and event the wet suits if you’re visiting in late winter.) We can’t recommend lessons with SPI Session enough!
HEAD OUT DEEP SEA FISHING
There are plenty of opportunity for deep sea fishing here at SPI, with boats usually costing under $500 for a 4-hour private trip. Seatrout and Redfish run year-round here. The biggest Red Drum and Trout abound in Summer and Fall, but you’ll find little ones in Spring and Summer, too. You’ll also need a Texas license, which you can get here. Kids 17 and under do not need one.
TAKE A DOLPHIN TOUR
If you want to take a tour (eco tour or sunset tour) there are plenty of tour operators on the island. If your objective, though, is simply to see the cuties frolicking in the water then I recommend heading to Pier19 (a restaurant and tiki bar). We ate here a few times (lunch and dinner) and never ceased to see dozens of them at a time, playing in the water around the restaurant.
If you love dolphins as much as we do, then you should also plan a visit South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center. Yes, they offer dolphin tours. But they also offer a small but fun sea life center and periodic field trips designed just for the littles.
TRY PARASAILING OR KITEBOARDING
With such great surf, you’ll want to experience every way possible. From parasailing to kiteboarding and everything in between, there are multiple locations for in-the-water fun on the island.
VISIT THE BEACH
RELAX AT ISLA BLANCA PARK
We stayed at the RV Park at Isla Blaca Park, but if you’re not hauling a rig there is still a need to visit. You can grab a day pass affordably and there is plenty of parking.
Except for a few rainy days, we spent every day on the beach playing in the surf, riding the waves, surfing and boogy-boarding, building sand castles and more. The beach is wide and long, and the sandbar offers plenty of safe places for even young kids to walk into the water.
There are multiple pavilions with restrooms and picnic tables, and in warmer months you’ll find concessions, rentals and concerts here, too. The beach here is one of the best Texas beaches…maybe even the best we’ve visited in the United States.
BUILD A SAND CASTLE
Did you know SPI was home to the largest outdoor sandcastle in the USA…it was built in 2013! To honor that effort, you can take a trip along the Sandcastle Trail on the island. 30-ish sand sculptures are located throughout the Island, sculpted by professional sand artists — some local, some from as far away as Singapore! Many of these sculptures are traditional castles, while others are themed for the businesses and organizations where they are located.
If you want to try your hand at the craft, schedule a lesson with one of several places on the island. We didn’t have time to do this while here, but we’ve done it in the past and it’s such a fun experience with the family (or multiple families!)
Note: To read more about sand castle building on SPI (plus lots of other things to do) then check out this additional post on SPI from our friends.
GO HORSEBACK RIDING
Island Adventure Park is the go-to vendor for riding on the beach. They offer morning, sunset and full moon rides…plus family rides that offer options for younger kids to enjoy themselves.
Other fun adventures available through Island Adventure Park include zip lining, a petting barn, and more.
DRIVE ON THE BEACH
My first time driving on a beach was right here in SPI. You can’t do it everywhere; you can only drive in and out on Beach Access #5 and #6. You’ll take the main road almost to where it ends (which is only about 1/2 way up the island) where you’ll see signs for these two beach accesses.
The signs indicate you need a 4WD, and I don’t mind saying that I’m glad we did! We drove down about a half mile to where a group of people where shore fishing. After chatting about their catches for the day, we turned around and drove back. The tide was high when we went, but there was still plenty of packed sand for us to drive on.
BRING FIDO FOR SOME FETCH
All the beaches on the Island are open to the public, including those on both the Laguna Madre Bay side and the Gulf of Mexico side. Additionally, dog are welcome on all the beaches here, too. Be sure to keep Fido on a leash and clean up after him; trashcans line most of the beaches.
SOUTH PADRE ATTRACTIONS
VISIT THE SEA TURTLES
Sea Turtle Inc is dedicated to rehabilitating injured turtles and educating the public. We enjoyed learning about different types of turtles and how to distinguish them, seeing many of the rehabilitated turtles, visiting the turtle hospital where hundreds of turtles have been nursed back to health and released, and seeing them feed.
I think our favorite part was meeting Allison who received the first successful sea turtle prosthetic. We saw how it fit on her, how she swims with it, and how the mechanism morphed and grew as she did.
Gravity Park is SPI’s little amusement park. Fun for adults or teenagers? Meh. But your tweens will be in heaven. They’ll love the tallest reverse-bungee in the world (The Rocket), A skycoaster with a view of the whole island, a multi-level adult go-kart track and children’s go-karts, mini-golf, a 60 foot Ferris wheel, a trampoline ride, an arcade, and a climbing wall! All the rides are a la cart ticking.
CHOW DOWN AT CEVICHE CEVICHE
We’re not really mentioning restaurants in this particular post, but I can’t go without bringing up Ceviche Ceviche. Visiting here is a must. In fact, in the 3 weeks we were on the Island, I ate here over a dozen times.
Pick from tuna, mahi mahi or local gulf shrimp (or all three!) then add on the veggies and fruits of your choosing, plus avocados and multiple sauces. I usually got the Tuna Poke with cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, habanero and mango… with a side of avocado, plus the creamy jalapeno sauce.
Those flavors don’t work for you? No worries. They make it to order, and it’s incredible fresh. Eat with crackers or chips…or do what I do and just use a spoon! I can’t recommend enough that you stop in – and do it early so you can go back again and again.
CLIMB PORT ISABEL LIGHTHOUSE
Technically the lighthouse is off the island, but it’s so cool…so special…and just over the bridge. So we’re including it! Why is it special? It’s the only lighthouse in Texas that you can climb. 99 stairs take you to the top of this 1852 gem, where you’ll get a great view of the two-and-a-half-mile-long Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge that takes you into SPI.
BEACH PARK AT ISLA BLANCA
If you’re visiting in Summer, Beach Park (formerly Schlitterbahn Water Park) is a MUST. This family-friendly water park includes rides that include multiple slides, a wave pool, and even a zipline! Enjoy multiple restaurants, including a float-in bar, plus cabanas and palapas available for rent.
STOCK UP AT THE FARMERS MARKET
We’ve been to farmers markets all over the country, and the one on the island at SPI is among the best. You’ll find tons of fruits and vegetables (fantastic ones we’d never even heard of but learned about and tasted when we visited), breads and pastries, tamales, flowers, honey and nuts…so many options! One of the best things we picked up…on recommendations from friends and locals alike…is the Cilantro Sauce.
HIKE SOUTH PADRE ISLAND BIRDING AND NATURE CENTER
Dan and I spent a morning biking from the RV site to the Nature Center and exploring it without our kids. I’m sure the kids would have loved seeing the snakes, alligators, tortoises and more…but we enjoyed our time alone. We meandered the 6/10 mile boardwalk, climbed the 5-story tower and more. It’s relaxing and educational, and a great way to spend an afternoon!
TAKE A SELFIE AT THE WHALING WALL
Park at the Convention Center and snap a selfie at the Whaling Wall, featuring two beautiful Orcas. It is by an artist named Robert Wyland who wanted to bring attention to the Orcas that live in the Gulf.
EXPLORE LAGUNA MADRE NATURE TRAIL
The whaling wall is also the trailhead for the Laguna Madre Nature Trail. It’s a 1500 ft boardwalk that runs between the Convention Center and the Nature Center. The boardwalk crosses four acres of marshland, with ample opportunity to see a number of birds and an alligator if you’re lucky!
TAKE A DAY TRIP
VISIT SPACEX BOCO CHICA
South Padre Island is the best place to see a SpaceX launch, hands down. In fact, as you play in the waves on the island you can even see the testing and launch facilities about 5 miles away, as the crow flies.
You can visit by boat, or like we did, drive to Boca Chica. Because of the irregular shapes of the bay, islands and gulf it will take about an hour.
There is no visitor center, and you can’t get out of your car to walk around much…but it’s still worth the trip to see history happening. For more about what to see when visiting SpaceX Boca Chica, check out our web story with video here.
EXPLORE CORPUS CHRISTI
You can reach Corpus Christi in just under 3 hours (or make a stop-over on your way south). Take in Padre Island National Seashore, tour the USS Lexington, visit the ginormous Texas State Aquarium plus a slew of other major museums (or see the small ones, like the Texas Surf Museum). A day will work, but a weekend is even better.
JUMP THE BORDER AT NUEVO PROGRESO
Finally, take a trip to Mexico! Nuevo Progresso is where most tourist Americans cross. Park in the US and take the pedestrian bridge across the border. Yes, you need your passport and any virus-related papers (as of Dec 2021).
Many Americans visit here for affordable health options, like dentistry. But it’s also a great place for shopping and eating. Just eat all your fruits and veggies before you cross back into America, or you’ll have to leave them.
WHERE TO STAY ON SOUTH PADRE ISLAND
ISLA BLANCA PARK
If you’re visiting in an RV like we did, then we highly recommend staying at Isla Blanca Park. It’s on the southern tip of the island with easy access to the bay and the beach.
Some spots are heavenly; some spots are tight. The weird thing is that the prices are the same no matter what, so we recommend using Google Earth to scope out a spot before committing. If you’re visiting in winter, the place is nearly always full with full-time RVing families with kids….and in summer it is full with locals parking their RVs here all season so that it’s easy to visit on the weekends.
It never feels “too full” to visit, but the point is that you may end up with a less-than-ideal spot like we did because it is all that is available. Don’t let that deter you – once you’re on the beach surfing, eating ceviche for lunch and looking for the perfect gulf shrimp at night, you won’t even notice!
ZULA SIESTA RENTAL
If you’re not RVing then you might want to skip the hotels and opt for a rental. The island is teeming with luxurious (yet affordable) rental options.
Our friends had us to this rental to enjoy the pool, etc one evening. We saw the results of an extensive renovation process, and it was gorgeous and inviting.
It sleeps up to 16 people, with an en suite in every room. The kitchen and living space are huge (see photo above), and there is great entertainment space below with a heated pool and hot tub.
There is a washer and dryer, grill, hammocks, beach equipment…and it’s super duper close to the beach on the gulf size!
We highly recommend you check them out, but do it early if you’re trying to book around a SpaceX launch. BOOK NOW
MORE TIPS FOR YOUR STAY
- Liquor stores are closed on Sundays in Texas. If you’d like a cocktail with your football game or on a Sunday beach picnic then you’ll need to plan accordingly.
- There are multiple places on the island that offer golf cart rental, which can be a fun way to explore the island and move from beach to beach (while carrying all the beach gear!) It’s common to see them on the main road.
- If you have room in your truck (if you’re road tripping) then add your bike! There is a wide bike lane on the main thoroughfare. You can literally ride from one end of the island to the other (and we did!)
- SPI is a great place for snowbirds. We visited in November/December…and our RV friends are hibernating here for 3 months again. The restaurants are still open with live music, etc (unlike other beach towns you may be familiar with) because wintering here has become so popular.
- Surfing is easy and fun without a wet suit until about the end of November. While the boys still wanted to surf because it was in the 80s outside, the water temperature took a quick dive. If you have wet suits, I recommend bringing them…or renting from one of the surf lessons places on the island.
- When there is a SpaceX launch coming up, you’ll want to book accommodations early! It doesn’t mean the launch will actually happen, which is why you should stay for a month or more if you can…but it will get harder and harder to find a place.
- We adore raw oysters, and they are available everywhere. But they are just not as good here. Not briny…really lacking flavor. But that’s ok because the gulf shrimp are the best you’ll find. We recommend skipping the oysters and going for the shrimp
- Grab your groceries before getting on the island. There is a large HEB where you can do your primary shopping, just about 20 min before you cross the bridge. Once on the island the Blue Marlin is the only grocery. The options are limited and the prices are high.
- Even though it looks ideal, there are no bonfires allowed on the beach here. Leave the wood at home.
- South Padres Island vs Corpus Christi beaches? South Padre Island is the best of the two. It has better beaches, better accommodations, better restaurants and, in my opinion, friendlier people. Both are great, but remember that Corpus Christi is closer to the major cities with more things to do, but SPI….it’s smack middle of nowhere.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO TEXAS:
- TEXAS GETAWAYS: 11 AMAZING KID FRIENDLY WEEKEND GETAWAYS IN TEXAS
- VISITING WACO: Things to Do in Waco + Fixer Upper Rentals
- BEST FAMILY BEACHES: The 10 Best Beaches in Texas for Families
- SPI RENTALS: 15 Best VRBO South Padre Island Locations for an Amazing Vacation
- SPI HOTELS: 9 SENSATIONAL SOUTH PADRE ISLAND HOTELS YOUR FAMILY WILL ADORE
- SPI RV PARKS: 9 SOUTH PADRE ISLAND RV PARKS FOR YOUR NEXT VACATION
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WHERE TO STAY IN SOUTH PADRE ISLAND
Best Beach House Option. Zula Siesta Rental is our featured recommendation for more reasons than one. See our write-up above.
Best Resort Option. Isla Grand Beach Resort is right on the Gulf and features an outdoor pool with a poolside bar and grill. Live entertainment and cocktails can be enjoyed at the Quarterdeck Lounge.
Best Budget Option. South Padre Island Lodge is conveniently located between the gulf and bay sides, so you can enjoy the best of both bodies of water. (It’s just 1 block from each) It features an outdoor pool and hot tub. South Padre Island Lodge is affordably priced but has good reviews.
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