The recipe for a perfect vacation is pretty simple. Deceptively so, actually. All you need is some sun, a cocktail or two, and a whole bunch of white sand shoreline. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama have all of this (and more) in spades. Start off planning your trip by acquiring a basic knowledge of the best beaches and the best Gulfside bars... since that's where you'll probably be spending most of your time, realistically. Build the foundation of a perfect beach trip to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with this handy guide to the sunniest stretches of sand and the most unforgettable beachside bars!
Probably the thing that makes Gulf Shores such a perfect beach vacation is the Gulf Shores Public Beach. It's a huge stretch of white sand shoreline that's clean, has lots of amenities, and is free to visit (minus the parking, of course.) Lifeguards are on duty during the season, and there are tons of shops and restaurants all around. Whether you want to bring a chair and umbrella and just enjoy the emerald surf, join a beach volleyball game, or take a dip in the water, this is the place for that classic beach vacation experience. You could easily spend all day here, and that’s well worth doing, if only to catch one of the spectacular sunsets.
There are lots of reasons to visit Gulf State Park, but their 3 or so miles of beach is definitely up there. You'll find the white sand and warm Gulf waters from the Public Beach, but since it's a state park, it's got a vibe that's less developed and more nature-y. If your dream day at the beach involves fishing, there's a fishing pier (the longest on the Gulf of Mexico) that has a bait and tackle shop where you can rent all the necessary gear. You can even rent kayaks and paddleboards if you want to get active on the water, and learn more about the habitat at the park's nature center. Another cool feature of Gulf State Park? The glamping tents set up on the white sand beach in addition to the standard campground.
If you like walking along the beach, then the trails at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge are perfect. This is likely to be a less crowded beach experience, so if you prefer animals to other tourists, you'll feel right at home. Birds, gators, crabs, turtles, and more can be seen on the trails and at the beach. This is also a great destination for fishers and photographers to indulge in their hobbies. The visitor center is also a great place to learn more about the beaches in Gulf Shores, and the kinds of wildlife that call these shores home.
Pro tip: a kayak or canoe is a great way to experience some of the wildlife (like dolphins!) here.
And if you're the person who likes your beach trips to come with a side of history, then stop by Fort Morgan. Get here in the morning (before it gets really warm) and tour the historic military site. It was built in 1834 and played a role in four wars before it was decommissioned-- the Civil War (where it was used by Confederates to cover blockade runners before the Battle of Mobile Bay), the Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. Tour the museum, and the explore the fort, with its magazines and batteries. Then, you can check out the nature trails and enjoy beach access from the Fort! It's technically part of Bon Secour, but the chance to explore the fort and then cool off in the Gulf makes for a pretty awesome day.
The Gulf calls itself a "casual yet chic seaside hideaway," probably because they're too humble to call themselves "impossibly cool.” But with shipping container buildings, couches right on the sand, vinyl spinning, a menu that changes daily depending on local seafood and produce, and awesome upcycled decor (with a focus on reducing The Gulf’s carbon footprint), there's no denying it has the cool factor. Expect the menu to feature lots of casual dishes (think fish tacos, burgers, oysters, hummus, salads, and lots of cocktails) that you can enjoy while taking in water views and refreshing breezes.
Hang with the locals at the Flying Harpoon 2, a beachside bar that serves up New Orleans-style grub and strong, cheap, tiki-esque cocktails. If you're not hungry enough for a massive po' boy or a huge helping of perfectly fried fresh seafood, at least get some chips and Cajun remoulade for dipping. And, if you're feeling brave, there’s a pet alligator named Taylor that hangs around out back. Remeber to sign a dollar bill and hang it up before you leave to add to the colorful ambiance!
Pro tip: Happy hour goes from 11 am to 7 pm Monday thru Friday, so this is a stellar lunch spot.
If you're searching for a bar where you can spend a whole night getting rowdy, the famed Flora-Bama Lounge is your spot. This massive roadhouse-style beach bar has been around since the 1960s, and has its roots back in the days when Escambia County, Florida was a "wet" county and Baldwin County, Alabama was dry, making it the perfect place for Pensacolans and people in Baldwin County to come together and share a drink. Today, it has 5 stages of live music (whether you like country or rock, or something tropical, or something to dance to, you'll find tunes to enjoy), oysters, and, of course, lots of beachside seating. There's more to Flora-Bama than just a honky-tonk atmosphere; it is also known for Bushwackers. While the exact recipe of the Bushwacker is a closely-guarded secret, it's essentially a chocolate milkshake-like concoction laced with 5 different kinds of alcohol. In short, the drink can be deadly... but doesn’t taste it!
Is there anything more relaxing than watching the waves roll in while savoring a glass of wine (or a beer, or both)? I think not. Bill's By The Beach is the perfect place for that dreamy, lazy afternoon. Whether you just want a drink and some light bites (smoked tuna dip and seared tuna won ton crisps fit the bill) or you're in the mood for a nice dinner (try the crawfish-studded, Cajun-spiced Who Dat Mac or the Seafood Mornay), Bill's is the perfect spot.
Pro tip: Bill’s also makes a mean brunch. Nothing says "vacation" quite like a loaded mimosa!
You won't find a more iconic joint in Gulf Shores than the Pink Pony Pub. It opened in the 1950s, when the population of Gulf Shores was 120 souls, as a bait-and-tackle shop and cafe. Since then, the bubblegum pink wood building has weathered hurricanes, condo-mania, and countless spring breaks. In a lot of ways, the history of the Pink Pony is the history of Gulf Shores, so you definitely want to stop by for a drink. Preferably at night, when you can get down to a live band playing (what else?) "Sweet Home Alabama" while you sip a frozen Pina Colada, waves rolling up the beach right outside.
Once you've found your perfect beach and your ideal Gulf-side bar, you'll always have a dream destination to come back to. Sunny, lazy days spent basking in the white sand and warm water of the Gulf-- and breezy, balmy nights spent in the lively atmospheres of bars serving up live music and cold drinks-- make for perfect memories to get you through to your next vacation.