Soft, sandy beach and the clear, warm water of the Gulf of Mexico – check. Family friendly entertainment and restaurants – double check. While South Padre Island has a reputation as a spring break party hub, it is a laid-back beach town perfect for family vacations as well (just avoid March!). Why? Because there are lots of great things to do in South Padre Island!
Even during the coldest month of the year, the average low is in the mid-50s and families can still bask in plenty of sunshine during the day. Get ready to swim, sail, kayak, dolphin watch and more on the southern tip of Texas’ Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world.
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The Best Things to Do in South Padre Island on a Family Vacation
1. See the Sun Rise Over the Gulf of Mexico
When you snooze, you lose! Make sure to catch the sun rise over the ocean one morning. It is the perfect way to kick off a day at the beach.
The beaches of SPI are different from other gulf beaches in that when you face the water, you are actually looking directly east. Grab some coffee, wake the kids, and quietly soak up the array of colors that change minute by minute as the sky wakes up for another day.
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2. Build a Sandcastle Like a Pro
The reason most families come to SPI is to spend time at the beach, so find your buckets, shovels, and flippers and dive right in! Build a sandcastle, chase the waves, or collect seashells on the wide, sandy beach. Cool off with a dip into the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico.
When you’re family is ready for a beach adventure, try upping your sandcastle game, horseback riding, or pitching a tent.
Andy Hancock with Sand Castle Lessons is the reigning king of teaching families to build huge, professional looking sandcastles in South Padre Island. You can even time your visit to compete in the annual Family World Sandcastle Championship if you love to compete as a family.
Make your sand castle lesson reservation ahead of time because they are likely to sell out.
3. Take a Horseback Ride on the Beach
Adventure Island Park leads horseback rides along the shoreline. They have various packages, including a one-hour ride for families that just want a little taste of beachfront horseback riding.
They also have zip lining, a petting zoo, and a fun park with mini golf and go karts.
4. Camp on the Beach
If you want to fall asleep to the sounds of the waves crashing on shore, camping on the beach is allowed from Beach Access #5 northward.
There are no camping facilities, but you can drive up to your ideal spot in the sand and bonfires, pets, and fishing are allowed.
5. Make a Splash at Beach Park at Isla Blanca (formerly Schlitterbahn)
When you are ready for less sand and more action, thrill seekers can head to Beach Park at Isla Blanca for water slides, unique activity pools, and lazy rivers.
Family-favorite attractions include the Storm Chaser and Tempest tube slides. This large waterpark used to be a Schlitterbahn, but when ownership changed, the name and branding did as well. However, it is essentially the same waterpark.
6. Enjoy Watersports at the Laguna Madre
The Laguna Madre is the shallow, calm bay between mainland Texas and Padre Island. It’s the perfect place to have fun with water toys. Rent SUPs, kayaks, and jet skis at Parrot Eyes Watersports and Marina.
The marina offers guided jet ski tours of the area, including some time in Dolphin Cove where dolphins can usually be observed from a safe distance. They also do parasail and banana boat rides for kids.
For a quieter experience, catch a bird’s eye view of the island from a parasail, a surprisingly calm and relaxing ride appropriate for anyone weighing over 45 lbs. Fuel up at the marina’s bar and grill either before or after your time out on the water.
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7. Sea Turtle Inc.
Learn about the local wildlife at Sea Turtle Inc., a small, working rehabilitation hospital for injured and stranded sea turtles found in the area. They release roughly 80 sea turtles a year back into the wild and permanently house others that can’t be released.
The hospital was the first place in the world to design a functioning prosthetic fin for a sea turtle. Visitors can meet Allison, the turtle with the prosthetic fin, and observe other turtles currently being rehabilitated while learning about the most common ways turtles are injured and harmed.
It’s a small, outdoor facility that you can tour on your own, although staff are available for questions and do turtle talks and feedings throughout the day. The cute gift shop is a great place to grab a souvenir.
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8. Take a Cruise
Feel the wind in your hair on the Southern Wave, a large catamaran offering snorkel, sunset, and dinner cruises complete with a great view of the fireworks show during summer weekends. Kids will love watching the water flow underneath them from the catamaran’s net stretching between the two bows.
Osprey Cruises does dolphin watching cruises on a large passenger yacht with plenty of seating and room to move around, large bathrooms, a bar, an upper deck, and an air-conditioned indoor cabin.
There aren’t as many comfortable seating options on the catamaran as on the Osprey boats, so keep any mobility issues you may have in your family in mind when choosing between the two options.
Feeling a little feistier? Join Captain Black-Hearted Andy’s crew of “wastrels and brigands” aboard the Black Dragon, a replica of a 17th century pirate ship. The crew fires a cannon to call everyone aboard and entertains families with pirate stories, face painting, treasure hunting, water pistol battles, and sword fighting throughout the cruise.
9. Visit the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center, and Alligator Sanctuary
The South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center, and Alligator Sanctuary is a wetland preserve where you can spot 10+ species of local birds and wild alligators if you’re lucky. It is one of the best places in the country to observe wetlands.
The views from the boardwalk over the wetlands and the observation tower are stunning, but be sure to look straight into the marsh too for your best shot at spotting a hidden alligator.
There is a scavenger hunt for identifying the birds you see and many educational signs to learn about this unique ecosystem.
Some of the bird blinds have clear holes in the bottom so kids can view the water from directly above. Kids will also enjoy the indoor dioramas of wetland habitats, the daily gator talks, gator and tortoise feedings, and getting their picture taken with a live alligator.
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10. Scout the Art Trails
Need some inspiration for your family’s next sandcastle masterpiece? Follow the two art trails of SPI – the Sandcastle Trail and the Sea Turtle Art Trail.
There are 25+ sandcastle designs and 10 sea turtles running from the Convention Center to the southern tip of the island. You can download a map of the trails on the SPI Visitors Center website or stop by to get a hard copy.
Where to Eat in South Padre Island
For the best seafood and views of the bay, you can’t go wrong at Sea Ranch. It’s been serving seafood in SPI for 35 years, with a focus on local, wild-caught seafood.
Pier 19 has a more casual atmosphere, with dining tables stretching out along the pier for great views of the water. It serves burgers, po’boys, and seafood.
The Painted Marlin Grille has all outdoor seating and a beach-shack vibe right on the bay. They have a unique seafood menu including a chipotle-guava mahi bowl, avocado fries, and a mojo flounder to name a few.
The best breakfast and coffee on the island can be found at Yummies Bistro.
If you need a break from all the seafood, The Meatball Café offers delicious, down-home Italian and the South Padre Brewing Company offers good pub food and local brews.
Where to Stay in South Padre Island
Ideally, it is best to stay right on the beach in South Padre Island due to limited parking at the public beach access points. Luckily, the island has plenty of choices for beach-front accommodations. Trekaroo’s top pick is the Isla Grand Beach Resort.
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The Isla Grand Beach Resort is a beachfront resort with cabana rooms in the two-story building and two-bedroom condos in the high rise building overlooking the pool.
Enjoy a poolside snack, take a dip in the hot tub, play a round of shuffle board, see a fireworks show, and listen to live music all without ever leaving the property.
Disclosure: The author received a free tour onboard Osprey cruises. She was not required to state any particular view; all opinions remain her own.