At the southern end of Texas, South Padre Island is the definition of beach destination. Popular among spring breakers, the island is half a mile wide and only 2.5 miles long. Yet it’s a year-round destination that’s teeming with gorgeous beaches, rich nature and the kind of bars that keep the fun going into the early hours.
On South Padre Island, it doesn’t matter if you’re facing the Gulf of Mexico or the Laguna Madre, you’ll have lovely views, great swimming and ample opportunity for outdoor adventures. Whatever your poison from SUPs and kayaks to fishing and boating, you won’t have an issue staying busy.
To see and do it all, check out our guide to the best things to do on South Padre Island.
Head to the Beach
South Padre Island has the nickname the Texas Riviera, for a reason. Its rows of golden sand beaches attract travelers by the millions, with the island being both a summer hotspot and a winter haven for those seeking to escape the cold. Much of the attractions lies along the scenic coast, home to some of the cleanest and calmest waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
The main beach on South Padre Island is Isla Blanca Beach. It’s officially a mile long, yet you can continue walking along the soft white sand until you reach the island’s end. While there are access points all along the island’s eastern coast, Isla Blanca has the best range of amenities. Here, you’ll find beachside parking, bathrooms and waterfront pavilions for taking a break from the sun. When you’re ready for a feed, you’ll also be mere steps away from a number of local restaurants.
Also on Isla Blanca beach is the El Cristo de los Pescadores statue (Christ of the Fishermen) on of the top South Padre attractions.
Jump on a Stand-Up Paddleboard
If you’ve ever woken up early on a beautiful sunny day to find people gliding across the dead still sea on a SUP, you would have felt the pangs of jealousy. The leisurely water sport is as relaxing as it gets (provided you can keep your balance). Heck, they even do yoga on paddleboards now. With so much of life on South Padre Island revolving around the water, you must get your hands on a SUP during your trip.
As the island is a beach vacation destination, you won’t find a shortage of rental outfits to choose from. South Padre Surf and Air Padre are two popular outfitters that will get you kitted up and out on the water in no time. Air Padre is great for exploring the island’s canals and the scenic Laguna Madre, while they also rent out kayaks, jet skis and run kiteboarding lessons.
South Padre Surf operates out of Isla Bianca Beach Park and also provides surfing, fly boarding and wakeboarding adventures.
Drive on the Beach
One of the most spectacular things to do on South Padre Island is to drive on the beach. The sense of freedom is palpable as you zoom along the hard sand, watching the waves rise and fall out the window.
Although South Padre Island has over 30 miles of majestic beachfront, not all allow for cars. There are two major access points within the city limits, these are Beach Access 5 and 6. For this experience, you’ll want a decent clearance and a four-wheel-drive is a strong preference. The driving fee is $12 dollars and Beach Access 5 allows cars to camp overnight with access to the amenities at Edward King Atwood Park.
North of the city limits in SPI brings a gorgeous 30 miles of beach driving, including the to and along the sand dunes. If you don’t have a 4WD, the Queen Isabella Causeway and State Road 100 offer the perfect solution. Here, the tarmac runs onto the beach, providing all the same spine tingling views without having to worry about getting bogged.
Go horse riding
After parking the car, it’s time to trade four wheels for four hooves. To do so, head to South Padre Island Adventure Park. Your time here will start with a scenic horse ride before becoming even more exciting. To reach the park, you’ll have to drive along the memorable State Road 100 with the dunes rising to your left and the ocean crashing to your right.
Upon arrival, it won’t take long to get the horse saddled up, and after a quick initiation, you’ll be trotting along the beach. The 90-minute experience is utterly tranquil with just the sounds of the clip clopping of hooves and the waves tumbling down. Feel the salty mist run through your hair as the views somehow grow ever grander.
After hanging up the saddle, turn your attention to the other fun activities at the Island Adventure Park. Strap up and zipline across the park for 45 minutes straight, enjoy some friendly competition on the go-kart track or mini golf course and hang with some cute animals at the petting zoo.
With all this on offer, the park is one of the best things to do on South Padre Island with kids.
Dive beneath the surface
You’ve swum, sunbathed, drove and rode, and now it’s time to explore the vibrant world beneath the surface around South Padre Island. With a mix of the Gulf of Mexico and the calm Laguna Madre, divers of all abilities will have an opportunity to explore beautiful marine life with fantastic visibility.
In Laguna Madre, scuba divers can explore relatively shallow waters that come with easy swimming conditions, a wide range of fish and the odd roaming turtle. One of the best dive sites around South Padre Island is the Texas Clipper. This was a troop transport ship from the Second World War that saw action in the Pacific. After the war, the ship was repurposed into a luxury ocean liner before being sunk off the coast in 2007. This has created an artificial reef that spans almost 500 feet (152m) and is close to the surface.
With the help of Dive South Padre, divers of all abilities can get out on the water with further options to snorkel or embark on a dolphin watching adventure.
Hike the Laguna Madre Nature Trail
Beyond the surf shops and cars on the sand, South Padre Island has an untamed wild side. The best way to experience the island’s beautiful natural world is on the Laguna Madre Nature Trail. It is a short and sweet at only 1-mile long and eventually connects to a second 1,500 long boardwalk. The boardwalk is accessible and can be completed as a separate trek.
The highlight of the trail is the exceptional birding opportunities. As you meander through the peaceful paradise of marshlands and coastal forests, you can witness up to 300 bird species that call the island home. The birds change based on the seasons, with an array of migratory birds making a temporary stop on their way north or south.
The unspoiled haven is open all day long and doesn’t cost a penny. Come at sunset to watch the sky slowly change and the low hanging light splash against the canopies. After the hike, be sure to explore the South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center, complete with a 5-story viewpoint.
See Port Isabel Lighthouse
Your time on South Padre Island has gotten off to a hectic start. But to slow things down and enjoy some man-made excellence, then go see the Port Isabel Lighthouse. The historic lighthouse, with its towering white cylinder and black beacon, was built in 1852 to aid ships sailing through the Brazos Santiago Pass. Today, it’s the only regional lighthouse available to explore.
Visitors can make their way to the top of the lighthouse that includes over 100 steps and a practically vertical ladder at the end. From your elevated platform, you’ll enjoy extensive vistas of the Gulf of Mexico and the surround coast, along with the bridge that connects to the island.
Afterwards, make your way to the Port Isabel Historical Museum, which boasts one of Texas’ most expansive artifact repositories from the Mexican-American War. Complement this experience with a visit to the Treasure of the Gulf Museum to learn about life on board ships in the 1500s and to see treasures found beneath the surface.
Travelers can see all three attractions for $9 or individual sites for $4 each.
Visit the Beach Park at Isla Blanca
Sometimes sand and sea just don’t cut it. For something that will get your adrenalin pumping, take a few steps back from Isla Blanca Beach and arrive at the Beach Park. Spanning 25 acres, the complex is an indoor and outdoor water park that is as refreshing as it is exhilarating.
Beach Park at Isla Blanca boasts over a dozen water slides that are split between the outdoor and indoor sections. Meaning if the rain does tumble down on South Padre Island, you can still get the heart racing. One of the top slides is the Storm Chaser. To reach the lines, you just have to float down Rio Aventura and wade in the water until your time has arrived. You’ll then be swept up by a conveyor belt before zooming back down to the river.
Beyond the thrilling water slides, you’ll be able to try out some surfing moves on the artificial waves at Surf Rider before chilling on the lazy river known as Agua Blanca. Later, swim up to Bob’s Float-In Bar for a lovely place to enjoy a drink without leaving the water.
Build the perfect sandcastle
There are many beautiful beach destinations in the United States, but few come with the kind of exceptional sandcastles you’ll find on South Padre Island. Here, locals have taken things to a new level and turn building a regular sandcastle into an art form.
To experience the sand building excellence, take a walk along the South Padre Island Sandcastle Trail. Along the way, you’ll find around incredible castles, including the largest in the United States, which is located next to the Tourist Information Center. Travelers can’t help but be inspired by the creations. Thankfully, local experts have taken it upon themselves to help you bring out your inner-sandcastle extraordinaire.
Whatever you wish to build, Sandcastle Lessons will teach you all you need to know. Under the instructor’s tutelage, you’ll be able to make a castle straight out of a Disney flock with multiple towers and beautiful detail. After becoming a master, bring your skills to the beaches back home and have others look on in awe.
See the turtles at Sea Turtle Inc.
Sea Turtle Inc. Is one of the most important establishments on South Padre Island. The complex takes care of injured sea turtles, nursing them back to health before either releasing them back into the wild or taking care of them until passing. Sea Turtle Inc. is both heart wrenching and inspiring.
The rehab center works year-round and works mostly with the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, which are endangered. As you wander around the facility, you’ll be able to see a number of turtles receiving unique care, including turtles with prosthetic limbs that allow them to swim under the careful eye of the resident lifeguards.
The center hours regular Turtle Talks and guided tours along the waterfront. This will help educate you on the plight of turtles, the importance of protecting nesting grounds and the wider environment. With so much of life on South Padre Island revolving around the water, it’s an important look into how we can limit our effect on the wild world around us.
Explore Padre Island National Seashore
For many, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of South Padre Island are vibrant beaches and sunset cocktails. But above the island, on North Padre Island, is the Padre Island National Seashore. Compared to the action around Isla Blanca, the seashore is a peaceful heaven with tons of wildlife and flora, without a hotel or restaurant in sight.
As the crow flies, the seashore isn’t far from all the fun and games on South Padre Island. However, because of a lack of development and roads, travelers will have to drive up to Corpus Christi before heading back over the bay to North Padre Island. This turns the trip into a long day, or better, an overnight experience.
The island is the longest undeveloped barrier island remaining on earth. Visitors can expect a stunning diversity of flora and fauna that fringe the 70 miles of beaches, sea oat dunes and vast prairies. In the late summer, you may even spot little Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles hatching on the sand and making the slow journey to the Gulf.
Beyond enjoying the beach, you can explore on the nearby trails, go for a bike ride, kayak on the Laguna Madre. There are two campgrounds and three primitive tent sites within the park, so you can go to sleep and wake up in paradise.
Catch the Sunset
With Gulf of Mexico on the east side and Laguna Madre on the west shore, South Padre Island has a magical golden hour both at dawn and dusk. Early birds don’t just get the worm here, they receive a magical sunrise that comes up over the distant Florida coating the shoreline in reds, oranges and yellows.
Sunrises can be enjoyed all along the eastern beaches, but when it comes to sunsets, there is a standout destination. Facing over Laguna Madre is Jim’s Pier. This offers locals and travelers alike a prime location to watch the sun go down. The outdoor patio comes with ample shade and you can feel the salty breeze lap the deck.
At Jim’s Pier, you can kick back with a delicious meal paired with a fruity cocktail and bid adieu to the day’s light, but not before a prismatic display of light refraction. If you happen to have gone fishing earlier, bring along your fresh catch to Jim’s Pier and the chefs will be happy to cook it up for you to enjoy.
Go deep sea fishing
Anglers will be hearing the Gulf of Mexico call their name for as long as they’re on South Padre Island. The call of the deep sea will only grow stronger until they sign up for a fishing trip. It’s one of those activities that’s great for groups of friends or traveling families and with so many choices on offer, you’ll find the deep sea fishing trip that’s right for you.
Some of the best charters on the island are run by Osprey Cruises, Danny B and Captain Murphys. All three bring you right out into the Gulf with the option to stick closer to shore and go “bay fishing” for a cheaper price. You can sign up for a public tour or private experience that ensures it’s just you and yours hanging out in the deep blue sea.
Alternatively, if you have access to a rod, bait and tackle, make your way to the jetties found along Isla Blanca Park. In addition to the Queen Isabella State Fishing Pier, these are the best places to go fishing on the island without having to sign up for a tour.
Play nine holes
Back on the mainland, past Port Isabel, is where you’ll find the South Padre Island Golf Club. If you love to hit the fairway and break out the clubs, then the course provides the best local experience. Guests will be discover a full-service club, with a pro shop, lessons and beautiful views along many of the course’s 18 holes.
In the height of summer, you’ll want to get any early start to avoid the heat. However, with just a few feet between you and Laguna Madre, you’ll enjoy a nice coastal breeze throughout your round. The course itself is pristine and provides an excellent balance between fun and challenge. Along with the water views, you’ll also have to maneuver around the water traps placed strategically along many of the holes.
If you can, book a round that will end around sunset. As you putting on the 18th, you’ll be blessed with rich orange skies that hang around long after you’ve arrived for drinks and a feed at Divots Bar and Grill.
Experience the thrills at Gravity Park
As the local golf course shows, there’s more to South Padre Island than sun, sand and nature. Another way to switch things up, that’s also great for the whole family, is with a visit to Gravity Park. You’ll already know what awaits and travelers will embark on a range of gravity-defying adventures.
A few steps back from Laguna Madre in the center of South Padre Island, the park that doesn’t lack in the thrills department. Here, you’ll find the Rocket, which is one of the tallest reverse-bungee rides in the world. Riders will be strapped in tight before flying towards the heavens with immense speed.
After bringing the heart rate back down, you’ll be ready to jump on the Skycoaster, that also takes you well above the ground on a roller coaster ride that features amazing views. That is, if you aren’t scared to open your eyes. To finish, race your friends and family on the go-kart track, play mini golf or go rock climbing.
Have a night out
A day on South Padre Island comes with a lot of sunbathing, some thrills and plenty of swimming. But the fun doesn’t end when the sun goes down. In fact, you could argue it kicks up a notch. The island’s relaxed and carefree attitude channels itself into an exciting night out with a great range of bars and clubs to choose from.
Along with Jim’s Pier, another great spot to watch the sunset is Louie’s Backyard. With a lookout deck and fireworks in the summer, it’s a rowdy place to be come nightfall. For live music travelers should checkout The Quarterdeck. Shows begin at 9pm and run into the early hours, featuring uptempo dance tunes that will have you grooving on the dance floor.
Many of the beachfront bars you’ll have seen on your travels of SPI also stay open late and put on a show for patrons. Some of these include the popular Tequila Sunset Bar and Grill, which is soaked in neon lights after sunset along with LongBoard Bar and Grill, which offers an enormous space for revelers and some of the best cocktails on the island.
Sunbathe on Boca Chica Beach
Around an hour south of South Padre Island, Boca Chica Beach runs all the way south to where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico and the United States comes to an end. The beach is on the other side of the Brazos Santiago Pass, which splits South Padre Island from the sandy peninsula within the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Boca Chica Beach is one of the few public beaches in Texas that’s also open 24 hours. The beach boasts 8-miles of powdery white sand fringed by mangroves, salt flats, and lomas (clay dunes). There’s barely any development in sight. It’s remote, clean, and utterly beautiful.
In the spring, Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs before the little critters appear a couple of months later. Beachgoers can sunbathe and enjoy the exclusive views before snorkeling in the crystal clear water. With so few amenities, be sure to pack everything you need for a day at the beach and, as always, pack out all rubbish.
See a SpaceX launch
A minute’s drive back from Boca Chica Beach is a launch facility for SpaceX. Otherwise known as Starbase, this is where it all goes down and some of the most advance rockets ever created take off.
In total SpaceX has launched over 150 rockets, including 90 that have been flown twice. Many of them have departed right here in southern Texas, with the others embarking on their journeys from the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida.
SpaceX announces their launches ahead of time. You can look over their schedule on their website, and see if there are any launch events occurring while you’re in town. You can enjoy a memorable viewpoint from Boca Chica Beach or just north in the Bravos Island State Park.
The state park spans over 200 acres and offers a great beach day alternative to Boca Chica Beach. You can also fish along the shore, explore the maritime forests and camp overnight. Thanks to its remote location, the park grants you another tranquil escape from civilization.
See the Wyland Whaling Wall No. 53
Arguably the most quirky attraction on South Padre Island is the Wyland Whaling Wall Number 53. On the exterior walls of the South Padre Island Convention Center are life-size murals of orca whales. The public art display covers multiple enormous walls and helps draw attention to the plight of orca whales around the world.
The mural has the number 53 as it is one of 100 such murals around the world. It’s a small part of an impressive world-wide campaign begun by the Wyland Foundation in 1981. It took them 27 years to paint all 100, with the first one created in Laguna Beach, California and the last in Beijing, China. Other places to see the Whaling Walls include Brazil, Samoa and Canada, with the vast majority found within the United States.
If you can, time you visit to the Wyland Whaling Wall on a Sunday. Just north of the convention center is the South Padre Island Farmers’ Market. The little market is packed with artisan treats, handcrafted goods and fresh produce.
Drive Around on a Scootcoupe
You may have seen them in other destinations around the United States, but if you haven’t yet driven the three-wheeled scootcoupe, then now is the time to do so. The traffic around South Padre Island is fairly tame and the mini cars are a blast time drive. Without a roof, drive up to 40 miles per hour with the wind lapping your hair and the palm trees flying by.
At SPI Fun Rentals, you can get your hands on these adorable cars that are barely bigger than the ones you used to have as a kid. If the scootcoupe doesn’t have enough power for your liking, you can also rent a Slingshot. For off-road adventures and more peace of mind as you drive along the beach, get your hands on a Wrangler.
Explore the Laguna Madre Art Gallery
With so much time spent outside, if you ever grow weary of the sun, then head to the Laguna Madre Art Gallery. Burnt beachgoers and art lovers will enjoy the non-profit art gallery. The space helps showcase a range of local and regional talent with many of the pieces available for you to purchase.
Beyond some beautiful paintings, you’ll discover some locally made jewelry, home decorations and photography. The art gallery also runs several programs that focus on theater, dance and art, including painting workshops. You can stay up to date with their workshops and exhibitions on their website.