Port Isabel, located in the Gulf Coast region, is a great city to visit. It is located just 6 hours from Houston and about 4 hours from San Antonio, making it a great weekend trip. Port Isabel is just under 3 hours from Corpus Christi, making it a popular day trip from the city.
Port Isabel is the gateway to South Padre Island and is often overlooked in favor of the resort city. However, Port Isabel is a destination in its own right. It is a historical destination and has many unique attractions.
Port Isabel has an interesting history. It is one of the oldest cities in South Texas. The Spanish explorer Alonzo de Pineda first landed here in 1519. However, the city was primarily established after the Mexican War of Independence from Spain and became an important port for the export of cotton during the Civil War.
Today, Port Isabel is primarily a tourist destination in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and visited on the way to South Padre Island. We recommend spending at least a day here to enjoy the attractions.
Best Things to do in Port Isabel
While Port Isabel doesn’t have any beaches, it has plenty of museums and wildlife attractions. It is the perfect place to take a dolphin or fishing cruise in the Gulf of Mexico.
The best part of spending time in Port Isabel is that you can simply park the car and walk to the major attractions as they’re located quite close to each other.
Here’s a tip: get the combo ticket to the Lighthouse, the History Museum and the Treasures of the Gulf Museum.
Here are some of our favorite things to do in Port Isabel.
Climb up the Port Isabel Lighthouse
The iconic Port Isabel Lighthouse is the top attraction in the city. This is the only lighthouse in Texas that you can actually climb. It is located on a hill in The Town Square of Downtown Port Isabel. The Lighthouse was built in 1852 and is a charming whitewashed structure.
Visitors can go to the Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Park to visit this iconic structure on the Gulf Coast. Here you can climb up to the top of the lighthouse, visit the Replica Inn Keepers Cottage which also serves as the Visitor Center, and see the onsite museum.
In the Visitor Center and museum, you will find a variety of exhibits narrating the maritime history of the Laguna Madre area. The climb to the top of the lighthouse and the views from there are simply magnificent. Children under 4 cannot go inside the lighthouse, hence keep that in mind while planning your trip.
Take a stroll in Lighthouse Square
While the lighthouse is the primary attraction of Port Isabel’s Town Square, there are many other things to do here. This is the bustling center of the town and you will find a variety of souvenir shops, restaurants, fishing charters, dolphin tours, bars, and art galleries surrounding the square.
We always enjoy taking a stroll and watching other tourists enjoy a sunny day in Port Isabel. You can shop for souvenirs, purchase seashell jewelry, and admire pieces for sale by local artists in the art galleries.
Learn about shipwrecks at the Treasures of the Gulf Museum
If anyone in your family loves shipwrecks, then the Treasures of the Gulf Museum in Port Isabel is a must visit. The museum is focused on three Spanish shipwrecks that occurred in 1554. The ships crashed just 30 miles north of Port Isabel.
At the museum, you can see artifacts and murals dedicated to the shipwrecks. You can also watch interesting videos about treasure hunting. The museum has a hands-on Children’s Discovery Lab for the kids.
Understand history of the area at Port Isabel Historical Museum
The Port Isabel Historical Museum is housed in a building that was built in 1899. Known as the Champion building, the structure was first built as a dry goods store and home and is a historic building in itself.
On the front facade you will find the beautiful fish mural which was painted way back in 1906 by a local fisherman. The museum also has a gift shop.
The museum collection is spread over two levels. It is full of Texas history and is a fascinating glimpse into the area’s past. On a tour you can see a vast collection of pictures and artifacts recovered during the US Mexican War era. The museum is more for adults than kids.
Take a Dolphin Cruise
While there are many places that offer a dolphin cruise in Port Isabel, the most famous one is the one offered by South Padre Island Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center.
The center offers family-friendly non-commercial tours limited to a group of six people. You have the ultimate private dolphin experience.
All our dolphin cruises with the center have always been amazing. Our Captain has always been able to find several pods of dolphins. Seeing the wild and free dolphins jump and flip in the air close to your boat is an amazing experience. We have even had entire pods follow us for the duration of our cruise.
Included in the dolphin tour is a visit to the facility. Here the kids can touch a variety of marine creatures in the touch tank.
You can also always opt for a commercial dolphin cruise on the big boats but these have over 25 people on them and the dolphins come nowhere as close to the boats.
Enjoy a romantic sunset Sunset Cruise
While dolphin watching is more fun on smaller boats, there is nothing more romantic than sailing out into the sunset on a large boat with an Osprey sunset cruise. The cruises are an hour and a half long and lots of fun.
Take the Queen Isabella Causeway to South Padre Island
Texas’s famous South Padre Island is less than 4 miles away from Port Isabel on the Queen Isabella Causeway. The island is known for its resorts, beaches, and island views.
The island also has excellent birding and wildlife watching, nature trails, and outdoor activities such as horseback riding on the beach and building sand castles.
We definitely recommend a visit to South Padre Island while you’re visiting Port Isabel. While the island is a lot of fun, the drive there from Port Isabel is equally scenic. The queen Isabella causeway is two and a half miles long and has beautiful views of the lagoon.
Try the amazing burritos at Manuel’s
This mexican eatery import disable is famous for its burritos. They are wrapped in fresh homemade tortillas. This is also a great place to try Tex-Mex breakfast while in Port Isabel. We often come here during our stay in South Padre Island for a change of scene.
Slurp on the oyster rockefellers at Dirty Al’s
Dirty Al’s, located in Pelican Station in Port Isabel, is famous for its fresh seafood. Their oyster rockefellers in particular are amazing. But even there are other seafood dishes including the stuffed flounder, lobster tail, and fried shrimp are delicious. The restaurant also has great views of the bay bridge and is one of the best places to dine for couples.
Enjoy a festival in the city
Port disables economy primarily relies on tourism and the city hosts a variety of events and festivals throughout the year. From shrimp cook off to Christmas parades and from antique and flea markets to movies in Lighthouse Park something is always going on in the city.
Shop for souvenirs at the streetside markets
On a walk around Lighthouse Square, you will find several streetside flea markets and small shops. They all carry lovely merchandise including clothes, jewelry, and souvenirs. We had a lovely time island shopping here for wooden toys and handmade jewelry.
Segway around the town
As we mentioned before, most of the attractions in Port Isabel are located close to each other. Sure you can walk between them but for a fun experience, rent a Segway and tour the town.
The tours are available October through May and take you through downtown, along the North shore boulevard, and through the city’s parks. This is a great way to see everything that Port Isabel has to offer including the Walk of the General medallions located in Lighthouse District.
Visit the Port Isabel cemetery
We always love visiting quaint and charming cemeteries during our travels. The Port Isabel Cemetery is no exception. The earliest graves are from the 1880s and most of them belong to fishermen lost at sea. You can see the fishing heritage reflected in the headstones. The walk through the cemetery is a charming one.
Enjoy the fireworks in South Padre Island
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, South Padre Island hosts a firework show over the Laguna Madre. The shows are held on Thursdays and Fridays at 9:15 p.m.
The perfect place to see the fireworks is either from Lighthouse Park or Pirates Landing Pier. You can also take a firework cruise to see the fireworks from the water.
The fireworks show is an amazing end to a great vacation on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Spend a day at Pirate’s Landing
The Pirate’s Landing fishing pier in Port Isabel is more than an attraction. In fact it’s a destination in itself and you can easily spend hours here. Our kids love spending time here so much that we have created an entire section below dedicated to Pirate’s Landing.
Best Things to do in Pirate’s Landing Port Isabel
You simply cannot miss Pirate’s Landing on a visit to Port Isabel. It is located right at the entrance to the Queen Isabella causeway and the attractive signage always brings back visitors.
To our amazement we discovered that there are many awesome things to do at Pirates Landing and getting the kids to leave is really difficult.
Here are some of the best things to do here for families.
Meet the pirates
There are several pirate statues on Pirate’s Landing. Our kids loved seeing them and taking photographs with the pirates.
Walk on the Pier
Pirate’s Pier is the longest pier in Texas. Walking along the pier is an amazing experience. You can enjoy views of the Queen Isabella causeway and even South Padre Island. Our kids like to run and play on the pier and observe people fishing.
If you walk looking out over the waters of the gulf, you can spot pods of dolphins. You can also watch a lot of sea birds including pelicans. The views from the pier at sunset are stunning.
Go fishing on Pirate’s Pier
Pirate’s Pier is excellent for fishing. There is a tackle and bait shop on site and you can rent fishing rods and all types of live and frozen baits including shrimp, squid, and more. You can expect to catch trout and other fish. They also offer fishing trips for those looking to spend a day out on the water.
Take the Black Dragon pirate cruise
For the ultimate fun experience, take a pirate adventure cruise on the Black Dragon. The cruises are fun for all ages and a perfect family friendly activity in Port Isabel. The cruise sails through Laguna Madre and you can often see dolphins during the cruise.
Kids especially love the cruises as there are lots of activities for the kids. The Captain and crew are great and put on an amazing show complete with gunfights and sword duels. You can buy drinks in the adults only section on top of the ship and enjoy a gorgeous sunset.
The entire experience lasts for about 2 to 3 hours and is totally worth the money.
Eat ice cream at Davey Jones ice cream locker
We love the ice cream at Davy Jones ice cream locker. The screenshot has a great selection of ice cream flavors, fresh homemade fudge, and salt water taffy. They have big scoops of ice cream and feel simply amazing on a hot summer day in Port Isabel. The murals on the outside of the shop are also interesting.
Wear a pirate hat and eat seafood
Dining at Pirate’s Landing restaurant is a favorite with our kids. Outside the entrance, you are greeted by a pair of talking parrots. Inside, the decor is that of a pirate ship. The restaurant knows how to really cater to the kids. Both our kids got pirate hats and pirate themed activity booklets.
The food here is also delicious. The menu has a lot of items and the seafood is always fresh. They also bring out complimentary hot sweet rolls; which are a favorite with our crew. The fish tacos, blackened salmon, and mango mahi mahi are some of our favorites here.
There are a lot of photo ops inside the restaurant so don’t miss them on a visit.
Overall, Port Isabel is an amazing place to get some sun and the sea breeze. It’s historical vibe is a nice break from the touristy side of South Padre Island.
We hope you liked our detailed guide sharing some of the most popular attractions in Port Isabel.