Port Isabel, Texas is a world apart from other coastal communities in the state. From the year-round sunny weather to the pastel colored buildings in lighthouse square, from the turquoise water of the Laguna Madre to the quirky Pirates Landing, Port Isabel will capture your heart.
History lives in every pore of Port Isabel. It was a popular summer resort in the 1800s, played an important role in the Civil War, and was connected by the Port Isabel and Rio Grande Railway. Today, it is a hot spot for birding, an important economic center for the shrimping industry, and home to the white-washed Port Isabel Lighthouse.
There is a sense of timeless beauty in Port Isabel. As you step into this coastal gem, you’ll find yourself immersed in a world where the past and present coexist harmoniously. Tales of buried treasure and blockades intertwine with modern day museums and dolphin tours, creating a unique vacation for all Texans.
And yet, Port Isabel is often overlooked as a waypoint to reach South Padre Island! It’s such a shame, and we would love to change that. This charming town and its streets are made for meandering, shopping in street markets, stumbling upon a hole in the wall joint, and discovering the best food you have ever eaten! Don’t sell Port Isabel short, it has plenty to keep you busy for more than a day!
Where is Port Isabel located?
Port Isabel is located in South Texas at the foot of the 2 miles long Queen Isabella Causeway that connects South Padre Island to the mainland. It is a 6 hours drive from Houston and about 4 hours drive from San Antonio. It is less than 3 hours drive south from Corpus Christi. Port Isabel makes a great weekend getaway destination on its own or as a day trip from South Padre Island.
STOP AND READ – Your support means the world to Port Isabel, Texas. Between our first and latest visit, several attractions have closed including Sea Life Nature Center and Treasures of the Gulf Museum. Let’s come together as Texans to preserve the heart of this charming town. Stop in Port Isabel on your way to South Padre Island, explore its treasures, dine in local eateries, and shop in its boutiques!
Fantastic Things to do in Port Isabel, Texas
As one of the oldest cities in South Texas, Port Isabel has a rich history. Spanish explorer Alonzo de Pineda first landed in the area in 1519. However, Europeans mostly settled the area after the Mexican War of Independence from Spain. During the Civil War, it was an important port to export cotton as well as strategically significant to blockade runners.
Today, Port Isabel is a busy tourist destination on the Texas Gulf Coast. The city’s attractions include museums, historic buildings, birding, and Gulf tours. Many dolphin watching excursions as well as fishing cruises depart from Port Isabel. However, the major attractions are located downtown – around the centrally located Lighthouse Square.
So park your car and step back in time to when pirates were flourishing in the Gulf Coast and the railway brought essential supplies to this Texas port city. Get the combo ticket to the Port Isabel Lighthouse, the History Museum and the Treasures of the Gulf Museum and head out to explore the city. 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 this coastal city. This is the only lighthouse in Texas that you can actually climb. It is located on a small hilltop (30 foot knoll) in the town square of Downtown Port Isabel.
The Port Isabel lighthouse is a significant landmark of the Texas Gulf Coast and stands tall against the storms and hurricanes that have battered it through ages. The charming whitewashed structure, built in 1852, is a part of the Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Park.
On a visit, you can climb up to the top of the lighthouse, visit the Replica Light Keepers Cottage which also serves as the Visitor Center, and tour the onsite museum. The Visitor Center and museum is a treasure trove for history seekers – you will find a variety of exhibits narrating the maritime history of the Laguna Madre Bay area. The Lighthouse Keeper Cottage building itself is a beautiful structure.
The climb to the top of the lighthouse up the spiral stairs is a thrilling adventure! The 360 degree views from here all the way to South Padre Island are simply magnificent. You can also admire the 3rd order Fresnel Lens at the light, that has been recently installed in 2022.
The lighthouse also looks stunning at night when the Fresnel Lenses steady beam serves as a beacon for all visitors.
Here’s essential visiting info: You will need to pay the entry fee to visit the Port Isabel Light. Adults as well as children over 4 can climb to the top of the lighthouse. The lighthouse is located at 421 E Queen Isabella Blvd Port Isabel, TX 78578.
Take a stroll in Lighthouse Square
Our family loves taking a stroll in the square. My kids crane their necks to see the lighthouse from different angles while I get to watch fellow Texans enjoy a sunny day in Port Isabel. At some point we always stop to buy wooden toys for the kids, seashell jewelry for myself, as well as other trinkets and gifts.
And that’s what you should do too! After taking a self-guided tour of the Port Isabel Light and museum, take some time to explore Port Isabel’s Town Square. This is the busy center of this Texas coast town. Here, you will find a mish mash of vibrantly colored buildings, eateries, sculptures, and more unique attractions!
Shop for a variety of souvenirs in the boutique shops and markets, dine on fresh seafood in the restaurants, book a fishing charter or dolphin tours, hop into the bars, and step inside the art galleries to admire the work of local artists. You can easily spend an hour or two people watching and exploring the attractions surrounding the square.
Some of the popular stores include Tesori, Art Sea, and Mercado Faro. You can also see the sculptures in the square. The square also has clean and well-maintained bathrooms. It’s a nice walk amidst the friendly atmosphere.
The architecture of the square is also worth appreciating. The Port Isabel Yacht Club, constructed in 1927 in the Spanish Colonial style of architecture is a storied structure. Many famous persons including Al Capone and Amelia Earheart once stayed there when it was a hotel. Other popular buildings include Old Port Isabel Fire Hall, Queen Isabel Inn, and the Champion building.
Step back in time at the Port Isabel Historical Museum
Transport yourself to a bygone era at the Port Isabel Historical Museum – one of the finest Port Isabel attractions and a must for fans of Texas history. The museum is located at 317 Railroad St, Port Isabel, TX 78578.
The museum is housed in the historic 1899 Champion building. The two storey structure was originally built as a dry goods store by Charles Champion and also functioned as a U.S. Customs House as well as the Post Office of Port Isabel. Upon its completion, the building was named ‘Key of the Gulf’ by Champion.
On the front facade you will find the beautiful fish mural which was first painted in 1906 by a local fisherman and has been restored recently in 2017. This giant mural covers the entire wall of the building and comprises almost 200 fish found in the Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. It is a nod to Port Isabel’s past as a fishing village.
The museum collection is spread over two levels and preserves all facets of Port Isabel history from the Coahuiltecan Indians that first inhabited the area to the military artifacts recovered during the US Mexican War. You can also see a vast collection of pictures and exhibits narrating the local importance of shrimping and sports fishing. The museum also has a gift shop.
Learn about shipwrecks at the Treasures of the Gulf Museum
If you or someone you love is excited about shipwrecks and pirates, then you should head up to the Treasures of the Gulf Museum in Port Isabel. Located just a few minutes away from the Port Isabel Light, this is one of the most unique museums in Texas. It is also located in the Champion building, adjacent to the History Museum.
The museum narrates the story of three Spanish shipwrecks that occurred off the coast of Padre Island in 1554. The fleet of large galleons crashed just 30 miles north of Port Isabel. The ships are associated with legends of sunken treasure, making the crash sites popular for scuba divers.
On a visit to the museum, you can see murals describing these shipwrecks, take a look at artifacts rescued from the wreckages, and understand the dangerous nature of sea voyages in the 16th century. You can also watch interesting videos about treasure hunting divers. The museum also has a hands-on Children’s Discovery Lab for the kids.
While the museum is small, it is full of entertaining exhibits and displays. We recommend keeping aside an hour or two for the visit.
Update – The Treasures of the Gulf museum is temporarily closed and we have not been able to get more information on possible opening dates.
Visit the white sand beaches on South Padre Island
When it comes to white sand beaches, you will need to drive across the Queen Isabella Causeway from Port Isabel to South Padre Island. This is the only tropical island in Texas and is known for its soft, powdery white sand beaches.
Fun fact: Did you know Port Isabel and South Padre Island are sister cities and just 2 miles apart as the crow flies? That’s why most visitors get confused between the two.
The drive to South padre Island is very scenic and takes less than 4 miles. The causeway itself is 2.5 miles long and one of the longest bridges in Texas. From the bridge, you can enjoy beautiful views of the lagoon as well as South Padre Island itself. You might even come across a pelican flying so low that it seems to touch the car and spot the pelican warning sign!
In addition to its beaches, the resort town also has excellent birding and wildlife watching, nature trails, and outdoor activities such as horseback riding on the beach and building sand castles.
Related Post: 50 Best Things to do at South Padre Island
Swashbuckle and set sail at Pirate’s Landing
Pirates, talking parrots, tales of plunder and pillage, and ice cream at Davy Jones! Pirate’s Landing in Port Isabel is a thrilling attraction / restaurant / fishing pier / cruise starting point / photo-op…. The list simply goes on!
Pirate’s Landing is a fun family destination where you can easily spend hours! It is located on the Point opposite Lighthouse Square facing Laguna Madre. You can easily spot it from the Queen Isabella causeway and the attractive, well-lit up signs always bring back visitors.
Be warned – there are several amazing things to do here and you will almost always spend more time than you planned. Our kids LOVE running up to and posing with all the pirates. The ice cream store here is really delicious.
Or take the Black Dragon Pirate cruise ship with swashbuckling pirates. The cruise includes crewmembers dressed up like pirates interacting and entertaining kids as well as adults. They are funny and even stage a mock fight for the crowds. The ship also stops to watch dolphins, making it a hit with families. You simply cannot miss Pirate’s Landing attractions on a visit to Port Isabel!
Fish from Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier
Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier deserves a special mention – after all, this is the longest fishing pier in Texas. The entrance to the pier is through the bait shop. The shop sells live shrimp bait as well as frozen bait. So sell fishing licenses.
You need to pay a fee of $9 per fishing rod and a $2 fee if you’re not fishing, however the attendants have let us in for free on low crowd days. You can catch trout, perch, whiting, catfish, eels, crab, and even stingrays! It is an excellent spot to fish with kids and has plenty of shade on hot sunny days.
The pier is great for wildlife lovers. You can easily spot dolphins, pelicans, sea turtles, and other wildlife. The benches on the pier are perfect to sit and relax while waiting for wildlife sightings. The dolphin pods love to come close to the pier to the delight of kids. You can also enjoy amazing views of Queen Isabella causeway and the bay from the pier.
The pier is equally amazing to visit at night for the ocean breeze, night fishing, and the views of ships. It is well lit at night and you can hear loud music from the nearby bar. Add in the alcohol and boisterous crowds and it’s not very family-friendly at night. If going with kids, see the beautiful sunset views and leave by 9 pm. The pier also has an amazing view of the Friday night fireworks.
Go on a dolphin cruise in Port Isabel
One of the highlights of Port Isabel is the many dolphin watching tours that take visitors around Laguna Madre Bay. Several operators offer dolphin cruises, my personal favorite was the one offered by Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center. The tour and the nature center are however no longer operational.
Scarlett, the Dolphin Whisperer – While she does not conduct tours any longer, our tour with Scarlett Colley remains one of our most memorable experiences. Out on the water on our private tour with Scarlett and her dogs, including famous Rozzi, we had the most incredible experience of our lives. Read more about it here.
Dolphin Docks tours are a great option. They have a variety of tours including dolphin tours, firework cruises, sunset cruises, and eco tours which show visitors marine creatures such as starfish, sea urchins, and seahorses. All of their tours are great fun.
You can also book private cruises in pontoons. If you can afford it, swing for the private family-friendly tours in small boats. They cost more but marine creatures like the dolphins come closer to you and it’s an amazing experience,
Several pods of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins reside in the bay and seeing them in the wild is a memorable experience. They love to jump and flip in the air – playfully showing off for visitors! We have even had entire pods follow us for the duration of our cruise. Osprey Sea Life Cruises is another great option for a variety of cruises.
The romantic sunset cruises are a hit with couples – many of them combine gorgeous twilight colors with excellent wildlife sightings. Some private ones also provide champagne cruises on demand. The cruises are usually hour and a half long and beloved by all visitors.
Book a fishing charter
Port Isabel is one of the best places to go fishing in Texas. Port Isabel has a wide range of fishing charters to suit your needs. Most fishing charters provide essential equipment like rods, reels, bait, and tackle. Select from options like deep-sea fishing, bay fishing, and even specialized trips like shark fishing or fly fishing.
Different times of the year offer distinct fishing opportunities in Port Isabel. Spring and summer are prime for offshore adventures, with the chance to hook sailfish, tuna, and marlin. Fall and winter bring excellent bay fishing for species like redfish and speckled trout. Booking a fishing charter in Port Isabel is your ticket to an unforgettable maritime adventure.
Or take part in the annual Texas International Fishing Tournament held every first weekend in August in Port Isabel. This is a fantastic time to visit the city and catch all the action taking place on the water.
Fall in love with ArtSea Gallery and Goods
Don’t spend too much time on South Padre Island – Port Isabel has plenty of other attractions to keep you busy. Located in Lighthouse Square, you will find ArtSea. This amazing shop is a delight to wander into and explore. And can we talk about how cute it’s name is – an obvious play on ‘Artsy’!
ArtSea has a wonderful collection of paintings, sterling silver jewelry, Texas themed gifts and souvenirs, beachy home decor, hand-made soaps, candles, as well as several types of art pieces. Apart from the items for sale, you can also get great coffee at ArtSea!
Try the amazing burritos at Manuel’s
Manuel’s Restaurant has been an institution on Port Isabel since its opening in 1986. This Mexican eatery is famous for its delicious breakfast tacos and the incredible hot sauce.
The breakfast tacos are wrapped in fresh homemade tortillas that are bigger than your head. They are filled with eggs, chorizo, bacon, beans, potatoes, cheese – basically everything that you would need to start your day! My husband and I always get one to share and we still have leftovers. The tacos are perfect after a night of partying and very popular with spring breakers.
The interior of this taco joint is as authentic as the food. You will find fluttering university flags, sports posters, dollar bills floating on the ceiling, diner’s names and signatures, and other memorabilia on the walls. The whole place has a very homey feel. We love coming to Manuel’s while staying on South Padre Island.
Update – Manuel’s Restaurant closed in 2021 after a successful run of 38 years, read more details here. The wonder;s son Frank has now moved to Josphine’s Kitchen and Coffee Shop, an equally delicious place for breakfast!
Still craving a giant breakfast taco? Stop by at Isabel’s Cafe. Their homemade tortillas and spicy salsa are perfect to indulge in.
Enjoy a meal at Los Tortugos Seafood Market
If you love seafood, you need to visit Los Tortugos Seafood Market. Located right across from the lighthouse, the restaurant is famous for their fresh ceviche. I also love their seafood platters – whether you opt for fish, shrimp, and oysters, it’s all fresh and fried crisp to perfection. Their shrimp tacos as well as fresh oysters on half shell are also amazing.
Slurp on the oyster rockefellers at Dirty Al’s at Pelican Station
Dirty Al’s at Pelican Station, not to be confused with Dirt Al’s in South Padre Island, is famous for its fresh seafood. We love to eat their oyster rockefellers – the sauce and garlic bread on the side are just amazing. We have also tried their other seafood dishes including the stuffed flounder, lobster tail, and fried shrimp – and everything was delicious! The restaurant also has great views of the bay bridge and is one of the best places to dine for couples in Port Isabel.
Take the ‘Walk of Generals’ in Port Isabel
The Walk of Generals is a unique Port Isabel attraction that visitors often miss! These medallions resemble manhole covers (hence overlooked) and are located surrounding the lighthouse. They are stamped with the faces of the most influential generals who fought in the US Mexican War as well as the Civil War. There are a total of 21 medallions on the sidewalks in the Lighthouse district.
Among the generals, you can find Robert Lee, Ulysses Grant, and Don Rafael Garcia of Mexico. Two special medallions depict the Rio Grande Railroad Company, which contributed to Port Isabel’s growth and Old Fort Polk, which once stood adjacent to the lighthouse and served as a military hospital. You can read more about the Walk of Generals medallions here. The walk is a fun and unique way to learn about the military history of Port Isabel.
Enjoy a segway ride around the town
Renting a segway is one of our favorite ways to explore Port Isabel. Most of the attractions in town are located close to each other, plus the segway ride is so much fun. You can also join a segway tour of the city. The tours are available October through May and take you through downtown, along the North Shore boulevard, and through the city’s parks. The tours are good to see everything that Port Isabel has to offer including the porpoises in town, Walk of the General medallions located in Lighthouse District, as well as the Port Isabel Light itself.
Take a stroll in the charming Port Isabel cemetery
Port Isabel Cemetery is a large sprawling cemetery that goes back to the 1800s. A historic marker near the cemetery states that the cemetery is located on the land granted to Don Rafael Garcia by the Mexican government.
Walking through the cemetery is like stepping back in time. You can find graves from the early 1880s and look at their epitaphs. We found that many graves belonged to fishermen lost at sea; even their tombstones reflect Port Isabel’s fishing heritage. Even the Champion family members are buried here.
Visit Our Lady, Star of the Sea Catholic Church
Whether you’re looking to attend mass while staying on South Padre Island or looking for a spiritual experience in Port Isabel or want to appreciate beautiful architecture, the Star of the Sea Church is a must visit. This is a really beautiful church that dates back to 1881. The highlight of the church is the beautiful seashell sculpture behind the statue of Madonna holding baby Jesus.
I also love the circular stained glass windows with fishing and sea motifs. The prayer garden is also very tranquil and beautiful. The anchor outside the church is also worth checking out. The Christ’s Cavalry Mural is also located here.
Shop for souvenirs at Mercado Faro
Mercado Faro is an excellent market located in Lighthouse Square. Here you will find a variety of vendors under a single roof selling all sorts of items. They carry lovely merchandise including clothes, jewelry such as necklaces and earrings, bags, magnets, and other souvenirs. We always stop in here for some island shopping and have found great deals on purses, wooden toys, and unique jewelry.
See the porpoises all over town
Just like you can see sand castles and sea turtle sculptures all over South Padre Island, you can spot porpoise sculptures throughout Port Isabel. Porpoises are a group of marine mammals that are closely related to dolphins. In fact, they are often mistaken for dolphins due to their similar structure. There are a total of 21 porpoise sculptures made by local artists placed all over downtown. They make great photo ops!
Gawk at the world’s largest fly fishing rod
Port Isabel has had a rather unique claim to fame since 1999. It is home of the world’s largest fly fishing rod and has featured in the Guiness Book of World Records. The rod was assembled by Tiney Mitchell near Pirates Landing restaurant. The yellow rod is 70 feet long and the reel itself is 4 feet wide in diameter. The rod is a functioning fishing rod and a giant metal tarpon leaps out of the water near the rod.
Update – The rod is now no longer there in Port Isabel.
Watch the Port Isabel Long Island Swing bridge in action
One of the hidden gems on Port Isabel is the swinging bridge connecting Port Isabel to Long Island. This historic bridge opened to let boats through and is a fascinating attraction for tourists. It is super fun to watch in person for kids.
Visit the Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center
SPI Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center is a great aquarium in Port Isabel. The center has a variety of exhibits including touch tanks with starfish, urchins, live snails and more. The hermit crabs are a hit with kids as is the tortoise, Domino. The entry fee is just $3 and it easily ensures one to two hours of fun for the kids. The center also offers dolphin tours, which you can read about here.
Update – The center as well as dolphin tours are currently closed.
Attend a festival or two in Port Isabel
Port Isabel economy primarily relies on tourism and the city hosts a variety of events and festivals throughout the year. From shrimp cook-offs to Christmas parades and from antiquing in flea markets to movie screenings at the Lighthouse Park, something is always going on locally.
Pachanga in the Park is one of the most looked to events in Port Isabel. Pachanga means party and that’s what the event is – a large fun party with concerts, carnival rides, and food trucks. It takes place in Laguna Madre Park.
Port Isabel Antique and Flea Market, a monthly market, occurs at the Beulah Lee Park. It occurs on the first Sundays of each month except for December. The market features several vendors selling a variety of artwork, collectibles, furniture, jewelry, art work, and more.
Movies at the Lighthouse is a fantastic event where popular movies are projected right onto the white-washed walls of the lighthouse. The movies begin at 9 pm and are free to watch. They are one of the best things to do in summer in Port Isabel.
Enjoy the fireworks over the Laguna Madre Bay
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, South Padre Island hosts a firework show over the Laguna Madre. The city lights the fireworks 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.
Port Isabel FAQs
What is Port Isabel known for?
Port Isabel, Texas, is known for its historic significance as a coastal town with a rich maritime history. It is particularly renowned for the iconic Port Isabel Lighthouse, a well-preserved structure that serves as a symbol of the town and a popular tourist attraction. Additionally, Port Isabel is known for its proximity to South Padre Island and its role as a gateway to the beautiful Gulf of Mexico beaches and outdoor recreational opportunities.
Does Port Isabel have a beach?
Yes, Port Isabel, Texas, does have a nearby beach. It is located on South Padre Island, which is just across the Queen Isabella Causeway from Port Isabel. South Padre Island offers miles of beautiful sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, making it a popular destination for beachgoers and water enthusiasts.
Is Port Isabel the same as South Padre Island?
No, Port Isabel and South Padre Island are not the same. Port Isabel is a separate city located on the mainland of Texas; South Padre Island is a barrier island situated just off the coast in the Gulf of Mexico. They are connected by the Queen Isabella Causeway, which allows easy access between the two, but they have distinct identities and characteristics.
Port Isabel is a true Texas coastal gem and has a magnetic allure that transcends its modest size. From its rich history and maritime heritage to the breathtaking natural beauty that surrounds it, Port Isabel beckons travelers with a promise of unforgettable experiences.
You can step back in time to uncover the town’s captivating history, savor the flavors of Tex-Mex cuisine, or lose yourself in the serenity of nature. As you meander through its streets, dine in its local eateries, and immerse yourself in its culture, you’ll discover that Port Isabel isn’t just a destination; it’s an experience that lingers in the heart.
What are your favorite things to do in Port Isabel, Texas? Let us know below.