For most people, South Padre Island in Texas is usually associated with rowdy Spring Break parties. With booze cruises and beach beers and all the shenanigans you see in all those movies about the American college experience.
So when I got invited to visit South Padre Island by Texas Tourism, I was a little skeptical. I mean, I don't really party – hell, I don't really even drink!
But then I started poking around online to see what else there was to do on South Padre. And I was surprised to find lots of things that had nothing at all to do with partying. Things like dolphin cruises and paddleboarding and horseback riding and a sea turtle rescue center.
So I agreed to go. Because one of the things I love most about what I do is being able to dispel misconceptions and set the record straight about destinations that have a lot more to offer than people assume.
South Padre Island is definitely one of those destinations. After spending four days there, I concluded that not only is it a great destination for people who love the heat and the outdoors, but it's also a year-round destination that can appeal to everyone from Spring Breakers to families with kids.
Take a moment to read my SPI to-do list and discover what there is to do on South Padre Island OTHER than hang out on the beach and drink.
10 things to do on South Padre Island
Rent a paddleboard
I'm so happy that paddleboarding has taken off and become as popular as it has. Not only is it a great way to be out on the water, but paddleboarding can be a great workout, too!
There are quite a few rental options when it comes to getting a board and heading out to explore South Padre's canals and Laguna Madre, but my pick is Air Padre. They are more well-known for their kiteboarding lessons, but they also rent paddleboards, kayaks, jet skis, and more.
What I liked about renting from them was the fact that they have big plastic paddleboards that are almost like sit-atop kayaks – meaning that they are super stable for standing on!
We rented boards for two hours and enjoyed paddling around in the Laguna.
There's also a company that rents glow-in-the-dark kayaks and paddleboards if you want to go for a paddle at sunset.
Tip: I would do this early in the morning, as it can start to get really hot (and sometimes windy) in the afternoon.
Go horseback riding on the beach
Another great morning activity is a horseback riding tour with Island Adventure Park. To get there, you have to leave the town and drive down a road surrounded on both sides by sand dunes, which in itself is pretty cool.
The riding tour lasts about 90 minutes, and has you riding along the quiet beach and up into the dunes.
I LOVE horses and horseback riding a lot, and this was therefore one of my favorite things I did on South Padre Island.
Island Adventure has a lot of horses to choose from, and the guides will match you up with one that fits your riding experience. The best part is that this is a very affordable adventure, starting at just $45 per person.
Explore the island in a scootcoupe
It may look a bit weird, but driving around in a little scooter car called a scootcoupe was another of my favorite activities on South Padre Island. These tiny little cars may look a little ridiculous sharing the road with huge pickup trucks, but I assure you that they are SO fun to drive – and they can actually go more than 40 mph!
While most people visiting SPI probably have a vehicle, spending an afternoon zipping around in one of these is still worth it.
Several of the companies on the island that rent out golf carts and bikes also rent scootcoupes.
Learn about turtles at Sea Turtle Inc.
While driving around in our scootcoupes, we made sure to stop at Sea Turtle Inc., a facility on the Laguna Madre that aims to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured sea turtles. They also protect sea turtle eggs and release hatchlings back into the wild.
Visiting the facility, you can see some of the turtles currently in rehab, as well as a few permanent residents that can't be released because of amputations and other disabilities.
Perhaps the most famous resident is Allison, who lost three of her four flippers to a predator attack in 2005 and spent years unable to do anything other than swim in circles. In 2009, though, an intern designed a prosthetic “rudder” for Allison, and she is the first sea turtle in the world to successfully use a prosthesis.
This is a great place for anyone – kid or adult – who is interested in learning more about sea turtles. It's one of the top South Padre Island attractions for a reason!
Look for birds on the boardwalk
Want to go on a nice walk that doesn't include sand? Head over to the Laguna Madre Nature Trail near the South Padre Island Convention Center.
This 1500-foot boardwalk criss-crosses marshland near the Laguna Madre, and is a great place to spot lots of different bird species. It's also an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place for a walk.
Cook your own catch
For the fishermen (and women) among you, South Padre Island offers up many opportunities to fish for trout and redfish in the Laguna Madre. If you go out in the morning, you can bring your catch back, clean it, and then take the fish to a couple of different restaurants to get it cooked up for lunch.
I didn't go fishing myself, but Craig from Stay Adventurous did and brought back a bunch of fish that we got cooked up at a new restaurant at Jim's Pier. It doesn't get much fresher!
Take to the skies in a parasail
Parasailing is really fun, and just the right amount of adventure for many people. We went parasailing with Breakaway Cruises, which was a great way to see South Padre and the Laguna from above.
Check out the video here:
I did the tandem parasailing option, which I think is actually more fun than going solo.
Go on a dolphin-watching cruise
One of the most popular family-friendly activities on South Padre Island is going on a dolphin-watching cruise. The cool part is that you don't have to go far at all – there are hundreds of bottlenose dolphins that call the Laguna Madre home. This also means that you're almost guaranteed to see some dolphins on your cruise.
While out with Osprey Cruises, we also learned that the Laguna Madre is one of just six hypersaline (i.e. saltier than the ocean) lagoons in the world. What a fun fact!
See the sun set at Pier 19
Looking for a good place to eat that's also a great sunset spot? Look no further than Pier 19, which is definitely both. The quirky restaurant complex spreads out along the pier (I love it because no two sections look the same), and the actual pier portion at the end is a great spot for watching the sun set.
I had the seafood pasta (delicious), and also tried the calamari and ceviche (also delicious).
Watch fireworks at Louie's Backyard
Lastly, if you're visiting South Padre during the summer months (Memorial Day through Labor Day), you can catch fireworks over the Laguna Madre every Thursday and Friday night at 9:15 p.m. at Louie's Backyard.
This restaurant/sports bar complex is the perfect place to have dinner and watch the fireworks. Louie's is known for its seafood buffet, and is also a popular spot for music and nightlife later in the evening.
And look at that: not one mention of drinking or laying on the beach! There are even more things to do on South Padre, too, from taking a sandcastle-building class (yes, for real!) to kayaking to shopping.
It's totally possible to plan a vacation to this little slice of Texas and never get bored.
Where to stay on South Padre Island
Looking for suggestions on where to stay on South Padre? Here are my top picks:
- The Hilton Garden Inn is the #1 rated hotel on the island. (Read reviews | Book here)
- The Holiday Inn Express is probably your best budget option. (Read reviews | Book here)
- And check out La Copa Inn for great beachfront views. (Read reviews | Book here)
- If you're traveling with a larger family, you could also consider renting a condo like this one.
OR, you can compare South Padre Hotel prices here.
The best South Padre Island tours
Check out some of these tours on South Padre Island:
- Dolphin Watch Eco Tour of South Padre Island
- Parasailing Adventure South Padre Island
- South Padre Island Sandcastling
- South Padre Island Single or Double Kayak Rentals
- Looking for packing suggestions for South Padre Island? Head over to my Amazon shop to see all my favorite travel gear!
- Pick up a Texas travel guide before you go.
- Don't leave home without a good travel insurance plan – because you never know what might happen! I recommend World Nomads for affordable basic travel insurance.
What would be at the top of YOUR South Padre Island to-do list?
*Note: I was a guest of South Padre Island and Texas Tourism on this trip. But, as always, all opinions are 100% my own!