Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach: Which Is Better? A Local’s Perspective

TRAVELING TO THE ALABAMA GULF COAST AND WONDERING IF YOU SHOULD VISIT GULF SHORES OR ORANGE BEACH, ALABAMA? ☀️ 🌊

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are two family-friendly beach towns located in Baldwin County, Alabama along the beautiful Gulf of Mexico.

When planning an Alabama beach vacation, many people have difficulty deciding which town to stay in: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.

Lucky for you, I know a lot about both of these popular beach destinations because I live in close proximity! I am super excited to share with you the similarities and differences between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach from a local’s perspective.

So, let’s dive in. What will it be? Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach?!!

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Which Beach is Nicer Orange Beach or Gulf Shores?

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  A beautiful view from Orange Beach, Alabama.

Determining which beach is “nicer” between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is definitely subjective and dependent on personal preferences.

Both of these beach towns offer pristine white sandy beaches and beautiful water. They also offer a variety of entertainment, restaurants, and outdoor activities.

I could go ahead and tell your my favorite, but I don’t want you to rule one out just yet. So, continue reading to find out which is the perfect beach town for YOU!

How Far Are Orange Beach and Gulf Shores?

As you can see on this interactive map above, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are located directly next to each other along the Alabama Gulf Coast.

The closest major cities to Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama.

Orange Beach is located towards the east of Gulf Shores and is the closest Alabama beach to Florida. In fact, Orange Beach ends at the Alabama/Florida state line.

Orange Beach occupies about 8 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Mexico. This stretch of coastline starts just after the Gulf State Park Pavillion in Gulf Shores and goes all the way to the world-famous beach bar, Flora Bama. (Located on the Alabama/Florida state line.)

The world famous Flora-Bama beach bar located on the Florida/Alabama line.

Gulf Shores occupies about 23 miles of coastline (including the Fort Morgan area too) starting from the Gulf State Park Pavillion in Gulf Shores all the way to the end of the island in Fort Morgan.

Key Differences: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Because Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are sister towns located directly next to each other along the Gulf of Mexico, they share many similarities.

However, there are some significant differences between these two beach towns. Let’s explore them, so you can decide which town is best for your Alabama beach vacation!

ATMOSPHERE: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

The biggest difference you will find between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach is going to be in the atmosphere and vibe. And the atmosphere can make or break a trip! So this is very important!!

Gulf Shores has a more “older” feel than Orange Beach, while Orange Beach feels more modern.

Orange Beach also has a more upscale feel than Gulf Shores. But by no means am I staying Orange Beach is “stuffy” because it is definitely not.

Approaching the beach area of Gulf Shores from the main road Highway 59, you’ll also find an abundance of restaurants, souvenir shops, entertainment, and businesses. Gulf Shores is definitely very built up and there is a lot going on in one area.

I would also say Gulf Shores has a more lively and energetic atmosphere too. Right, where Highway 59 meets the beach road you’ll find the popular fun restaurant The Hangout and the famous bar The Pink Pony Pub.

The Hangout is a fun, family-friendly restaurant located in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
The Pink Pony Pub is a famous Gulf front bar located in Gulf Shores.  The building is fully pink!

This area of Gulf Shores is also home to 2 large annual events: Hangout Music Festival and the Annual National Shrimp Festival.

Because of these factors, Gulf Shores is the more “busy” town, while Orange Beach is the more “laid-back” of the two.

When traveling through Orange Beach, it just feels much more peaceful. It is not as built up as Gulf Shores and everything is just more spread out.

CROWDS: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  A beautiful view from The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

Since Gulf Shores has more commercialized activity and is home to 2 big annual festivals, you will generally find crowd levels to be much higher in Gulf Shores.

So, while Gulf Shores has a more “busy” feel, Orange Beach has a more relaxed and serene vibe. Orange Beach is perfect for those seeking a more peaceful and tranquil beach getaway.

With this being said, during the busy times of the year, you may also find Orange Beach to be crowded.

BEACHES: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have beautiful, wide and white sandy beaches.

Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach boast beautiful wide, white sandy beaches.

These beaches are great for relaxing, swimming, a game of beach volleyball, or throwing a frisbee or football.

Gulf Shores tends to have a larger concentration of high-rise condominiums and hotels along its coastline, while Orange Beach offers a more natural and less crowded beach experience.

WATER: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Beautiful blue water in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  For the best chance of clear water, head to Orange Beach.

So, you’re always guaranteed to have beautiful white sandy beaches in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. However, the color of the water can vary greatly on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

The color of the water can range anywhere from a beautiful clear green color to a darker blue/brown color.

If you are looking for “clear water,” then you have a better chance of seeing clear water in Orange Beach. That is because the closer you get to Florida, the clearer the water is.

Some of the most beautiful clear-water beaches in the world are located just a few miles further to the east in Florida. I have found that the water is always much more beautiful in the Florida Panhandle from Pensacola Beach to the Destin area.

WATER SPORTS/ACTIVITIES: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Both Gulf Shores and Orange offer plenty of watersports including kayaking, paddleboarding, jet-skiing and parasailing.

Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer an abundance of water activities. You’ll find many companies that rent boats, kayaks, and jet skis. You could even go para-sailing! 🚤

When visiting the Alabama Gulf Coast, a dolphin cruise is a must. Seeing dolphins jumping in and out of the water alongside you is just amazing! 🐬 You’ll find companies offering dolphin cruises depart from various marinas in Orange Beach.

Both of these beach towns are also great for fishing opportunities both inshore and offshore. 🎣 Charter fishing trips are also readily available. You’ll find most of these are also located in Orange Beach.

Because of Orange Beach’s numerous marinas, Orange Beach is a great option for those with a personal boat or planning to rent one.

OTHER OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  My family loves to go biking at the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail at Gulf State Park.

Gulf Shores is also home to Gulf State Park, which offers hiking and biking trails, campgrounds, and a fishing pier.

Gulf State Park’s Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail offers more than 28 miles of paved trails great for biking and walking. This trail connects the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

My family loves to bike ride here. Along the trail, you’ll find “Boulder Park” a fun rock climbing area great for kids and even adults to climb!

Visiting Gulf State Park and riding bikes is such fun family activity in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

DINING: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Many restaurants in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores offer waterfront dining.  This particular restaurtant, Playa has a beautiful view of the Marina in Orange Beach.

Both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores offer a wide variety of casual dining options including fresh seafood and waterfront dining experiences. Some of my favorite casual dining options in Gulf Shores are LuLu’s Gulf Shores and The Hangout.

In Orange Beach, my go-to’s are The Gulf, Cobalt, The Ruby Slipper (brunch), and Playa at Sportsman Marina.

I find that Orange Beach is the better spot for more fine dining experiences. Some of my favorite fine dining or upscale restaurants in Orange Beach that my husband and enjoy for a date night include Fisher’s Upstairs at Orange Beach Marina, Louisiana Lagniappe, and Voyagers.

SHOPPING: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach offer local boutiques, beachwear shops, souvenir shops, and more!

On Gulf Shores Parkway (Highway 59) in the heart of Gulf Shores, you’ll find Souvenir City (the souvenir shop with the giant walk-in shark).

Walking in the big shark's mouth is a must when visting Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Alvins Island is another great place to pick up your Gulf Shores souvenir or beachwear.

In Orange Beach, you’ll also find Souvenir City, along with Alvins Island. In addition to these, they also have an amazing Ron Jon Surf Shop in Orange Beach.

Besides souvenir shopping, a fantastic place to go shopping is The Wharf. The Wharf is a vibrant entertainment and shopping complex in Orange Beach.

Here you’ll find unique clothing, accessories, coastal-themed decor, and more. The Wharf also hosts live concerts, events, nightly laser light shows, a movie theatre, and a Ferris wheel.

Gulf Shores or Orange Beach: Which is Better for a Family Vacation?

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Both are fabulous destinations for a family beach vacation.

Both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are wonderful destinations for a family vacation. They offer a wide variety of attractions, activities, and accommodations.

You really can’t go wrong with either for a family vacation. And whatever one you choose you can always go to the other to explore and enjoy. After all, they are right next to each other and only a short drive away!

How I would choose the perfect Alabama beach town for your vacation is by the following:

  • Are you looking for a more secluded atmosphere? If so, choose Orange Beach!
  • Are you looking to get as close as possible to all the action? If so, choose Gulf Shores!
  • Are you looking for more budget-friendly accommodations? If so, choose Gulf Shores!
  • Are you looking for more up-scale accommodations? If so, choose Orange Beach!
  • If you’re kind of neutral about the above, then start by picking your favorite accommodation and go from there!

Choosing Your Alabama Beach Vacation Accommodations

When choosing accommodations for an Alabama beach vacation you’ll need to first figure out what kind of accommodation you want to stay in.

If you are looking for plenty of space, and multiple bathrooms and are wanting to do some or all of the cooking, then renting a condo might be the best option for your family.

If you prefer to have the ease and convenience of staying in a hotel then a hotel might be the better option for your family.

For those on a budget, Gulf Shores is going to be your best option. There are also many hotels you can stay at off the beach to save money.

For those that like modern and luxurious amenities, you’ll find most of the more luxurious condos are located in Orange Beach.

Best Things to Do in Gulf Shores

To help you better determine if Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, is right for you, let’s talk about the best things to do in Gulf Shores.

Relax on the Beaches

One of the best things to do in Gulf Shores is relax on the beautiful white sandy beaches.

Gulf Shores is renowned for its beautiful white sandy beaches. Spend a day lounging, swimming, and soaking up the sun along the Gulf Coast. ☀️

Explore Gulf State Park

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Exploring Gulf State Park is one of the best things to do in Gulf Shores.

Explore Gulf State Park while in Gulf Shores. Gulf State Park offers miles of hiking and biking trails, a fishing pier, a nature center, and a beautiful campground.

Don’t miss the chance to explore the park’s diverse ecosystems and maybe even see an alligator! 🐊

Alligator's are commonly seen on the Back Country Trail in Gulf State Park.

See Animals at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is one of the best things to do in Gulf Shores with kids. They have a wide range of animals here including lions, tigers, giraffes, lemurs, reptiles, and kangaroos. 🦁 🐅 🐢 🦘

My daughter holding baby kangaroo at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.

The zoo also offers many interactive experiences and educational programs.

Enjoy Water Sports

One of the best things to do in Gulf Shores is to get out on the water. Engage in thrilling water sports such as jet skiing, parasailing, paddleboarding, or kayaking.

There are many rental shops and tour operators in Gulf Shores that provide equipment and guidance.

Visit Waterville USA

Visiting Waterville is one of the best things to do in Gulf Shores.

Waterville USA is another one of the best things to do in Gulf Shores. Waterville is half a waterpark/half an amusement park.

Here you’ll find thrilling water slides, wave pools, go-karts, mini-golf, a roller-coaster, an arcade, escape rooms, and more!

FUN FACT: Waterville USA was my first job. I worked here when I was 16 in the Gift Shop!

Have Fun at The Track

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Visiting The Track is one of the best family fun attractions in Gulf Shores.

The Track in Gulf Shores, Alabama is a popular family entertainment center known for its go-kart racing tracks for all ages.

They also have bumper boats, mini-golf, kiddie rides, and an arcade. The Track is a lively and action-packed destination for fun and excitement in Gulf Shores.

Attend an Event or Festival

Gulf Shores is home to two big annual festivals every year.

At the end of May, Hangout Music Festival happens right on the beautiful beaches of Gulf Shores. This is a huge weekend music festival with some of the biggest acts in entertainment!

In October, the Annual National Shrimp Festival takes place over a weekend. The festival showcases various shrimp dishes and seafood specialties from local restaurants and vendors.

Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach.  Gulf Shores is home to the Annual National Shrimp Festival in October.

At the festival, there is also live music, arts and crafts vendors, and children’s activities.

Eat at LuLu’s and/or The Hangout

LuLu's is a fun, family-friendly restaurant in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

LuLu’s Gulf Shores and The Hangout are two of my favorite restaurants in Gulf Shores. These restaurants are so much fun for the whole family.

Both of these restaurants have sand areas for kids to play in. They also have live music and other fun happenings that go on.

LuLu’s at Gulf Shores also has an arcade and a ropes course. They also do hair wraps and airbrush tattoos.

FUN FACT: LuLu’s Gulf Shores is owned by the famous singer Jimmy Buffett’s sister, Lucy “LuLu” Buffett.

Play Golf

Pirate's Island Adventure Golf is one of many putt-putt courses in Gulf Shores.

Whether you are an avid- golfer or just want to have fun playing mini-golf, Gulf Shores has both of these golf options for you.

Gulf Shores is a golf lover’s paradise with numerous championship courses offering beautiful views and challenging play.

Gulf Shores is also home to a few family fun mini-golf courses including my favorite, Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf.

Best Things to Do in Orange Beach

Now that you know the best things to do in Gulf Shores, let’s now look at the best things to do in Orange Beach!

An aerial view of Orange Beach, Alabama showcasing the beautiful Caribe Resort.

Relax on the Beaches

Orange Beach boasts pristine, uncrowded beaches perfect for sunbathing, swimming, and building sandcastles. Enjoy the tranquility and soak in the beauty of the Alabama Gulf Coast in Orange Beach.

Take a Dolphin Cruise

One of the best things to do in Orange Beach is to take a fun dolphin cruise. There’s nothing like feeling the wind against your skin and watching the dolphins playing and swimming alongside the boat.

It’s definitely a memorable experience for all ages!

Have Fun at Adventure Island

Adventure Island is a family-friendly amusement park in Orange Beach featuring go-karts, bumper boats, mini-golf, black light indoor mini-golf, bumper boats, laser tag, and an arcade.

Oh, and there’s a 5 story volcano that erupts with fire and sound!

Explore The Wharf

Exploring The Wharf is one of the best things to do in Orange Beach. The Wharf is a vibrant waterfront entertainment district offering shopping, dining, and entertainment options.

Also, located at The Wharf is The Wharf Amphitheatre. Some of music’s biggest acts perform here, so make sure to check to see if anyone is performing during your vacation to the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Other fun things to do at The Wharf include riding the Ferris Wheel, catching a movie at the theatre, or watching the nightly laser light shows.

Watersports

One of the best things to do in Orange Beach is to get out on the beautiful water and enjoy it! Kayaking, paddleboarding, jet skiing, and parasailing are all popular in Orange Beach.

Orange Beach also has plenty of rental shops available for equipment and guided adventures. There are also plenty of marinas to start your adventure from!

Eat at The Gulf

No trip to Orange Beach is complete without eating at The Gulf. The Gulf is one of my favorite casual restaurants to eat at in Orange Beach.

It’s unique in that the restaurant was built using repurposed shipping containers. They serve delicious items such as hamburgers, fries, fish tacos, and shrimp tacos in a beautiful outdoor beach Gulf front setting.

I love sitting outside, enjoying my meal while watching the boats go by! It’s just such a beautiful, relaxing setting!

Go to The Pass

The Pass in Orange Beach, Alabama is a beautiful waterway where the Gulf of Mexico and Perdido Bay meet.

It’s a popular spot for boating and enjoying the beach.

The Pass is one of my favorite spots to enjoy the beach on the Alabama Gulf Coast because it’s such a beautiful, picturesque spot. Located right under the Perdido Bay Bridge, the water here is fairly calm and clear making it great for those with kids.

It’s also very common to see dolphins and pelicans here. You’ll also see numerous boats and maybe even a pirate ship cruising the waters here!

Things to Do Near Orange Beach and Gulf Shores

You don’t have to stay in one place for your entire beach vacation.

The following are excellent options for things to do near Orange Beach and Gulf Shores. They are all located in Foley, Alabama just a short drive away from the beautiful beaches.

Visit OWA

If you’re visiting the Gulf Shores or Orange Beach area with kids, then OWA is a must! And if you’re not visiting with kids either, go to OWA! Because it is just that amazing!!

OWA consists of Tropic Falls at OWA and the Downtown OWA District.

Tropic Falls at OWA is an amusement park and an indoor waterpark! At Tropic Falls there are rides for all ages, from kiddie rides for the youngest toddlers all the way to extreme thrill rides. And let me just tell you this park is pristine and super clean!

But even if you’re not into amusement parks, go to OWA to walk around and enjoy the Downtown OWA district. Here you’ll find many restaurants and shops all in a super beautiful setting.

Shop at the Tanger Outlet

If you’re looking to do some serious shopping while in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, then you must go to the Tanger Outlets in Foley, Alabama. The Tanger Outlets are located only a few short miles from the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast beaches.

The Tanger Outlets are a popular shopping destination offering a huge variety of brand-name clothing, footwear, accessories, and home goods stores.

Just a few of the brands you’ll find here include Nike, Gap, Old Navy, Under Armour, Columbia, American Eagle, Aerie, Ann Taylor, Kate Spade, and Polo Ralph Lauren.

There’s also a food court, mini-, golf, and a shaded playground for the kids.

Eat at Lambert’s Cafe

Lambert’s Cafe in Foley, Alabama is a famous and beloved restaurant known for its Southern cuisine and lively atmosphere.

They are famous for throwing hot rolls to customers, adding a fun and interactive element to the dining experience. Lambert’s offers hearty Southern dishes, including their unlimited “pass-around” of delicious sides.

The staff is known for their hospitality, and the restaurant is filled with unique memorabilia. Lambert’s is a must-visit destination for tourists to the Alabama Gulf Coast. They offer delicious food and an unforgettable dining experience.

Where to Stay in Gulf Shores, Alabama

Condos or Beach Homes in Gulf Shores

Most of the accommodations in Gulf Shores are condos or beach houses that you can rent.

I recommend using VRBO if you are interested in a spacious condo or beach home in Gulf Shores.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel

The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel, is a beautiful beachfront resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama. It’s known for its eco-friendly approach and stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico.

The rooms are comfortable and come with balconies or patios. The resort offers great dining options with local and sustainable ingredients. Guests can enjoy the beach, pool, fitness center, and bikes.

Since this hotel is located within Gulf State Park it’s a great place to relax and explore nature too.

Where to Stay in Orange Beach, Alabama

Condos or Beach Homes in Orange Beach

Just like Gulf Shores, most of the accommodations in Orange Beach are condos or beach houses that you can rent.

I recommend using VRBO if you are interested in a spacious condo or beach home in Orange Beach, Alabama.

Perdido Beach Resort

Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Alabama is a top-notch beachfront hotel where you can enjoy a luxurious and relaxing vacation.

With beautiful views of the Gulf of Mexico, the resort offers comfortable rooms with modern amenities.

You can relax by the indoor or outdoor pool or on the beach. There are also many great dining options serving delicious food.

The resort is in a great location for outdoor activities like water sports and fishing. Overall, Perdido Beach Resort is a fantastic place for a memorable and enjoyable beach getaway.

Hampton Inn & Suite Orange Beach/Gulf Front

Hampton Inn & Suites Orange Beach/Gulf Front is a popular beachfront hotel in Orange Beach, Alabama.

It has comfortable rooms and great amenities for guests to enjoy. You can swim in the outdoor pool or relax on the beach.

They provide free breakfast in the morning and free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel. The hotel is in a convenient location close to attractions and activities. Overall, Hampton Inn & Suites is a wonderful place to stay for a beach vacation in Orange Beach.

FAQs- Gulf Shores or Orange Beach

Which is quieter Gulf Shores or Orange Beach?

In general, Orange Beach tends to be quieter and more peaceful compared to Gulf Shores. Orange Beach generally provides a more serene and laid-back atmosphere. The development along the coastline in Gulf Shores includes a larger concentration of hotels, condominiums, entertainment, and businesses that can contribute to a livelier and busier beach scene.

It’s important to note that the level of quietness can vary depending on the time of year and specific locations within each destination. During peak tourist seasons or popular events, both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach can experience increased crowds and activity. If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting during off-peak times or exploring less crowded areas of either destination.

How far are Orange Beach and Gulf Shores?

Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are located directly next to each other. Orange Beach is located towards the east of Gulf Shores and is the closest beach town to Florida. In fact, Orange Beach ends at the Alabama/Florida state line.

Which beach has the clearest water in Alabama?

The clearest water you will find in Alabama is going to be in Orange Beach. However, the color of the water in Orange Beach can fluctuate. Some days the water will be a very clear green-blue color and other days the water will be a darker blue color.

What airport do I fly into for Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, Alabama?

The best airport to fly into for Gulf Shores or Orange Beach is Pensacola International Airport.

Which is Better: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach?

“Which is better?” between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach depends on your personal preferences. If you enjoy a lively and bustling beach atmosphere with plenty of entertainment options, Gulf Shores may be the ideal choice for you.

However, if you prefer a quieter and more serene beach experience with a focus on natural beauty and fishing opportunities, Orange Beach might be more to your liking.

So, which is better, “Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach?” What do you think?

I will now tell your my favorite!!!

🥁 DRUM ROLL!!!!!

My favorite Alabama beach town is Orange Beach. 🍑 I love Orange Beach for its atmosphere, dining options, The Wharf, The Pass, and its overall vibe!

So who knows, maybe you’ll see me in Orange Beach while on your Alabama beach vacation!

The Wrap-Up: Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach

In conclusion, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are both great places to visit along Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

Gulf Shores has a more busy and lively atmosphere, while Orange Beach is more peaceful and relaxed.

If you like a busy beach with lots of activities, Gulf Shores is a good choice. But if you want a more quiet and calm beach experience, Orange Beach is a better option.

If you are on a budget, you most likely will find more budget-friendly options in Gulf Shores.

If you prefer a more modern and luxurious vacation style, then Orange Beach is probably the best option for you.

However, both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores have beautiful beaches, friendly people, family-friendly activities, water sports, and delicious seafood. So, no matter which one you choose, you’re sure to have a wonderful time!

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