A boat leaves a large white wake in the path of blue water by small green land masses
Laguna Atascosa near Los Fresnos. Photo by Erich Schlegel

Gulf Coast

Unearth the bounties of the beach in the seaside town of Port Isabel

By Cat Cardenas

Located on the tip of South Texas, the quiet town of Port Isabel has long charmed visitors looking for a relaxing seaside getaway. With a population of just 5,100, the city is ideal for anyone looking for a change of pace from the touristy bustle of its neighbor across the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway, South Padre Island. Port Isabel’s famous lighthouse, a white brick structure that stands at 72 feet in the city center, is just one of the many remaining traces of the town’s fascinating past. Incorporated in 1928, the city is replete with relics of Spanish explorers, pirate treasure, and the exploits of the Spanish-American War. Though the town stays busy most of the year as travelers make their way to South Padre, August is the liveliest time for the region. That’s the time when anglers travel here for some of the best fishing in the country and to compete in the annual Texas International Fishing Tournament. With seaside shops, eateries, and friendly locals, Port Isabel is an ideal place to decompress and remember how nice it is to unwind and take things slow.

An overhead view of a small historic downtown area next to a large bridge over blue-green water

Port Isabel. Photo by Kevin B. Stillman

STAY

Lighthouse Boutique Hotel
Situated across from the city’s most famous landmark, the hotel has quickly become a favorite of Port Isabel’s visitors since its grand opening in 2022. The bright, coastal chic space includes a French-inspired café, a gift shop, and 10 luxury suites. Nightly rates start at $195.

Texas State Parks: Hidden Gems

SEA RIM STATE PARK
Immerse yourself in the unspoiled beauty of these coastal wetlands, where gulf meets marsh, about 100 miles east of Houston. Walk, camp, fish, or paddle through tranquil marshes, channels, and lakes. Enjoy more than 5 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, including beach camping and a cabin available by reservation. Watch for local wildlife, including native alligators, as well as bird species, such as roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons, and meadowlarks.

OTHER HIDDEN GEMS
Goose Island State Park
Resaca de la Palma State Park
Sheldon Lake State Park & Environmental Learning Center

MORE GULF COAST STATE PARKS
Brazos Bend State Park
Galveston Island State Park
Lake Corpus Christi State Park
Mustang Island State Park

For more information, directions, and amenities, get your free mobile guide to all 80-plus state parks: texasstateparks.org

LEARN

Port Isabel Historical Museum
Built in 1899 as a general store, the Charles Champion building’s seafoam green exterior looks like something straight out of a Wes Anderson film. Inside are two stories of displays that span centuries of the region’s past, from Native American settlements to the Civil War. Visitors can also find one of the largest collections of artifacts from the Mexican-American War.

SHOP

Mercado Faro
With an array of local vendors selling their wares, this open-air market is the perfect place to pick up a handmade souvenir or keepsake to remember your trip. Wander through the stalls in search of crystals, textiles, custom jewelry designs, home decor, and even unexpected finds like fossils and shark teeth.

SEE

Port Isabel Lighthouse Tour
Take in the scenic view atop the only Texas lighthouse open to the public. A must see for any first-time visitor, the 72-foot structure once guided ships passing through the Brazos Santiago Pass and even served as a lookout spot during the Civil War and World War I. Make your way up the winding set of steps to take in the view, and marvel at the newly installed lantern, which allowed the lighthouse to shine for the first time in more than a century in 2022.

Fishing Pier
The longest pier in Texas brings anglers from all over the world down to the Laguna Madre. If you don’t have your own gear, rent a pole at the bait and tackle shop. And if you’re not one for fishing, head to the snack bar and enjoy the view.

Osprey Cruises
Each vessel in this fleet of six offers up a different experience to get you out on the water. Options include a sunset dinner cruise, an ecotour with a chance to spot dolphins and learn about local marine life, or an interactive adventure on the Black Dragon Pirate Ship.

Lighted Boat Parade
Visit Port Isabel on the first Saturday in December to snag a front-row seat to the city’s one-of-a-kind lighted boat parade. The annual tradition looks a little different each year, and that’s part of the fun—entrants are allowed to decorate anything that floats for the beach community’s marquee holiday event.

DRINK

Hopper Haus
This friendly gastropub in downtown Port Isabel features more than the standard Tex-Mex and American fare. Their signature dishes have a Bavarian flair, with menu items including bratwurst, hand-breaded schnitzel, and sauerkraut. Unwind in the biergarten with a drink from the selection of craft beer.

EAT

Pirate’s Landing
For beautiful views of the Laguna Madre, this eatery offers a themed dining experience that goes all-in on the region’s swashbuckling history. Serving fresh local seafood, the restaurant’s outdoor cannon bar offers the main draw of this destination: beautiful views and the refreshing breeze coming in from the gulf.

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The March 2024 cover of Texas Highways Magazine

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