Port Isabel — What to See and Do in this Charming Bayside Town

12 Best Things to See and Do in Port Isabel, Texas

Port Isabel is a charming town on Laguna Madre on the very southern tip of Texas where you’ll find history, adventure, nature and lots of fun things to see and do. Like many towns, it has had several names over the years, including Point Isabel. The town was incorporated in 1928 and its name was changed to Port Isabel.

view of Laguna Madre from top of Lighthouse with text overlay: Port Isabel, TX 12 Awesome things to do!

These 12 things to see and do in Port Isabel are truly in Port Isabel. This list does not include attractions on South Padre Island like some lists of best things to do in Port Isabel. Yes, South Padre Island is just across the causeway but there are plenty of interesting things to see and do in Port Isabel without including attractions in other nearby areas. (Can you tell this is one of my pet peeves when it comes to best things to see and do lists?)

Port Isabel Lighthouse atop the grassy knoll

1. Lighthouse Square – Shopping and Dining

This town square in Port Isabel is the heart of the historic district. Lighthouse Square and Replica Keepers Cottage became the the second smallest State Park in Texas in 1952. The Square is surrounded by lots of specialty shops and places to eat.

View of Keepers Cottage, part of town square, fishing pier and Queen Isabella Causeway from Port Isabel Lighthouse

Shops around Lighthouse Square
Burger Shack on Lighthouse Square

shops on Lighthouse Square
restaurants on Lighthouse Square

artisans on Lighthouse Squareice cream on Lighthouse Square

You’ll find free parking on the street or in the Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier parking lot. There’s also a large parking lot at the museums on Railroad Street. Everything on this list is within easy walking distance except Fins to Feathers which is located in the Navigation District just a short drive away.

2. Port (Point) Isabel Lighthouse – A Must See in Port Isabel

The Port Isabel Lighthouse stands atop a 30-foot knoll in Lighthouse Square. It was built by the government in 1852 to guide ships through the Brazos Santiago Pass (the natural waterway between the barrier islands of Padre Island and Brazos Island) to Port Isabel. It was constructed of brick brought by schooner from New Orleans. When completed, its light projected almost 16 miles.

The Lighthouse had periods of use and darkness over the years and its light was completely extinguished in 1905. In 1927, the government sold the land and lighthouse to private citizens. In 1950, Mr. & Mrs. Lon C. Hill, Jr., donated the property to Texas State Parks. The park system began repairs and opened it to the public in 1952.

Port Isabel Lighthouse - a must see in Port Isabel

Lighthouse on an overcast day in winter

Port Isabel Lighthouse

Lighthouse in spring

spiral staircase in Port Isabel Lighthouse
ladder to observation deck in Port Isabel Lighthouse

There are 16 lighthouses along the Texas coast but this is the only one open to the public. Climb the 74 steps up the spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse for some fabulous views across Laguna Madre to South Padre Island. The stairs are narrow and steep so they could be a challenge to some.

Family-friendly movies are projected onto the side of the lighthouse on Friday and Saturday nights during June and July. How fun does that sound?

One of the most popular things to do in Port Isabel is to climb to the top of the Lighthouse for amazing views. #portisabel #lighthouse Click To Tweet

view of Pirate's Landing Fishing Pier and Queen Isabella Causeway from Port Isabel Lighthouse view of Queen Isabella Causeway across Laguna Madre from Port Isabel Lighthouse

3. Port Isabel Lighthouse Replica Keepers Cottage

The Replica Keepers Cottage is home to the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce. You can purchase your tickets here, or at any of the individual locations, for the Lighthouse (#2 above) and the two museums (see #4 & 5 below). The entrance fee for each attraction separately is $4 or a ticket for all three locations is $9. There are senior and student discounts available. The combo ticket does not expire and can be used on different days. The two museums are within easy walking distance of the Keepers Cottage. Entrance to the exhibits in the Keepers Cottage is free. Hours and days of operation vary by location and season so be sure to check for details.

Reploica Keepers Cottage and LighthouseReplica Keepers Cottage from Port Isabel LighthouseFront of Keepers Cottage

Displays in the Cottage show the history of the Lighthouse and what life was like to be a keeper. Lots of old photos really bring the exhibit to life.

Port Isabel Lighthouse exhibit in Keepers Cottage
Port Isabel Lighthouse sign

4. Port Isabel Historical Museum

The Port Isabel Historical Museum opened in May of 1997. It is housed in the two-story Charles Champion Building which was constructed in 1899 by Charles Champion. He moved his general merchandise store to the first floor along with the U.S. Customs House and the post office. The family lived on the second floor.

Champion Building showing fish muralIn 1906, Charles commissioned a local, one-armed fisherman and artist, Juan Morales, to paint the fish mural on the building. Over 200 images represent species found in Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. The mural was restored in 2017.

Tip: The entrance to the museum is around to the right — you may or may not see a sign that points to the gift shop. The signage is not great for either museum. Ask at the Historical Museum and they will walk you over to the Treasures of the Gulf Museum. It’s just around the corner but there is no sign.

painted dolphin
Port Isabel Historical Museum entrance

Museums of Port Isabel building exterior from the Lishthouse
The Historical Museum showcases the history of Port Isabel and the Laguna Madre area from its original Native American inhabitants through modern times. On the second level, you will find two major exhibits. One is the Champion family exhibit and the other is the U.S.-Mexican war display. A number of the artifacts here are quite rare.

Port Isabel Historical Museum interior sign
sample of exhibits

sample of exhibits at Port Isabel Historical Museum
artifacts including coffee grinder

I really enjoyed this museum and spent nearly two hours there. Maybe that was  because it answered some questions I’ve been having lately about the history of Texas. Or maybe it was just how well it was organized and how thorough it was. Because of that, I think it would be a great place for a history lesson for home schooled kids or a small classroom.

5. Treasures of the Gulf Museum

Treasures of the Gulf Museum tells the story of the three Spanish ships that wrecked off the coast of Port Isabel in 1554. When they sank, the three ships were carrying around 87,000 pounds of gold and silver. Mexico City sent a salvage team but less than half of the total treasure was recovered. More than 51,000 pounds of the treasure is still at the bottom of the gulf.

Exhibits examine interaction between the explorers and the Native Americans as well as what life was like on board ships during that time.

walkway to Treasures of the Gulf Museum
entrance to Treasures of the Gulf Museum

This museum had a really interesting vibe to me. There was something about the colors, the lighting and the decor that made it very inviting. The museum is small but packed with information.

exhibit at Treasures of the Gulf Museumexhibit at Treasures of the Gulf Museum

Kids will enjoy the hands-on activities in the Children’s Discovery Lab.

Children's Discovery Lab at Treasures of the Gulf Museum

6. Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier

Texas’ longest fishing pier is lighted so it is a great place to fish 24 hours a day. Bring your own pole or you can rent one. There is a full bait and tackle shop with everything you might need. Even if you don’t fish yourself, it can be fun to watch.

people fishing on Pirate's Landing Fishing Pieryoung man fishing on Pirate's Landing Fishing Pierlaughing gull

Walk out on the pier over Laguna Madre for a view back at the Port Isabel Lighthouse and Pirate’s Landing Restaurant.

view of Pirate's Landing Restaurant and Port Isabel Lighthouse from pier

The food at Pirate’s Landing Restaurant gets mixed reviews but you can’t beat the view. I sat outdoors on the patio while I enjoyed an adult beverage and an appetizer.

woman drinking a beverage on outdoor patio

7. Sea Life Center

The Sea Life Center is located across the street from Lighthouse Square. This is a delightful place, especially for kids. There are numerous aquariums and touch tanks where you can get up close to many different species of marine animals native to the area. You might even get an opportunity to feed Domino, the large rescued tortoise that wanders about the center. The nonprofit is managed by husband and wife George and Scarlett Colley.

Sea Life Center on Lighthouse Square in Port IsabelSea Life Center interior

8. Dolphin Cruises

South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center

This is the full name of the Sea Life Center in #7 above. In addition to managing the Center, Scarlett and George offer dolphin tours on Laguna Madre which start at the Sea Life Center. These highly rated tours are limited to six passengers in a pontoon boat. Scarlett is known locally as The Dolphin Whisperer so you can imagine how awesome her tours are. The 90-minute tours are $25 per person.

Note: Although this attraction has South Padre Island in the name, it is actually located in Port Isabel.

Dolphin Docks

Dolphin Docks is a privately owned, family business. The company operates the largest excursion boat on the bay which allows them to offer their cruises at a very affordable price. Their 70′, double-deck boat, Fish Tales, can accommodate up to 100 and is wheelchair accessible. Their 90-minute dolphin cruises average $10. They also offer other types of cruises as well as bay fishing.

Dolphin Docks in Port Isabel

Fins to Feathers

Fins to Feathers also operates a small boat with a maximum of six passengers and I was excited to go out with them a few weeks ago. The trip was amazing and we were able to get fairly close to the dolphins. Or rather, the dolphins came up close to us when Captain Paul quieted the engine. The trip was exhilarating but peaceful and relaxing at the same time. I did the 2.5 hour combination dolphin and bird watching cruise. Rates start at $25 for a 1.5 hour cruise. Taking a dolphin watching cruise should probably be at the top of my list of things to see and do in Port Isabel because it is one of my favorites. I highly recommend it.

Dolphins in Laguna Madre

Taking a dolphin watching cruise should be at the top of your list of things to see and do in Port Isabel. #dolphins #dolphinwatching Click To Tweet

Related: Dolphin and Bird Watching on Laguna Madre with Fins to Feathers

9. Black Dragon Pirate Ship

An adventure on the Black Dragon Pirate Ship will have you talking and fighting like a pirate. The pre-cruise meet and greet session behind Black Jack’s restaurant includes photo opportunities with the captain and crew. (The photos are available for purchase at the end of the cruise.)

sign Black Jacks Galley & Bar with pier in background

With the firing of the cannon, you’ll board the 75-foot Black Dragon which is a modern replica of a 17th century galleon. Once on board, you’ll be entertained by a crew of professional pirates during the 2.5 hour cruise. Drinks and snacks are available for purchase. The schedule changes seasonally but, during the summer, the ship sails three times a day which includes a sunset cruise. Current rates are $38 adults/$27 children for daytime cruises and $43 adults/$28 children for the sunset cruise. On Thursday and Friday, the sunset cruise is also a fireworks cruise and the rate is $53/$38.

10. Walk, Bike or Segway Around the Town

El Paseo de Santa Isabel project features nearly 10 miles of hike and bike trails. Four different trails start at the Historic Museum and explore different areas of Port Isabel. The trails feature 11 informative kiosks with historical interpretation. Download the map.

The 21 medallions of the Walk of Generals are located within the Lighthouse District. The Walk honors military leaders, institutions and civilians who played a vital role in the history of Port Isabel. See a map and information about the medallions here.

Segway Tours are available October through May by reservation only from SegValley Tours. On the Port Isabel tour you will cruise the downtown area, ride along North Shore Blvd., and have some time to play on the grass. After your training, you can take a one hour tour or a 1.5 hour tour. Prices are $45 and $65.

11. City of Port Isabel Cemetery

This site has been used as a burial ground since the 1840s but the oldest markers still in evidence are from the 1880s. The earliest markers, made of wood because stone was scarce and expensive, have long since disappeared. Port Isabel was once dubbed the shrimping capital of the world and that heritage is reflected on many of the headstones that display images of shrimp boats, anchors and fishermen.

City of Port Isabel Cemetery sign at entrance
plaque in Port Isabel Cemetery relating history

headstones in cemetery

Port Isabel Cemetery
Port Isabel Cemetery

headstone with flagflowering tree

12. Watch Fireworks over the Bay

Thursdays and Fridays at 9:15 p.m. (Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend) fireworks are launched over the Laguna Madre from South Padre Island. There are several viewing areas in Port Isabel including the Lighthouse Park, Pirate’s Landing Fishing Pier and Restaurant, and Pelican Station (see my review on TripAdvisor). The fireworks are not that close but you are away from the traffic and the crowds. Dolphin Docks, Fins to Feathers and Black Dragon all offer fireworks cruises.

 

 

Have you visited Port Isabel? What are your favorite things to do in a new place? Do you explore your own home town and visit local attractions? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Port Isabel Lighthouse with text overlay: Port Isabel 12 Awesome things to do on the southern Gulf Coast of Texas
Pirate's Landing Fishing Pier with Black Dragon Pirage Ship and text overlay: 12 Awesome things to do! Port Isabel, TX

Until next time…



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11 Comments

  1. What a cute and picturesque town with tons of activities! I have never heard of Port Isabel as I haven’t explored Texas much, but this is definitely on my list now. I would be very interested in biking around here and checking out the hiking trails.

    • Hiking the trails is one of the few things I haven’t done there yet. Then afterwards, of course, a nice meal and a cocktail on the water would be called for!

  2. I’m always up for exploring a lighthouse. I love the winding stairway inside this one. Port Isabel is a new destination for me — looks like a fun place!
    Sharon recently posted…Lake Tahoe Hike to Skunk HarborMy Profile

  3. Wow, it’s really at the tip of Texas almost at the Mexican border, with South Padre Island nearby. This picturesque town would be a good place to visit!
    Carol Colborn recently posted…Being Home. Getting Renewed..My Profile

  4. Texas – heat, dust, and Cowboys….and, of course, -girls!…. come to mind. Therefore, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to read about this ocean front place with so much – literally – cool activities ans sights.

    • There is definitely some heat here but not that much more than the rest of the country at similar elevations. Texas has seven different geographic regions that include desert (only 10% of the land) prairies, grasslands, forests and coastlines. It’s a great state to explore.

  5. I’ve never heard of Point Isabel but it’s good to know that if we ever go that way, there will be tons of things to do. I especially like seeing lighthouses.

    • There are so many wonderful little towns everywhere in the world! The Lighthouse in Port Isabel is definitely a must see if you ever get a chance to visit.

  6. Erik the Hungry Traveller

    What a quaint little town. Im sure id love it here based on the photos alone.

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