Last updated on February 23, 2023 by Wandering our World
Some of America’s best beaches can be found on the Gulf Coast, where the sands are soft, the waters are warm. And if you’re planning a Gulf Coast getaway, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are two dreamy destinations you might like to consider.
These Alabama resort cities are situated side-by-side and share a lot of similarities. And as they’re so close to one another, they have identical weather conditions and both coast high quality beaches.
You’ll also find fantastic seafood eateries in both of these cities, along with a range of great activities to keep everyone entertained.
However that said, there are still some key differences between these two locations. The vibes are definitely a little different, with Gulf Shores being more of a family-friendly spot, while Orange Beach is a little more laid-back and upscale, with fancy condos lining the shore.
Of course that’s just the start when it comes to how these two destinations differ.
That’s why we use our knowledge to show you which has the better beaches, activities, fishing, shopping, which is better for families and lots more. All so you make the right decision!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is Better For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Food?
- Which Is Better For Boating & Fishing?
- Which Is Better For Shopping?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Has The Best Places To Stay?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Better?
A Quick Overview
Orange Beach: A Quick Overview
Orange Beach is a resort city on the Alabama Gulf Coast. It’s located towards the eastern end of the state’s stretch of coastline and runs all the way through to Perdido Key in Florida. In terms of size, it’s smaller than Gulf Shores and has a shorter stretch of coastline.
This city is famed for its laid-back, peaceful vibe and upmarket feel. It’s a great place to go when you’re looking to relax and sunbathe, with its shoreline mostly made up of chain hotels and impressive, oceanfront condos.
There’s a variety of beach bars and restaurants here, along with charming boutiques and shops that are mainly concentrated in The Wharf – the area’s main entertainment district.
Orange Beach is also a popular boating spot, with several marinas and boat launches.
Gulf Shores: A Quick Overview
Situated to the west of Orange Beach is the city of Gulf Shores. It’s a lively and popular place, drawing in large numbers of tourists due to its sugary sands and wide range of family-friendly attractions, like fun parks and mini golf courses.
Despite being more touristic, with a broader selection of things to do, visitors often note that Gulf Shores feels a little more like a traditional small town than Orange Beach.
This may be due to the fact that it has fewer high-rise condo buildings and more traditional beach houses.
Visitors will also find a wider range of beaches at Gulf Shores, due to its larger size and longer stretch of coastline, but the more vibrant, family-oriented atmosphere of this resort city might not be to everyone’s taste.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Before we compare the various beaches and activities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, it’s worth commenting on how you might like to get around these two locations, as this is one area in which they have quite a big difference.
In Orange Beach, most of the condos, hotels, restaurants, and attractions are situated along one long, five-lane road. It’s not the easiest road to cross, and parking can be hard to find, too.
That might make things difficult if you simply want to walk from your hotel to the beach – you can avoid this problem by staying at a beachfront condo, but that will cost more.
Gulf Shores is a much more walkable city, with many of the amenities and attractions within comfortable walking distance of one another.
The beaches are also easier to get to on foot in Gulf Shores, and you might like to rent a bike and make use of the area’s many bike lanes and bike-friendly sidewalks.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
Obviously, one of the big draws of the Gulf Coast is its amazing beaches, and many people head to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach dreaming of soft, powdery sands, warm, pleasant waters, and wonderful weather to sunbathe and splash around all day long.
The general quality of the beaches in both of these locations is very impressive.
They can both offer long, clean, smooth stretches of fine sand and pleasant warm water, especially if you visit in the peak summer months, but which one is best?
Well, since Gulf Shores is a bigger place, with a longer stretch of coastline, it’s able to offer a little more diversity in terms of its beach experiences.
There are some different styles of beaches here, and Gulf Shores is nicely located for trips to the beaches of Gulf State Park and the Fort Morgan Peninsula, too.
Orange Beach has a smaller selection of beaches within the immediate vicinity, but it’s still a super spot for sand and sun. Plus, since it’s a more laid-back location, its beaches can be a little quieter and more romantic, perfect for sunset strolls or peaceful afternoons.
Orange Beach: The Beaches
If you choose to stay in Orange Beach, you’ll have immediate access to the area’s collection of public beaches.
Romar Beach is one of the locals’ favorite spots. It offers exquisite sands and plenty of space to stretch out, along with an artificial reef for snorkelers and divers to check out.
Cotton Bayou Beach is another pleasant coastal location in Orange Beach.
It’s one of the most accessible beaches, too, with easy public access and decent parking, along with other amenities like toilets and showers. The white sands there are some of the softest in the area, as smooth and cotton-like as the beach’s name implies.
Further east, you’ll find Alabama Point in the Perdido Pass area. This is close to the state line separating Alabama from Florida, and it’s dominated by a big bridge stretching out over the water.
There are some beautiful boardwalks here, along with decent surfing conditions at certain times of year and those same powdery sands that characterize the Gulf Coast.
In general, the beaches of Orange Beach are all quite similar. The surroundings can look a little different as you move from beach to beach, but the conditions are more or less identical, with a generally chilled-out atmosphere and some pleasant amenities at each beach, including restrooms and food trucks on the parking lots.
Gulf Shores: The Beaches
The beaches of Gulf Shores are also well-developed in general, with plenty of useful amenities. Plus, as previously mentioned, they’re more accessible by foot than those of Orange Beach.
Most visitors will simply be able to walk from their hotels or condos across to places like Gulf Place – Gulf Shores’ main public beach.
Gulf Place is arguably the best beach in the whole area, with some of the cleanest and best quality sand Alabama has to offer. There are restrooms and showers there, along with pavilions and picnic spaces.
Gulf Place also stretches out through most of downtown Gulf Shores, giving you easy access to local beach bars and diners.
For something a little different, visitors can continue west to Little Lagoon. Despite the name, this lagoon runs for about ten miles, so it’s not all that little, and there are some super sandy spots here with the tranquil lagoon waters on one side and the Gulf on the other side.
Little Lagoon is a super spot for families, with safe swimming conditions and amazing views, and if you follow the lagoon to its western end, you’ll reach the Fort Morgan Peninsula.
The beaches there are quite wild and pristine. Pine Beach, for example, is only accessible via a 1.5-mile trail, while Mobile Street Beach is a pleasant and secluded spot to watch the sunset.
Overall, when comparing the beaches of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, the latter city will appeal to more people, thanks to the diversity of its sandy spots and their easier access.
Which Is Best For Activities?
Most of your time in either Orange Beach or Gulf Shores might be spent on the beaches themselves, but there are plenty of other things to do with your time in both of these Alabama coastal cities.
Gulf Shores has a great range of family-friendly attractions and activities, for example, along with some interesting natural and historic sites. Meanwhile, Orange Beach is a nice place for shopping and water-based activities.
Below we look at a few of the best activities in both destinations, so you can see which may suit you best!
Orange Beach: The Activities
Visitors to Orange Beach won’t want to miss out on a trip to The Wharf. This is the city’s main entertainment area, boasting everything from shops and bars to an escape room, video game arcade, and movie theater.
You can have a great day shopping around The Wharf, or head to the Coastal Arts Center to admire or even purchase arts and crafts made by local Gulf Coast artists – if you’re feeling creative, you can even take part in glassblowing or pottery classes here, too.
Boating and fishing are also very popular activities in Orange Beach. The city has no shortage of marinas, and there are plenty of charter boats ready to take you and your fellow travelers out into the Gulf or into the back bay waters to reel in a big catch.
Or, if you want to work up a sweat and surround yourself with nature, you can take a hike along the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, which runs for 14 miles and actually passes through both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, as well as Gulf State Park.
Gulf Shores: The Activities
When it comes to the variety and number of things to do, Gulf Shores has Orange Beach beat. There are lots of different attractions and activities here, including everything from mini golf and pirate ship rides for kids to a zoo and water park.
If you like to fill your days with fun activities, you’ll have no problems in Gulf Shores. The city is very touristy and truly has something for everyone, including some super places to shop like the Oyster House Boardwalk, Tanger Outlets, and Pelican Place.
History fans will also enjoy Gulf Shores, due to its easy access to Fort Morgan State Park – you can find the remains of an old Civil War masonry fort here, and it’s an excellent educational site for those who want to learn a little more about what life was like in days gone by.
Or, if nature and wildlife are more your thing, Gulf Shores has several large lakes and sits right beside the 6,000 acres of Gulf State Park, home to all sorts of flora and fauna, as well as the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds of birds can be spotted here, along with elusive and endangered creatures, like Alabama beach mice.
Which Is Better For Food?
Another big reason to take a trip to the Gulf Coast is for the food; cities like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores have some of the very best seafood eateries in the country. There are plenty of good restaurants in both of these locations, but which one is best?
Well, that’ll all depend on your tastes….
However, Orange Beach is arguably the better pick for foodies, as it has more variety in its dining scene.
There are plenty of good seafood spots, of course, but Orange Beach also has some more romantic, upscale restaurants, as well as cute diners, a couple of Italian eateries, and some fantastic steakhouses, too.
In contrast, Gulf Shores is a little more limited, with a lot of the restaurants serving really similar foods to one another – though here is a great bar scene as we’ve written about before. You can still get some terrific seafood here, as well as great burgers and comfort foods, but there aren’t quite as many options as Orange Beach.
Which Is Better For Boating & Fishing?
If you like the idea of getting out onto those Gulf Coast waters for some boat tours or fishing trips, there’s one clear winner in this category: Orange Beach. This city has multiple boat launches that are accessible to the public, as well as a massive charter fishing fleet.
Thanks to this, it’s very easy to get out onto the water in your own vessel at Orange Beach, or find someone else with a boat to take you out. Plus, since there are so many charter boats, the level of competition is quite high and prices aren’t too expensive.
Not only that, but Orange Beach also has the benefit of an intricate network of waterways that visitors can navigate and enjoy, giving you lots of wonderful ways to have fun on the water.
Gulf Shores isn’t a bad place for boating and fishing, either, and it has the benefit of large freshwater lakes, like Lake Shelby, where you can fish. However, it doesn’t have quite as many options and lacks the marinas and boat-oriented culture of its neighbor.
Which Is Better For Shopping?
If you like to shop, you’ll find a nice range of options in both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.
In Orange Beach, places like The Wharf and SanRoc Cay Marina are great for browsing classy boutiques and buying quite upmarket, high-end products, with everything from clothes and jewelry to décor and furniture items.
Over in Gulf Shores, there are some really fun souvenir stores. Souvenir City, for example, is a fun place to take the kids if you want to grab a few gifts for folks back home.
And there are also some diverse shopping areas like The Square and Gulf Shores Shopping Center, where you’ll find some simple stores selling a range of affordable goods.
Overall, Orange Beach is better for the fancier products and more diverse boutiques, while Gulf Shores is good for souvenirs and budget-conscious shoppers.
Which Is Best For Families?
If you’re heading to the Gulf Coast with the kids and trying to choose between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Gulf Shores is most likely the best option for you, as it’s by far the most family-friendly of the two cities.
There are so many things to do with children in Gulf Shores, from the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo to the Waterville USA water park, The Track amusement park, and Lulu’s Rope Course, too. There are also some awesome eateries for kids, like milkshake bars and ice cream parlors.
A lot of the hotels in Gulf Shores are quite family-focused, too, with plenty of kid-friendly features and amenities.
However, older kids might appreciate the more laid-back vibes of Orange Beach, even though it doesn’t have quite as much to offer for little ones.
Which Is Best For Couples?
So, Gulf Shores is best for families, but what about couples?
Well, if you and your partner are looking to get away from it all for a few days and spend some quality time in an Alabama beach city, both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach can work for you.
Orange Beach is arguably the more romantic and couple-oriented location. It’s got a relaxing vibe that couples should enjoy, with quieter beaches where you and your partner can stroll along the sands, snap some selfies, or watch the sun go down together before heading into town for a gourmet meal at one of the area’s fancy restaurants.
At the same time, Gulf Shores isn’t a bad place for couples, either, especially if you and your loved one are quite active people and want to do lots of different activities during your trip.
It offers easier access to historic Fort Morgan, for example, with some cozy, secluded beaches just waiting to be discovered out on the peninsula.
Which Has The Best Places To Stay?
Accommodation is one of the top things to think about when planning a trip, and it’s important to consider what kind of place you’d like to stay in when you’re trying to choose between Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, as they both have their own distinctive styles of accommodation.
As mentioned earlier on, Orange Beach is quite a condo-oriented city, with lots of tall, impressive condo buildings lining the main road and looking out onto the beach.
Having your own condo gives you a lot of unique benefits, like the option to cook your own meals, do your own laundry, and so on.
This can be beneficial for those who are planning an extended stay in the area, as you can simply grab some groceries from a local supermarket – Orange Beach has both a Publix and a Walmart – and prepare your own food, rather than having to pay restaurant and diner prices daily.
It’s also a good choice for big families or groups of friends staying together.
Over in Gulf Shores, there are some condos, too, as well as private rental beach houses, but the accommodation in this city is more oriented towards hotels. Specifically, there are plenty of family-friendly hotels in Gulf Shores with fun features that kids should love like game rooms and pool slides.
Overall, both cities have some nice accommodation options to suit all budgets and needs, but Orange Beach may be more appealing to those who crave condo comforts, while Gulf Shores is more suitable for family stays with plenty of amenities.
But to help you out, we have some recommendations for both Orange Beach and Gulf Shores below.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Looking for a budget place but still within a couple minutes walking distance of the beach? If so then Comfort Inn & Suites near Gulf State Park will be perfect. It even has a swimming pool! See photos and rates here.
Luxury: For direct beach access, unobstructed sea views, and celebrity treatment, then it’s hard to beat The Lodge at Gulf State Park. This Hilton Hotel is gorgeously done up, has a wonderful pool, and is all-round one of the best places to stay in the region. See photos and rates!
Budget: Although not on the beachfront, SpringHill Suites by Marriott Orange Beach is a lovely accommodation with great service, big outdoor pool and free breakfast. And best of all, it’s about half the price of many other accommodations in the city. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Sitting right beside the beach with views of the sea, there’s few better places to stay in Orange Beach than at Perdido Beach Resort. And if you get bored of the coast then why not take a dip in their outdoor pool, or head into the city which is just a short walk away. See photos and rates!
Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores: Which Is Better?
As we can see, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are both beautiful Gulf Coast cities with fabulous beaches, comfortable accommodation, tasty food, and some fun things to do, but which one wins in our head-to-head comparison?
Well, the truth of the matter is that the best option for you will depend on your tastes and the kind of trip you’re looking for.
Families will no doubt want to head to Gulf Shores for its wider range of attractions and kid-friendly vibes, while couples or those seeking a more relaxing getaway may prefer Orange Beach.
You can’t really go wrong with either city, and since they’re so close together, it’s easy to visit both places on the same trip. However, the winner here has to be Gulf Shores, simply due to the fact that it’s a more diverse location with more activities and arguably the best beaches, too.