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I’m just going to come right out and say it: the best beaches in the country are along the Gulf coast. I’ll take either of the most popular Alabama beaches — Gulf Shores and Orange Beach — over anything on the Atlantic seaboard. The sand is softer, the waves are gentler, and the sunsets are better.
But we’re spoiled for choice even if you narrow things down to the Gulf coast. Even if you narrow things down to Alabama, where the food is amazing and the locals are genuine.
You end up with a not-so-simple decision: Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores. So similar and yet so different.
(And in a world full of too much information, it’s really easy to be caught off-guard with analysis paralysis!).
Quick heads up!
My visit was hosted Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, but I was given enough freedom during my visit to check out both towns and explore independently. Still, I owe them a huge thank you for sharing the best of their communities so I could share them with you. All opinions remain my own.
Back to the Basics: How far apart are Orange Beach and Gulf Shores?
As the crow flies, Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are just 10 miles apart, or about a 20-minute drive with Gulf State Park in the middle.
Unofficially, when people refer to “Orange Beach” they typically include the area east to the Florida state line; similarly, “Gulf Shores” stretches westbound toward Fort Morgan. Because of this, if you’re going from one extreme end to the other, it could easily take you 35-40 minutes to get from A to B.
That type of distance makes it short enough you can (and should!) explore both, but it’s just enough stop lights along the way that picking the right base will save you time in the car. No one wants to commute on vacation! (Or maybe that’s just me…?)
What Orange Beach and Gulf Shores Have in Common
Both of these Alabama beaches have beautiful waterfront, including publicly available beaches (and the beach quality is the same on both sides).
Both have super fresh seafood, like royal red shrimp, flounder, snapper, mahi mahi, oysters, crawfish, grouper, and more.
Both have access to the Hugh S Branyon Backcountry trail, for miles of walking, biking, and wildlife watching.
Both have watersport rentals, for sightDOING like kayaking or parasailing.
Both have plenty of places to stay, so you can pick what works best for your family.
And both have ice cream places. Hello, vacation!
Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores in a Nutshell
The main difference between Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, AL that I found was that Orange Beach feels a little quieter and less hectic (or put another way, Gulf Shores feels like it has a little more going on).
If you’re looking for a relaxed escape with lazy days by the sea (or if you’re good at making your own fun), Orange Beach might be the initial obvious choice.
If you’re looking for planned activities and events, Gulf Shores had more going on from mini-golf to theme nights at bars and restaurants to scheduled special events.
Gulf Shores or Orange Beach for Beach Lovers
As I mentioned, the beach quality in both communities is impeccable. Clean, wide stretches of sand with inviting warm water.
But if you intend to spend all day every day at the beach, you have two choices:
- Stay in Gulf Shores
- Stay in Orange Beach, but only at a specifically beachfront property
In Gulf Shores, it’s easy to walk to the beach even if your hotel isn’t right on the water. There are strategically-placed crosswalks so you can hit the water or return back to your room to freshen up. There are restaurants and beach clubs right on the sand — just pack a cover-up — so you can grab lunch or a drink without having to hit the car.
For maximum walkability, pick somewhere close to the “T” at the intersection of Beach Boulevard & Gulf Shores Parkway. You’ll find restaurants, shopping, and a few hotels right there at the beach. My sister wants to make sure I remind you all that Sassy Bass Crazy Donuts is also walking distance from there!
However, in Orange Beach if you want to access the beach, you’ll either need to stay at a beachfront property or plan on driving for access. That’s because most of Orange Beach runs along a busy, wide road where it can be challenging to cross five lanes of traffic by foot — especially if you have beach chairs and other must-have beach items with you.
Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule, and Caribe Resort in Orange Beach has pedestrian access to Alabama Point beach even though it’s not on the “right” side of the gulf. This is a local-favorite beach with a fun vibe to it.
Orange Beach or Gulf Shores for Boaters
I think most boaters will find Orange Beach a better option: there are marinas everywhere right on the intracoastal waterway, so you can dock your boat and head back out in any direction. If your trip plans include fishing, sailing, looking for dolphins, or heading to one of the sandbars on the barrier islands (quick note: some of them have restricted access for bird nesting), you can’t beat the convenience.
On the Gulf Shores side, there are of course marinas, but they are fewer and farther between, and with less convenient locations if you want to roll right out of bed and go to your boat.
Gulf Shores vs Orange Beach for Families
Or, you know, kids at heart!
Here, Gulf Shores is the clear winner. They cater to families like you wouldn’t believe: restaurants with rope courses, go-kart courses, milkshake bars, and the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.
I know if I was a kid, this is where I’d want to be. Honestly, even at the age of not-a-kid-anymore I had fun letting loose in Gulf Shores!
Orange Beach, not to be outdone, has activities that all ages will love, like glass-blowing or throwing pottery at the Coastal Arts Center.
Which Beach is Better for Foodies?
Here, I think Orange Beach shines.
Yes, of course Gulf Shores has some good places to eat…don’t get me wrong. But when perusing menus in Gulf Shores, it did feel like they all served variations of the same thing: fried fish, burgers, all-you-can-eat crawfish.
In Orange Beach, there’s a tremendous variety from dive bars to upscale “date night” restaurants to simply prepared seafood on a picnic table. There are so many highly-reviewed restaurants in Orange Beach that I didn’t have time to try them all (although my sister will verify — we tried!).
Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores Hotels
Both communities have plenty of places to stay, although that are clear distinctions between the types of properties in each city.
Orange Beach has lots of condo towers at all pricepoints. This is awesome for anyone who wants to stay awhile and have a kitchen to prepare some meals in or have a separate living room to chill in along with a bedroom (or two). Since these condos can have quite a few units, that means they also have a lot of public amenities: in our case, a lazy river, waterslides, hot tubs, and even indoor pools for when the weather just doesn’t cooperate.
Gulf Shores has more selection in smaller condos (if you don’t want to deal with hundreds of guests) and also waterfront beach houses so you can have 100% your own space. If you value privacy and that feeling of truly getting away, Gulf Shores — especially farther out toward Fort Morgan — has more of those standalone properties where you get more space to yourself.
If you’re going to stay at a regular hotel, you’ll find options in both places, though it did seem like many of the brands I’m familiar with were on the Orange Beach side.
Where to Stay
If Orange Beach is for you… I loved our stay at Caribe Resort, where all the rooms are condos with 1-3 bedrooms.
If Gulf Shores is a better fit… the Best Western has the ultimate location for walking everywhere.
For a location mostly in the middle… try the Lodge at Gulf State Park (owned by Hilton), which is closer to Gulf Shores but has a bit of that laidback Orange Beach vibe.
Are you still wondering “Should I Stay in Orange Beach or Gulf Shores”?
If you’re still on the fence, don’t sweat it. At the end of the day, it’s kinda like deciding between chocolate and vanilla ice cream: you might prefer one over the other, but either way you get something delicious.
Besides…if you’re like anyone else who visits the Alabama beaches, there’s a pretty good shot you’ll be back for a second visit later…and that time, you’ll be the expert who knows exactly which side of the Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores decision is right for you.