Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores: Both are Great but Which is Better?

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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.

Alabama Beaches Map

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.

alabama oysters on a plate
Man, I could eat another dozen of these oysters.

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.

hangout gulf shores alabama
Hanging out in Gulf Shores

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.

towel on orange beach
I had the beach all to myself on my first visit.

But if you intend to spend all day every day at the beach, you have two choices:

  1. Stay in Gulf Shores
  2. 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.

ropes course at lulus buffett gulf shores alabama
Monkeying around at Lulu’s in Gulf Shores

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!).

royal red shrimp orange beach vs gulf shores
Lunch on the waterfront at Gulf Shores Steamer (which strangely enough, is in Orange Beach)

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.

Inside our amazing condo at Caribe Resort, Orange Beach
Inside our amazing condo at Caribe Resort, Orange Beach

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.

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9 thoughts on “Orange Beach vs Gulf Shores: Both are Great but Which is Better?”

  1. We have had 5 homes and two condos over 20 years. The author did a great job presenting differences. Gulf Shores developed first and has a lot of places and things to do for kids and teenagers. Beach access from off beach hotels which are cheaper is better in GS. The outlet mall in Foley is about 8 miles north from GS on highway 59. That is best shopping in the area. I owned 5 houses on Ono Island over 16 years. It is private island and if you want to boat, lay out by the pool and relax you avoid traffic and visitors . Drive 10 minutes or boat to beach areas. Dining is good in both towns. We ate half the time in OB and other times in GS at Tacky Jacks or Lulu’s. Also would go to Foley for meals. Hotels on beach good in both towns. OB developed later so it has newer hotels and condos. In fact everything is newer. OB is where I had second home and always felt safe and relaxed. We have friends in Gulf Breeze and Destin so we visited. Destin is GS and Orange Beach combines. Problem to me is the congestion, traffic and access roads. GS, OB, Foley, Perdido Key and Pensacola are all short drives from each other. You can exit Interstate 10 using Beach Highway now and are 20 minutes to OB or GS. Pensacola I10 to 110 and you are downtown in 10 minutes. Both are great places. If you have time explore the area. Locals are great people.

    1. Hi Jerry,
      I am moving my son (15) dad (82) myself & my business to AL & have been to both GS & OB but passing through. Coming again for one more trip to find a home to buy. I love Ono Island. Are there many children on the Island? We live in a small town in the wine country in CA where you can leave your doors unlocked & the neighbors text you if you left your garage door open. My dad is an Air Force Veteran & is a spry social butterfly. I love boating, the beach & good restaurants and a slower pace with minimal traffic. Which town is better for my teen & safest?

  2. I live in Gulf Shores and can tell you Orange Beach is run much better by local government. One guy runs the city in GS. The dude that owns the Hangout. He can get anything he wants with a variance. If you can afford to own or visit Orange Beach that is the best choice and my eventual goal. The people that visit OB are a notch above GS. Go into the Walmart in GS and go into the Walmart neighborhood market nd you will see what I mean. Way too many apartments being built in Gulf Shores and we do not have the infrastructue to support …yet they continue to build. OB hs said NO MORE APTS! GS is looking for every nook and cranny to build an apartment. Restaurants are also far superior in OB. GS will be on 20/20 or Dateline one of these days for all of the corruption and illegal activity going on here. Run don’t walk to OBA.

  3. Gulf Shores is New Orleans, OB is Jacksonville. GS is well-spirited and festive, OB is boring & sluggish. Both are congested but GS is more pedestrian-friendly and accessible. As far as your comments about the respective WalMart demographic Tom, God does love you and stay in OB!

  4. Gulf Shores is a bit wilder. From an earlier post, yes, Gulf Shores seems like a town run by a bar owner.
    Orange Beach is relaxing and clean.

  5. I would love to be able to rent a condo in OB from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after the first of January. I think I could enjoy that time writing on my book, listening to the waves crash and knowing it’s 5 o’clock somewhere no matter the true time.
    I think a trip to OB is coming up on my horizon real soon. Yoga on the beach.

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