Fun in the sun, fresh seafood, and the Gulf of Mexico tempting you off the highway onto quieter back roads... what could be better than a road trip along America's Gulf Coast? We first got the idea for a Gulf Coast road trip years ago after camping in Port St. Joe, Florida, and we've been talking about it ever since. The Gulf Coast stretches 1,630 miles from Texas to the Florida Everglades, through subtropical ecosystems along the way - swampy marshland, the Mississippi River Delta, saltwater tidal flats, and some of the most gorgeous white sand beaches in the entire country. If you've never been to this part of America before, it's completely unique and the regions that line it are culturally distinct, even from their own home state. Life here isn't always easy, but the pace is slow, the air is humid, and the seafood is always fresh and delicious.
Gulf Coast Road Trip
Savoring Local Flavors of Coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida
So this year we finally did it. We set out to get a taste of the unique food and culture along the Gulf Coast through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and north and central Florida. The plan was to fly from our home in southwest Florida one way into Lafayette, Louisiana, pick up a rental car, and leisurely explore the coast over three weeks, making our way along I-10, east around Florida’s "Big Bend", and back home. We couldn’t wait to eat our way along the Gulf Coast.
Our Gulf Coast Road Trip Itinerary (But Create Your Own)
We had such a great time on this road trip - it was one of the most relaxing trips we’ve taken in a while, in part because of the flexible schedule we kept, but also because this part of the country just cries out to be discovered slowly. It lends itself well to a road trip, especially if you love slow travel. If you're looking for an exciting family vacation that’s rich in culture, good food, beautiful beaches, and warm water swimming holes - create your own Gulf Coast Road Trip to your own timeframe and at the pace you enjoy. Pick out a part of our trip or do the whole thing in a shorter or longer time, and explore these incredible cities and towns along the Gulf Coast. Here was our basic itinerary:
- Days 1-4: Including travel day: fly one-way from SWFL to Lafayette, Louisiana (3 days)
- Days 5-6: New Orleans Plantation Country and New Orleans (2 days)
- Days 7-9: Mississippi Gulf Coast and Mobile, Alabama (3 days)
- Days 10-12: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama (2 days)
- Day 13: Destin, Florida (1 day)
- Day 14-16: Tallahassee, Florida (3 days)
- Day 17: Wakulla Springs, Florida (1 day)
- Day 18: Cedar Key, Florida (1 day)
- Day 19-20: Crystal River, Florida (2 days)
What We'd Do Differently
- Spend more time along the Mississippi Gulf coast
- Allow more time for the Emerald Coast beaches
- Stay in New Orleans overnight to enjoy the city at night
- Rental Car Lesson: If you think you can maintain a more flexible schedule, book your rental car for a couple more days than you think you need when you make your reservation. Why? Because the charges for adding more time on at the end of your rental agreement are NOT discounted and will cost you MUCH more if you book at the end. We paid $180 for one extra day (our total rental car cost $650) - insane! But we were glad to have had more time in Crystal River.
FLY and DRIVE: If you want to fly into a city along the Gulf Coast and pick up a rental car, here are the most convenient airports to get in and out of quickly:
- Lafayette, Louisiana (LFT)
- Baton Rouge, Louisiana (BTR)
- New Orleans, Louisiana (MSY)
- Mobile, Alabama (MOB)
- Pensacola, Florida (PNS)
- Tallahassee, Florida (TLH)
- Tampa, Florida (TPA)
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Lafayette, Louisiana (3 Days)
This is the Louisiana Bayou country and home of the Acadian people who were forced to emigrate here from their home in Canada around the mid 18th-century when the British and the French were waging war. Because of that, the Acadians (say it fast enough for long enough and you'll see where the word Cajun comes from) peppered everything about this part of Louisiana with spice - the food, the music, the spirit of celebration. The French Cajun culture is refreshing and so much fun. We spent 3 full days in Lafayette exploring the city and the Bayou country. If you're gonna do a road trip, start with a bang in a fun place, right? Having never been to Lafayette or Louisiana we had no idea the kind of fun that was in store.
DAY 2: Our first full day was spent entirely on Avery Island, about 20 miles south of Lafayette, touring the McIlhenney TABASCO factory and exploring Jungle Gardens and the other attractions there. There are a lot of fun things to do in Lafayette, and Avery Island is a good start.
DAY 3: Be sure and visit Vermilionville or Acadian Village and immerse yourself in the local and historic culture of the area. Or travel to nearby Beaux Bridge and order up a crawfish boil.
DAY 4: Explore the local joints and restaurants in downtown Lafayette, sampling the amazing food that south Louisiana is known for - boudin sausage, jambalaya, crawfish, catfish, fresh shrimp.....we fell in love with the Lafayette food scene. We even hit some nightlife one night at Artmosphere, a small restaurant with good food and an even better rockin' dance party. If you don't do anything else in Lafayette, you have to check out the local Cajun music. Dance halls around the city will have you dancin' to the lively Zydeco beat, even if you never leave your seat. It's infectious and one of the best times you'll have in Lafayette!
A word about the Southern fried foods: To be honest, I was a little worried that my constitution might not be able to handle all the fried foods the South is famous for. I like it in moderation, but we don't eat much of it, leaning more toward a Mediterranean diet with grilled or roasted foods instead. But I was pleasantly surprised. Most of the fried food we ate was lighter and more flavorful (they know the secret of frying - hot hot oil) and I was surprised at how much of the food was not fried. Cajun and Creole cuisine - and food in Lafayette overall - seemed more creative and "healthier" than we'd originally thought we'd find.
Favorite Lafayette Food
Shrimp and crawfish étouffée
- Must Try? Zydeco dancing at a Cajun dance hall, or after hours bar like Artmosphere
- Our favorite Lafayette food? Shrimp and crawfish étouffée at TABASCO's 1868 Restaurant.
- Favorite fun food? Toss up between the Praline Bacon at The French Press and Drive-Thru Daiquiris!
- Where to Stay in Lafayette? We stayed in three different places in Lafayette. The Home2 Suites by Hilton Parc Lafayette was a great place to stay in the newer retail and restaurant district, with modern amenities and a great pool. Our second night was at T-Frere's House is a historic and comfortable B&B, with a very nice breakfast. We spent our last night at Mouton Plantation, an historic and well-preserved plantation home with beautiful grounds, comfortable rooms and an excellent Cajun-style breakfast.
New Orleans, Louisiana (2 Days)
Head east on I-10 leaving Lafayette toward Baton Rouge.
- If you want to go straight to New Orleans, stay on I-10 south to the city
- If you want to visit the New Orleans River Road plantations first, follow I-10 south to the Route 61 exit and cross the river to the south River Road
DAY 5: Many visitors to New Orleans live it up in the Crescent City and never realize there's a much more unique and historic side to New Orleans. Just down the Great River Road not far from the city is New Orleans Plantation Country, with some of the original grand New Orleans Plantations. The antebellum homes offer a glimpse into the economic boom of the Gold Coast as it was once referred to for its wealth of indigo, cotton, and sugar cane. Of course it was all built from slavery, making it one of the most grim and dark periods in Louisiana and United States history.
We visited three plantations in the area in one day: Oak Alley Plantation, Laura Plantation, and Whitney Plantation, all of which we'd highly recommend. The Whitney Plantation tour, however, was so poignant in a way that's hard to describe and it'll stay with us forever. Go if you can!
We decided to splurge and stay overnight at Ormond Plantation, one of the River Road plantations closest to New Orleans. Ormond is a beautiful home with quite a few well-appointed guest rooms - our spacious room was big enough for a family of five, though there was just one queen bed. And while we enjoyed the quiet surroundings, we were the only guests there and we were left completely alone in the plantation for the night, which was a bit unnerving. Between the doll room with dozens of antique dolls just down the hall and the literature next to the bedside that detailed the plantation's history and a former owner who was hanged by the KKK from one of the oak trees out front, we were pretty creeped out. For this and other reasons, we'd opt to stay at another plantation next time or stay in New Orleans.
DAY 6: In a city like New Orleans that's known for their culinary specialties, what better way to check out all the great food of New Orleans than with a NOLA food tour? The Doctor Gumbo Food Tour was so much fun, and well, just what the Doctor ordered.
- Must See? The River Road New Orleans Plantations
- Our favorite New Orleans food? Vietnamese crawfish at Mimi Seafood and Bánh Mì
- Favorite fun food? Pralines at Leah's Pralines
- Where to Stay in New Orleans? There are choices galore. Depending on where you might want to spend most of your time there are choices galore. We like the historic hotels in and around the French Quarter, and the Garden District B&Bs. For a very cool but elegant hotel with the most amazing rooftop bar and a great location, check out The Pontchartrain Hotel in between the French Quarter and the Cemetery! The Hotel Indigo New Orleans Garden District is also a good choice - with a fresh modern feel that easily blends with the Garden District neighborhood. We've enjoyed our stays at both.
Favorite NOLA FooD
Vietnamese Crawfish at Mimi's
Mississippi Gulf Coast (1 Day)
DAY 7: There's not much roadtrippin' through the Mississippi Gulf Coast since it's just an hour from Louisiana to Alabama. Mississippi sadly can get lost in between. But short as it is, there's a lot packed into Mississippi's coastline from casinos, championship golf, boating, and lots and lots of sport fishing. Since we're not gamblers or golfers, and we didn't have enough time to book a fishing charter, we decided to get off the big highway and drive along the coastal road - Route 90 - and find ourselves a great local joint to grab a bite.
It took us a while to find what we had in mind. Traffic through Gulfport was congested, but we drove on determined to find that quaint crusty joint on the beach. But alas, when our empty bellies left us feeling a bit hangry, we thought a local beer might be the next best thing, so we ducked into the Chandeleur Island Brewing Company - what a great hit, at least for beer. We tried a few of their drafts - I loved the Curlew’s Toasted Coconut Porter which filled me up enough that I didn't notice I was now starving.
Back on the road, we decided to bypass Biloxi and head for the quieter Pascagoula. What self-respecting Parrotheads would pass up seeing the birthplace of Jimmy Buffett after all? And it wasn't long before we spotted a sign for Bozo's Grocery and Grill. Bozo's? Really? How could we say No? The location wasn't scenic and it's not fancy, but who needs any of that when the seafood is this fresh. True to its name, the combo seafood market and eatery has a few no-frills tables with a long line of patrons - always a good sign. And our Shrimp Po'boys were probably the freshest we'd had so far!
- Best Shrimp Po'Boy? Bozo's in Pascagoula, well worth the coastal drive
- Favorite fun food? The beer at Chandeleur Brewing
Mobile, Alabama (3 Days)
After our po'boy lunch at Bozo's, we headed straight for Mobile and arrived in the early evening in time to check out the downtown at night and grab a bite to eat.
DAY 8: Did you know that Mobile, Alabama - not New Orleans - is the original home of Mardi Gras? And what better place to start our tour of the Mardi Gras City than at the Mobile Carnival Museum. It has everything you could possibly want to know about Mardi Gras, including the rich history behind it. There are rooms displaying the emblems and histories of various secret Mystic Societies who took part in the elaborate parades. Other rooms showcase the incredibly opulent - and heavy - beaded gowns, trains, and jewels of Mardi Gras Kings and Queens from years past. What a workout it must be to just drag one of these trains behind you. Ah, the problems of a Mardi Gras Queen!
Once you've had you fill of Mardi Gras history, take a food tour and discover some of the local foods of Mobile. This was the second food tour of our road trip, this time with Bienville Bites Food Tour, a relatively new food tour in town. We made seven food stops along their LoDa Stroll Tour (short for Lower Dauphin) and had a blast. Highly recommend their tour!
DAY 9: For a unique view of the Mobile Tensaw Delta, there are several Mobile Bay boat tours, but we enjoyed our with WildNative Boat Tours. Their Captain was fun and informative, especially about the local wildlife, and the covered pontoon boat kept us out of the hot Mobile sun. It was a fun way to see a bit of the local natural flora and fauna, which included a good number of alligators, wading birds, osprey, rattle bush and brown pelicans just to name a few.
DAY 10: Mobile was a surprise when it came to good food, and we loved the combination of innovative mad culinary skills we found at places like Southern National and Kitchen on George, with Old School Mobile favorites serving neon-pink hot dogs at The Dew Drop Inn for over 50 years. Foodies will find a lot to love here. We had one last hot dog at The Dew Drop and said goodbye to Mobile.
Most Fun Mobile Food
Beignets with lemon spritz at Panini Petes!
- Must See? The Mobile Carnival Museum
- Our favorite Mobile food? Southern National and Kitchen on George
- Favorite fun food? Beignets drizzled with fresh lemon at Panini Pete's
- Where to Stay in Mobile? You'll find everything from budget motels to luxury hotels in Mobile, and although we enjoy B&Bs, we were very happy with the new Candlewood Suites in the heart of downtown. The location was perfect for exploring the waterfront and the historic downtown.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama (3 Days)
The coastal beach towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are good-time towns, where singles and families come to have fun in the sun. Whether you're looking for fun on the water or planting yourself on the sand with a good book for a few days, there's a lot of things to do in Gulf Shores for just about everyone.
DAY 10 (cont): It's a short drive from Mobile to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, but if you're like us, you'll be tempted to make a few stops along the drive. Plan a stopover in the small town of Fairhope, Alabama when you exit off I-10, a quaint town with fun shops and galleries. Further down the road in Foley, you have to stop for ice cream at Stacey Drugs & Olde Tyme Soda Fountain, a sweet little soda shop that's full of nostalgia! From here it's just a short drive to Gulf Shores, where our first stop was Big Beach Brewing - yes, on top of the ice cream (we never said this was a low-cal road trip). Try out a few of their hand-crafted ales and lagers and relax on the swing outside.
DAY 11: We were excited to have a dedicated Oyster Day on this road trip. ;-) And why not? After all, coastal Alabama is all about oysters. But we weren't just going to eat them - we were going out on a tour with a local oyster farmer to visit his floating oyster farm and see how he farm raises and custom-shapes the actual oyster shell, creating a prettier oyster to eat. And because they're raised in baskets floating in the water and not raised in mud, they're also tastier. This sea-to-table experience with Whiteboots Charters at their Shellbank Selects Oyster Farm on Bon Secour Bay was one of the highlights of our trip. But the best part came at the end of the tour well past sunset, when we tasted these farm-raised oysters for ourselves at The Royal Oyster in Gulf Shores. Yum!
DAY 12: There's no shortage of fun things to do in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. After breakfast, go kayaking in Orange Beach with Coastal Kayak Excursions then go have lunch at LuLu's, owned by Jimmy Buffett's Crazy Sista Lucy. The family-oriented complex has a huge open-air restaurant, bars, sand lots to play in, and lots of room to run around. Or you can hit the beach and enjoy some of the best Alabama beaches along this part of the Gulf Coast. Later on, head to The Hangout or the Florabama Lounge, the good-time bar near Orange Beach that Kenny Chesney made famous. Order a Bushwacker if you go!
Favorite Gulf Shores food
Fresh Shellbank Selects Oysters
- Must Do? Shellbank Selects Oyster farm tour with Whiteboots Charters
- Our favorite food in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach? Fresh oysters at The Royal Oyster
- Favorite fun food? A Bushwacker at the Florabama Lounge
- Where to Stay in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach? There are all the usual shore town players here at all price levels but we loved our stay at Lighthouse Condominiums managed by Kaiser Realty by Wyndham Vacation Rentals - great amenities, plenty of room, right on the beach, and a pool.
Destin, Florida (1 Day)
DAY 13: It took us less than a hour to get from Gulf Shores to Pensacola and another past that to Destin. If you only have one day along Florida's Emerald Coast, here are some ideas for fun things to do in Destin besides the beach.
- Destin History & Fishing Museum - a small museum highlighting local history and the traditional fishing industry along this stretch of the Gulf coast.
- Destin Harbor Boardwalk - This is a tourist hot spot and favorite hang-out place to stroll around and relax with a cold one, do some light shopping, and dine on the waterfront.
But if you're like us and only came for a few hours, this is what we came to sea :-) It had been years since we were in Destin (1992 to be exact, when Hurricane Andrew chased everyone out of Florida. We happened to be in Destin where the hurricane did not hit, and had the whole beach to ourselves for days!) The sand here is like talcum powder, white and soft.
We only had a few hours before heading to Tallahassee, so we opted for the beach view and a fresh seafood lunch at Brotula's Seafood, which was just what we were looking for - a local, family-owned restaurant, with fresh seafood. But get a load of this... they - along with several other Emerald Coast restaurants - participate in the FishTraxTM program. When you order fish for your entrée, it comes with a little fish story, where you can scan a QR code to discover who caught your fish, where it was sourced and what time it was caught. Pretty cool, huh? Talk about fresh and local Gulf coast seafood! They're also a "You Caught It, We'll Cook It" restaurant if you want to catch your own.
- Where to eat? Brotula's Seafood House & Steamer in Destin
Tallahassee, Florida (3 Days)
Tallahassee may not be directly on the Gulf Coast, but it's just 30 minutes from the coast and the capital of Florida, so any Gulf Coast Road Trip should include a visit. This is a hip and historic Old Florida city, with lots of fun things to do and places to discover. Most of all, the history of Tallahassee may surprise you.
DAY 14: Make this a Museum Day starting with the Museum of Florida History and Mission San Luis for everything you need to know about Florida history. In the afternoon, check out The Tallahassee Museum and see the native wildlife of Tallahassee, and some interesting living history as well.
DAY 15: Spend the day exploring the eclectic mix of shops, eateries, and breweries at the Railroad Square Art Park. This was one of our favorite places in Tallahassee, and looking back on our few days there, this was the place that gave us the best overall flavor of the city. You'll find artisans making pottery, creating metal sculpture installations, vintage stores selling everything from funky furniture, classic vinyl records, and amazing vintage clothing.
DAY 16: Relax in Cascades Park, a lovely urban park with fun things to do for the kids, or exciting performances in the amphitheater for you. We had lunch at The Edison, an old power plant that's been converted into this great restaurant space right on the park, and later enjoyed a free performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Park Amphitheater, which was packed. Who knew summertime Shakespeare was so popular? The food scene in Tallahassee was inspiring as we again discovered after dinner that night at Cypress Restaurant. We found farm-to-table cuisine and fresh Gulf Coast seafood including oysters in abundance.
Favorite Tally Fun Food
Coconut Meringue Pie at Kool Beanz
- Must See? There's a lot to see in Tallahassee but the Museum of Florida History is a must!
- Our favorite food in Tallahassee? Cypress Restaurant. Try the Grilled Cobia Paella with the Southern Pecan Pie turnover for dessert
- Favorite fun food? The mile high slice of Coconut Pie at Kool Beanz Cafe
- Where to Stay in Tallahassee? Being a major university town and Florida's capital, there's plenty to choose from. For this trip we stayed at the recently opened and very modern Hampton Inn & Suites Tallahassee Capitol - University - super stylish and modern room and a very nice pool.
Wakulla Springs (1 Day)
DAY 17: Don't leave Tallahassee completely without a stop at Wakulla Springs. Head south on Route 319/Crawfordville Hwy toward Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, a favorite summer spot for a dip in one of Florida's natural spring waters, and a place I'd long wanted to visit.
It was an easy 30-minute drive from the city of Tallahassee but felt like a world away. There's an archeological site at Wakulla Springs, and of course the main attraction: the crystal clear springs. This is a popular place for locals to come and escape the summer heat, and the water is clear and refreshing. Bring a swimsuit to swim, and there are showers on site. We opted to watch everyone else swim and dive off the high platform, while we took the boat tour which was a fun way to see the springs and lots of local wildlife.
- Admission to Wakulla Springs - $6 per vehicle (2-8 occupants)
- Wakulla Springs Boat Tour - $8 Adults/$5 for kids
Fun Food at Wakulla Springs
A Ginger Yip at the soda fountain!
- Must Do? Take the fun and entertaining boat tour at Wakulla Springs
- Favorite fun food? A 'Ginger Yip' at the Wakulla Springs soda fountain
- Where to Stay in Wakulla Springs? The historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs is located near the center of Wakulla Springs State Park and is Wakulla County's oldest and most picturesque hotel since 1937. Today it's recognized as a National Natural Landmark.
Cedar Key, Florida (1 Day)
DAY 18: We wanted to linger a bit longer before heading to Crystal River, so we decided to spend the night in Cedar Key, one of the last remaining places along the Gulf Coast with an Old Florida feel. But it's not a recreated Old Florida feel mind you. It feels this way because it's never been rebuilt, redeveloped, or re-manicured. Cedar Key is as authentic as you're likely to find in this part of Florida, and well worth a visit.
- Must See? Sunset over the tidal flats
- Our favorite food in Cedar Key? Fresh Cedar Key Clams at Steamers Clam Bar & Grill
- Favorite fun food? Cedar Key clams
- Where to Stay in Cedar Key? We stayed at the Low-Key Hideaway with it's very funky Tiki Bar and dock looking over the tidal flats, and it was great for the one night we were there. (As of this writing, we understand the property is for sale.)
Favorite Cedar Key Food
Fresh Cedar Key clams
Crystal River, Florida (2 Days)
DAY 19: If ever there was one locale that perfectly summed up the bounty of Florida's Gulf Coast, it may well be Crystal River. Located on central Florida's Gulf Coast, Citrus County's coastline is equal parts tidal marsh and uninhabited mangrove islands making it a perfect destination for exploring in a kayak or fishing boat, both equally spectacular.
Depending on what time of year you visit, we highly recommend two of the most popular things to do in Crystal River - go scalloping or swim with manatees. But these are all-day activities and you need usually an early start. On your first day in Crystal River, check out the Crystal River Archeological State Park or the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park. The Native American site is 61 acres and with burial mounds, temple/platform mounds, and a substantial midden - but you have to use your imagination. There's not much left in terms of actual ruins. But it's a great place to explore and enjoy a picnic lunch.
DAY 20: Summertime is Florida scallop season, when the Gulf of Mexico is nice and warm, and scalloping for Florida bay scallops is a ball. The boat tour to get offshore is fun, and if you go out of Homosassa you'll even pass Monkey Island, with the last few remaining spider monkeys running around - a holdover from early Florida tourism. Since Citrus County is the scalloping capital of Florida, we tried our hand at scalloping in Homosassa for the first time and it was some of the most fun we've ever had. Plus, this sea-to-table experience was made for foodies who love these kinds of farm-to-table - in this case sea-to-table - experiences and knowing exactly where their food came from.
If you're here in the winter months during manatee season in Crystal River, when the famously gentle giants head into the natural crystal springs to stay warm, definitely book a trip to go out on a manatee tour. You'll put on a wetsuit and get in the water to float alongside them - and I promise, it'll be one of the best travel experiences you'll ever have.
Favorite Food in Crystal River
Fresh Florida bay scallops caught by us that day
- Must Do? Florida bay scalloping
- Our favorite food in Crystal River? The fresh bay scallops we caught, cooked for us at Seafood Seller and Cafe, a local Cook Your Catch restaurant
- Favorite fun food? Beers at The Shed in Homosassa
- Where to Stay in Crystal River? We've stayed in several very nice places in Crystal River, all of them completely unique. The Kings Bay Lodge is a uniquely-retro family motel located on scenic Kings Bay. The Crystal Blue Lagoon Bed & Breakfast is another completely unique B&B with an inspired mermaid theme that's so much fun. Both are totally fun for kids and make for a relaxing family stay in Crystal River.
Have you been to the Gulf Coast? What's your favorite must-see?
This article is not sponsored or paid, however some destinations hosted portions of our road trip. Many thanks to Visit Lafayette, Visit New Orleans, Visit Mobile, Visit AL Beaches, Visit Tallahassee, and Discover Crystal River. All content and opinions are ours alone based on our firsthand experience.