With soft sand, plenty of beach bars and the best ceviche, there's arguably only one beach worth going to in Texas—South Padre Island.
You might know this beach as a college student's spring break hotspot, but really, it's the Rio Grande Valley's most secret gem. From someone who has been going to "the island" every year since before I could walk, here's a guide to the best SPI has to offer.
First thing's first, don't underestimate how hot South Texas is. Be ready with plenty of sunscreen. If you thought Austin was hot, you're in for a treat as high humidity will make the Valley feel scorching. Luckily, the water offers some reprieve from the sun's rays—still, be sure to bring sunscreen and a hat.
Driving in: From Austin, you can expect almost a six hour drive. Your navigation will take you either around San Antonio (which is a plus for most people) or through San Antonio, funneling to U.S. 77 until you reach Valley grounds in Harlingen.
- From there, it might be smarter to take the toll roads, which border the Port of Brownsville and will save you going through small towns like Los Fresnos that can get backed up with traffic.
- But if you do decide to hightail it through Los Fresnos, be wary of how fast you are going and the speed limit. Cops are especially on the prowl in those areas, catching out of towners unfamiliar with the speed limit changes.
Still, no matter which route you take, you'll go through Port Isabel before crossing the 2-mile bridge to South Padre. During peak times, such as early afternoon, expect to sit in traffic. Better times to travel are in the early morning.
Flying in: For the people that read a six-hour drive with wide eyes, there is a nearby airport in Brownville, a 40-minute drive from SPI, as well as the Valley International Airport in Harlingen, a 1-hour drive away. Be ready to spend $250-$400 a person.
Sights and sounds
Getting to the RGV, you'll be welcomed with palm trees well before you've made it to the beach. And just before crossing the bridge from Port Isabel to South Padre, you'll see a sign that may be blinking, indicating to watch out for pelicans.
As you drive over that bridge, your passengers will want to get their phones out and take the classic video of the the water, boats and parasailers in the bay. It's the best way to let everyone know you're on vacation!
And don't forget to roll down your window to take in the salty smell of the gulf of Mexico.
Resorts: For beach access and the fun amenities that come with that, places like The Pearl, The Palm and The Saphire are where you'll get a resort-style feel.
Affordable: You can still find a Holiday Inn, Ramada and La Quinta along the beach bars.
Airbnb is always an option where you can rent out condos, but you'll want to make sure to book in advance as options may be limited in peak summer.
There are at least 25 access points to the beach, which is on the east edge of the island. Some you can only get to if you're a hotel guest. Here are the most popular ways to reach the sand.
Walking to the beach: Between the bars and hotels, you'll find free access points where you get to just park and walk right onto the beach. You're likely to still find umbrellas and chairs you can rent out.
Beach bar access: Some of the most popular places for beach entry are those that come with a nearby bar. But don't worry, all ages are welcome. You'll want to check these bars' social media pages in the evenings if you're looking for live music.
- Where you're almost certain to not struggle for parking is one of the hottest spots on the beach: Clayton's Beach Bar and Grill. At Clayton's, you're able to get your drink on, get a bite to eat and have access to the beach and volleyball courts.
- A smaller, but just as cool alternative is Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Grill. With the same amenities as Clayton's, you can't go to Wanna Wanna without trying a turbo, a pina colada with a rum floater—you can get these just about anywhere on the beach, but they just taste better beachside.
Driving on the beach: If you want to try your four-wheel drive on the sand, you can! Access points #5 and #6 allow you to pay a small fee to take your vehicle out there. Click here to see how you might prepare your vehicle for the sand. If you choose to go with this option, you'll want to make sure to pack appropriately as there are no rentals or bars nearby.
If you're trying to make the most of your South Padre getaway, we have you covered with things for the whole family as well as the nightlife scene.
- Watch the fireworks: Catch a fireworks display at the island all summer long. Catch them displayed on the bay in front of Louie's Backyard on Tuesdays and near Clayton Beach Bar on Fridays and Saturdays.
- Beach Park and Isla Grande: The former Schlitterbahn is now a beach park that opened in 2021. The 25-acre waterpark has water slides, a zipline and beach access. (Day passes are $38.99 for children and $10 more for adults)
- Sea Turtle, Inc.: Learn about sea turtles and sea life conservation at the largest state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital. You'll be able to get up close and personal with the turtles! ($4 for children, $10 for adults)
- Gravity Park: For the adrenaline junkies, this park has the tallest reverse bungee in the world ($25), a skycoaster ($25), go-karts ($15-$20), mini-golf ($8-10), a 60-foot ferris wheel ($8), and a climbing wall ($8).
- Sandcastle exhibit: Right next to Gravity Park is a small sandcastle exhibit that is free and about a 5-minute walk to see all the exhibits made entirely from sand by professionals. (Free w/ donations accepted)
- Get in on the water sports: A couple of rental places like Coconut Jacks SPI offer jet skis for rental as well as equipment for parasailing.
- Rent a pontoon boat: Tritoon Charters allows you to rent a pontoon boat for the day perfect for the whole family. The charter offers private snorkeling, shell hunting, up close dolphin and turtle encounters, tubing and sight seeing.
- Party like a local: Escape the beachside and head to the west edge of the island for live music and dancing. Tourists love to flood Louie's Backyard, but there are other bars along the bay worth going to such as Longboard, Laguna Bobs and Tequila Sunset.
You can't leave the island before eating ceviche and fried shrimp. And you can't go wrong by eating at the already mentioned beach bars and bay bars. But here are some other notable places to visit:
- Breakfast: Yummies Bistro and Grapevine Cafe are both places to get your breakfast tacos in the morning.
- Lunch: Cafe on the Beach are good midday options to catch a quick bite without sacrificing quality.
- Dinner: F&B is about as upscale as it gets if you can snag a reservation—Elon Musk has been spotted here. They also offer Sunday brunch.
Nick Nanakos is taking the long view.
Founder and CEO of Austin-based ZIKI, Nanakos is on a "multi-decade, global-scale conquest to build the most significant company to ever exist in food."
His Spartan ancestry has made him a fighter for excellence, and his Macedonian heritage (think Alexander the Great) may be what helps drive him toward empire.
Venture capital firm Gigafund, core Elon Musk backers who invested more than $1B into SpaceX, are backing Nanakos's expansive vision of disrupting and transforming the food industry on an industrial scale.
His plan to optimize and re-aggregate multiple elements—ingredients, chefs, cooking techniques, agriculture, teams, factories, real estate, systems, technology, design, and logistics—all integrated on a foundation of proprietary technology, reminds at least one of his investors of a famous trillion-dollar Austin-based company.
"ZIKI is approaching restaurants the same way Tesla approaches cars—with a master plan to be the fastest, most creative company in the category," said investor Ryan Metzger.
ZIKI is short for "Tzatziki," Greek cuisine's most iconic flavor
ZIKI is a fast-casual restaurant serving Greek & Mexican fusion. Signature bowls, zurritos, salads, sides, drinks, and desserts. The brand's hot pink color illuminates from a distance and is impossible to miss. Food is prepared fresh daily. Veggies, dairy, and meats are sourced locally.
The Zurrito, Greek Fries, Falafel Bowl, Gyro Bowl, Pork Bowl, Quezzadilla
Head of Quality Control, Chef Mo, outlines the system and philosophy: “Proper food sourcing, agricultural partnerships, and quality control systems are imperative to our kitchen operations. The food must always look good, and make people feel good as well.
Nanakos says that it’s as much about the heart as it is the head. “Food is a passion business. Embracing our chefs by creating the best possible environment for them determines the outcome of the food. Our chefs are the backbone to our business. When they are happy, they thrive.”
Get ready, Austin—you're about to turn pink
With the boost from Gigafund, ZIKI's goal is to quickly have the largest restaurant presence in all of Austin, before expanding to other cities.
"Austin's love of food, culture, and tech are what add to its vibrancy," says ZIKI’s Head of Marketing, Kat Vasylyshyn. "We're painting the city pink."
ZIKI is a member of the largest commercial kitchen in Texas. This serves as their central point of logistics for local restaurant operations. Food inventory arrives here from suppliers. It's prepared on-site, ensuring the highest quality, with an added level of safety and control.
A fleet of Sprinter vans brings the food to modular kitchens for final prep.
ZIKI's systems identify areas with the highest order volume densities and target those areas for placement of new kitchens.
Getting big fast: Why ZIKI is the Tesla of restaurants
CEO Nick Nanakos is not afraid to state his bold plan: "Our vision is to become the fastest-growing restaurant company on the planet, with unstoppable unit economics."
That doesn't just happen on its own. ZIKI's Chief of Staff, Anthony D'Apolito III, says the Gigafund backing is the green light for a fast start: "We've spent an enormous amount of time building systems prior to our funding, which has positioned us well for scale, and that's showing now in how quickly we're moving."
ZIKI believes that a restaurant should control its own expansion destiny. This is why they're vertically-integrated, manufacturing modular restaurants in the company's Texas factory.
Cutting-edge developments in manufacturing, technology, real estate, and hiring complete the picture.
ZIKI is a company led by a driven, visionary founder that's ready to conquer the world, starting by making you happy with their Greek/Mexican fusion fare, right here in Austin.