Growing up, trips to the Texas Coast were synonymous with summertime –– I can vividly recall countless childhood memories spent splashing in the salty waves, searching for sand dollars, and building sandcastles along the sun-kissed shores of Corpus Christi. Just over three hours away, lined with more than 100 miles of sandy coastline and brimming with fun for the whole family, we headed to Corpus Christi for our first family trip this summer. While we hadn’t been back in years, one thing hasn’t changed: Corpus Christi remains an all-in-one destination bundling endless shores, nature, history, culture, and top-notch museums and attractions into one convenient package. Here are seven family-friendly experiences we discovered on our recent trip to the Gulf Coast Capital that are perfect for summer.
Ride horses on the beach
I remember riding horses on Mustang Island as a kid, probably just a hair older than my 8-year-old daughter. I was saddled up on a small but spunky chocolate brown horse named El Diablo, which I later learned meant “the devil.” I instantly knew why when he raced far ahead of the rest of the group and I had to be rescued by our trail leader. Fast forward a few decades, and I was excited to relive the horseback riding on the beach experience alongside my husband and our three kids (thankfully, without El Diablo). We booked a one-hour horseback ride with Horses On The Beach in Corpus Christi, which offers four rides each day. The five of us were saddled atop Wildflower, Gunner, Django, Trigger and Fabian, each beautifully colored and mildly tempered, and we set out from the stables to the shorelines of North Padre Island, where we trotted along the sand while soaking in the sights and sounds of the rolling waves and cooling sea breezes. It’s a fun and unforgettable family experience that’s open to ages 8 and up and costs $79 per person for a one-hour ride.
Visit the Texas State Aquarium and Wildlife Rescue Center
As the largest aquarium in Texas and one of the largest in the country, the Texas State Aquarium remains dedicated to promoting environmental conservation and rehabilitation of wildlife in the Gulf and is an absolute must-do while visiting Corpus Christi. The aquarium’s first exhibition opened to the public in 1990, and today, it serves as home to a variety of marine life spanning dolphins, sharks, sea otters, stingrays, sea turtles and more. Time your visit around the incredible dolphin shows that occur three times daily, showcase how trainers work with these beloved and entertaining animals, and explain what we can do to help them. But stay to feed the stingrays, learn about sharks, and visit the sea turtles in Tortuga Cay, which have been rehabilitated and deemed non-releasable due to injuries or repeated strandings. There’s a sprawling splash pad currently under construction, which, when completed, will be ideal for keeping cool on blazing days. Be sure to walk over to the Wildlife Rescue Center (open daily, free admission), which is the largest coastal wildlife rescue facility in Texas. Outfitted with state-of-the-art veterinary medical equipment, an interpretive gallery and an emergency operations center, the facility gives visitors unparalleled access to witness the treatment and rehabilitation of thousands of marine mammals, shorebirds, raptors and sea turtles.
Climb aboard the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay
Even if you aren’t a huge naval history buff, the USS Lexington Museum offers visitors of all ages the chance to step back in time via an immersive journey through an iconic aircraft carrier. The floating museum –– housed in a massive aircraft carrier that’s as tall as a 19-story building and as long as three New York City blocks –– gives visitors an up-close look at the inner workings of a real naval ship through an endless series of experiential exhibits. Kids will especially love climbing up to the expansive flight deck, where they can take in views of 20 colorful aircraft. The flight deck, which is large enough to play three football games at the same time, was also used in the filming of the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor and features the F-14 Tomcat used in the 1986 blockbuster, Top Gun.
Explore the Padre Island National Seashore
We stayed on North Padre Island, putting a visit to Padre Island National Seashore within arm’s reach. Spanning over 70 sandy miles, Padre Island National Seashore protects the world’s longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island, and visitors come to enjoy everything from swimming, beach strolling and camping to birdwatching, exploring and fishing. This protected coastal sanctuary is also home to Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, the smallest and most critically endangered sea turtle species. Most hatchling releases take place between May and August, and each year, several are open to the public at no charge. You can learn more about the sea turtles of Padre Island and find out about updates on upcoming releases, which are typically held at dawn, at https://www.nps.gov/pais/learn/nature/seaturtles.htm.
Meander through the Art Museum of South Texas
While art museums aren’t typically at the top of the list of things to do with kids, our children, who span ages 8 to 14, loved wandering through the Art Museum of South Texas. It’s home to an impressive 1,950-plus works of art in its permanent collection, mostly originating from the Americas and Texas, but also houses several impressive exhibitions. Check out one of the current exhibits –– Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective –– which is made up of mixed media creations and multilayered, thought-provoking glass sculptures that speak to the artists’ unique vision of the Latinx experience and American culture. Afterward, lunch at Elizabeth’s, which is housed within the museum. We indulged in mouthwatering Mediterranean-inspired tapas accompanied by breathtaking harbor views. Favorites included the salmon carpaccio, burrata with cherry tomatoes and basil, pressed focaccia with melty provolone and confit garlic, and the eggplant caponata with peppers, olives and pine nuts. The museum is closed Mondays.
Make discoveries at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History
The Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History blew us away, literally, especially when each of our kids took turns inside the Hurricane Simulator booth. Located in the heart of Corpus Christi’s S.E.A. District and brief walk from the Art Museum of South Texas, the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History is geared to all ages and interests. With nearly 100,000 square feet of exhibit space spanning subjects from South Texas history and paleontology to coastal ecology and a science center with interactive features, this museum is a not-to-miss attraction for families looking to explore a side of Corpus Christi beyond the sand and sea. Walk through a shipwreck, compare the teeth of a Mosasaur and Megalodon, and listen to stories from live actors about the turbulent years between Corpus Christi’s founding and growth into a city. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Family-friendly food finds
One morning, we passed by Island Joes Coffee and Gallery, built from 10 colorful shipping containers, and immediately wanted to take a look inside. Not only is the espresso-based coffee shop and gallery on North Padre Island architecturally alluring, but their coffee is made from beans roasted in-house daily and the food served from the eclectic counter is equally enticing. Try the cold brew coffee on tap, the “island girl” espresso drink with caramel, white chocolate and milk, and the cucumber and dill artisan toast topped with house made dill spread and fresh cucumber slices. At the longstanding Snoopy’s Pier, you can refuel right on the waterfront with mouthwatering classic seafood baskets of fried shrimp and fish, or order hand-crafted cocktails, oysters, pan-seared scallops and steaks from its more upscale sister property, Snoopy’s Pearl Oyster Bar. Just be sure to save some room to treat the kids to some sweet scoops at Scoopy’s Ice Cream next door.
An elevated dining experience worth the drive can be found at The Lookout at Bluff’s Landing, a waterfront restaurant located near the tip of Corpus Christi Bay on the salty shores of the Laguna Madre –– one of only six hypersaline lagoons in the world. The Ocean Friendly restaurant serves up delicious, sustainable, scratch-made dishes from its entirely gluten-free, celiac-friendly kitchen. Some of our favorites included the fried calamari; crab and brie stuffed mushrooms; oysters on the half shell; bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits; and blackened Gulf-caught black drum (which I had atop the green goddess butter lettuce salad). Linger a little longer here to fish, kayak or walk across the street to The Landing, a casual coastal hangout featuring a bar, weekly live music, shops, and a sparkling pool.
If You Go
It’s about 200 miles, or roughly 3 hours and 20 minutes, from downtown Austin to downtown Corpus Christi.
From beachfront hotels to luxurious coastal properties, there are myriad places to stay in Corpus Christi. Lodge in the lively downtown Marina District to have the city’s most popular attractions and museums at your fingertips by booking a room at the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel. For a quieter, more laid-back coastal retreat, book one of the 24 rooms or choose from several private lodges at Bluff’s Landing Marina and Lodge, situated on the shores of the Laguna Madre. Distance yourself from the downtown bustle by resting your head at one of the numerous hotels lining North Padre Island, a barrier island along the Texas Coast with its northernmost portion part of the city of Corpus Christi.
Eat & Drink:
For coffee and breakfast, try Island Joes Coffee and Gallery, built from 10 colorful shipping containers. For brunch or lunch, dine at The Lookout at Bluff’s Landing, serving up delicious, sustainable dishes from its celiac-friendly kitchen. Indulge in Mediterranean-inspired tapas while soaking in harbor views inside the Art Museum of South Texas at Elizabeth’s. Refuel on the waterfront with mouthwatering classic seafood baskets at the longstanding Snoopy’s Pier.
Swim, splash and stroll along Corpus Christi’s nine beaches, try out surfing or parasailing, ride horses on the beach, spend the day museum-hopping or souvenir shopping, book a fishing trip, see the Hooks (affiliate team of the Houston Astros) bat at Whataburger Field, explore the Gulf by night in a clear, glowing kayak and much more