“I MUST GO DOWN TO THE SEAS AGAIN,” wrote Masefield, whose preference for “the lonely sea and the sky” is ample proof that the poet never set foot on a Texas beach. There are lonely spots along our 367-mile coastline, of course, but it’s the scrum of humanity that’s been the chief draw for generations of beach-going types, from Spring Breakers on Padre to birders on Bolivar. 

Sure, you live within an hour of the beach, God-willing and as the crow flies, but how much do you really know about that 367-mile strip of sand and hurricane bait that is the Texas coastline? We’re willing to bet it’s a lot less than you think, especially after embarking on our own voyages to Galveston, Padre Island, Bolivar, Rockport, and more.

We found surprises around every dune, from relics restored to glittering new attractions. And as we went, we gathered expert tips on everything from the best beach umbrellas, the smartest way to build a sandcastle, how to treat a jellyfish sting, the prime places to fish, the top spots to eat someone else’s fish, and much, much more.

The Galveston Seawall.

Image: Travel Texas

1. Galveston’s Seawall

The Seawall, of course, is the 10-mile concrete barrier that the islanders built to protect their home after the infamous 1900 hurricane nearly wiped the city off the map. Since then the mural-covered fortification has aged quite well, fulfilling its defensive purpose while concentrating a great deal of island fun across a single well-trafficked frontier. A day wandering the wall, bouncing between beach and boulevard, is a day well spent.

Plant your umbrella firmly on Babe’s Beach, a pristine 15-block stretch of sand west of 61st Street, newly dredged as of 2015 and named for A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, the longtime Texas state legislator who ensured public access to Gulf beaches. The lovely stretch sits far enough from the tourist traps to avoid the biggest crowds, while remaining close enough to area attractions. Wanting to get out on a boat, kayak, jet ski, or parasail boat? Try Caribbean Breeze at 61st Street and the Seawall.

Covid-19 Update:  Beach is open. More info at galveston.com.

Surfers at 8 Mile.

2. 8 Mile Beach

There’s something timeless about strolling along Galveston’s seawall and simply heading down broken concrete steps to a plot of sand covered with umbrellas and teeming with bathers. But there’s something equally timeless about a beach less populated. What do the locals do when they want to flee the crowds? They head west, to a pristine stretch of coastline just outside the city limits known informally as 8 Mile Road. 

To get there, take Seawall Blvd west until the seawall ends and it turns into Termini San Luis Pass Road. Turn left on 8 Mile Road and drive until you hit the water. When we visited, the sand was nearly white and the beach almost preternaturally quiet. Still, this is no nature preserve. Beachgoers are welcome to drive on the sand, and they do so with lawn chairs, volleyball nets, and coolers in tow. Surfers and fishermen can also be seen in substantial numbers.

Covid-19 Update:  Beach is open. More info at galveston.com.

3. East Beach

The biggest public beach in Texas is also known as Houston’s playground, thanks to its party-friendly reputation—if you like your beach with a beer, this is the spot for you—but it’s also popular with families. In 2013 East Beach unveiled a new pavilion, boardwalk, and entertainment stage, courtesy of a $1.6-million makeover. With plenty of chairs and umbrellas available for rent on this sprawling sandlot, and summer concerts most Sunday afternoons, it’s the perfect place to spend a summer weekend.

Covid-19 Update:  Beach is open. More info at galveston.com.

Beautiful Surfside.

4. Surfside Beach

Surfside Beach lies an hour down the coast from Galveston, and it has an entirely different feel—wackier, homier, cheaper … closer to the Freeport refineries. But this little fishing village in Brazoria County has personality in spades, and an authentic feel: Think bait shops, not fudge shops. Many visitors do a big trip to the grocery store, set up in a rental for the week, and never leave (except maybe to hit the convenience store on Bluewater Highway, which only opens when the owners feel like it, or the much more dependable liquor store). Nevertheless, Surfside is actually a great day-trip destination. Head down Highway 288 on a weekday, and you’ll feel like you own the place.

Covid-19 Update: Beach is open to vehicles. More info at surfsidetx.org.

Baby sea turtles head out to sea on South Padre Island.

5. South Padre

Padre Island National Seashore is home to over 400 bird species and is a haven to, among others, the extremely endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. At 70 miles long, Padre is also the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island coastline in the world.

Be advised, however, that coming from the town of South Padre Island, you can only drive about 35 of those miles—as far as Port Mansfield Pass—and only that far if you have a four-wheel-drive or are extremely skilled behind the wheel of a two-wheel-drive. (The rest of the seashore can be accessed from the north or by boat.) Five campgrounds are scattered throughout the National Seashore.

Covid-19 Update: Beach is open. More info at sopadre.com.

Gorgeous waters at Port Aransas.

6. Port Aransas

Located on Mustang Island, one of pirate Jean Lafitte’s haunts, Port Aransas gained international fame in the early twentieth century for its tarpon fishing; between 1899 and 1910, the town was simply called “Tarpon.” The majestic silver fish began disappearing in the 1950s, forcing Port A to rely more heavily on tourism, which today is its principal industry. It’s rumored there are more hotel rooms in the city than residents. 

All those rooms mean there’s something for everyone and every budget here, from lavish resorts by the ocean to modest cottages closer to town. One popular option is to rent a room in one of Mustang Island’s innumerable, and largely indistinguishable, condominium towers. The rooms in these towers are rented out by their snowbird/winter Texan owners during the summer tourist season.

Covid-19 Update: Beach is open. More at portaransas.org.

The Bolivar beachfront.

7. Bolivar Peninsula

When Houstonians go to the beach, they usually head for Galveston. But some road-less-traveled types opt instead for the eccentric appeal of the Bolivar Peninsula, a short ferry ride from East Beach. Bolivar’s draws include good beach-combing on desolate stretches of sand, barbecued crabs, and rare birds, but it shocks many first-time visitors with its bizarre combination of rural and industrial—think roseate spoonbills perched on pumpjacks.

Galveston has a history of civilized refinement, but Bolivar’s fascinating past is primarily that of pirates. The 27-mile sand spit is named after the Latin American rebel leader Simón Bolívar, who gave French pirate Jean Lafitte a “letter of marque,” commissioning him as an official privateer with permission to attack Spanish ships.

 Everyone drives on the beach, so buy an annual beach parking pass ($10 at just about any retail establishment).

Covid-19 Update: The beachfront is open. More at bolivarpeninsulatexas.com.

For a classier experience, head to Rockport.

8. Rockport 

An aspiring artists colony and popular retirement destination for wealthy Texans tired of city life, Rockport is a bit more status-conscious than the laid-back Port A. It’s a place where people occasionally dress up for dinner, and where “going shopping” means art galleries and antique stores rather than a beer run to the nearest gas station. Still, Rockport is a beach community at heart, surrounded on three sides by the Aransas, Copano, and Port bays.

Covid-19 Update:  Beaches are open; a few attractions are closed. More at rockport-fulton.org.