Visit This Southern US Destination For A Fun And Affordable Vacation

If you're traveling on a budget in the Southern United States, Mississippi is one of the least expensive states for vacationers. A fun, family-friendly place you might consider visiting there is Mississippi's second-biggest city, Gulfport. While not as large as Jackson, the state capital, Gulfport has a number of sightseeing options that you can explore without breaking the bank.

One popular thing to do in Gulfport is visit Ocean Adventures Marine Park. With dolphin and sea lion shows, stingray petting, touch pools with starfish, and more, it's like a smaller version of SeaWorld. The price of general admission ($17 for adults, $15 for kids ages 3 to 12) goes toward the research and conservation efforts of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. You can also do add-on "adventures" like interacting directly with dolphins, kissing a sea lion, and snorkeling with rays and sharks. These boost the cost but might be worth it for the memories.

The Mississippi Aquarium is a bit more expensive, running upwards of $21 or $26 depending on the day and method of purchase, but it also has penguins, otters, and alligators. Open from May to September, Gulf Islands Water Park, meanwhile, is geared more toward summer fun. With a lazy river, wave pool, water slides, and rides named after regional landmarks, it could have enough attractions to justify the $30 to $47 and keep you busy all day. However, in Gulfport, there are many cheaper alternatives, some of which won't require you to spend a single penny.

Mississippi's front yard in Gulfport

Across from the Mississippi Aquarium is the Gulfport Arts Center, a nonprofit gallery housed inside the 108-year-old Carnegie Library Building, which was the only building left standing on its block downtown after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Funded by grants and donations, the arts center has since undergone a nearly one-million-dollar renovation, but admission is free, and it offers the chance to see the work of local artists. It's also been known to participate in community events at nearby Jones Park, sometimes called "Mississippi's front yard" due to its location right on the Gulf Coast.

Jones Park and its pavilions were flooded after Hurricane Katrina and had to be fully rebuilt before reopening in 2012. Free to access, they now occupy 60 acres alongside a yacht harbor on the coast, with the site including a towering lighthouse replica and a splash pad where kids can play. (Think: free water park.)

If you want to go out on the water, Ship Island Excursions offers ferry service to a barrier island 12 miles off the coast. Ship Island itself is only open from March to October, but the ferry offers a family discount, and there are 2.5-hour turnaround cruises and 1.5-hour dolphin-watching cruises that run $28 for adults and $19 for kids. While it's probably best not to bet your vacation on it, you could also try some low-stakes gambling at the Island View Casino Resort, located five minutes by car down Beach Blvd. from Jones Park.

Go off your rocker and explore more

Another good option for adults in Gulfport, like the casino, is the Chandeleur Island Brewing Company. It serves bar bites and handcrafted beers in a building decorated with murals beside a railroad crossing. You have to be 21 or older to enjoy the taproom, obviously, but they have a saltwater aquarium and other kid-friendly games and activities. You can even bring your pet if you're traveling with a dog and have it leashed (in which case, it might be paired well with Jones Park).

One free novelty attraction in Gulfport is a 35-foot rocking chair that bills itself as the world's largest. This landmark, which looks like the kind of chair a giant would occupy, is located outside the Dedeaux Clan Furniture Factory on Canal Road. The showroom of hand-crafted wooden furniture is the perfect place to go window-shopping and make groan-inducing dad jokes like, "You must be off your rocker!"

Another popular attraction in Gulfport is the Lynne Meadows Discovery Center. This children's museum seeks to inspire and educate kids with outdoor and indoor exhibits like the Tree House Village and the impressively named Super Colossal Climbing Structure. Admission is $12 flat for children and adults, but it's only $5 for the last two hours after 3 p.m. For its part, TrainTastic, formerly known as the Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum, bills itself as the biggest museum in the world of its kind. It includes LEGO exhibits and runs $15 for adults and $12 for kids.