Galveston, oh, Galveston.
Many Texans see Galveston as nothing more than a beach destination, but it is so much more! Galveston will always have a very special place in my heart. It was where Matt and I spent the first year of our marriage. We loved living and adventuring on this little island. Over six million people visit Galveston every year, and many of them visit purely for the beaches, never knowing what a historical treasure this city truly is! So I’d like to share with you a little about why I love this place and a few of my favorite spots around the island city. But first, let’s set the scene…
A Crash Course in Galveston’s History
Galveston Island was originally inhabited by the Karankawa and Akokisa people. The first colonizer contact with this area was when Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on/nearby the island in late 1528. In 1785, José de Evia named the island Gálveztown in honor of Bernardo de Gálvez. It wasn’t until 1816 that the island got its first permanent European settlements when the pirate, Louis-Michel Aury, came to support Mexico’s rebellion against Spain. But when he returned from a raid against Spain in 1817, he found the island had been taken over by pirate Jean Lafitte, who had turned it into a “pirate kingdom.” Lafitte remained in Galveston as the self-anointed head of government until 1821, when the US Navy forced him out. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Galveston grew as a hub of commerce with the establishment of the port and a customs house. In 1836, Galveston actually became the capital of Texas!
In the 1840s, with the influx of immigrants coming through Galveston, it was like the original Ellis Island. This brought a period of immense expansion, both developmentally and technologically. The city had many of the “firsts” in the state: post office (1836), naval base (1836), cotton compress (1842), Catholic parochial school (1847), insurance company (1854), gas lights (1856), opera house (1870), orphanage (1876), installation of telephone lines (1878), and electric lights (1883).
By the end of the 19th century, Galveston was a cosmopolitan location. It was one of the nation’s largest cotton ports, the region’s primary business center, and was even known as the “Wall Street of the South.”
But then, on September 8, 1900, the island was struck by a devastating hurricane, which still holds the record as the nation’s deadliest natural disaster to this day. Most of the city was destroyed, and somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people perished in the storm. In the aftermath, a 10-mile long, 17 foot-tall seawall was built to protect the city from future storms and flooding. (I’m glazing over the Great Storm for brevity’s sake, but if you’re interested in reading more about it, I highly recommend reading Isaac’s Storm) Much of the existing city was also raised to be 6-8 feet above sea level. Which is why you’ll see many weird mid-shin height fences in the historic district today. The storm stalled economic development, and many businesses and industries moved further inland to Houston, which then became the region’s main metropolis.
The city re-emerged as a tourist destination in the 1920s and 1930s, becoming known as the sin city of the Gulf. This reputation ended in the 1950s, when the Texas Attorney General put an end to the vice businesses in the city. After that, the island’s economy stagnated, but with the growth of family-friendly tourism, higher education, and real estate, the city has become the friendly beach town it is today.
So, what is there to do in Galveston?
So obviously, there’s…
In recent years, Galveston has received over six million visitors per year! I’m pretty confident in guessing that 80% of those people only visited the beach. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but y’all… leave the Seawall! Venture out a bit! There are better, less crowded beaches out there! I’m also not about paying to get into the beach (lookin’ at you, Stewart Beach). When we go to the beach, we drive down to the west end and go to the beaches behind the super nice vacation houses. Most of the beaches down past the seawall are mostly used by the people who own/rent those houses, so they’re significantly lower on traffic.
Places to Eat
Since Galveston is a tourist destination, the island obviously has a ton of restaurants. It’s impossible to cover all of them, so I’m just going to cover some of my favorite spots.
- Gypsy Joynt ($) – Hippie style American comfort food
- Star Drug Store ($) – Deli and soda fountain in a vintage setting
- Sunflower Bakery & Cafe ($) – American food and baked goods
- Smooth Tony’s ($) – American food plus juice and smoothie bar
- Mosquito Cafe ($ – $$) – Fast & casual American eats
- Shrimp N Stuff ($ – $$) – As the name implies, shrimp… and stuff…
- Farley Girls Cafe ($ – $$) – American fare with a great brunch menu
- Olympia Grill at Pier 21 ($$) – Harborfront Greek restaurant
- Nick’s Kitchen and Beach Bar ($$) – Great seafood on the seawall
- Porch Cafe ($$) – High-end bistro with seafood and American cuisine
- Stuttgarden Tavern ($$) – Biergarten patio on the Strand
- Gaidos Seafood Restaurant ($$ – $$$) – Gulfside seafood in an elegant setting
- Rudy & Paco ($$ – $$$) – Central & South American-influenced menu of steaks & seafood
- Saltwater Grill ($$ – $$$) – Rated the best restaurant in Galveston, serving seafood and steaks
And if you want the best ice cream on the island, go to Hey Mikey’s! It’s locally owned, (as are many of the aforementioned restaurants) yay small local businesses!
Places to Drink
Just a few of my favorite places to grab a beer or cocktail:
- The Proletariat Gallery & Public House – Half beer snob heaven, half art gallery, oh and they have board games!
- Galveston Island Brewing – Local brewery with great island vibes, my friends bartend here!
- Beerfoot Brewery – Big selection of craft beer on the seawall
- DTO – Craft cocktail lounge
- O’Malley’s Stage Door – Quintessential pub next to the opera house just in case you need an intermission drink
- The Rooftop Bar – Great views of Galveston from the top of the Tremont
Things to Do
- Seawolf Park: Located on Pelican Island, it’s the former immigration station site. Here you can find a local favorite fishing pier and…
- American Undersea Warfare Center: Here you can explore a WWII submarine and a destroyer escort.
- Pleasure Pier: An amusement park on a pier over the Gulf, complete with roller coaster, rides, games, and restaurants
- Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum: A museum dedicated to the offshore oil and gas industry located in a retired drilling rig
- Pier 21 Theater: If you want to learn more about the history of Galveston, you can check out one of the three historical films they show here
- Galveston Island State Park: Great place to swim, fish, bird watch, hike, paddle, camp, and much more!
- Galveston Railroad Museum: Home to one of the largest restored railroad collections in the nation
- Bishop’s Palace: A museum of Galveston’s grandest and best-known home
- Galveston Historic Tour: Leaves from Ashton Villa’s visitor center, you must call to reserve spots ahead of time. I highly recommend this tour, I’ve done it four times! They teach you so much about the city, its history, and the people who have called the island home.
- The Bryan Museum: A huge collection of historical items housed in the historic Galveston Orphans Home
- Moody Gardens: A zoo, aquarium, IMAX theater and adventure center all in one
- Schlitterbahn Waterpark: If giant waterslides are your thing, Galveston has them
- Galveston Children’s Museum: Interactive museum housed in the historical Moody Mansion
- The Grand 1894 Opera House: Try to catch a show here if you can!
- Bolivar Ferry: Car lines for the ferry can get very long on the weekend, but you can always walk on if you want the experience of taking the ferry
- Murdochs: If you’re looking for a place to shop for souvenirs and gifts, or a place to hang your hammock, this place has both!
- Jean Lafitte’s Maison Rouge: A quick photo opp stop, this was once home to Galveston’s most famous pirate resident
- Ghost Tours: Galveston is super haunted, learn about the ghosts of this island town on a top rated tour
- Evergreen Cemetery: If you’re a cemetery lover like me, check this place out as a little spot when you’re driving down Broadway. I love the glimpses into history that cemeteries can provide. At this cemetery you can see the traces of the yellow fever epidemic that struck in 1867, as well as that of the Great Storm.
Places to Stay
- Hotel Galvez: Matt and I stayed here while we were househunting for our move down to the island. It’s a beautiful historic (and haunted!) hotel right next to the sea.
- Tremont House: Historic, European-style hotel in the heart of the Strand district
- San Luis Resort: Upscale beachside resort
- Moody Gardens Hotel: Perfect place to stay if you have kids and are planning to go to the zoo and aquarium at Moody and/or Schlitterbahn
Know Before You Go
- There isn’t a real “off-season” in Galveston. Obviously late spring/summer/early fall are peak times, but there’s still quite a bit of tourism on the island even throughout the winter. So hotel rooms may be hard to come across and they may be pricey,
- Be aware of weekend events before planning your trip. There’s always something big going on every weekend in Galveston. So it’s good to check the calendar on galveston.com before planning a trip. It would be unfortunate if you’re planning a trip around certain attractions only to realize that something like Lone Star Rally, Dickens on the Strand, or Mardi Gras may force you to change those plans.
- Be on the lookout for lots of water line markers and placards on buildings. Especially on the Strand you’ll see lots of these marking how high the water rose during different hurricanes throughout Galveston’s history. You’ll also see “1900 Storm Survivor” placards on houses and buildings. These were miraculously left standing after the Great Storm!
- Yes, the water is brown. No, it’s not gross and polluted. Many people knock Galveston because “the water’s dirty.” So let me tell you right now, as someone who works on water quality in the area: the water is not brown because it’s gross and polluted, we just have fine sediments that get churned up by the waves and currents, which make the water appear brown. On calm, windless mornings, you can admire the blue water on the beach. That being said…
- Do not swim after it rains. If you’re swimming anywhere that’s in close proximity to the city, you should probably follow this rule. Fecal bacteria levels spike in the water after it rains because that water is picking up all the pollutants on land and bringing it to those waterbodies. The seawall beaches always have high bacteria advisories after it rains, but if you go down to the west end, where it’s just the vacation houses here and there, the water is usually fine. Check this website to get the most up to date conditions.
- Galveston is a little “rough around the edges.” Some of the areas may be a little run down and the streets may have a lot of potholes in places. It’s not the nicest beach town, but it has so much character, and honestly, because of that it has become my favorite beach town. To me, it’s a diamond in the rough.
I hope you enjoy your trip to Galveston! It’s truly a special place with so much to see and experience. Happy planning!