Just about an hour from Houston, laid-back Galveston Island is a favorite getaway for Texans. Families take beach vacations here, cruise passengers shop, history buffs tour the historic Victorian mansions, bird watchers kayak the state park and stressed city folk just chill out, taking in sunsets and seafood. Stay busy or get lazy: Galveston is very accommodating.
The Gulf Coast’s beaches are wide and pancake flat, and the water is warm and shallow with a chance of jellyfish. Stewart Beach is family friendly, with concessions that include chair and umbrella rentals.
East Beach has concerts and festivals throughout the peak season, and it’s the only beach on the island that permits alcohol. It also hosts the American Institute of Architects Sandcastle Competition every June.
Built after a devastating storm just about wiped out the island in 1900, the 17-foot sea wall has helped protect Galveston from crippling hurricane damage ever since. Today it’s great for people-watching and souvenir shopping.
Stroll or bike on it (great at sunset), take a long view from the Ferris wheel on Pleasure Pier, or watch pelicans fly past in formation from a seat at a balcony bar.
Strand Historic District
Before the Houston Ship Channel was built in 1914, opening the Port of Houston, Galveston was a prominent and prosperous port city, and the Strand was its center of commerce.
Named for London’s famous neighborhood and once called the “Wall Street of the West,” today the district of Victorian buildings is filled with shops, restaurants and, when a cruise ship is in port, crowds. Every holiday season the district puts on old-fashioned garb for a lavish Victorian festival, Dickens on the Strand.
When Galveston was at its peak, local moguls built themselves opulent mansions, several of which still stand. The hulking, Gothic Bishop’s Palace, completed in 1892, is considered one of the nation’s most significant Victorian residences.
The Moody Mansion dates to 1895; the Moody name remains prominent in Texas philanthropy. Built in 1859, Ashton Villa is comparatively modest, but it was the island’s first mansion.
This three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship is not a replica; it’s a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1877 and still sails.
Board and explore her as part of your visit to the Texas Seaport Museum, which also includes exhibits about immigration through Galveston, through which many Germans and Eastern Europeans entered the country. (Note all the German names of towns throughout Texas.)
Check the museum’s database if you think your forbearers may have entered America through this port.
The 2,000-acre park extends from Gulf to bay. The beach here is rustic and windswept. Inland you can hike trails and boardwalks over marshes and lagoons, or bring a kayak (rentals are available on the island, though not in the park) to explore the lagoons and salt marshes. And bring binoculars; more than 300 species of birds have been recorded here.
A rambling restaurant on the bay, Fisherman’s Wharf has a popular happy hour with a sunset view as well as an extensive menu of fresh seafood.
Across the island on Seawall Boulevard, Gaido’s has been beloved for seafood since it opened in 1911. For more modest surroundings but seafood just as fresh, try Shrimp ‘n Stuff. And for breakfast, join the locals at the Mosquito Café.