Galveston Island, located on the Gulf Coast of Texas, is one of the best places to visit in the Lone Star State. It is famous for its pretty, accessible beaches and the historic downtown district.
The mild weather around Galveston makes it a top year-round vacation destination in Texas. It is popular to visit for couples looking for a romantic time together or for families in search of kid-friendly activities.
Fun fact: Did you know that Galveston was once the capital of the Republic of Texas?
Galveston Island makes an easy road trip from Houston. It is just 51 miles away and can be visited either on a day trip from H-town or on a romantic weekend getaway.
History of Galveston
While most associate Galveston with a fun beach getaway, the island is also rich in history. In the 19th century, this was the largest and wealthiest city in Texas. Most prominent people in Texas lived here. That’s right, Galveston was once bigger than Houston!
The city is named after Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish governor. He ordered an exploratory expedition to the Texas Gulf Coast in 1786. However, Galveston has been inhabited long before that. The Quran Karankawa Indians settled here in the 16th century.
The island was also once the lair of pirates and it is rumored that Jean Lafitte’s treasure is still buried somewhere on the island. Galveston’s prosperity and prominence as a seaport had made it one of the most important cities in the American South.
However, the hurricane of 1900 changed all that. The city was devastated and over 12,000 lives were lost. Till date it remains the deadliest natural disaster in US history. As Galveston remained inaccessible and was rebuilding itself, Houston built the ship channel and surpassed Galveston’s economic claims.
Today, Galveston has lost its political significance and remains a commercial port and tourist destination.
Things to do in Galveston
Galveston Island is home to several top-rated beaches in Texas including Stewart Beach and Jamaica Beach. The city also has several museums and historic places including Strand District.
From the incredible exhibits in Moody Gardens to the amusement rides on Pleasure Pier, Galveston has something to do for visitors of all ages. You can go swimming, kayaking, or hiking on the dunes and enjoy birding on the Gulf Coast.
Here are some of our favorite things to do in Galveston.
Enjoy relaxing time on the Galveston beach
Galveston is famous for its beaches.
In fact, Galveston is home to the best beaches near Houston.
It is also one of the best beach towns in Texas.
There are several within the city including Stewart Beach, East Beach, Jamaica Beach, and Galveston Beach.
Galveston Beach is the most popular one since it is located next to the 61st Street Fishing Pier and right in the center of the town.
East Beach located at the very northeastern end of the island is popular for the sandcastle festival.
There are many other pretty beaches on the island including Porto Beach and Sunny Beach.
However, if you are expecting a pretty white sand beach with crystal clear water then you are in for a surprise.
Related: Best Beaches in Texas
The water near Galveston Bay is typically brown year-round. It’s definitely not as pretty as the beaches for the South near Mustang Island or Boca Chica but considering that Galveston is just an hour away from Houston, it is home to some of the most popular beaches in Texas.
Also, the beaches often have jellyfish, so be careful. The beaches are most crowded from spring to fall. However, winter is also a good time to visit if you do not mind the cold water.
Explore historic Strand District
In historic downtown Galveston, you will find the charming Strand District. This was once the shipping and banking hub of the Gulf Coast and was considered to be the Wall Street of the American Southwest.
After the hurricane, the historic downtown district was neglected. That changed in the 1980s, when the area was revitalized and repurposed. Many of the historic buildings were restored and now house cafes, art galleries, and boutique shopping.
We love walking through the beautiful historic downtown and enjoying the timeless architecture. Shop for gifts, home decor, and souvenirs. If you want more adventure, take a haunted ghost tour of the downtown at night.
Spot the fantasy Mardi Gras arch and enjoy the parades
A distant feature of the Strand District is the Mardi Gras arch. Once a series of creative arches designed by various architects could be seen throughout downtown. These were commissioned by the Texan philanthropist George Mitchell in the 1980s.
Today, just one of these Fantasy Arches remain standing. You can see the Boone Powell arch at Mechanic and 24th Street.
Needless to say, the city’s Mardi Gras celebrations are one of the best in Texas. Thousands visit the city during Mardi Gras every year to celebrate the local culture, see the parades, and catch beads and throws.
See the mural in Saengerfest Park
In the middle of the historic downtown, you will find Saengerfest Park. This former public Square has lots of green places, a stage where concerts are held, benches, and public art.
We especially love the giant chess set in the park. The park is great for people watching and drinking a cold beer. Multiple restaurants line the park and are great for having lunch in Galveston.
But one of the most popular things to do in the park is to take a photo with the ‘Greetings from Galveston’ mural. This is also one of the most popular Instagram spots on Galveston Island.
Admire the architecture in East End Historic District
The East End Historic District of Galveston is famous for its elegant Victorian architecture. This was a large, wealthy residential area in the 19th century and is home to amazing mansions. The area is also home to the famous Moody Mansion and Bishop’s Palace.
Walking the tree line streets and seeing the ornate homes is a delightful experience. It takes you back into the past when horse carriages were a prominent feature of the streets. You can see a variety of architectures including Greek revival style, Italianate style, Queen Anne, etc.
Many of these homes are open for seasonal tours and events such as the Holiday Home Tour when the homes are beautifully decorated and the Fall Garden Tour where you can admire the landscaping. Historic district also has beautiful parks such as the Darragh Park and Alderdice Park.
Tour the Bishop’s Palace or Moody mansion
Galveston Island has not just one but two historic mansions that are open for guided tours. The Bishop’s Palace was built in 1892 whereas the Moody Mansion was built in 1895.
1892 Bishop’s Palace is a significant historical landmark in Galveston. This enormous Victorian mansion is simply stunning and looks like a castle with its intricate wood carvings and striking architecture.
On a self guided tour of the building, you can see its gorgeous interior including the ornate wooden detailing, grant fireplaces, and lavish decor.
Moody Mansion was built in 1895 and has been lovingly restored in recent times to its original furnishings. Visitors can see the amazing house museum on an hour long guided tour.
Visit the famous Moody Gardens
Moody Gardens and its three glass pyramids are one of the iconic images of Galveston. Visitors can spot these glass pyramids as soon as they cross the causeway and reach Galveston Island. The three pyramids are the Aquarium Pyramid, Rainforest pyramid, and Discovery pyramid.
Inside the pyramids you can see a variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and marine animals. The amusement park also contains many other attractions including the zip line, ropes course, and a paddlewheel boat.
During the holiday season it is home to Iceland, a festival of holiday ice sculptures and amazing holiday lights.
You can also stay in Moody Gardens close to all the attractions. Moody Garden is definitely the most famous family attraction in Galveston.
Spend a day at the Historic Pleasure Pier
The Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, located on the South shore, is one of the top attractions in Galveston. Here you will find a variety of amusement and thrill rides including a wooden roller coaster as well as restaurants and shopping. The Pleasure Pier is a favorite with families and kids.
Enjoy dining in Galveston
Galveston is one of the best places to visit for foodies. Here you will find a variety of restaurants, eateries, cafes, bars, and even seafood shacks.
Because of its location on the bay, Galveston is definitely most famous for its seafood. But apart from the seafood, you can also try Tex-Mex, Cajun, Greek, Italian, American, and other cuisines in Galveston Island.
One of the most popular restaurant in Galveston is ‘The Spot’. It is famous for its live music, panoramic views, and excellent food. Some of the other popular places to dine include Gaido’s, Shrimp N Stuff, and Fish Tales.
Take a stroll along the Galveston Seawall boulevard
One of our favorite things to do in Galveston is to walk along Seawall Blvd. The six mile long seawall was constructed in response to the 1900 Galveston hurricane. Today, it not only protects the island but also provides a beautiful seafront promenade where you can take a stroll.
See an opera in Galveston
If you enjoy visiting historic opera houses, then you will love the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston. This is the first Opera House in Texas and has hosted numerous celebrities. It’s Romanesque Revival style of architecture is very stunning and the opera house is equally beautiful from the inside. Seeing a spectacular performance here is a memorable experience.
Visit the Galveston Historic Seaport Museum
The museum is most famous for the tall ship Elissa. Built in 1877, this is one of the oldest sailing ships in existence. Seeing the beautiful historic ship on a tour is an amazing experience. You can walk the decks and see the beautiful restoration efforts. Included is a movie narrating the story of the ship’s rescue from the scrap yard.
See the trains at Galveston Railroad Museum
The Galveston Railroad Museum is one of our favorite rail museums in Texas. It is also one of the largest in the country and a must for all railroad enthusiasts. Visitors can see several different types of engines, antique train cars, a train station, and even model train displays. You can also take a short train ride.
Beat the sun at Schlitterbahn waterpark
Schlitterbahn Galveston Island is one of the favorite water park in Texas. It is very popular in the summer where families love attractions such as the lazy river, water slides, water coaster, and wave pools. Schlitterbahn is perfect for kids of all ages and even has kiddie pools for toddlers.
Enjoy playing at the Galveston Children’s Museum
If you’re tired of the cultural attractions and expensive theme parks, then consider visiting the Galveston Children’s Museum with the kids. here they can play to their heart’s content and enjoy the many themed exhibits. This is also a great place to visit on a rainy day in Galveston.
Enjoy camping at Galveston Island State Park
Outdoor lovers enjoy a visit to Galveston Island State Park. Located on Galveston Island, the state park is the best place to experience the undeveloped side of Galveston. Popular things to do in the state park include hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, and fishing. You can also reserve a campsite and camp on the beach here. In fact, this is one of our favorite places to camp on the beach near Houston.
Hike at East End Lagoon Nature Preserve
Outdoor lovers enjoy visiting East End Lagoon Nature Preserve in Galveston. The preserve is excellent for birding, wildlife watching, hiking, kite flying, and fishing. This part of Galveston islands feels very remote and quiet compared to the touristy downtown and beaches. We especially love the sunset views here as well as watching the ships coming into Galveston Harbor.
Go fishing in Galveston Bay
Galveston’s location along the Gulf Coast obviously makes it a popular destination for fishing. You can go surf fishing or hire a fishing charter to take you out on the gulf. The Galveston fishing pier or 61st Street fishing pier and Seawolf Park on Pelican Island are excellent places to fish.
Take a dolphin tour around Galveston Bay
Did you know that there are dolphins in Galveston Bay? the most popular of the bottlenose dolphins; These can be seen year round in the waters.
You can easily take a dolphin-watching cruise from Galveston Harbor. Several dolphin tours depart from Pier 21. Some of the most popular ones are Baywatch dolphin tour, Historic Harbor Tour and Dolphin Watch, and Galveston Water Adventures.
Choose smaller boats and an eco-friendly tour that takes you closer to the dolphins. It is an amazing experience to see the playful creatures jump and swim in the water. Little ones especially love going on a dolphin cruise.
Visit the Ocean Star Museum
The Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum is a great place to learn about the oil and gas industry in Texas. The museum is located on a retired oil rig in the Galveston Harbor and has over three floors of exhibits, artifacts, and memorabilia.
Check out the Bryan Museum
The Bryan Museum houses the Bryan Collection which has a whole lot of artifacts and documents related to Galveston and Texas history. You can learn more about the history of Texas including Native American inhabitants, cowboys, see artwork by Texan artists, Spanish books, and more. The museum building also has excellent architecture.
Visit the Galveston Naval Museum
The Galveston Naval Museum is located on Pelican Island in Galveston. Here you can see the submarine USS Cavalla which was commissioned during World War II and the USS Stewart, a destroyer escort.
Visitors can visit both the ships on a self-guided tour. Going inside a real WWII warship and submarine is an amazing experience. The Galveston Naval Museum is an excellent place to visit for naval and maritime enthusiasts.
It also makes an exciting educational history lesson for the kids. The attractions are located in SeaWolf Park which is also an excellent place for fishing.
Take the Galveston duck tour
If you want to see Galveston Island without walking a lot, then consider the duck tours. These tours are about an hour long and the guides to an excellent job of narrating the history of the island.
The duck tours take you past most prominent attractions including the Victorian Mansions, seawall boulevard, historic downtown district and even go into the water. They are great fun for kids.
Things to do near Galveston
If you are in Galveston for a longer trip, then check out some of these amazing area attractions near Galveston Bay.
Take the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula
Galveston is the gateway to Texas boulevard Peninsula and the famous beach town of Crystal Beach. Visitors can take the ferry ride from Galveston port and go camping on the peninsula. Enjoy live music in Crystal Beach, explore the beaches, see Fort Travis, and see the Bolivar Point Lighthouse.
Road trip the Bluewater Highway
The Blue Water Highway connects Galveston to the seaside communities of Freeport and Surfside Beach. Take a road trip along the Scenic Highway that curves along the Gulf Coast and enjoy the amazing views and seafood restaurants.
Take an international cruise from Galveston Bay
Several international cruises depart from Galveston Bay. You can book a tour to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula or the Caribbean or the Bahamas. See the ancient Mayan ruins on Costa Maya or swim along with the dolphins in the Bahamas.
Best Time to Visit Galveston
The best time to visit Galveston is spring or fall. During both these seasons the weather is mild and delightful. A cool breeze blows from the gulf and the intense heat of the summer is absent. These are also the shoulder seasons, hence you will find reasonable rates and deals on hotels and accommodations.
Summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day is the peak tourist season. Crowds of tourists descend on the island driving up hotel rates. The beaches are also super crowded but the water is excellent for a swim. If you are going in the busy summer, we recommend looking at camping or booking your accommodations earlier to plan your trip on a budget. Also, consider less popular beaches to visit on Galveston Island.
Winter is typically the off season. You can enjoy most of the activities on the island including the museums from November to February however the beaches are too cold during these months. Also Schlitterbahn Waterpark is closed during this time of the year.
Where to Stay near in Galveston
Being Texas’s most popular island beach getaway, Galveston has a host of accommodation options. You will find luxury booty hotels as well as chains, motels, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, RV campgrounds, and tent campsites on the island.
We hope you liked our detailed post on Galveston attractions.