“Galveston, Oh Galveston, I can see your sea waves crashing,” sings Glen Campbell in a wistful song about a soldier who longed to return to his love—and his Texas hometown.
Sure, the rest of the world may think Campbell put Galveston Island on the map with that 1969 hit, but Texans know better: Galveston was golden long before that.
Galveston Island, a historic beach town on the Gulf of Mexico, stands just 50 miles from Houston and is best known as a vacation destination, Texas’ premier cruise port and one of the largest and best-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the USA.
During the late 1800s, this affluent port city was known as both the “Playground of the South” and the “Wall Street of the Southwest,” and enjoyed its first glittering Golden Age. Over the next century, however, much of Galveston would be destroyed by some of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history; thousands of residents would lose their lives to the wrath of such storms. Those were heartbreaking times, but Galveston rebuilt, and today Texas’ most resilient city has risen once more. Recently named one of TripAdvisor’s “Top 10 Destinations on the Rise in the U.S.,” Galveston is golden again.
And what better time of year to go than right now? It’s usually warm enough through much of November to enjoy Galveston’s 32 miles of beaches and walk along its famous seawall, and then in December when things cool down, the 42nd annual Dickens on The Strand Festival heats up the island with a magnificent celebration. Next, in the New Year, from Jan. 29 to Feb. 9, Galveston’s Mardi Gras celebrations expect to draw more than 300,000 attendees for 30-plus concerts, 22 parades, 20 balcony parties and five elegant masked balls.
Need any more reasons to go?
Besides sun, sand and sea — and that old
sweet Glen Campbell song (now the town’s
official anthem) — here are 10 more:
The Strand Historic District (“The Strand District”) – One of the most famous sections of Galveston is the attractive five-block National Historic Landmark District known simply as “The Strand,” a popular shopping and entertainment district located on Strand Street within the island’s historic downtown. Here, enjoy a variety of attractions, boutiques and old-time shops, such as LaKing’s Confectionery, housed in beautiful Victorian iron-front buildings, as well as the antique stores and art galleries on Postoffice Street. Don’t miss a stroll through the Hall of History at the historic Hotel Galvez & Spa, a Wyndham Grand Hotel (Wyndham.com/Hotel-Galvez) built in 1911, not far from Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn Waterpark, the Pleasure Pier and Texas A&M Galveston. That hotel’s sister-property, Tremont House (www.thetremonthouse.com), is also a Wyndham Grand Hotel and features Italianate architecture, 14-foot ceilings, ironwork bridges and balconies and even a four-story atrium. The Galveston County Museum, the Galveston Railroad Museum, historical markers, a trolley and a giant chess set in Saengerfest Park are just some of its other fine attractions. Enjoy a horse and carriage ride there, too. And don’t forget, Galveston’s annual Mardi Gras and Dickens on the Strand holiday festivals are held on The Strand.
Pier 21 – Just across Harborside Drive stands Pier 21, located on Galveston Harbor, steps away from the Galveston Cruise Terminal. It is home to attractions like dolphin tours, the Texas Seaport Museum & 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA and the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum. Pier 21 also offers a variety of restaurants with harbor views, such as Olympia Grill.
Bishop’s Palace/East End Historical District – Galveston’s is lined with a large collection of historic Victorian homes as well as the Hurricane Ike Tree Sculptures. Within the district stands the 1892 Bishop’s Palace, one of Galveston’s most popular historic mansions.
Lone Star Flight Museum – Visitors love to explore one of the finest and rarest collections of restored war aircraft while learning about the significance of aviation history to Galveston Island at the Lone Star Flight Museum. In fact, many of the museum’s historic aircraft still fly today. In addition to tours, the museum offers rides in these “warbirds” that allow visitors to see the island from the sky.
The Bryan Museum – A new museum showcasing the world’s largest collection of Southwestern historical artifacts opened in June 2015, showcasing 70,000 rare items spanning more than 400 years. It is also home to rarely exhibited 1914 Maxfield Parrish murals from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Long Island estate.
Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier – What could be more fun than a water-side amusement park with 16 thrill rides (including the Gulf Glider and Iron Shark Rollercoaster), old-fashioned games along a gleaming midway and a tall Ferris wheel, allowing for a perfect bird’s-eye view of the sun, sand and sea? Yes, Galveston Island’s iconic neon and cotton candy-studded Pleasure Pier sprawls along Galveston’s seawall.
Galveston Island State Park – Families can swim, fish, picnic, hike, mountain bike, paddle, camp, study nature, bird-watch or just lie on the beach at this 2,000-acre state park featuring an upper barrier island coastal system with both beach and bay sides. There’s even a nature center, along with campsites and cabins, barbecue pits, a boat ramp, canoe/kayak launches and four miles of hike and mountain bike trails through the park’s varied habitats. During the holidays in December, enjoy island-style holiday crafts, and make holiday gifts for family and friends.
Moody Gardens – The pride of Galveston, Moody Gardens is much more than just a nature, conservation and wildlife destination enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. It’s also home to a par 72 golf course and a resort hotel with 418 guest rooms and convention spaces set amid 242 acres of botanical beauty and accented by three glass pyramid attractions: an Aquarium Pyramid, a Rainforest Pyramid and a Discovery Pyramid with science-friendly exhibits and activities. Moody Gardens opened in 1986 as a nonprofit educational tourist destination highlighting the importance of conservation and wildlife. Today, it’s also home to Palm Beach, a man-made white sand beach with freshwater lagoons and a water park featuring an Aquarium Adventure, the RideFilm Theater, MG-3-D Theater and a 4-D Special FX Theater. There’s even a Colonel Paddlewheel Boat cruise. In May 2014, Moody Gardens opened the five-tier Sky Trail® Ropes Course, and it also has a 500-foot-long Moody Gardens Zip Line suspending adventurers 60 feet above Palm Beach. During November and December, Moody Gardens hosts a Festival of Lights.
Moody Mansion – Galveston is known for its attractive Victorian architecture, and a way to see it up close is to visit the mansion home of Galveston’s most famous philanthropist, financier and entrepreneur, William Lewis Moody. This four-story Romanesque mansion built in 1895 was the heart of the Moody family for 86 years. Today, the red-roofed manor is a museum featuring furnishings and personal belongings of the family. As an added attraction, a new Galveston Children’s Museum opened last year in the basement. Guided one-hour tours are offered.
Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark – Enjoy more than 35 thrilling water adventures including a tube ride through Schlitterbahn’s Transportainment River System combining three rivers into one long float. Experience the thrills of speed slides, tube slides and the Boogie Bahn surf ride. Small children can splash and play in areas just for them, and adults can relax in a heated pool or at a swim-up refreshment bar.
By Janis Turk