Historical happenings: The Best Things To Do In Galveston
With miles of beaches, evocative downtown neighborhoods, intriguing architecture and significant African American historical monuments, Galveston is a diverse destination just waiting to be explored. | By Paul Oswell | June 10, 2022 (Updated March 2, 2023)
Far from just another seaside town Galveston is home to some of Texas’ most interesting history. The barrier island on the Texan Gulf Coast boasts period architecture, an authenticity borne from a focus on independent restaurants and businesses and 30 miles of sandy beaches — all of which make for an intriguing vacation destination. So, start planning — here are some ideas to inspire your next Galveston getaway:
Victorian values: Tour historic homes as you take in some of the best examples of 19th century architecture in the South
Scenic sands: From lively beach communities to serene national parks, you can find a coastal spot that suits your tastes
Historic highlights: The island is where the Juneteenth commemorative holiday began
When you think of Texas, your mind probably first heads to cowboys. But after visiting the Wild West in your head, your next thought is likely of cosmopolitan cities such as Dallas, Houston and Austin. However, the Lone Star State also has a knack for producing quaint, historic seaside communities with a wealth of 19th-century architecture. Galveston is home to grand Victorian mansions that have been restored to their former glories. The Grand 1894 Opera House is a Romanesque Revival-style, now a theater. The Bishop's Palace (aka Gresham's Castle) is one of the most ornate Victorian houses on the island — a National Historic Landmark recognized as one of the most significant buildings in the United States by the American Institute of Architects. The Menard House (also known as The Oaks), the oldest surviving structure in Galveston, was built in 1838 and is designed in the Greek Revival style, while Ashton Villa (built in 1859) is a stunning, red brick (the first brick mansion in Galveston and one of the first brick homes to be built in Texas) Victorian Italianate home.
A bridge to the past
You can’t visit Galveston without also taking time to explore its heritage. The seaside town is a place of great importance within African American history. It was here (at Ashton Villa) that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the remaining enslaved people on June 19th, 1865, giving rise to the national holiday of Juneteenth. Local celebrations and commemorations take place at various historical markers and spots such as Reedy Chapel. If you come for the holiday itself, expect a days-long program of city-wide events, concerts and memorials.
The island’s historic standing as an important port and immigration hub can be seen at the Texas Seaport Museum in the Strand Historic District. The beautiful tall ship ELISSA stands outside the museum, its galleries and artifacts telling the city’s story from the 1880s. Visitors are transported back to a time when the wharfs here were busy with European arrivals, akin to those of Ellis Island in New York. The nearby Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum offers another look at an industry that was pivotal to Texas history.
Given that it’s a barrier island, it’s no surprise that the beaches are one of Galveston's main draws. The liveliest spot tends to be East Beach on the northeastern tip of the island, where lenient drinking regulations make it a natural venue for parties and live music. Toward the southwest, Galveston Island State Park is a more tranquil option, with kayaking, fishing and hundreds of species of birds. The restored Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is a favorite with families, as it is teeming with fairground rides and boardwalk vendors, the former of which includes swirling rollercoasters and other attractions that extend over the water.
Meet the locals
Galveston is notable for its lack of chain stores and restaurants, and instead leans into independent small businesses for a much more personal experience. The historical downtown has more vintage stores and signature specialty shops than high street brands. Typical outlets include the family-run Tina’s On The Strand — which sells women's clothing, jewelry and accessories — whimsical gift boutique Gracie’s Galveston and the eclectic curios of Hendley Market. For nostalgic treats, La King’s Confectionery has a working 1920s soda fountain serving malts, shakes and ice cream floats.
Island life usually means delicious seafood, and Galveston doesn’t disappoint. Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant has been open since 1911 and has the opulent interior of a 1900s luxury steamer ship. BLVD. Seafood is a more modern affair and delivers fresh Gulf seafood alongside coastal heritage cuisine. A large Italian population has resulted in some outstanding Italian restaurants, with places such as Trattoria LaVigna Authentic Italian Cuisine and Maceo Spice & Import Co. leading the way.
Whatever your tastes, one thing is for certain — whether you’re discovering stunning Victorian homes or riding high on vintage fairground rides, Galveston is a seaside town that surprises and delights. There’s culture and history here beyond the superficial, and the island’s support of independent businesses and commemoration of historic events emanates a rare authenticity. Add in miles and miles of golden beaches, and you’ve got a vacation destination that’s just waiting to be explored.
Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer and has reported from all seven continents for dozens of internationally known publications. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small” and the editor of an online travel magazine.