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A Closer Look at this Historic City Reveals Plenty To Do Beyond the Beach
by Hannah Phillips
If you grew up in Texas, Galveston may conjure up nostalgic memories of family beach vacations, colorful Victorian homes, and views of the harbor from the porthole windows on the iconic 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA. With a growing restaurant scene, rich heritage, and recent restorations, the island has retained the quirky charm you remember while continuing to reinvent itself as a beach town destination.
The first thing that may strike upon return is how much bigger the island feels than the Galveston of your youth — and how much history you missed while building sandcastles. A 74-foot statue of Lady Victory greets island guests as I-45 becomes Broadway, erected just months before the great storm of 1900 as a memorial to heroes of the Texas Revolution.
Much like the iconic monument, Galveston has weathered some of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history. A symbol of resilience and rejuvenation, the city has rebuilt itself as a rising luxury destination, and we have the inside scoop on what to see and do.
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WHERE TO STAY
The island offers a wide range of accommodations – from beach house rentals and luxury hotels to boutique bed-and-breakfasts like the soon-to-open Carr Mansion (redesigned by Austin’s own Shannon Eddings). For luxury, The San Luis Resort offers beautiful Gulf views with 250 beach-facing rooms, excellent dining options, and an unbeatable pool.
For its contemporary take on Old World charm – and for its location – the Hotel Galvez & Spa is a favorite, situated within view of the Pleasure Pier, walking distance to several restaurants, and a short bike ride to many of the island’s best attractions. The Galvez is the only historic beachfront hotel on the Texas Gulf Coast, having welcomed a host of famous guests, from U.S. presidents to Frank Sinatra, since it opened in 1911. Legend says that one guest still haunts the grounds, and the hotel hosts monthly ghost tour dinners and offers paranormal tracking devices for the brave and intrigued. (Our detector buzzed in the lobby, but we chose to believe it was pointing to spirits behind the historic bar and promptly ordered a cocktail.)
WHAT TO DO
If you need to work off some calories before squeezing into a swimsuit, opt for a bike tour: Guests of the Galvez can use the hotel’s complimentary bikes or rent one at Island Bicycle Company. Keep an eye out for the island’s unique tree sculptures: After Hurricane Ike damaged many of the city’s oldest trees in 2008, locals commissioned artists to create wooden sculptures of birds and sea creatures — now displayed as symbols of renewal in front of homes throughout the East End Historic District.
This neighborhood, along with the Silk Stocking National Historic District, showcases the island’s colorful and well-preserved Victorian, Greek Revival, and Queen Anne architectural styles. The Bishop’s Palace is the main attraction. Built in 1892, the house withstood the great hurricane of 1900, served for a time as the bishop’s residence before the diocese relocated, and is cited by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America.
Also in the East End is The Bryan Museum, which opened in 2015 in the former Galveston Orphans Home. With more than 70,000 artifacts spanning more than 2,500 years, the Bryan presents a chronological history of “the West as it will never be seen again.” True Texans will well with pride at displays of Stephen F. Austin’s calling card and early portraits, while visitors of all ages can appreciate the sheer scale of the Battle of San Jacinto diorama — complete with Sam Houston and Santa Anna figurines.
On the island’s harbor side, more activities and rich architectural history await. Postoffice Street and the Strand, downtown’s main thoroughfares, host the island’s famous annual Mardi Gras parades. Wend your way through the area’s many art galleries and antiques shops, like the quirky Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor on Ships Mechanic Row, or stock up on local spices at the Italian market inside Maceo’s Spice & Import. If you’re on a see-food diet (see food and eat it), watch local fishermen bring in the catch of the day at Katie’s Seafood Market: One of the island’s main suppliers, the market is opening its own restaurant in September 2018. Pier 21 is the best place to catch harbor tours for dolphin sightings and to be a pirate for a day on the ELISSA.
If rain dashes your beach dreams one day, head to Moody Gardens, home to an incredibly diverse assortment of both sea and rainforest life. Sign up to personally meet one of the penguins in the South Atlantic exhibit of the recently renovated Aquarium Pyramid (and say hi to our new friend Mo!).
In the evenings, stretch your legs with a stroll along the sea wall toward the Pleasure Pier, which reopened in 2012, after being destroyed in 1961 by Hurricane Carla. Now an icon of the island, the illuminated amusement park stands over the Gulf of Mexico in the same historic location as a pleasure pier built in the 1940s.
WHERE TO EAT
Get your first taste of Galveston’s local seafood selection at BLVD. Seafood, where signature dishes include the seafood samplers with the Chef’s Catch of the Day. Afterward, grab a nightcap in the lobby of the Galvez: The hotel’s wooden bar originally served secret cocktails at the Old Galveston Club, which was a speakeasy once upon a time. From Prohibition to the mid-1950s, Galveston became Texas’ version of Havana, with illegal gambling, brothels, and nightclubs smuggling Caribbean rum into the nearby port.
A morning on the beach will work up a healthy appetite, and The Spot makes for the perfect casual lunch. Try one of the huge po’boys made with fresh Gulf shrimp, and save room for Galveston’s own Hey Mikey’s Ice Cream at the dessert counter.
Pair predinner drinks and delicious charcuterie with stunning views across the bay on the Rooftop Bar at The Tremont House, sister property to the Galvez. For dinner, Rudy & Paco is a local favorite, famous for grilled seafood and steak with a South and Central American twist. The three-tiered seafood tower is a highlight: Two layers of lobster, crab, and Gulf shrimp are arranged like a wedding cake and crowned by a generous serving of ceviche. The selection is delivered fresh daily, so call ahead to make sure it’s available.
For breakfast, eat at the family-owned Sunflower Bakery & Cafe, which serves a truly magical waffle and other delicious pastries made from scratch. Or make brunch reservations on the wraparound deck at the bright and airy Porch Cafe, located in the upscale Beach-town development on the island’s east end. If you aren’t already dazzled by the gorgeous Gulf views, wait till you see the words “all you can eat pancake bar” at the bottom of the menu.
Some of the best meals on the island are actually at the Kitchen Chick, which offers cooking classes from some of Galveston’s notable chefs. The shop in front sells gourmet kitchenware, and the entire experience feels like Kate Spade meets Martha Stewart.
GALVESTON: A POCKET HISTORY
• The island’s first European settlements were built around 1816 and named after Spanish count Bernardo Vicente de Gálvez. The Congress of Mexico established the Port of Galveston in 1825, following independence from Spain.
• The city served as the main port for the Texas Navy during the Texas Revolution and later became a temporary capital of the Republic of Texas.
• Known during the 19th century as the “Queen City of the Gulf,” Galveston was one of the largest U.S. ports until the storm of 1900, which is still ranked as the deadliest natural disaster in United States history.
• The island is also known as the “Oleander City” for its abundance of the subtropical evergreen plant, native to Jamaica. Thousands were planted as a symbol of rebirth after the 1900 hurricane, and the city now boasts more than 100 colorful varieties.