If you’re a history buff, or traveling with one, then you’re in for a treat. In just a 29-mile stretch of land, Galveston Island provides a plethora of links to the past, and because it’s easy to get around, you’ll have no trouble cramming tons of fascinating historical sites into your beach vacation!
For a stay that’s a little more… chilling, book a room at the Hotel Galvez. A legend surrounds this hotel, involving a woman named Audra who allegedly took her own life thinking that her fiancé had been lost at sea. Sadly, her love was actually alive, and returned to learn of his bride-to-be’s tragic death. Some say she still wanders the halls of the hotel, waiting for him to return. While reports of any true paranormal activity are rare, everyone on staff has heard the story and is happy to oblige with details of the establishment’s haunted history. The hotel boasts gorgeous views of the beachfront—as well as an amazing brunch—so it’s really a win-win situation all around.
Even though Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish colonial governor and general, is the namesake of Galveston Island, he never actually set foot there. Galveston’s first European settler was actually swashbuckling pirate Jean Lafitte, who established the colony of Campeche on Galveston Island in 1817. While Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast is geared more toward kids, it’s an entertaining stop where you get to learn about this rich part of the island’s past. It also offers a scavenger hunt that is particularly fun for slightly older kids.
Between 1865 and 1924, Galveston welcomed to its shores more than 200,000 immigrants from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Greece. Tragically, in 1900, a massive hurricane hit the island, taking the lives of 6,000 people. The residents responded by building the Galveston Seawall, a 17-foot tall, ten-mile long barrier that raised the grade of the island and would prove strong against future storms. Today, Seawall Boulevard, which runs along the wall, is peppered with restaurants and boasts amazing beach views.
Even though the city experienced a dramatic loss in 1900, much of Galveston’s late nineteenth-century history has been preserved or restored. At The Strand, you’ll see a lot of 1870s architecture while sneaking in some quality antiquing at shops such as Tina’s or Milagro’s. You also can treat your sweet tooth to fresh saltwater taffy and more handcrafted delights at La King’s Confectionery. This sweet shop still employs the “old world” candy making practices learned by Jimmy King in 1927 and brought to The Strand in 1976 by his son Jack.
Galveston also has a fascinating financial history. In fact, before 1900, Galveston was sometimes referred to as the “Wall Street of the South.” Stop by Bishop’s Place to learn about the rich and famous people who lived in the 19,000 square-foot Victorian-style mansion built in 1892. You can pay $12 for a self-guided audio tour or simply wander around the opulent estate on your own.
You also won’t want to overlook the nautical history of this area. The Tall Ship Elissa, found near Fisherman’s Wharf, is a three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland, by Alexander Hall & Company. A very dedicated and educated volunteer staff on-site answers questions about the ship as well as about the port of Galveston. Plan a visit for a Saturday, when the crew is doing work and training activities.
The Texas Seaport Museum, also located near Fisherman’s Wharf, has a one-of-a-kind computer database containing the names of more than 133,000 immigrants who entered the United States through Galveston’s immigration station (also known as “The Ellis Island of the West”). Admission includes self-guided tours, a theater presentation, and access to the Galveston Immigration Database.
Jump a bit forward in time—to the 1940s—with a visit to Seawolf Park, a memorial to the USS Seawolf, a submarine lost during WWII. During this war, submarines comprised less than two percent of the U.S. Navy but sank more than 30 percent of the Japanese fleet. For $6, you can walk aboard the USS Cavalla SS-244 submarine to get a real sense of what it might have felt like to man one of these vessels. This park is also home to one of Galveston’s best fishing piers.
The Lone Star Flight Museum has been designated as the official Texas aviation Hall of Fame. The museum pays special attention to the story of technological evolution of American aviation as well as to the impact these developments have had on aviation in the world. The museum houses more than 40 restored planes—most in working condition—and chronicles important events in Texas aviation as well as the lives of many brave pilots. President George H.W. Bush was a member of the first class of Hall of Fame inductees.
The Bryan Museum houses the largest collection of Southwestern artifacts in the world: Here, you’ll find 70,000 items, spanning 12,000 years. The collection includes such treasures as ancient Native American cultural artifacts, exquisite saddles, antique firearms, exceptionally rare maps and books, fine art, and religious and folk art pieces. You’ll find loads of obscure items, too, such as the only certified signed lithograph of Davy Crockett and a woman’s wedding ring made of a tiny gold saddle. Plus, the museum building, which used to be an orphanage, has a fascinating history all its own. The museum is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so plan accordingly.
When it’s time to catch a quality, sit-down meal, treat yourself to Gaido’s, a Galveston dining tradition since 1911. Founded by San Giacinto Gaido, the restaurant has hosted plenty of famous people, including presidents, athletes, and one Alfred Hitchcock. Even though everything on the menu is worthy of consideration, the grilled shrimp and scallops are guaranteed pleasers, as are the Parmesan tomatoes. And of course, no Gaido’s meal is complete without pecan pie. You didn’t think you’d leave Texas without a mouthwatering, delicious slice did you?
History buffs have some great lodging options on Galveston Island, too. The Tremont House, located right in the middle of The Strand Historic District, is close to plenty of restaurants, bars, cafés, and shops. It’s also just a few blocks from the Seawall, some beaches, and the Pleasure Pier. But the best part? This European-style hotel is simply stunning. The rooms are cozy, the beds are comfortable (you’ll definitely want to buy pillows exactly like theirs after you leave), and the interior design is gorgeous. What’s more, the hotel features live jazz in the lobby on the weekends. After you settle in, head on over to the Toujouse Bar to enjoy a classic cocktail while you unwind and take in the scene, or take the elevator to the top floor: the Tremont House has Galveston’s only rooftop bar.
While Galveston has no shortage of historic treasures, perhaps the best thing about the city is that you’ll find so many residents, tour guides, and hospitality staff who are passionate about and pleased to share the area’s history. A quick chat quickly transforms into a lively conversation: If you stop to ask a local for directions or a fisherman about his catch of the day, there’s a good chance that you’ll walk away with the kinds of stories that will make your stay even more memorable.
The siren song of breaking waves draws visitors to Galveston Island’s beaches generation after generation. Warm breezes and year-round temperate seas complement the city’s rich historic districts, unique attractions, and bustling shops. Galveston’s relaxed island atmosphere is only 50 minutes from Houston, yet a world away in spirit.