Located about an hour south of Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Island is a barrier island that has been hit hard by powerful hurricanes and storms. In 1900, Galveston was a wealthy seaport with 38,000 residents, many of whom had prospered from the cotton trade. In fact, Galveston was the first city in Texas with electricity and telephones. At the time the highest point in Galveston was under 9 feet. The storm surge reached 15 feet, with winds up to 145 mph. Buildings were knocked off their foundations and dashed by the surf. Beyond the damage to infrastructure, the human toll was even more devastating: up to 10,000 people died, making the storm the deadliest in the country’s history. Even through disasters like the Hurricane of 1900 and Hurricane Ike in 2008 (which damaged or destroyed 75 percent of the island’s buildings), Galveston has been able to bounce back and retain its unique character.
Galveston Visitor’s Center is located in the historic Ashton Villa (built 1858-59). It’s small, but filled with brochures, maps and ideas for your visit. There’s also a short video you can watch to get oriented. The island is 32 miles long, but the “town” portion is quite compact, no more than three miles wide at its widest point. Most activities are found along the shore on Seawall Boulevard or on the Harborside Piers near the historic Strand District. We spent most of the day just wandering. It was so hot that after walking for a while, we opted to do a driving tour. At the Visitor’s Center we picked up a guide to Galveston Public Art and set off to find some of it.
Public Art Driving Tour
Highlights of our driving tour included passing some of the Rosenberg Fountains. Banker and philanthropist Henry Rosenberg designated in his will that “not less than 10 drinking fountains for man and beast” be built. He left enough to create 17. The sculpture “High Tide” is on Pier 21 and depicts a young man reaching up to feed the seagulls. The “Woodmen of the World Memorial” in Lakeview Cemetery was created in memory of those “Members Who Perished in the Tidal Wave of 1900.” The “Squid” is painted on the side of a gun emplacement on the beach-side of Seawall Blvd. It’s part of a 2.4-mile Seawall Mural featuring scenes of underwater life and creatures of the sea. It’s a bit weather-worn, but charming nonetheless. The “1900 Storm Memorial” is located at 48th and Seawall. It was commissioned by the Galveston Commission for the Arts, created by David W. Moore, and installed in 2000, a memorial to the victims and survivors of the storm that killed over 6000 residents. “Dolphins” bronze sculpture and “Crab and Shrimp” in fiberglass are found on Seawall as well.
Historic Strand and Harborside
The Strand is best known for shopping, restaurants, galleries and museums. The Great Storm documentary runs 27 minutes and plays on the hour in the Pier 21 Theater. Cruiseships, Harbor Tours, Dolphin Watch outings are all found in this area. At the Texas Seaport Museum you can look up your ancestors in a database of the immigrants who arrived through this port of entry. Be sure to check out what other work the Galveston Historical Foundation is doing to preserve the architectural, cultural and maritime heritage of Galveston Island. Pier 21 is also home to the historic Harbor House Hotel as well as several restaurants. Back on the end of the pier you can watch dolphins swimming around just feet away. It’s also a great spot to watch some colorful sunsets. They also have a concert series called Party on the Pier that runs from March through October. We enjoyed an evening that started with mariachis and ended with a Latin Rock band called Del Castillo.
East End Historic District
Tours of a number of historic homes are available. Prices vary. The East End Historic District of Galveston has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some popular stops include: the 1838 Michel B. Menard Home–now the oldest building in Galveston; Bishop’s Palace–Galveston’s grandest and best-known building, with intricate carvings, rare woods, stained-glass windows, sculptures, fine furnishings and fireplaces; built by a railroad tycoon in 1892; the Moody Mansion Museum; and the Samuel May Williams Home.
For those who enjoy them, there are several theme parks:
- Moody Gardens is part theme park, part educational facility, part gardens. It’s set in three pyramid-shaped buildings that you can’t miss from most parts of town. One houses a tropical rainforest, one an aquarium, and the third
- Schlitterbahn Waterpark featuers wave pools, water coasters, water slides and lots of other activities to cool down from the Texas heat.
- Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is really set out on a pier over the water. It’s very compact, and features traditional rides and a nostalgic feel. The Pier aims to recreate the family fun it was famous for in its heyday in the 1940s.
The main beaches are located along Seawall Blvd. For most of its length, there are no buildings on the beach-side of the road. Just across the street, however, is the main tourist strip of eateries, beach shops, hotels and bars. Donny won by three strokes on the back course at Magic Carpet Mini Golf (9030 Seawall Blvd., Galveston, TX). The obstacles were mostly animal or nautical-themed: a Texas fire ant, a snail, serpent, pirate, etc. They’re open Sunday thru Saturday: 9am – 10pm, Weather permitting. We ate dinner above the surf at Jimmy’s on the Pier (on the Galveston Fishing Pier). A crawfish po’boy and a cold local beer were the perfect way to end the day.