For centuries, Galveston’s appeal has been both wide and universal, attracting everything from explorers to tourists to hurricanes. All have fallen under the spell of Houston’s favorite beach town, although it’s the tropical cyclones that have most determined its fate. From the legendary 1900 storm that forever destroyed Galveston’s chance at becoming the Gulf Coast’s largest city, to the billions in damages inflicted by Hurricane Ike in 2008, this is a barrier island eternally in flux. Still, for Galvestonians, change equals opportunity, and after Ike they embarked on an ambitious rebuilding effort, shelling out $125 million along the way.
Almost 10 years later, the city has been reborn, and there’s more to do than ever. Thanks to attractions like a splashy seaside amusement park, a redeveloped East Beach, and the recently restored Babe's Beach, Galveston continued to break its own records for its best tourist seasons, bringing in 6.5 million visitors and $1.1 billion of economic activity during the summer months alone, and this year promises to be even bigger.
Galveston isn’t only back, it’s booming. Below, our suggestions for making the absolute most out of your next trip across the causeway.
Our Top Sandy Spots
There’s something timeless about strolling along Galveston’s seawall and simply heading down broken concrete steps to a plot of sand covered with umbrellas and teeming with bathers. But there’s something equally timeless about a beach less populated. What do the locals do when they want to flee the crowds? They head west, to a pristine stretch of coastline just outside the city limits known informally as 8 Mile Road.
To get there, take Seawall Blvd. west until the seawall ends and it turns into Termini San Luis Pass Road. Turn left on 8 Mile Road and drive until you hit the water. When we visited, the sand was nearly white, and the beach almost preternaturally quiet. Still, this is no nature preserve. Beachgoers are welcome to drive on the sand, and they do, with lawn chairs, volleyball nets, and coolers in tow. Surfers and fishermen can also be seen in substantial numbers.
The biggest public beach in Texas is also known as Houston’s playground, due to its party-friendly reputation—if you like your beach with a beer, this is the spot for you—but it’s also popular with families. In 2103, East Beach unveiled a new pavilion, boardwalk, and entertainment stage, courtesy of a $1.6 million makeover. With plenty of chairs and umbrellas available for rent on this sprawling sandlot, and summer concerts most Sunday afternoons, it’s the perfect place to spend a summer weekend.
Also recommended: Galveston Island State Park (14901 Farm to Market 3005, 409-737-1222, galvestonislandstatepark.org)
Where to Stay
The legendary Hotel Galvez has presided over the Seawall since before there was a Seawall. Built in 1911 and boasting a commanding ocean view beyond its impressive lawn, the Galvez—like the island over which it is queen—has had its share of ups, downs, and wholesale renovations. These days, the heated pool and environs always seem to be alive with guests dog-paddling up to the bar for cocktails, relaxing with beach reads on the chaises longues, and leaving their troubles behind. Particularly popular with couples and families who’ve had enough of the sand and seaweed but still want to relax by the water, the Galvez also has a not-to-be-missed spa. 2024 Seawall Blvd., 409-765-7721, hotelgalvez.com. Rooms start at $129 a night.
The Tremont House
The Tremont House, located on the Strand, is a sister hotel to the Galvez, and guests who prefer to stay downtown are granted access to the latter’s pool and spa; there’s even a shuttle between the two properties. A historic warehouse turned elegant, 119-room hotel, the Tremont is loaded with period charm, and feels like it must have been there forever, despite having only been at its current location since 1985. The gorgeous, airy lobby is a great spot for a drink, as is the Tremont’s chic rooftop bar, which features a charming view of the harbor. 2300 Ship’s Mechanic Row, 409-763-0300, thetremonthouse.com. Rooms start at $139 a night.
San Luis Resort
Towering over the Gulf of Mexico along Seawall Boulevard, The San Luis Resort seems to dwarf everything around it. The hotel has 348 rooms, each with a private balcony overlooking the 32-acre property and the water beyond. Downstairs, the dining options include an International House of Pancakes and Landry’s Seafood House, among others. Also on the premises: a tennis court, grotto, and private cabanas. 5222 Seawall Blvd, 409-744-1500, sanluisresort.com. Rooms start at $153 a night.
Moody Gardens Hotel
If your goal is to experience all things Moody, this is the place to hunker down; the property is located just steps away from all three Moody Gardens pyramids and Schlitterbahn Waterpark. While kids are at the waterpark, adults can relax at the hotel spa, which offers everything from couples’ massages to hydrotherapy. 7 Hope Blvd., 409-741-8484, moodygardenshotel.com. Rooms start at $229 a night.
The Commodore on the Beach
“Why would you stay in a hotel room in Galveston without a view of the beach?” asks the hotel website. They’ve got a point. This place has 92 rooms, all with beachfront views, not to mention access to the beach and the hotel pool. Not as glamorous as some of the island’s resort-style hotels, but for families on a budget it’s a smart choice. 3618 Seawall Blvd., 409-763-2375, commodoreonthebeach.com. Rooms start at $139 a night.
Gaido’s Seaside Inn
Come for the food, stay for the night. Located astride the island’s most well-known restaurant, this classic-looking inn is a few minutes’ walk from Pleasure Pier and several other bars and eateries. A waterfall-fed swimming pool and a hot tub provide alternatives to the beach across the street. 3700 Seawall Blvd., 409-761-5504, gaidosseaside.com. Rooms start at $90 a night.
Of course, many families opt to rent condos or beach houses in Galveston—a barbecue pit, a deck, and an ocean view, and they’re all set. Rentals are spread across the island from downtown to the West End, where your yard can be, more or less, your own private beach.
The official Galveston tourism website (galveston.com/vacationrentalcompanies) is a great resource, providing a list of local companies that offer everything from luxury condos and surf shacks to Victorian estates and beachfront mansions. Other good resources include airbnb.com and vrbo.com.
Fun for Families: Pleasure Pier
Among the flashier structures to rise from Ike’s ashes was the $60 million Pleasure Pier, a 1,130-foot-long amusement park jutting out from the Seawall into the Gulf. This summer marks the amusement park’s fifth full season. The Pier features 16 different rides, including the second-tallest swing in Texas. Trust us on this: whirling through the sky as you take in the endless Gulf from 230 feet up is an experience both kids and adults won’t soon forget. The park features less hair-raising rides too—there’s something for everyone. Parking is limited, so plan ahead. 2501 Seawall Blvd., 409-766-4950, pleasurepier.com, $19.99 to $26.99 per person.
Where the Locals Go: O’Malley’s Stage Door Pub
Ike’s seven-foot high-water mark is displayed prominently on the wall near the front entrance of O’Malley’s Stage Door Pub, a dive on Post Office Street downtown. Toward the back of the bar is something even more interesting: images of posing pin-up models pasted to the wall, uncovered during post-Ike reconstruction. The owners say the scantily clad models appear to date from the ’40s, when a gambling pit thrived on the second floor. After your brush with vintage vice pull up a stool to the bar, where locals—who all seem to know each bartender by name—are only too happy to mingle with sun-scorched tourists. 2022 Post Office St., 409-763-1731, galveston.com/omalleys.
The Ideal Date Night: The Seawall
Here’s a foolproof evening out: after a long day at the beach, start with a glass of wine and a shrimp cocktail at Gaido’s before embarking on an evening stroll along the Seawall. Watch the lights and music from the Pleasure Pier, then take a detour through historic Murdoch’s Bathhouse, where you’ll find all sorts of coastal trinkets, plus a patio with stellar Gulf views. Gaido’s, 3802 Seawall Blvd., 409-761-5500. gaidos.com; Murdoch’s, 2215 Seawall Blvd., 409-762-7478, galveston.com/murdochsbathhouse.
Where to Go When It Rains: Moody Gardens
There comes a moment—for anyone who steps inside the steaming, humid Moody Gardens Rainforest Pyramid—when you might believe you’re far from civilization. For us, that moment occurred when a mischievous pair of white-faced saki monkeys emerged from a nearby tree before scurrying past on official Pyramid business. For the full effect, give yourself at least an hour to explore the 10-story-high glass pyramid (which underwent a $25 million enhancement after Ike), taking in the two-toed sloths, colorful birds, freshwater stingrays, and exotic fauna along the way. The Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid, with more than 10,000 marine animals on display, is a good bet, too. One Hope Blvd., 1-800-582-4673, moodygardens.com
Also recommended: Schlitterbahn Waterpark, 2026 Lockheed Rd., 409-770-9283, schlitterbahn.com/gal.
For the Adventure-Seekers: Parasailing
Caribbean Breeze Parasailing departs from Harborside, a few blocks from the Strand, seven days a week this summer. The two-hour-long excursions take visitors a few miles offshore before allowing them to parasail as high as 500 feet over the water. Bring your sunscreen and camera. 409-740-0400, galvestonparasail.com.
Can't-Miss Classic Restaurants
This bar and restaurant, opened in 1944, is the second oldest continuously operating eatery on Galveston Island. Get the “shrimp burger,” a shrimp po’boy on a hamburger roll, or a beer mug full of raw shucked oysters in cocktail sauce, which will remind you of a time when oysters were saloon food. The gumbo, only served on Fridays, comes in your choice of shrimp, crawfish, or both. Don’t miss the tale about the gunshots that dented the beer tap and left a hole in the bar. 1206 19th St., 409-763-9602, galveston.com/sonnys.
Gaido’s of Galveston
The first Gaido’s opened in 1911 on the 21st Street Pier. The food isn’t what it once was, but there are wonderful dishes on the menu that Gaido’s itself invented, like Watkins' Bisque. The kitchen uses fresh, local fish and shellfish and only serves what’s in season. Regulars have their own waiters, while tourists get young, clueless servers who don’t know a thing about the restaurant’s history and can’t tell a catfish from a flounder. 3828 Seawall Blvd., 409-762-9625, gaidos.com.
Shrimp n' Stuff
Locals and tourists alike have been coming to 39th and Avenue O since 1976 for po-boys overflowing with fried Gulf shrimp and plates of crab balls with homemade remoulade. Like the sauce, almost everything here is made in-house, from the gumbo to the freshly breaded seafood—not a frozen fish stick in sight. 3901 Avenue O, 409-763-2805, shrimpandstuff.com.