If your idea of a perfect vacation involves browsing eclectic boutiques, admiring historical homes, and basking on warm sandy beaches, Galveston Island has all that! This barrier island, cradled in the warm Gulf waters, has plenty to offer in the way of character and charm. And as I’ve discovered, there are so many great things to do on Galveston Island!
Table of Contents:
Three Main Attractions
Galveston Island has several amusement parks: Moody Gardens, The Schlitterbahn Waterpark, and Pleasure Pier. But, aside from paid-amusement parks, what else is there to do on Galveston Island? The way I see it, there are 3 main attractions:
- 1) Visiting the Strand and Pier 21 where we find dozens of eclectic shops, superb restaurants with sunset views, beautiful art galleries, and educational museums.
- 2) Viewing the classic, historical homes and learning about the rich history of Galveston Island including how they survived a major flood.
- 3) Hanging out at the Seawall and exploring the never-ending beaches, as well as the calmer waters of West Bay, which is more conducive to kayaking.
Additionally, they have events scheduled all throughout the year. I’m still learning about all the great things to do on Galveston Island, but this is what I’ve found!
Pier 21 For Dinner and a Sunset
If you’re looking for a sunset view, head over to Pier 21 at dusk! Aside from the actual pier, which has notable features of its own, you’ll also find three fine restaurants!
Fisherman’s Wharf Seafood Grill
One of the best seafood restaurants in Galveston is The Fisherman’s Wharf Seafood Grill. Their menu features an extensive selection of fresh fish daily, savory chicken dishes, and perfectly prepared steaks.
Inside Fisherman’s Wharf
As you walk through the iron gateway, look to the right, and you will find tall windows that look into their kitchen! Notice the monster hanging from the ceiling? It looks like the air ducting system has been artistically painted and it’s quite amusing, don’t you think?
The Tall Ship Elissa
Situated next to Fisherman’s Wharf is the Texas Seaport Museum, home of the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa. If you’re so inclined, you may stroll the decks of this floating National Historic Landmark either before or after your meal. Once inside the museum, you can view a film about Elissa’s rescue from the scrap yard and her amazing restoration.
Willie G’s and Pier 21
The next building over is a restaurant called Willie G’s. Offering fresh seafood and steaks in an elegant setting, you’ll have a great sunset view from their outdoor patio. After dinner, you can walk out onto Pier 21 and if the conditions are just right you can snap some good sunset selfies!
Katie’s Seafood House
Two doors down from Pier 21, you’ll find Katie’s Seafood House, which is on Pier 19. They’re connected by a walkway, and plus, they have their own parking lot. Katie’s motto is, “We serve what we catch!” because the seafood goes from the boat, directly to the table! Now that’s FRESH!
The Ocean Star Floating Museum
Also parked on Pier 19, and visible from the outdoor dining area at Katie’s, is the Ocean Star, which is a retired jack-up drilling rig. It was in operation from 1969 to 1984 in the Gulf of Mexico, during which time it drilled over 200 wells.
In 1995, the OEC purchased the Ocean Star, refurbished it, and opened it as a museum in 1997. Designed to be a self-guided facility, it takes most visitors about an hour and a half to complete the tour.
The Cruise Liners Dock on this Side of Town
This general vicinity is where the cruise-liners park and (dis)embark their passengers. So, if you’re arriving as a passenger, this is where you’ll be!
Where to Stay?
If you’re not part of the cruise-liner crowd, you might be looking for a place to stay! This little widget from Booking.com can help you find just the right place. The listings include all the major hotels and resorts as well as the B&Bs, cabins, vacation rentals, and beach cottages! Just set the date range and search away!
Visit the Strand for Eclectic Shops and Architecture
Within walking distance of Pier 21, “The Strand” is a concentrated section of town dedicated to walking, shopping, and partying! “You Can Walk The Strand With Beer” and they encourage it! Sit and linger at one of the many bistro tables scattered along the walkway. The shops are packed with jewelry, art, clothing, and souvenirs.
There is a trolly transfer station located at 21st Street and Seawall Boulevard. This trolley goes throughout Downtown Galveston, along the historic homes route on 25th Street. From there, you can connect with the rubber-wheel trolleys and go as far west as Moody gardens, or as far east as Stewart Beach. Visit their website for more information at galvestontrolley.com.
The Murals are Noteworthy
While it’s not exactly East L.A., the murals in Galveston are noteworthy! Some of them are cute, some of them are realistic, and some of them make a statement. But all of them are artistically done, and they add personality to the city.
Galveston’s Flying Sea Turtles
You may have noticed that some small towns have a specific theme for their street art. For example in Tupelo, they have guitars, because it is the birthplace of Elvis. Well, in Galveston the theme is Flying Sea Turtles. And some of the business owners paint the turtle to match their brand colors.
See the Ghost Image at Ewing Hall
From Pier 21, about 2 miles up the road, is a strange phenomenon. It is located at UTMBs Ewing Hall, and it might raise the hair on the back of your neck! Let me tell you about it!
The Ghost Image at UTexas Medical Building is the image of a man’s face on the exterior wall of Ewing Hall. They say it’s a ghost is because it has moved locations. Twice!
In the photo below, where the shade creates a triangle, look closely at the two rectangles on the top. Those two blocks have been sandblasted smooth to remove the image from the building! But then the image returned, moving itself one square down! And this happened TWICE!
The next picture is better. You see, the concerning thing is that the next section down would be the doorway into the building! And they don’t want to find out what happens if the image moves to an open door. So, they all agreed to let him stay there!
“Who is it?” you ask. Apparently, it’s the image of the former landowner. His dying wish was that the family keep the land, rather than sell it. But naturally, the family sold it!
When the University of Texas (UT) built a Medical Building (MB) on the land, that’s when his face appeared on the side of the building.
If you stay awhile and stare at the image directly in the face, it seems to -uhm- I dunno…let’s just say “It’s not nothing!” Of all the things to do on Galveston Island, you should definitely go check this out!
If you’re into this type of paranormal stuff, you might like to contact Historic Galveston Ghost Tours. They say “They’re Dying to Meet You” but I’ll bet the UTMB Ghost Image is not part of their tour!
Galveston has several different architectural styles. This photo was taken in the downtown historic district, where many of the buildings tower high above the sidewalks. Look at that detailed brickwork in the archways!
Aside from the official-looking, tall buildings of the downtown area, there are several huge mansions along the main drag! Let’s go take a peek at some of them!
Mansions Open For Tours
The 1892 Bishop’s Palace (Gresham House) is one of the best-known landmarks in Galveston and is currently a museum! It is especially known for its architecture and boasts such elements as carved ornaments, stained-glass windows, bronze dragons, and impressive fireplaces from around the world (including one lined with pure silver!) The admission is affordable, but the times are limited, so be sure to plan ahead!
A social center going way back to the Civil War, Ashton Villa is available for your social events and meetings! The ornately decorated rooms on the first floor have been restored since Hurricane Ike inflicted a significant amount of damage.
In the 1920s, a spacious ballroom was added which is a great space for weddings, luncheons, or business meetings. And their Grand Ballroom, with its elaborate chandelier and dramatic lighting, makes for a very elegant setting.
There’s one more mansion I’d like to look at before we move on to something else.
The Open Gates Mansion
Construction of this neo-Renaissance mansion was completed in 1889, and has a rich history! Back then, it was known as a social center, and it pulled in some big names! Apparently, the Sealy Family had some great parties here, which extended outside to the beautiful garden.
Not only that it’s also known as one of the best places to hunker down during a storm! During the 1900 hurricane, which put 15 feet of water in the basement, it provided shelter for about 400 people! Today, UTMB uses the Open Gates Conference Center for meetings, seminars, and receptions. But for a more personal look at the mansion, read Bill Cherry’s blog on how it used to be.
Meanwhile, let’s skip across town so I can show you some of those historic homes that have been restored.
We’ve all seen those “extreme makeover” shows on TV where somebody buys a house and tries to remodel it -and then sell it- without losing money! Well, a drive up and down any block of streets will reward you with eye-candy visuals of the work others have done to their homes. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find one for yourself! This is such a popular pastime that Galveston has an annual event that is held in May! Check out the Historic Homes Tour section of this post, below.
Well, I could post all my house pictures here, but I’ll let you discover some of them for yourself when you get here, okay? Meanwhile, I’d love to show you some of these beaches!
Endless Beaches on Galveston Island
Galveston Island has a plethora of beaches! It’s worth noting that the entire south side of the island faces the Gulf of Mexico! And each section has notable features. For example:
- 1) Beaches on the East End are driveable – but only by emergency vehicles.
- 2) You can drive on the beaches on the West End – but there are specific access points.
- 3) The beaches with huge rocks as a shoreline are in the middle.
Let’s begin at the East end.
True to its name, East Beach is on the very eastern end of Galveston Island. There is a paid parking lot, but just prior to that, look for the smaller, free lot which lets you drive your car right up to the shoreline. The paid-lot lot gets you considerably further down the beach and is more convenient if you are accessing this point for something like horseback riding. East Beach has a pavilion, entertainment stage, volleyball courts, restrooms, showers, chair and umbrella rentals, a playground, cabana rentals, and concessions. This is the only park that permits and sells alcoholic beverages. (Open March through October.)
Watch the Ships Pass-by at East Beach
At the easterly-most point of East Beach, we have a clear view of the huge ships moving through the Gulf of Mexico. Some of them are cargo ships, but many of them are related to the oil refineries in the area. The cruise liners and shrimp boats move through here, too. Unfortunately, they may be contributing to the water quality here, which is murky at best. But the fishin’s still good!
What’s all this talk about a Seawall? Well, let me tell you about it!
As I mentioned above, Galveston is actually a barrier island. It’s 30 miles long and several miles wide, and maybe a mile away from the Texas mainland.
Way back in 1900, a hurricane moved through here. The flood that ensued caused a lot of damage, and took the lives of more than 6,000 people. So, after some consideration, they built a seawall for protection! It’s 17 ft. high, 16 ft. thick, and 10 miles long! And it has proven to be quite effective!
Then, they put a sidewalk on top of it! So it’s a great place to walk, run, or bicycle. From this sidewalk, you will find several stairways leading you down toward the beach. At least two of them have ramps for wheels (strollers, wagons, wheelchairs). One of them is located near Porretto Beach (10th Street) and another one is located near the Convention Center on 57th Street.
The seawall actually begins here at Stewart Beach. You can park your car in the lot for a fee ($15 currently), or you can download an app to park anywhere along Seawall Boulevard. Stewart Beach has chair and umbrella rentals, a playground, restrooms, showers, food, and non-alcoholic beverages. (Open Memorial Day through October.
There is no dividing line, but Stewart Beach turns into Porretto Beach, which turns into Galveston Beach, and you might not even notice! It’s just one long stretch of sandy beach. Services are limited, but during the summer months, there are sno-cone vendors, chair/umbrella vendors, and other such mobile services.
There are “porta-potties” strategically located on the Seawall. One of them even has an outdoor shower!
Rental Shops and Trendy Beach Wear
The Seawall is where you can find trendy beach shops and bicycle rental shops. Additionally, we find several bars, restaurants, and resorts in this area.
While most of the businesses are on the land-side of the street, there is one that is on the beachside and it’s called Flip Flops Beach Bar and Grill. Once inside, visit their partially-covered outdoor patio which offers panoramic views of the gulf shoreline!
Drive Your Car on Sunny Beach
Further west, just beyond where the seawall ends, the landscape changes! Now, we have beaches that you can drive your own car onto! Although, it’s helpful to know where the vehicle access points are located.
The first drive-on beach past the end of the seawall is Sunny Beach. It’s a great place to meet friends because you can party right out the back of your car! Find a spot, pitch an awning, ignite the grill, and crack a cold one! Cans are okay, but they have a no-glass rule on all of the beaches.
Other than trash cans, there are no facilities out there. However, during the summer months, you might find Porta-Potties.
Jamaica Beach has a Beach
About mid-way the distance to the west end, there’s a little town called Jamaica Beach. And despite the exotic name, the beaches there are no different from the rest of the island. That being said, you can drive on this beach.
Additionally, the town of Jamaica Beach has a store and a gas station. Whereas, further west, these services become scarce!
Several More Beaches at the West End
As we continue to explore Galveston Island, we find ourselves out here at the west end. The charming cottages that were popular in other areas are a bit swankier, but otherwise, it has the same feel of endless beaches.
Numerous Public Access Points
Both “Sea Isle Beach” and “Public Access #32” have parking areas that align nicely with a walkway that arches itself over the dunes (which are off-limits for ecological reasons). This walkway makes it much easier to schlep your stuff to the beach. Don’t mind the rattlesnakes. They usually stay in the dunes.
Galveston Island State Park
If you are camping, you might like to know that the State Park campground and the KOA campground are both on the bay-side of Galveston Island. This is known as West Bay.
During my brief visit, the State Park was undergoing a remodel. As a result, the street leading to the tent campground was barricaded. Additionally, the signs on the highway are confusing! For example, the sign with the vinyl banner on the north side of the street is the correct one! (Even though GPS might send you elsewhere!)
Explore the Kayaking Trails on West Bay
Within the State Park, I found some kayak put-in points. These boardwalks are “walk-up” only. The other end of this walkway really mucky! Presumably, they have a separate ramp for boats. I’ll post an update when I know more.
Galveston Island: West End
At the far west end of Galveston Island, there is a bridge with a $2 toll. This bridge connects Galveston with the next barrier island.
If you don’t want to go over the bridge, you can travel under it for a while, but I strongly recommend 4-wheel drive! This is a great place to go bird watching! Better yet, let’s turn around and look for more great things to do on Galveston Island.
Annual Events & Miscellaneous
Table of Contents for This Section:
- Dog-Friendly Activities in Galveston
- March: Mardi Gras Celebration
- Year-Round: Birding / Bird Watching
- April: FeatherFest Birding & Nature Photography Festival
- May: Historic Homes Tour
- August: Sand Sculpture Competition
Dog-Friendly Restaurants in Galveston
If you’re traveling with your pets, as so many of us do, you might like to know that there are several restaurants in town that welcome leashed pets at outdoor tables on the patio! For Example:
- Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar
- Yaga’s Café on the Strand
- Stuttgarden Tavern on the Strand
- Galveston Island Brewing
- Porch Café
But there might be plenty of other places that are down with the idea, so don’t hesitate to ask! Generally, people are very friendly, and establishments are accommodating!
Off-Leash Dog Parks in Galveston: Lindale Park
There are two official off-leash dog parks in Galveston. One of them (Lindale) is a better dog park, while the other one (Menard) is a better park overall.
Agility Yards at Lindale Park
Lindale Park is located at 400 Marine Drive. Here, you’ll find separate areas for large dogs and small dogs. Not only that, but they also have separate agility yards!
Lindale Tennis Courts and Playgrounds
Aside from multiple dog park areas at Lindale Park, they also have nicely-maintained tennis courts, a children’s playground, and plenty of picnic tables and benches.
The McGuire-Dent Recreation Center at Menard Park
Yes, it’s true that the off-leash dog area is much smaller here at Menard, compared to Lindale, but there’s still plenty of room to run. They do provide water, as you might expect, but there is limited shade. But the park has so much more to offer, so keep reading!
Something For Everyone
This park has something for everyone! There are 2 children’s playgrounds, PLUS a water-fountain playground which is seasonal. There’s a community garden, and I don’t know how you would become involved with that unless you’re a local, but it’s very cool to look at!
Tennis Courts at Menard Park
The tennis courts are well-maintained, and even though I didn’t use them, I could tell they were a bit nicer than the courts at Lindale Park (which were perfectly fine!)
Skate Park at Menard
Two other activities push this park over the top. One of them is a skate park. And while I’m not a skate-park critic, this one looks somewhat higher-end! The features inside the bowl look fun, and it draws quite a crowd.
An Outdoor Gym at Menard Park
The other activity is an outdoor gym, which is open to the public! There are several stations, each one designed to work a certain area of the body, with an instruction placard posted at one end of the structure. IMO, this is a great addition to a city park!
Annual Events in Galveston
Listed in order by month, here are the annual events that are held on Galveston Island.
Annual Mardi Gras Celebration in March
The month of March brings the Mardis Gras celebration, which stretches over two weekends! There are three main attractions during these two weeks. They are parades, concerts, and beads!
Parades All Day – Concerts at Night
The streets are blocked to accommodate the parades during this two-weekend celebration. The parades have fun names like the Funky Uptown Umbrella Brigade and the Zaniest Golf Cart! But they also have smaller ones that feature marching bands and local businesses.
It’s One Big Party
The evenings bring live music to the big stage in the middle of town. It’s okay (by law) to walk around The Strand with an adult beverage if that’s what you want to do! So, yeah, it’s like that!
About Those Beads
Each year, they buy 3 million strands of plastic beads for the Galveston Mardi Gras celebration! And -shocker!- many of them get thrown away!
“Beads for Needs” is a program geared toward getting those beads out of the trash while giving students an opportunity to learn entrepreneurial skills. They collect, sort, clean, and repackage the beads! Now, this is a business I could support! Way to go!
Create Your Island Vacation
It’s easy to create your own vacation! Simply select your travel dates to find the best lodging deals on Galveston Island! This little widget will search for Hotels, Motels, Inns, Resorts, B&Bs, vacation rentals, and Beach Cottages! And plus, the more you use Booking.com, the better the deals get! Check it out!
Fun Fact: Galveston Island is one of the best birdwatching locations in the entire country! WHY? Because it’s located on the migration route! This means the birds will stop in Galveston when flying North in the Spring and they’ll stop again when they fly South in the Fall.
The Edward and Helen Oppenheimer Bird Observatory, located at the Coastal Heritage Preserve, is open year-round and free to everyone! There is a small parking lot at the foot of the ADA ramp that leads to the observatory.
This is an elevated, shaded, bird observatory that overlooks a freshwater pond and expansive prairies. As you can see, there are shelves for your elbows so you can use your binoculars. Additionally, you might enjoy the mown pathway that makes a 1/2 mile easy loop. (Address: 13102 Stewart Road, Galveston TX.)
Annual FeatherFest in April
Galveston’s annual FeatherFest is a week-long birdwatching and photography event that usually happens during the 2nd or 3rd week of April, during the Spring bird migration (see the section above this one).
Lodging During FeatherFest
Since this is a week-long event, you might be looking for a place to lodge during your stay. If so, consider using Booking.com for all your reservations! They have great rates and the more you use them, the better the deals! Check it out!
The Shop at FeatherFest
Homebase for FeatherFest 2022 was inside the hotel at Moody Gardens. And the first thing I found when I arrived was the FeatherFest Shop! There, you can purchase state-of-the-art binoculars and camera lenses, bird-themed yard decor, hand-made jewelry, and numerous other items.
In the next room over, they had an information booth and a registration desk where you can sign up for a plethora of events.
Free Classes at FeatherFest
As you might imagine, the birding events happen everywhere, all over Galveston County! (Not just on the island!) There are scheduled outings that explore certain areas, looking for certain birds, but basically, the entire region is where it’s at!
Daily Event Schedule at FeatherFest
This is the list of events that were available during the 2022 FeatherFest. The fees range from $30 to $70, and most of them are half-day events. I was there on Saturday afternoon, thinking I could enroll in a Sunday class. But as you can see, many of the classes were already full. Online registration for these events is recommended and encouraged.
Bird Sightings at FeatherFest 2022
While the photo quality is not great, here’s an idea of the types of birds that were sighted during the 2022 FeatherFest in Galveston Texas! The full list is quite extensive! But it seems a few of them remain elusive!
I highly recommend FeatherFest! The weather in April is sunny and warm, and the crowds are not yet overwhelming! So grab your mud sloggers, your wide-brimmed hats, and your binoculars and head over to Galveston for FeatherFest in April!
Historic Homes Tour in May
During the month of May, The Galveston Historic Homes Tour features numerous special events spanning two full weekends! The main attraction allows you access to privately owned homes! (There are no photos allowed once you get inside.) Tickets are discounted if they are purchased in advance, and they are good for both weekends.
As such, if you’re looking for a place to stay for this 2-weekend event, I recommend using Booking.com for the best rates. Here’s a link to get you there:
The Annual Sandcastle Competition in August
Every August, Galveston holds a sandcastle competition on East Beach, and it draws a huge crowd! Park your car right there at East Beach! There is a $15 fee (subject to change) but if you’re lucky, you might find a spot in the free lot, which is off to the right, as you approach the paid lot.
If you’re traveling, you might be looking for a place to stay! Do yourself a favor and use Booking.com for the best rates! It will help you find the perfect place!
Full Weekend Event
This event, held on the 3rd weekend of August, begins on Saturday morning. Each team has a tent/booth where they house their snacks, beverages, and sand sculpting tools. Some of the teams have costumes or matching t-shirts, and there is a fun, festive spirit in the air! If your team has an interest in participating in a future event, registration happens in March! For more information, check out their website.
The sculptures are roped-off to keep the people from getting too close, making it difficult to get decent pictures at first. But eventually, late in the afternoon, the judges make their final decision and the thin barriers come down.
On Display All Weekend
Predictably, during my visit, the high tide came rolling in and began licking the edges of one of the sculptures, but the artwork is displayed throughout the weekend or as long as the people, the birds, and the tides allow.
One Solo Sculptor ~ Benjamin Guetta
At the end of the row of contestants, there was one guy doing his own thing, all by himself! Using a masonry handtool, he was carving away at a big mound of sand. The back of the mound was still raw and untouched, while the front of the pile was precision cut into bricks, walls, walkways, and rooftops.
I really wanted to see the sculptors at work, but by the time I arrived, all of the artwork associated with the contest had been completed. And this guy -not a contestant but should’ve been- was the only one actually still working on a sculpture. You can follow his work on Instagram at Benjamin Guetta.
My apologies to the lady in the background, who looks like a cherry on top!
On a personal note, Galveston was the starting point for a 3-week journey my sister and I took in July 2021. We took advantage of the great hotel rates on Booking.com, and you should too!
Here are the blog posts for each of our stops: Mt. Rushmore, Devils Tower, Salt Lake City, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon South Rim, The Grand Canyon North Rim, Wupatki, Seligman, Winslow, The Petrified Forest, The Painted Desert, Prescott, Montezuma’s Castle (and his Well, too!) Phoenix, Tombstone, Bisbee, White Sands, and then finally home. Continue to Follow Me as I Explore American Backroads with Absolute Tenacity!