Galveston Island has been transformed over the last 30 years from a gambling and drinking resort town, once referred to as the “sin city of the Gulf,” to the laid-back, family-friendly destination it is today. Leaving its wild ways behind, this port city now focuses on promoting its 32 miles of beaches and historic charms — especially in the downtown district, where Victorian, iron-front buildings from the 1800s have been carefully preserved.
Splurge: Hotel Galvez – This beachfront hotel, conveniently situated just four blocks from the cruise ship terminal, offers the best mix of historic charm and modern amenities on the island. You’ll find a day spa, saltwater pool, restaurant, bar, and even a museum: the Hall of History, located on the lower level. The hotel has long been the place to stay in town for everyone from U.S. presidents to Hollywood legends, including Jimmy Stewart and Frank Sinatra, since it opened in 1911. Take advantage of the complimentary bicycles available to guests; the hotel’s car service will also take you around town at no extra charge, including transportation to the ship terminal. Doubles from $119.
Steal: Harbor House Hotel and Marina – After a $1.7 million renovation, this 42-room boutique hotel reopened in February 2014 with a new industrial-nautical look. Guest rooms are really spacious and all have views of the harbor, but you won’t find any extras, like a pool or restaurant, on the property. Its location on Pier 21 more than makes up for it, though, with the Strand shopping district within walking distance — as well as great dining options, such as Nonno Tony’s, just steps from the hotel’s front door. You can even stroll to the cruise terminal easily — it’s just a half a city block away. Doubles from $109.
Breakfast: Sunflower Bakery & Café – You don’t have to be an early riser to grab a great breakfast at this popular spot. Dishes like French toast made of house-made challah bread and Gulf crab cakes with eggs are served until noon daily and until 3 pm on weekends. While the interior has a cozy diner feel, we suggest eating alfresco on the large terrace.
Lunch: Eatcetera – German nutritionist Andrea Hunting opened this gourmet sandwich shop in 2007, and locals have been raving about it ever since. Chef-Owner Hunting created a menu of healthy, vegan, and vegetarian sandwich and salad options, as well as indulgent panini and desserts. The menu features a variety of international flavors, but the Asian-influenced Thai beef sandwich is the local favorite.
Dinner: Gaido’s – A Galveston institution for more than 100 years, this is the place for fresh seafood on the island. Fishermen head into Galveston Bay each morning to deliver their fresh catches to the chefs. The flounder stuffed with shrimp is a must-have, but don’t fill up on dinner, because the pecan pie with bourbon sauce and vanilla ice cream is so good, it would be a sin to not have room for it.
Cocktails: The Tremont House – This historic hotel features the only rooftop bar in Galveston and offers beautiful views over downtown and the harbor. The dimly lit, intimate atmosphere makes it a frequent date spot.
For Everyone: Stewart Beach – The island’s main draw has long been its Gulf beaches. Stewart Beach is a family favorite for its pavilion with public restrooms, rinse-off showers, snack bar, and umbrella and chair rentals. It also plays host to fun events such as volleyball tournaments and sandcastle contests. Looking for more excitement? East Beach is the liveliest, probably due to the fact that it’s the only one you can drink alcohol on, and it hosts outdoor concerts and festivals all summer long.
For Couples: Tree Sculpture Tour – A leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride is always a romantic option, but for something truly unique to the area, take the Tree Sculpture Tour in the East End Historic District. After Hurricane Ike tore through the island in 2008, area artists turned more than 30 uprooted trees into impressively intricate sculptures. It’s free if you walk or bike through the area on your own. Or join one of Galveston Island Tours and let a guide explain what you’re looking at; they take groups out every Saturday via shuttle bus for $15 per adult and $12 per child.
For Families: Moody Gardens – This is a one-stop shop for family fun with kids. If you have time to hit a bunch of attractions, purchase a day pass for $60 per person (kids under 3 are free) to access a wide swath of all-ages activities, including the Aquarium Pyramid, Rainforest Pyramid, 3D Theater, 4D Special FX Theater, Ridefilm Theater, Discovery Museum, and Colonel Paddlewheel Boat. The best part? If you end up in town on a day when it rains, there’s plenty to do here that’s inside.
For the Adventurous: Jet Boat Ride – Opened in 2012 on Pier 21, Sun Time Watersports, offering jet boat rides, has added some excitement to this otherwise relaxed island. The specialized, eco-friendly boat takes 11 people at a time, ripping through waves, making sharp turns, and rotating 360 degrees as it soars. Offered Friday through Sunday, the 20-minute ride costs $30. You willget wet (consider yourself warned!), so leave your phone, camera, and any other valuables at the dock.
If possible, fly into Houston Hobby Airport instead of Bush Intercontinental. Traffic is usually less congested, and the island’s a 45-minute drive from Hobby as opposed to an hour and 15 minutes from Bush. If flying into Bush is your only option, consider renting a car instead of arranging transfers. Shuttles direct to the island start around $150 each way for the first person and typically cost $10 more for each additional passenger.