19 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Galveston
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The beautiful beaches and historic downtown of Galveston, less than an hour from Houston, make this a year-round destination for Texans and tourists.
For much of the 19th century, Galveston was the largest and wealthiest town in the state, and for a brief period, it was even the capital of the Republic of Texas. The splendor of the period can still be seen in the historic buildings and handsome mansions.
In the heart of downtown, the Strand Historic District preserves many original façades, now home to restaurants, cafés, galleries, and shops. Among the many repurposed buildings are original old Galveston charms like the Star Drugstore, the oldest drugstore in Texas, and the first desegregated lunch counter in Galveston, where locals still gather for breakfast or lunch.
While many people, particularly in summer, come primarily to lounge on the beaches, Galveston also offers a wealth of other things to do, from sightseeing on the Galveston Trolley, bird-watching, fishing, and water sports to exploring museums and enjoying wonderful dining.
For more ideas on how to spend your time, see our list of top attractions and things to do in Galveston.
See also: Where to Stay in Galveston
1. Galveston's Beaches
Turquoise water laps at the seemingly endless stretch of soft sand that fronts the ocean and draws crowds of people here from spring until fall. The Seawall runs for more than 10 miles along the beach, offering plenty of room to find your own patch of sand and space to play in the shallow and often calm water.
Several washroom facilities are located along here at various intervals, and behind the beach are restaurants, shops, and hotels. At the heart of the action along here is Pleasure Pier.
One of the most popular beaches, near the east end of the island, is Stewart Beach. At this family-friendly beach, you'll find showers and restrooms, chair and umbrella rentals, a children's playground, concessions, and a lifeguard.
If you are looking for more nature and activity, head west to Galveston Island State Park, where you can go walking along the boardwalks, kayaking through the bayou, and bird-watching on either the bay or ocean side.
2. The Strand Historic District
The Strand Historic District in Galveston - also known simply as the Strand - is a National Historic Landmark District consisting mainly of Victorian-era buildings, many of which survived the Great Storm of 1900. Now housing numerous restaurants, cafés, galleries, and antique stores, it's a pleasant place for a little sightseeing, shopping, and dining.
The district stretches all the way down to the busy wharf area, with its old restored warehouses, and is home to many of Galveston's most important tourist attractions. Also in this area, you'll find Pier 19, with the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, the nearby Texas Seaport Museum, and places to eat overlooking the water.
Be sure to stop in at the Pier 21 Theater to watch The Great Storm, a film on the 1900 Hurricane that hit Galveston and changed it forever.
The Strand is also home to an eclectic mix of retail and dining, from old-fashioned candy stores, like LA King's Confectionery, where you can watch taffy-making demonstrations, to more upscale restaurants, like the long-running Rudy and Paco, next door to The Grand 1894 Opera House, or the more modern Vargas Cut and Catch across the street.
3. Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier
The most prominent feature along the Seawall is Pleasure Pier. Jutting out into the ocean like a carnival on stilts, the pier's roller coasters and colorful structures can be seen from well off in the distance along the beachfront.
Opened in 2012, this 1,130-foot-long pier - built on the site of its predecessor, which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1961 - boasts numerous fun rides suitable for all ages, as well as games and activities, and a restaurant.
If you are visiting Galveston with kids, this is a great family thing to do and a fun way to spend some time. The Pleasure Pier is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and on weekends during the winter.
Address: 2501 Seawall Blvd, Galveston, Texas
Official Site: www.pleasurepier.com
4. Dolphin Sightseeing Tour
Playful dolphins frequent the Gulf of Mexico waters around Galveston, which is why Galveston Dolphin Sightseeing Tours are popular for visitors to the island. The guided trip takes you on a one-hour narrated boat tour that departs from the harbor at Pier 21 to look for pods of dolphins.
The sightseeing trip is nice for visitors, since the guides also share information about the ecology and marine wildlife around Galveston Island. The covered boat makes for a comfortable trip out on waters that are prime for seeing dolphins. They generally jump alongside the boat.
The trip runs seasonally from March through October, when the water conditions are best for dolphins. Tour times range throughout the day, so you can select a morning, afternoon, or evening time to fit your schedule.
Address: Pier 21, Galveston, Texas
5. Galveston Naval Museum
The Galveston Naval Museum at Seawolf Park on Pelican Island is one of Galveston's most spectacular treasures. With the USS Cavalla WWII submarine and the USS Stewart WWII warship, the small museum and memorial park are a must-visit.
This is a great place to visit if you have a couple of hours to kill or are waiting for a cruise ship. There is a wealth of American history in one location and the opportunity to step foot on two preserved vessels that played an important part in WWII.
The USS Cavalla is a World War II submarine that sank IJN aircraft carrier Shokaku, which was involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Step onboard and descend into the tiny corridors to see how sailors lived and worked during wartime.
Having the rare experience of walking through the submarine galleys, bunk areas, and operational rooms gives new respect and perspective for the service members who called the USS Cavalla home for many months at a time.
The USS Stewart was originally used as a training ship for young officers. The ship escorted three serving U.S. presidents during its time in service.
Visitors can walk through the ship to see the large artillery up close and experience how the sailors lived on board. On Saturdays, docents are available on-site for additional information.
Address: 6341 Stewart Road#249, Galveston, Texas
Official site: https://galvestonnavalmuseum.com/
6. 1892 Bishop's Palace
Built as a private residence, the Bishop's Palace, also referred to as Gresham's Castle, is often described as one of the most significant Victorian mansions in America. It was completed in 1893 after seven years of construction.
Highlights include its castle-like exterior, complete with turrets and towers and sculpted granite, limestone, and sandstone. The grand interior displays elaborate carved woodwork, high ceilings, stained glass windows, fireplaces, and fine furnishings.
Now a National Historic Landmark and museum, the home is open for tours. For a more in-depth visit that takes you literally from the attic to the basement, book in for a specialized tour that takes place only on Saturday mornings.
Address: 1402 Broadway Street, Galveston, Texas
7. Moody Gardens and Aquarium Pyramid
Moody Gardens is a huge complex with things to do for the whole family. It can easily be an all day outing, or you can target just one of the many attractions here and spend a few hours. The most dominant features are the three glass pyramids.
The main attraction for many people is a visit to the Aquarium Pyramid. This huge aquarium showcases the marine life of the Pacific, the Antarctic, the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, and the Caribbean. Some of the highlights are the underwater tunnel, touch tanks, and the giant river otters and the penguins, both of which are part of the animal encounter programs.
The Rainforest Pyramid is home to flora and fauna from the tropics, including free-roaming monkeys and sloths, birds, and fish. A boardwalk at canopy level takes you right through the heart of the rainforest. The aptly named Discovery Pyramid focuses on science and offers a range of displays.
Afterwards, head to Palm Beach waterpark with its white sands, freshwater lagoons, slides, lazy river, and replica paddlesteamer. Also check out the elaborate seasonal displays.
Movie buffs will want to take note that Moody Gardens has the largest movie screens in Texas. These towering screens have the latest projection technology and are a great spot to see MG 3D and 4D Special FX features. Visit the Moody Garden's website to see what's showing when you are visiting.
Address: 1 Hope Blvd, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.moodygardens.com
8. Take the Freedom Walk
Many people may not know that Juneteenth, when the announcement that all slaves were declared free on June 19, 1865, happened in Galveston. To commemorate Galveston's place in African American history, there is a self-guided Freedom Walk that you can take through town to learn about the historical sites that are significant to Juneteenth.
The Freedom Walk starts at the Middle Passage Marker at the Texas Seaport Museum and takes you to the African American Museum, several local churches, and the Juneteenth historical marker at the Osterman Building. One of the most compelling stops is at the Absolute Equality Mural on Strand Street.
You can download the Freedom Walk route from the Visit Galveston app and take your time going from site to site.
9. Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum
The Port of Galveston is home to many rigs and supply vessels, and with a nod to Galveston's important role in the Gulf of Mexico's bustling oil and gas industries. A visit to the Ocean Star Offshore Oil Rig and Museum offers a fascinating insight into the energy business.
Based on an actual oil rig - the massive Ocean Star, built in 1969 - the museum showcases many excellent exhibits. Highlights include a visit to the pipe deck, where some of the larger equipment needed to drill the rig's more than 200 wells is stored, along with interactive displays showing the process from exploration to extraction.
Address: 2002 Wharf Road, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.oceanstaroec.com
10. Texas Seaport Museum and the Elissa
The Texas Seaport Museum is home to the tall ship Elissa, built in 1877 and considered one of the finest restored historical vessels in the US. This lovely old ship still puts to sea regularly, and her fascinating story - including her rescue from the scrapyard - is told in the museum on shore.
Other highlights include a look at the history of the Port of Galveston, including the names of the more than 133,000 migrants who passed through. If you want to see more, drive over to nearby Seawolf Park for a peek at a WWII-era US Navy submarine and the USS Stewart, a destroyer from the same period.
Address: 2200 Harborside Drive, Galveston, Texas
11. Ship to Shore
One of the newest attractions in Galveston is the Ship to Shore experience at Galveston's Historic Seaport, which gives visitors a hands-on education in what it was like for immigrants heading to the island in the 1880s. Inside the interactive museum, you become one of the early immigrants to the island.
Assigned the profile of a real Galveston immigrant, you experience what it was like on the ship voyage to America and the challenges that new arrivals had as they were processed in the 1880s in one of the busiest ports. You will receive a digital card during the visit, which personalizes your experience each time you go through Ship to Shore.
There are several other historical attractions around the Historic Seaport, like The Elissa tall ship, which you can combine into the same visit. Stop for lunch at one of the waterfront restaurants in the district.
Address: 2200 Harborside, Galveston, Texas
Official site: https://www.galvestonhistory.org/sites/ship-to-shore
12. The Bryan Museum
Housed in a fabulous historic building, which was once the Galveston Orphans Home, this museum showcases a diverse collection of art and artifacts from the American West, spanning more than 12,000 years. The permanent collection deals with everything from Native American history to the Spanish Colonial Era, and Texas Independence.
The Texas Masters Gallery displays the art of Texas-born artists, as well as those who traveled through the area and captured it on canvas. Around the museum, you'll also find works by various artists, including pieces by Andy Warhol.
iPads on displays help explain the pieces and their significance, but the best way to appreciate the collection and learn about the history is to take a tour. If you are lucky, you may even see the founder, Mr. J.P. Bryan, who opened the Bryan Museum in 2015.
Address: 1315 21st Street, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.thebryanmuseum.org
Fishing is a regular pastime for people in Galveston and vacationers. Galveston is one of the best places for deep sea fishing in Texas, but it is also prime for surf fishing, fly fishing in the wetland areas, and from local piers.
Experienced anglers can arrive with gear and a Texas fishing license and try their hand at redfish and sea trout. One of the best local spots to fish is Galveston's 61st Street Fishing Pier. Daily fishing rates apply, and you can rent rods right at the pier office. Bait is also available at the pier.
The 61st Street Fishing Pier is fun whether you are fishing or not. It is also a perfect spot to learn from the locals about what to catch and how to catch in-season species. It is a family-friendly spot, too, if you are looking for something local to do with children.
Guides and fishing charters are available on the island for a wide range of fishing excursions, from bay fishing to open water.
Address: 6101 Seawall Blvd., Galveston, Texas
Official site: https://www.61stpier.com/
14. Moody Mansion
Built in 1895, this 28,000-square-foot home is one of the finest of its kind in the state of Texas and is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior of the Victorian Moody Mansion features stained glass, custom carved woodwork, decorative tiles, and plasterwork, along with fine stencil work throughout.
The home also impresses with its red brick, unique architecture, and numerous arches, along with its many fine antiques, photos, and artwork. Guided tours through its 20 rooms are available, and many special events and programs are also hosted here.
The meticulously maintained grounds with tropical plants are worth strolling around, and be sure to see the vintage Cadillacs parked in the garage. There is also a children's museum located on the ground floor of the home.
Address: 1 Hope Blvd, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.moodymansion.org
15. The Grand 1894 Opera House
Another of Galveston's fine old structures is the Grand 1894 Opera House, a splendidly restored Victorian theater that has withstood multiple hurricanes. It still hosts a full lineup of musical and theatrical performances, along with a selection of fun shows for kids of all ages.
The Grand 1894 Opera House has been the official opera house for the state of Texas since 1993. The main performance auditorium has three levels of seating along with smaller side balconies closer to the stage.
If you are unable to go inside, the windows along Postoffice Street feature interesting displays on a regular basis. On the wall inside the main entrance, a plaque shows the level of the high water mark from hurricane Ike, which swept through in 2008.
Address: 2020 Post Office Street, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.thegrand.com
16. Galveston Island State Park
For bird-watching, kayaking, SUPing, fishing, or simply enjoying a natural beach environment, head to Galveston Island State Park, near the west end of the island. Galveston is situated along the Central Flyway, making it a popular spot for birding, with opportunities to see migrating and resident birds.
The most popular area is the lovely beach on the ocean side. On the bay side are a number of trails and observation platforms. The park also does a good job of presenting family activities on a regular basis, so be sure to check the calendar to learn about things to do when you are visiting.
Note that the beachside of the park from highway FM3005 will be closed until 2022, so the park can undertake significant renovations to the facilities. The rest of the park, the area north of highway FM3005, remains open.
Address: 14901 FM 3005, Galveston, Texas
Official site: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/galveston-island
17. Galveston Railroad Museum
A fun attraction for young and old, the Galveston Railroad Museum features six permanent exhibits showcasing a large collection of steam and diesel engines, passenger and freight cars, cabooses, and related artifacts.
A highlight is the famous streamlined Texas Limited passenger train and the impressive Santa Fe diesel, along with a large HO model train layout.
The museum isn't all about train equipment. A visit to the People's Gallery takes you back to 1932 and an era when people wore fancy hats and dresses and suits and caps to catch a train. The waiting area has been exquisitely recreated down to the finest detail, complete with statues and even a newsstand.
If you can, try to plan your visit to coincide with one of the regular train shows for a chance to take a ride on these historic machines.
Address: 2602 Santa Fe Place, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.galvestonrrmuseum.org
18. Galveston Tree Sculpture Tour
Hurricane Ike launched a devastating blow to Galveston Island in 2008, but the city has turned some of that destruction into works of art. The Galveston Tree Sculpture Tour is a self-guided tour along some of Galveston's streets, where destroyed oak trees have been carved into artistic sculptures.
One of the largest concentrations of sculptures is in the East End Historic District. The self-guided tours to see them can be done by walking or biking the route and finding them elegantly located in yards and gardens.
Birding is a year-round activity in Galveston. The diverse ecological habitats that exist on the island make it a major birding destination. Early in the year, you will find large numbers of water birds congregating on the island and on the nearby Bolivar Flats. Species like sandpipers, herons, egrets, and wading birds like roseate spoonbills are in abundance.
Springtime is when the tropical birds begin to arrive on the island. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, waterthrush, and songbirds arrive, ready for their migratory rest. Birding in the summertime is great in the mainland forests, where you can hear the chorus of breeding birds. Midsummer is ideal for shorebirds. Head to the wildlife refuges for the best viewing opportunities.
Fall brings the migratory birds and early winter arrivals of species like phoebes. Later in the year, resident species like raptors and red-tailed hawks return. There are many places to visit for bird-watching, from the coast to Galveston State Park. You can find birding tours and workshops on the island if you are new to the sport.
Where to Stay in Galveston for Sightseeing
The two most popular places to stay in Galveston are near the beach or in the historic downtown. You can find excellent hotels in both of these locations. Below are some highly rated hotels we recommend.
- For oceanfront luxury, the historic Grand Galvez is unbeatable. Built after the great hurricane of 1900, this property is a landmark and one of the best hotels in Galveston. With a pool and spectacular views over the ocean and beach, this is the perfect choice for visitors who are in Galveston to appreciate the beauty of the Gulf Coast and want to be able to walk to the beach.
- The sister property to the Hotel Galvez, The Tremont House Hotel is another posh and historic hotel, but set in a prime location in downtown Galveston. Built in 1839, the Tremont House is an elegant property with an intimate atmosphere, featuring exposed bricks, high ceilings, and individually designed rooms. It is within walking distance of many of the major attractions and fine restaurants.
- Families looking for luxury will enjoy a stay at the Moody Gardens Hotel, conveniently located at the Moody Gardens complex, which features everything from a water park to glass pyramids housing a tropical rainforest and an aquarium.
- The Holiday Inn Resort Galveston-On the Beach is, as the name suggests, conveniently located right across the street from the beach. A large outdoor pool, balconies, and kids' activities, make this a popular hotel.
- Also worth considering in this category are the Quality Inn & Suites Beachfront, with a large indoor pool and within walking distance of the beach,
- The Best Western Plus Galveston Suites, is perfect for those looking for a bit more space with ocean views and an outdoor pool and hot tub.
- You can save money by staying off the beach, which is not hugely inconvenient considering Galveston is a small city. The Galveston Inn & Suites Hotel is a newer hotel with an outdoor pool, located a short drive from downtown and the beach.
- The Super 8 by Wyndham offers basic rooms, an outdoor pool, and is located within walking distance of the beach.
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