12 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 district preserves many original façades, now home to restaurants, cafés, galleries, and shops.
While many people, particularly in summer, come primarily to lounge on the beaches, Galveston also offers a wealth of things to do, from sightseeing, 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 in Galveston.
See also: Where to Stay in Galveston
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
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. 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
4. 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
5. 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
6. 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
7. 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
8. 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
9. 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. Also of interest are the meticulously maintained grounds, with tropical plants and the vintage Cadillacs parked in the garage.
Address: 1 Hope Blvd, Galveston, Texas
Official site: www.moodymansion.org
10. 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
11. 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.
Official site: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/galveston-island
12. 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
Where to Stay in Galveston
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 Hotel Galvez & Spa 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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