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12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Galveston

Written by Lana Law

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

1. Galveston's Beaches

Beach & Pleasure Pier, Galveston | Photo Credit: Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

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

Strand district | Photo Credit: Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

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

Bishop's Palace | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Built as a private residence, the Bishop's Palace 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.

Address: 1402 Broadway Street, Galveston, Texas

Official Site: www.galvestonhistory.org/attractions/architectural-heritage/bishops-palace

4. Moody Gardens and Aquarium Pyramid

Moody Gardens and Aquarium Pyramid | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

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.

Address: 1 Hope Blvd, Galveston, Texas

Official Site: www.moodygardens.com

5. Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier

Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier

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 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

Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum

Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum | Ed Schipul / photo modified

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, 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

Texas Seaport Museum and the Elissa

Texas Seaport Museum and the Elissa | Katie Haugland / photo modified

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

Official Site: www.galvestonhistory.org/attractions/maritime-heritage/texas-seaport-museum-4

8. The Bryan Museum

The Bryan Museum | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

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

Moody Mansion

Moody Mansion

Built in 1895, 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.

Address: 1 Hope Blvd, Galveston, Texas

Official Site: www.moodymansion.org

10. The Grand 1894 Opera House

The Grand 1894 Opera House | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

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.

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

American oystercatcher

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.

Official Site: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/galveston-island

12. Galveston Railroad Museum

Galveston Railroad Museum

Galveston Railroad Museum | Roy Luck / photo modified

A fun attraction for young and old, the Galveston Railroad Museum features 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. 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.

  • Luxury Hotels: For oceanfront luxury, the historic Hotel Galvez & Spa, a Wyndham Grand Hotel 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 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 Spa & Convention Center, conveniently located at the Moody Gardens complex, which features everything from a water park to glass pyramids housing a tropical rainforest and an aquarium.

  • Mid-Range Hotels: With a pool and views out over the ocean, The Galvestonian is a great mid-range option, particularly handy for families. This hotel resort offers condos with full kitchens and balconies.

    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, and the Best Western Plus Galveston Suites, with ocean views and an outdoor pool and hot tub.

  • Budget Hotels: 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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Explore nearby Houston: If you are visiting Galveston, chances are you are making a stop in Houston. If not, you should make time to visit. Find ideas on what to see and do with our article on Things to Do in Houston. Figure out where to stay with our list of Top-Rated Resorts in Houston, and plan a day of contemplating great art or learning some history by reading our article on Houston's Best Museums.

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