Galveston Island: A very merry beach getaway

Nov 16, 2023

There’s something quite lovely and unique about visiting Galveston during the winter season, when the barrier island known for sunny beach getaways layers on a bonanza of holiday spirit. The result: Galveston becomes a "Winter Wonder Island." Whether or not you think you know Galveston, this destination—set just 50 miles from Houston—is worth another look this season.

Among its more obvious draws is the destination’s 32 miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, including several sandy beaches and a nature-rich state park. But the island is also home to jaw-dropping elegant and historical architecture; monumental African American history (it’s the birthplace of Juneteenth); rich art and cultural venues; lauded seafood restaurants plus fishing, birding and a plethora of other outdoor adventures.

With massive tree lightings, Polar Express rides and Arctic ice slides, the only tough thing about winter travel here is figuring out how to experience it all in one trip. Here’s a proposed four-day itinerary for making holiday memories at the beach.

Day 1: Visit beaches and ice sculptures all in one day 

Start the morning by taking in the island views from land or sea. Head to one of the more popular beaches like East Beach, located on the eastern tip of the island, or Stewart Beach, a favorite among families located near the Seawall. While you might not be jumping into the waters (Galveston temperatures range between the 50s and 60s in December) you can find some tranquility on its sandy shores.

For a chance to see the Gulf and some aquatic life, look to Baywatch Dolphin Tours. Their dolphin boat tour is available daily, and takes you on a 45-minute adventure to learn about Galveston's history while looking for these aquatic mammals.

Later in the day, start the holiday festivities with a visit to Moody Gardens. This attraction has year-round exhibits like an aquarium and a rainforest pyramid, but come November it transforms into Holiday in the Gardens. Here you'll find cheerful displays such as the Festival of Lights, a mile-long display of holiday lights; pictures with Santa; and Ice Land, a subzero interactive experience featuring over 2 million pounds of hand-carved ice sculptures.

When you’re this close to the Gulf of Mexico, you need to stop for seafood. BLVD Seafood is located along Seawall Blvd in town, and delivers on its name with a menu featuring fresh catches like Gulf red snapper, grouper and redfish. Their BLVD Sampler offers a taste of shrimp, Gulf redfish and scallops broiled in white wine and garlic butter and served with rice pilaf and green beans. 

Day 2: A visit to the 'North Pole' in Downtown 

On your second day, spend some time learning about the island's history. Moody Mansion and the 1892 Bishop's Palace are two of Galveston's best-known historic homes. Located about a mile apart on Broadway Avenue, they offer a peek into what life looked like in Galveston over a century ago. These ornate residences are adorned with holiday decor during the winter months, and both offer admission starting at $15 per adult. (Travelzoo tip: Moody Mansion is a part of the Galveston Island Pass, a chance to save up to 40% on participating attractions.) You can also take the self-guided Freedom Walk Tour to find multiple historically significant monuments to the African American experience in Galveston and learn about early Juneteenth celebrations. 

For a mid-day bite to eat, head to Maceo Spice & Import Company. Open daily for lunch, the cafe offers local favorites like the island-famous muffaletta and gumbo. Nearby is the Galveston Railroad Museum, which hosts the Polar Express Train Ride experience every season (inspired by the children's story of the same name). Just like in the story, cozy pajamas are encouraged as you and your family embark on a ride to the North Pole (where a certain Mr. Claus is said to be awaiting you). 

The Railroad Museum rests at the end of the Strand District, home to many dining options such as Riondo's Ristorante, serving up Italian food (check out their happy hour from 3 p.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday) or Brews Brothers, which offers a variety of craft beers on tap and brewpub menu classics like burgers and wings. 

Day 3: Dinner, a show and a whole lot of cheer 

Explore some of Galveston's diverse natural landscape with a visit to the East End Lagoon Nature Park and Preserve. The park features an ADA nature trail where you can spot birds, native plants and butterflies along your way to different viewpoints. And if the timing is right, you can sign up for a free, educational nature walk that's offered on the third Saturday of the month. The Galveston Island State Park offers a range of family-friendly outdoor options as well, including fishing, hiking, biking and paddling (just be sure to pack your own equipment). The state park is also the only place in Galveston where you can camp on the beach.

Something about the season calls for a night out at the theater, and you'll find classic holiday shows at The Grand 1894 Opera House, such as Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," "Annie," "Jesus Christ, Superstar!," and "An Evening With The Duke Ellington Orchestra."

Make the most of the evening out with a nice dinner in the Postoffice District. Just around the corner from the opera house is Trattoria La Vigna, a beloved Italian restaurant serving up dishes like chicken parmesan, grouper piccatta and seafood risotto. Also steps away from the theater is Vargas Cut and Catch, an aptly named steakhouse where you can enjoy cuts including ribeye and New York strip plus catches like Alaskan king crab legs and jumbo Gulf shrimp.

For a nightcap brimming with holiday cheer, stop by the Miracle Pop Up Bar at Daiquiri Time Out. The bar is decked-out in festive Christmas decor and serves up themed cocktails sure to get you into the holiday spirit. 

Day 4: Say so long at the Seawall

Savor your last few hours on the island with a walk along the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, an ideal way for the family to stretch their legs before heading out. The pier has rides kids and kids-at-heart will love, including a carousel and the Galaxy Wheel—a Ferris wheel that offers a birds'-eye view of the pier and water. The pier is also neighbored by beaches, for one more opportunity to sink your toes in the sand.

Fuel up for your journey home by grabbing some comfort food along the Galveston Seawall. The Gumbo Diner has all-day breakfast, po-boys and of course, seafood or chicken and sausage gumbo. Before officially heading out, stop by Seawall Coffee Company for some caffeine and a treat to end the trip on a sweet note.

Ready to go? Start planning your holiday getaway to Galveston's Winter Wonder Island with these accommodation options.

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