The coastal Texas getaway for any time of year

May 21, 2024

Home to 32 miles of sandy shores along the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Island is perhaps best known as a beach destination. But the island—just an hour’s drive from Houston—beckons those looking for more than just a day (or week) at the beach. After all, how many coastal towns can claim to be the birthplace of a national holiday and boast a century-old opera house?

In addition to unique history, the destination offers a bevy of birdwatching opportunities, a full lineup of family-friendly water parks and the chance to search for “turtles about town” (more on that later)—all of which is best experienced on what the locals like to call “island time.”

Read on for our guide to enjoying a Galveston Island visit any time of year. 

32 miles of sandy shores for outdoor enthusiasts  

If you are looking to sink your toes in the sand and cool off in the water, you have a few options to choose from. The lively East Beach permits alcohol and has amenity-rich offerings including a pavilion, a concert stage and annual events. Check out this year’s American Institute of Architects Sandcastle Competition on September 21, when over 50 teams will create eye-catching works of sand art. The beach also hosts Sandcastle Days throughout the summer, when professional sandcastle builders provide free lessons to beachgoers.

American Institute of Architects Sandcastle Competition

For a more family-friendly option, Stewart Beach is alcohol-free and boasts snack concessions and games like cornhole, volleyball and giant Jenga. For more kid-friendly fun options to soak up some Texas summer sun, there are a few waterparks to choose from: Palm Beach at Moody Gardens, which features options like a lazy river, wave pool and tower slides; and the Schlitterbahn Waterpark Galveston, with many ways to cool off including water slides like the "Loopy Luge," water coasters and a variety of pools. 

Before heading out the door, you can check out the weather, crowds and water color (the Galveston coastal waters are naturally ever-changing) with one of Visit Galveston's many live webcams.

Galveston Island State Park

For a closer look at the unique nature here, explore Galveston Island State Park's 2,000 acres of distinct habitats, including beaches, wetlands and prairies. You can hike, bike or paddle on one of the park's many trails to see wading birds, freshwater ponds and even alligators.  It's also the only place in Galveston where you can camp directly on the beach—listen to the waves crashing on the shore as you fall asleep and wake up with the sunrise.  Anglers can try casting a line for fish like flounder, sand trout and redfish here. The state park does not require fishing licenses, and offers a convenient fish-cleaning station. 

If the thought of fresh seafood is making you hungry, but you'd prefer someone else to take care of the catching, try Katie's Seafood House, where every fish on their menu is from their own boats. They’ll cook popular catches like American red snapper and yellow edge grouper to your preferred style, or you can opt for one of the crowd favorites like seafood nachos or crab topped mac and cheese.

Roseate Spoonbills 

With the variety of habitats, Galveston is something of a birdwatching hot spot with hundreds of species visible throughout the year. While birding opportunities are present year-round, the greatest variety happens during seasonal migrations (like the scarlet tanager in spring and Canada warbler in fall). Galveston celebrates the pastime with FeatherFest, a birding nature photography festival held every April. The festivities include workshops, field trips and social events. For some of the best bird watching any time of year, head to the East End Lagoon Nature Park and Preserve; its undeveloped land welcomes a variety of birds, including egrets, loons and sandpipers.

Galveston’s history and heritage  

Galveston is the birthplace of Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday in 2021. Its history dates back long before that. On June 19, 1865, more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Galveston were told of their freedom—more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

Juneteenth proclamation reading

Celebrated annually in Galveston, this year you’ll find a lineup of festivities in the days leading up to the holiday; these include the 2nd Annual Juneteenth Comedy Fest on June 14, and the Juneteenth Festival and Celebration on June 15 on the Seawall. Some of the day-of events include a morning Juneteenth proclamation reading and an evening Emancipation March. Embark on the self-guided Freedom Walk any time of year, with stops including the Juneteenth Historical Marker and Reedy Chapel AME Church, where early Juneteenth celebrations took place.

From the 1800s to the early 1900s, Galveston acted as Texas’ own version of Ellis Island. The port city was one of the largest entry points for European immigrants. Thousands of people arrived and settled in the area. Today, you can see remnants of this past via historical markers for places like the former immigration station (now a U.S. Customs Office).

Dive more into the island's history with trips to some of its historic buildings. 1892 Bishop's Palace and Moody Mansion (located about a mile apart from each other on Broadway Avenue) are opulent residences restored to give a glimpse of what Galveston looked like a century ago. 

1892 Bishop's Palace

Representing more than 12,000 years of history, The Bryan Museum holds one of the world’s largest collections when it comes to Texas and the American West. It's home to 70,000 items, including rare books, art, antique firearms, saddles and spurs, as well as Native American stone tools and arrowheads. There’s even a Spanish mission bell. Housed in the former Galveston Orphans Home, the museum features six permanent collections on topics ranging from the Spanish Colonial era to Texas statehood. Current special exhibitions running through July 7 include "Tejanos of Revolutionary Texas" and "Common Ground: An Immigration Pop-Up Exhibition."

Locomotive fans will want to hop aboard and check out the Galveston Railroad Museum. It's set inside a refurbished depot and has a 5-acre railyard, displays of steam and diesel locomotives, passenger cars and more. (Travelzoo tip: Moody Mansion, The Bryan Museum and Galveston Railroad Museum participate in the Galveston Island Pass. Purchasing a pass can save you up to 40% on included attractions.)

Delight in downtown 

The niceties of this port city (one of the busiest cruise ports in the U.S.)  are perhaps best showcased in downtown Galveston, especially in its arts and culture community. The Grand 1894 Opera House is over a century old and features a lineup of live performances, including appearances from the Galveston Symphony Orchestra. The Galveston Art Center presents the Galveston ArtWalk on select Saturday evenings throughout the year. The self-guided walk set to the tune of live music throughout with stops at local galleries, artists' studios and more where you can meet the artists and admire their work. 

One of the many colorful turtles you'll encounter around town

Even just strolling around town, you'll have the chance to see the work of local artists thanks to "Turtles About Town." This collection of over 50 colorful sea turtle statues around the island is the product of a community arts project aimed at highlighting conservation efforts to protect the endangered sea turtles found in the region. Check out this turtle map to see how many you can find.

Mardi Gras! Galveston

Galveston knows how to celebrate, and you'll find events happening downtown all year. Since 1867, Mardi Gras! Galveston has been taking place downtown with its two-week celebration. The annual Island Oktoberfest will setup downtown October 25-26. The weekend starts out with a ceremonial tapping of the keg, and is followed by days of live entertainment, German food, a chicken dance contest and more.

Galveston especially sparkles during the holiday season, thanks in part to Dickens on The Strand. This beloved yearly street festival, happening December 6-8 this year, transforms the downtown Strand Historic District to look like 19th-century Victorian London with carolers, jugglers, holiday decor, period costumes and more. 

The Galveston Trolley

From camp sites and vacation homes to bed-and-breakfast or traditional hotels, there are many choices on where to stay in Galveston Island. Staying downtown will put you in the center of it all. One such option is the Tremont House, which can trace its history back to 1839, the year Galveston was incorporated. Set in the Strand Historic District, the hotel is within walking distance to a few downtown gems. Go back in time at La King’s Confectionery, an old-timey candy maker with an ice cream parlor and working 1920s soda fountain. Or choose a more modern experience at Daiquiri Time Out, a craft cocktail lounge known for their happy hour and expansive drink menu. 

Ready to go? Start planning for "island time" with a trip to Galveston Island.  

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