The coastal city of Galveston has so much more to offer than sand and sea — it’s a quirky, weird, and interesting island bursting with glimmers of its glamorous past, good food and ghost stories.
Galveston, Texas, was once one of the richest cities per capita in the world, before two-thirds of “the grandest city in Texas” was destroyed by the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history — the 1900 hurricane. It’s hard to imagine this Gulf Coast island of roughly 50,000 people was once a major financial center referred to as the “Wall Street of the South,” but maybe not as hard as you might think.
Galvestonians picked themselves up after the storm, and brought the buildings along with them, raising the grade of the entire city and building a seawall to protect it. Many grand buildings and stately mansions from the Gilded Age still stand, designated with “Flood of 1900 survivor” placards.
History lives on, as locals spin spooky stories of paranormal activity at sites where tragedy struck and lives were lost. So take time to venture inland from the seawall, meet some of the residents and discover what makes Galveston special the next time you head to the island.
Haunted Galveston: Grand Galvez
If you love a good ghost story, book a stay at the glitzy Grand Galvez. Built in 1911, this oceanfront hotel was once a playground for the rich and famous. Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Stewart and Dean Martin were guests, as well as Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson.
As a hotel built following the 1900 hurricane, it is said to be one of the most haunted hotels in Texas. There have been many ghost sightings in the hotel’s 112-year history, including eerie images of nuns and children who allegedly perished in the storm. You might hear a child spirit whisper “ice cream” in your ear, or see child-sized handprints on a glass door that quickly reappear when wiped off by staff.
Festival City: Mardi Gras Parades and Sandcastle Competitions
This small island has long had a big personality, and that extends to its festival scene. You can join in the annual Mardi Gras festivities that date back to 1867 or watch historic tall ships from the 1800s sail into Galveston for a festival in April. Galveston Island Beach Revue serves up more vintage fun each May with a bathing beauties pageant and classic car show.
In June, celebrate Black history and culture on Galveston Island, the birthplace of Juneteenth. Events include a parade and picnic as well as a festival. Make plans to visit the “Absolute Equality” mural on Strand Street, new in 2021, and take a self-guided African American tour.
Summer festivals kick off with the 4th of July and round out in August with the annual sandcastle competition and the Galveston Island Wine Festival.
Family Fun From Sloths to Roller Coasters
At Moody Gardens, wind your way through the rainforest pyramid, starting in the treetops at 15 feet above sea level. Animals roam and fly free in the tropical enclosure, so be on the lookout for vibrant birds, monkeys and sloths. If you’re visiting with kids, they might also enjoy the Aquarium Pyramid, where they can see pelicans, walk through a glass shark tunnel, and pet stingrays.
For a bit more space to roam, head down the coast to the Galveston Island State Park. Here you can fish, camp, bird watch and geocache for an entrance fee of $5 per day. Kids 12 and under are free.
Or you could go the opposite speed and find your family’s thrills at Schlitterbahn Galveston or the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier. The former has water slides including Massiv Monster Blaster, and the latter packs the pier with 17 rides and rollercoasters.
Where To Eat in Galveston
Start your day with beignets at The Gumbo Diner or an Islander Omelet at Star Drug Store. On Sunday, don’t miss the breathtaking brunch the Grand Galvez rolls out, complete with ice sculptures.
For lunch, hit The Strand for Italian favorites at Riondo’s Ristorante, which is housed in a historic building that is said to be haunted. Or head to the West of Market Street (WeMa) district for a hearty Cajun shrimp po’boy at Maceo Spice & Import Co. Then head down the street to shop at Lady Brown’s Boutique, a female veteran-owned business.
After a day in the sun, try Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant on the seawall for Gulf Coast delights like crab cakes, crab stuffed shrimp, American Red Snapper Michael and house-made cheesecake. Kids have their own menu, too, with options like grilled salmon and fried Gulf shrimp.
Cover photo Heidi Gollub
Heidi Gollub is a lead editor at USA TODAY Blueprint. She lives in Austin but sneaks off to the ocean whenever she gets the chance.