Galveston calls to mind sand, surf, and sun as Texans enjoy the 32 miles of coastline along this summer playground, but this historic city has plenty to offer after you have stowed your SPF 50 and sandals for the season, from the third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the country in early spring to Dickens on the Strand over the winter holidays.
“Galveston Island offers a year-round collection of must-experience events. From Mardi Gras to Dickens on The Strand, from Chili to Shrimp, from ARToberFest to Oktoberfest, Galveston’s got the fun,” says Galveston.com.
While families flock to Galveston attractions during the long summer season -- such as Moody Gardens, Schlitterbahn Waterpark, and Steward Beach -- some swear the best time to visit this friendly 3-mile wide barrier island off the Texas Gulf Coast are the shoulder months in spring and fall when the weather is still warm and bargains abound.
“Early spring is another delightful time to visit Galveston. Average temperatures range from the lower 60s to the lower 80s but aren't at their summertime highs. Plus, April is the month to witness the annual spring bird migration,” says U.S. News. “With average highs that fall from 80 degrees in October to the lower 70s in November, fall is a lovely shoulder season in Galveston. The moderate temps are perfect for both days at the beach and leisurely self-guided tours of the historic properties, restaurants, and shops in The Strand and the East End Historical District.”
19th Century Galveston: A City of Texas Firsts
Galveston Island is a heroic story of survival – from the devastating hurricane of 1900 to economic hardships – and success as the city started a renewal campaign in the 1980s that has led to its popular destination today as a tourist mecca.
“Galveston is a tourist hot spot once again,” said Texas Monthly in June 2023. “Its fortunes ebb and flow, but the historic island is experiencing a renaissance, with new hotels and renovations and a shiny new cruise terminal.”
Incorporated in 1839, the island already had a colorful history as the fishing and hunting grounds of the Akokisa and Karankawa tribes, site of a shipwrecked Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, claimed for the French by explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle, charted by Spanish and named for colonial governor and general Bernardo de Galvez, and home to rakish pirate Jean Lafitte, who established a colony in 1817 of 1,000 souls.
Michel Menard and Samuel May Williams helped establish Galveston as we know about 20 years after Lafitte’s settlement burned to the ground. It quickly became the largest city in Texas with some 37,000 people and one of the busiest ports in the U.S. thanks to cotton.
“This exciting and sophisticated city built the state’s first post office, first opera house, first hospital, first golf course, first country club…the list goes on and on,” said Gaveston.com.
Galveston Survived Tough Times to Become Tourist Hot Spot
The historic hurricane of 1900, however, destroyed one-third of the city (more than 3,600 buildings) and more than 6,000 people were killed (some estimates put the number at 10,000+) – still the worst natural disaster in the country’s history for the death toll.
While the entire city was raised by 8 feet – 17 feet higher at the Seawall – Galveston suffered another economic blow when nearby Houston dug its deepwater ship channel in 1917.
That gave way to Galveston’s “wide open era” where the Island became known for its rough-and-tumble world of casinos and clubs, but when those activities ceased in the late 1950s, the Island was economically stagnant until the early 1980s.
“Galveston-born oilman, George Mitchell, led the revitalization effort, focusing first on overhauling and promoting the Historic Downtown District, which contains one of the largest and most well-preserved concentrations of Victorian iron-front commercial architecture in the country,” said Galveston.com. “A dedicated team brought the 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA to Galveston and restored it to its glory days of full white sails and exquisite wooden cabinetry: the high-sailing old beauty became the symbol of the new Galveston.”
Mardi Gras: A Sign of Galveston’s Revitalization
Mardi Gras, believe it or not, was celebrated in Galveston before it was celebrated in New Orleans!
In fact, the first Mardi Gras in the “New World” was held in 1711 in Mobile, Alabama. New Orleans held its first Mardi Gras in 1873, some six years after it was celebrated on Galveston Island.
Mardi Gras (translated as Fat Tuesday from French) is the pre-Lent Carnival celebration that begins each year on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) and culminates on the day before Ash Wednesday, known as Shrove Tuesday.
Mardi Gras is a movable date that may fall as early as February 3rd or as late as March 9th – falling on February 13 this year with Galveston’s celebration slated to begin February 2.
“Galveston’s long heritage of celebrating Mardi Gras dates back to 1867 when a 350-pound justice of the peace presided over dramatic entertainment and a masked ball. By 1871, it had grown to a citywide carnival, with day and night parades, lavish costumes, and an annual theme. The elite exclusive masked balls; while gambling houses, restaurants, and saloons stayed open all night for the rest of the community,” says Texas A&M University at Galveston. “As a victim to rising costs and devastating 1900 Storm, Mardi Gras was suspended until 1910, when a group called the Kotton Karnival Kids revived it.”
Halted briefly by World War II, Madri Gras in Galveston lost momentum and stopped in 1952. As Galveston plotted its comeback in the 1980s, city leaders looked to Mardi Gras once again.
“The excitement building, city leaders next revived the Mardi Gras celebration by commissioning an array of the world’s most famous architects to design fantastical Mardi Gras arches to span the streets of The Strand district. More than half a million people now flock to the Island for the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration,” says Galveston.com.
The island’s 113th Mardi Gras celebration in 2024 will feature over 20 parades, over 20 bands, a 5K run, and iconic events such as the Annual Zaniest Golf Cart Parade and the Funky Uptown Umbrella Brigade.
Nearly all parades go through downtown, where you can enjoy the view from the street or from above at a balcony party. Main concert stages are also located downtown, where the event’s headline performances will take place.
In all, it's expected that some 3 million beads and other trinkets will be tossed to the Mardi Gras revelers in 2024.
Holidays in Galveston: Family Fun
While it's hard to beat your toes in the warm sand and a summer vacation rental with treks to seaside shops and local restaurants for freshly caught seafood, Galveston is also a great place to visit for family fun during the winter holidays.
Christmas cheer beckons with the following in Galveston:
- Holidays in the Gardens: As the largest holiday destination in the Southwest, Moody Gardens offers more holiday attractions, activities, festive fun, dining, and hotel packages than you can imagine.
- Dickens on the Strand: For almost 50 years, Galveston Historical Foundation’s Dickens on The Strand festival has highlighted downtown Galveston’s Victorian-era architecture while providing a one-of-a-kind holiday destination filled with the sights and sounds of Charles Dickens’s work.
- The Polar Express: Visit the Galveston Railroad Museum for a family-oriented experience that features hot chocolate, cookies, and a visit from Santa and his helpers.
How good is Galveston’s Christmas? Charles Dickens' great-great-great-granddaughter visited the Island holiday celebration and said this Texas town was paying homage to the great English author better than anywhere else!
Weekend Getaway in Galveston: Things to Do
Galveston is such a well-known tourist destination for Texans, and those beyond the Lone Star State, that there is no shortage of things to do – perhaps the hardest part is curating a list.
Here’s a cheat sheet from various sources to plan your next getaway to Galveston:
- Travel Texas “A Dozen Ways to Enjoy Two Days in Galveston”: The list includes a tour of The Grand 1894 Opera House, the rooftop patio of The Tremont House, brunch at Sunflower Bakery & Café, kayak fishing at Galveston Island State Park, and the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum.
- New York Magazine “Perfectly Kitschy Texas Beach Town”: The list includes eating fried fish by the beach, visiting Moody Gardens’ Zoo inside a pyramid and watching an IMAX movie, walking along the strand, and shopping for vintage books.
- Visit Galveston “Romantic Getaway on Galveston Island”: Includes bicycle through the East End Historic District, visit to La King’s Confectionery, taking a harbor tour boat ride from Pier 21, breakfast at the Gumbo Diner, and dinner a Vargas Cut & Catch.
- Houstonia Magazine “Whimsical Weekend in Galveston”: Visit Moody Mansion and Bishops Palace, coffee from Sugar Bean and lunch from Gaido’s with Gulf views (and famous pecan pie!), dinner at Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar, and stay at the boutique The Oleander Hotel or try the Coppersmith Inn B&B.
- The Getaway “16 Cool Things to Do in Galveston”: Includes Galveston’s Pleasure Pier, visit the Kettle House, visit Oleander Garden Park, splash at Schlitterbahn Water Park, drop a line off the 61st Street Fishing Pier, ride the Galveston Island Ferry, and visit the Texas Seaport Museum.
Obviously, a weekend in Galveston will just scratch the surface of what this historic island has to offer as it has enough attractions and events for more visits throughout the year.