Galveston is hit or miss. Dave and I have found pockets that make it not only fun, but thoroughly worthwhile for us to head down a few times each year. But, we often get doubtful smirks when we speak of good times in this beach community. Someone once said to me that visiting Galveston for a good time was “like finding a kernel in vomit.” Ew, gross. But, the city has long battled a bad reputation for lackluster beaches and safety concerns over gangs. I won’t refute that there is room for improvement in this Texas beach town, but there is more to the city than these generalizations too. Now, I also do not think that it is an easy destination where you happen into a good time (unless the company you keep is entertaining all alone). Even on its best day, it will never compare it to California or Florida beach getaways — so don’t. With a bit of planning and some common sense, it is an affordable destination for good food and unique ambiance. At the same time, it is important have realistic expectations.
Galveston is better than you think.
If you are not familiar with Galveston, it is a coastal city on Galveston Island in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. Originally developed by a pirate to serve as the base of operations in Mexico’s battle against Spain, the city was officially established after Mexico won its independence in 1825. As most Texas History students know, politics shifted again, and it became the capital of the Republic of Texas, eventually separating from Mexico and joining the United States. Nationally it is known for the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which is still the deadliest natural disaster in United States history.
Some have said that after the hurricane of 1900, the city never regained its national importance due to the the Port of Houston emerging as the shipping industry leader in the South. During the 1920s the city became a haven for illegal activities such as prostitution and prohibition, making it a tourist haven for wealthy Houstonians and earning the nickname “Sin City of the Gulf.” Over time the economy has improved, especially with an influx of medical teaching hospitals, and with Houstonians seeking second homes. But in 2008, Hurricane Ike hit the island and the city has once again had to rebuild. Today’s modern economy of Galveston is built on port business and tourism, specifically cruise ships.
The city’s tourist attractions include the Schlitterbahn Waterpark, Moody Gardens, Pleasure Pier, Texas Seaport Museum, and a downtown neighborhood of historic buildings known as The Strand. The Strand plays host to a yearly Mardi Gras Festival and a Victorian-themed Christmas festival called Dickens on the Strand. On the other end of the event spectrum, the city also hosts the Lone Star Rally, a gathering of motorcyclists that takes over the city.
I avoid all of these tourist traps.
With a drive time of less than an hour (with traffic karma), it is an easy weekend destination for Houstonians, such as my husband and myself. Compared to Houston, it provides moderately cooler temperatures, ocean breezes, and water views that we embrace with open arms. It is also fairly dog-friendly so it is great for furry family trips. But let’s be honest, this is a weekend getaway that is about convenience too. While the city has a history of gang activity, we have never felt unsafe. Then again, we use common sense and come from Houston where we deal with similar issues in areas as well. Plus, we tend to have dinner in well-trodden neighborhoods and head back to our vacation rental with a bottle of wine. So, we are not out late and we are not in questionable areas.
If you are Galveston-bound or considering a visit, you can absolutely have good time — but, this is not a stand-alone destination. I would not seek out a trip to Galveston if convenience were not a factor or another beach option were nearby. However, if you are headed to the city for a specific event, as a port for a cruise, or just looking for an easy and affordable getaway, then there are definitely things to do and places to go that make for a lovely weekend.
Let’s start with accommodations, I have never found that any of the hotels appeal to us (though I would like to give The Tremont House a shot), but that is because we favor the really nice rental homes in the area. I have heard that there are some lovely bed and breakfast spots as well, but we tend to prefer more privacy. Also, we like to bring our dogs, Coach and Madden, so generally we prefer vacation rentals. While we do get limited by dog-friendly filters, the options for vacation rentals are at a really high standard based on our experience.
Homes in the area offer well-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture that are unique to Texas and remind me of New Orleans neighborhoods. We have found that house decor can go overboard with the cheesy beach theme, including palm trees and flamingos in abundance. Still, the foundation of these homes have been fairly solid. Our favorite vacation rental, Beachy Keen, is actually a survivor of the Hurricane of 1900. It has a great fenced in yard for the dogs, a huge deck for watching the sunset, a clean and simple interior, and is located within biking distance to some of our favorite spots as well. It does not have a beach view, which is obviously the most desirable but it does have a lot of beach charm. I really do like to get a view if possible, especially since we do not really get in the water of Galveston.
In fact, don’t bother visiting the beaches.
Yeah I said it. Don’t. However, do plant yourself nearby and secure a beach view through your accommodation or dining. Who doesn’t like the breeze and sound of waves? And from a distance, you do not see the brown water up close. Disappointing suggestion? OK, if getting wet is a must, then I suggest that you drive way down to the west end residential areas, such as Jamaica Beach or Sea Isle, and avoid the public parks near the Seawall, like Stewart Beach, which attract large family gatherings, biker groups, boaters, and teenagers. If that sounds like home to you, then go ahead and give it a shot. But we prefer the less populated areas, not only for our personal preference, but also to sneak in a little leash-free time for the furry ones. And really, the beaches are not pretty. They have seaweed to prevent erosion, there is little shade, not to mention the jellyfish and bacteria are a problem. We go to Galveston for the beach vibe – not the water.
For dining and nightlife, we generally avoid the tourist zones, such as Seawall Boulevard, for the most part. The Seawall was built after the infamous hurricane to give protection from future hurricanes and is known as a biking or running route with many businesses along the way. The businesses are souvenir focused and the food is fast and cheap. Our one exception is that we enjoy a beer and some fried anything from The Spot, but it is crowded and very deep-fried. Be ready to wait to order at the counter and to hear some loud bikes drive by, but it is interesting people watching and water views.
In addition, we do indulge in a stroll along the touristy Strand, but I recommend this area for drinks and shopping- not food. Some of our favorite stops are getting a beer at Tola-Mo Bettah Market and sweet treats at La King’s Confectionary There is also interesting views from the Fisherman’s Wharf Seafood Grill though it is a deceptive beauty of industrial lights. The restaurant is not worth the wait and the food is overpriced, but drinks are tough to screw up and if you squint your eyes then even the flare stacks are kinda pretty. This area also offers some unique antique shops, though we browse more than buy.
There are better food options to be found in the neighborhoods of the city. My preferences for this destination are off the beaten path. I think the best time in Galveston is had avoiding all the places you see in the advertising campaigns for the city. The best dining spots are integrated into the neighborhoods, just outside of the tourist zones.
The best way to enjoy Galveston is to visit like a local.
We highly recommend the Little Daddy’s Gumbo Bar and Farley Girls Cafe. When we bring the dogs, we almost always head to Mosquito Cafe for good food and the dog-friendly patio. It is a drive down the San Luis Pass but The West End restaurant is also delicious and has a nice view. The best view is likely at Woody’s Beach Bar on Termini-San Luis Pass, which is also West but an easy drive from downtown. It attracts many bikers and only serves drinks, but they have live music and it is a great spot to watch the sunset.
On our next visit, we plan to bring our cruiser bikes and rent a downtown cottage so that we can explore some of the other highly reviewed food stops, such as Rudy & Paco, Eatcetera, Smooth Tony’s Patio and Grill, and Sunflower Bakery and Cafe. But in addition to these options for dining out, our best experiences are usually purchasing groceries and cooking at our rental home.
So, the bottom line is that I would not guarantee that Galveston is the right getaway for you. Take my thoughts into consideration and then do a little digging on your own. If you go, make sure to check out some options off the beaten path. And check out the vacation rentals too, especially if you will be traveling with a large family for a weekend or longer. I also prefer the Fall over the Summer, when the temperatures are a little cooler.
If you see a car with a bike rack and smiling dogs lapping up the ocean air from open windows, then wave at us as you pass by. We will be on our way to an exhausting good time.
Some other places on my list to try:
Activities to try: