Galveston’s location off the coast of Texas makes it a prime location for cruise ships that are embarking and docking. But, thanks to the island’s history as a resort, its sunny beaches, and its many exciting and entertaining attractions, Galveston’s worth exploring for a day (or two!) before or after a cruise. Whether you’ve got a few hours or a few days to kill, make sure to visit at least one of Galveston’s can’t-miss spots!
You could easily spend hours at Moody Gardens, another must-see in Galveston. When you arrive, you’ll be greeted by three huge glass pyramids—one that houses a rainforest environment with beautiful exotic parrots, gorgeous flowers, Saki monkeys, and other endangered plants and animals, another that features a 1.5-million gallon aquarium teeming with sharks, stingrays, and penguins (although not in the same tank) and a third containing a discovery museum that features different exhibits. You also can enjoy a one-hour tour aboard an 1800s paddlewheel boat that’s well worth the $10, among other things. You just might have so much fun that you can’t bear to leave. If that’s the case, book a room on-site Pro tip: Check the website for discounts on admission for children and senior citizens.
During the late 1800s, Galveston was home to a number of really prosperous families. In fact, it was occasionally referred to as the “Wall Street of the South.” Even though a lot of the grandeur from this period tragically was ruined by the hurricane of 1900, some of the stunning homes—such as Moody Mansion—have been restored. The 28,000 square-foot building, originally completed in 1895, was home to the Moodys, a powerful Texas family who helmed a massive cotton empire. Visit the mansion’s 20 rooms to get a sense of what it would have been like to be a member of this elite family.
Next, head over to The Strand District for a little stroll. Start near the corner of 25th and Strand, directly across from the Galveston Island Railroad Museum, one of the nation’s most popular rail museums. Here, you can enjoy all of the fascinating displays in about 30 to 45 minutes. Then, take a peek in some of the great shops, such as Tina’s, an adorable boutique, while enjoying the district's beautiful historic buildings, many of which actually survived the 1900 storm.
Make a stop at La King’s Confectionery to treat your sweet tooth to fresh saltwater taffy and other handcrafted delights, including some of the best homemade ice cream in Texas. They still employ the “old world” candy-making practices learned by Jimmy King in 1927 and brought to The Strand in 1976 by his son Jack. You actually get to watch the taffy being made during your visit, and if you’ve never had fresh saltwater taffy 30 seconds after it’s been wrapped up, you need to… it’s a revelation.
For a more “otherworldly” taste of Galveston history, book a room at the Hotel Galvez & Spa. If you’re here on a Thursday night, you can reserve a spot on the “Dinner with Ghosts” tour to learn about the hotel’s haunted history, which has been featured on Discovery Channel and Travel Channel. Audra, a 1950s bride-to-be who took her own life thinking she had lost her great love to a storm at sea. In a cruel twist of fate, her beloved actually survived his journey and came back to find his betrothed dead… although she is said to still be walking the hotel halls. The hotel has an on-site restaurant that serves up some pretty outstanding meals. If you stay overnight, ask for the highest room possible to get the best views of the gorgeous beachfront. This is an especially great spot to stay if you’re in town for a cruise, since they offer shuttles to and from the port.
Speaking of the beach, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is the spot for old-school boardwalk entertainment. It offers 16 main attractions, including games for kids of all ages, although you have to be at least 48-inches to enjoy some of the rides. If you’re going to be in town all day, pay extra for the ride-all-day wristbands upfront so you can come back later to appreciate the boardwalk all lit up and catch a sunset from the pier.
There are plenty of places to find fresh seafood on the island, but there’s more to Galveston than just shrimp and fish. The Pier 21 location of Olympia Grill serves up delicious Greek food—including plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free dishes—in a family-friendly atmosphere. Start with the combo appetizer, which includes hummus, falafel, dolmades, and more, and then follow that up with a juicy gyro topped with tangy tzatziki sauce. If you’re worried about a crowd, they take reservations!
Another museum you can fit into a short visit is the Lone Star Flight Museum, which will teach you a lot about the state’s impressive aviation history. The museum houses more than 40 restored aircraft—most in working condition—and chronicles important events in Texas aviation as well as the lives of many brave pilots. It also includes the official Texas Aviation Hall of Fame!
If you have the time, get up close and personal with dolphins on a BayWatch Dolphin Tour. Tours are $10 a person and leave from Pier 21—a great place to grab a fresh seafood meal before or after you depart. Pro tip: They say that the best time to see the dolphins frolicking in the wake is during the last tour of the day. Sit on the boat’s left side for the best view!
Nonno Tony’s Seafood Kitchen is just one of those special places. Named for the Italian patriarch of the restaurant, this eatery is a great place to bring family and friends thanks to its upbeat atmosphere and extensive menu. You’ll find everything from classic Italian dishes and Asian fusion-inspired meals to Creole options and traditional American favorites. Everything Nonno Tony’s makes is prepared in an open kitchen; the steam kettle and brick ovens only add to the ambiance.
Whether you’re waiting to board a cruise ship or you’ve just disembarked from one, take a moment to step back in time with a visit to the Tall Ship Elissa. For a small fee ($9 to $12), you’ll get to see this real and restored three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship, originally built in 1877. You’re free to walk around on your own, or you can get some guidance from the well-educated and dedicated volunteer staff on-site. They’ll answer your questions about the ship as well as about the port of Galveston in general.
If you’ve seen the movie Armageddon—and even if you haven’t—you’ll enjoy a tour of this working oil rig where scenes from the film were shot. You probably won’t see Ben Affleck during your visit, but you will get a really up-close education about how oil rigs work as well as see where people lived during their days at sea. All in all, enjoying everything that the museum offers won’t take much of your time, but you’ll gain a new appreciation for and understanding of an industry that’s had such a huge impact on our world.
There are plenty of ways to explore Galveston and experience what makes it such a special place, even if you only have a few hours to spare. Whether you’re looking to delve into the island’s unique history, sample the local delicacies, or just relax in its natural beauty, there’s no wrong way to spend a day in Galveston.
The siren song of breaking waves draws visitors to Galveston Island’s beaches generation after generation. Warm breezes and year-round temperate seas complement the city’s rich historic districts, unique attractions, and bustling shops. Galveston’s relaxed island atmosphere is only 50 minutes from Houston, yet a world away in spirit.