Historic Galveston Texas and Fun Things To do There

They call it the Causeway Cure – that feeling of immense relaxation that happens when you cross the bridge from mainland Texas to Galveston Island. The traffic slows down, the breeze blows the cobwebs from your brain and well, life seems just a bit more manageable on Galveston Island.

It was my first trip to Galveston and yep, I found it – the cure to life’s frustrations – in a long weekend of exploring the treasures and treats of this barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mural welcoming visitors to Galveston Texas

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What To Do On Galveston Island

I like my history, so I was intrigued to learn that Galveston at one point had been the second largest immigration point in the U.S., just after Ellis Island. Between 1906 and 1914, more than 50,000 immigrants came to the U.S. through Galveston. Most were from all over Europe, but also Central and South America. Galveston was called the Ellis Island of the West.

That’s the story behind the Ship to Shore Museum, which opened in 2021. It’s one of those interactive museums where you become a character in the story. You are assigned to be one of 24 people who were real immigrants to the U.S. from Galveston. Their stories are authentic and you do not learn until the end if you were allowed to enter the United States.

The inspectors were first looking for diseases, like tuberculosis, as well as other signs of “infirmity” or “mental feebleness” that would prohibit you from being a hard worker and earning an “honest living.” Of course, this inspection was sometimes used to exclude various races or religions from entering the U.S. There were just as many turned back as were admitted to the country.

Much of the reality of the immigrant experience comes from the odors. Imagine you are in the hull of a boat for weeks, in cramped conditions with hundreds of other people, many seasick, with limited opportunities for bathing. One of the exhibits is a toilet and when you open the door, you smell it all – the vomit, the urine, the perspiration. Close the door quickly.

It’s an outstanding museum that teaches most of us to appreciate our ancestors and the sacrifices so many made, and continue to make, to become citizens of the United States.

The Juneteenth Story on Galveston Island

Of course, not everyone who came to the U.S. did so under such pleasant conditions. Those were the ones who came in shackles in slave ships. Even if they did not arrive on American soil via Galveston, this island is a significant part of their story.

It was here in June 1865 that General Gordon Granger of the Union Army read Executive Order No. 3. That was the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It took three years for enslaved people in Texas to learn they were free.

This parking lot at 22nd and Strand in Galveston is the exact spot where Granger announced the end of slavery. This mural is incredible – 126 long and 38 feet high. If you hold your camera over one of the five circles, a small movie starts on your phone that tells an in-depth story about the fight for freedom and the birth Juneteenth in Galveston.

Just behind that mural is the office and a small, but growing museum for the Juneteenth Legacy Project. Step inside to see the latest exhibit and pick up a map for a driving tour of significant sights in Galveston.

More Things to do on Galveston Island

Those where my favorite things to do on Galveston Island, but I recognize not everyone is the history geek that I am. We also visited Moody Gardens, which is a destination in its own right. With a hotel, golf course and amusement park, you could stay there for days and be entertained. We visited the botanical gardens under a pyramid and the aquarium. I loved the aquarium and meeting this adorable rockhopper penguin named Marley.

If you are a gardener, or just like to stop and smell the oleander when you travel, Galveston is known for its abundance of oleander, a beautiful tropical bush that survives hurricanes and more.

We also attended a concert at the beautifully restored Grand Opera House that dates to 1894. The Galveston Railroad Museum is fabulous if you love trains. They have a couple of rail cars that are available for overnight stays. A few years back, I spent the night on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and then swayed for two days later. These trains are stationary, so that wouldn’t be a problem.

Where to Stay on Galveston Island

If you’re into trains, stay in the railroad museum. Instead, we stayed at the historic Tremont House Hotel downtown. The rooftop bar is lovely and if you’re into ghost tours, this place is haunted.

But we also had dinner at the equally historic Grand Galvez Hotel, right on the waterfront. It’s the kind of place where all of the presidents visit and Frank Sinatra spent a lot of time. Back in the day, it was known for illicit gambling and alcohol. There’s a story about peacocks parading through the lobby, but we didn’t see any while we were there.

Where to Eat on Galveston Island

You will love all of the fabulous independent restaurants on Galveston Island. Let’s start with breakfast: You must experience the Star Drug Store. Open since 1909, it’s considered the oldest drug store in Texas. In addition to good food, you must stroll around both levels, checking out the weird collection of weird stuff for sale. It’s a hoot. You can also book a room above the drug store.

If I had to be stranded on a desert island with only one food to eat the rest of my life, it would be pecan pie. It is my goal to taste test every pecan pie on the planet to ascertain which one I will take to the desert island with me. And at Gaido’s Restaurant in Galveston, I found the winner.

Gaido’s has been around forever, another one of those places that all of the presidents visit when they are on the island. The Bushes had their own designated table. Gaido’s is right on the ocean and is known for seafood. And Pecan Pie.

We also ate at a funky Tex-Mex place called Taquilo’s. I highly recommend it as well as an Italian place called Riondo’s. Another good breakfast place is the Mosquito Cafe. The list is endless.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with Galveston. I’m going back. Will I see you there?