Overview

Galveston, Texas, is a charming, slow-paced island city along the Gulf of Mexico. A popular Texas tourism destination, Galveston is home to lots of lovely beaches, restored 19th-century storefronts and fancy Victorian mansions. Galveston has approximately 1,500 landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The commercial buildings in Galveston's Strand National Historic Landmark District, now commonly called the Historic Downtown Shopping District, are among the finest collections of Victorian iron-front architecture in the U.S. This area houses boutiques, bars, restaurants and galleries. It's also the site of major entertainment festivals such as Mardi Gras (February or March) and Dickens on the Strand (December).

The nearby revitalized Postoffice Street Arts and Entertainment District, considered part of Galveston's Historic Downtown Shopping District, is home to Gallery Row and its art galleries.

For these reasons, Galveston attracts thousands of visitors who find that a stroll downtown can be just as pleasant as a walk on one of its beaches.

Geography

The city of Galveston (about 50 mi/80 km southeast of Houston on Interstate 45) sits on the northeastern tip of a barrier island called Galveston Island and is separated from mainland Texas by Galveston Bay. The city's southern shore is lapped (and occasionally lashed) by the Gulf of Mexico.

The city is connected to the mainland by a multilane causeway at the southern tip of I-45. Daily ferry service also connects the island's east end to the Bolivar Peninsula and Highway 87. Once visitors cross the causeway, I-45 turns into Broadway Avenue, one of the city's two main thoroughfares, which crosses the center of the island in an east-west direction. To the south is Seawall Boulevard, which follows the Seawall and the beach. Cruise passengers going to the island take the Harborside Drive Exit (the first exit after crossing the causeway) to get to the Port of Galveston.

History

The history of Galveston has been largely shaped by its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the evidence of Galveston's early inhabitants has been washed away by hurricanes. We do know, however, that the Akokisa hunted, fished and camped in the area and were there when Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked in 1528.

In the late 1600s, Galveston was claimed for France and named St. Louis by French explorer Robert Cavelier La Salle. The Spanish returned in the mid-18th century and built a presidio, which they named Galveztown for the Spanish governor of nearby Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez. (The spelling later evolved into Galveston.) Spain's relations with France disintegrated, and the Spanish left the island to the French.

When the French gave up their U.S. colonies, they turned Galveston over to Mexican revolutionaries, who stayed until pirate Jean Lafitte made the island the base of his operations beginning in 1817. After attacking an American ship in 1821, Lafitte was forced to abandon the island, but only after he threw a big party and burned his settlement. Some claim he left behind buried treasure, but it has never been found.

In the late 1830s, the colony joined Texas in its revolution against Mexico. Once Texas won its independence in 1836, Galveston became a major port and was incorporated as a city in 1839. During the Civil War, Union troops captured the port, but the Confederates reclaimed it near the end of the war.

By the late 1800s, Galveston was the third-largest port in the U.S. and a major international business and banking center. (Strand Street, its main thoroughfare at the time, was known as the Wall Street of the South.)

Then disaster struck. On 8 September 1900, the city was lashed by a hurricane—still the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history. The low-lying barrier island was swept by winds estimated at 140 mph/225 kph and a storm surge of nearly 16 ft/5 m. When the hurricane—known to locals as the 1900 Storm—was over, more than 6,000 people had died, the port had been wiped out and 3,600 buildings had been destroyed.

To prevent such destruction in the future, a 4-mi-/6-km-long seawall was erected and, using sand dredged from surrounding waterways, much of the island's grade was raised from 6 ft/2 m to almost 18 ft/5 m above sea level. Another hurricane in 1915, almost as fierce, tested the Seawall, and it held. Today, the Seawall stretches 10 mi/16 km and is 16-20 ft/5-6 m high.

The fear of another catastrophe and neighboring Houston's growing importance led to the dredging of a ship channel between Houston and Trinity Bay, helping to make the larger city the new economic hub of the state. Through the 1920s-'50s, Galveston survived as a resort town, with dinner clubs and casinos drawing top-name entertainers and attracting people from around the world before the Texas Rangers shut down a number of illegal activities in 1957. The city's fortunes declined again until the late 1960s, when it was rediscovered as a beach retreat.

Unlike many cities where progress resulted in the leveling of entire inner-city neighborhoods, Galveston's slow-moving economy allowed its lovely turn-of-the-century structures to be ignored, but not destroyed. When preservationists became interested in Galveston, they discovered some of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the U.S. The subsequent restoration effort has increased since 2000 and sparked an unheralded construction boom as more and more major investors recognize the island as a major tourist destination.

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike caused massive destruction in Galveston and throughout southeast Texas. The 12-ft/4-m storm surge erased large swaths of beach on the island's west end, pulled homes from their pilings and flooded the first floors of elegant Victorian mansions, museums and stores in the historical downtown district. New hotels were built along the tourist district and others were completely refurbished, once again proving the Texas-sized strength and resilience of this pretty seaside town.

Sightseeing

A day in Galveston can be spent exploring and lazing about the beach, visiting its largest family attraction, Moody Gardens, or actively touring some of the historic homes and businesses that have withstood hurricanes, fire and modern development. (Don't be put off by the incongruity of the city. Juxtaposed between gas stations and laundromats are resplendent Victorian villas. The city's crazy-quilt nature is simply part of its charm.)

The Strand National Historic Landmark District is probably the best place to begin sightseeing. It's generally known only as "the Strand," although city officials have changed the name to the Historic Downtown Shopping District so as not to limit interest only to the street named Strand. The commercial buildings are among the finest collections of Victorian iron-front architecture in the U.S. The six blocks between 19th and 25th streets made up the most important commercial district in Texas from 1875 to 1900. Today you can stroll along the avenues, see the ornate storefronts and wander through shops, art galleries and restaurants.

If you want to see more of the historic architecture, visit the East End Historic District (11th through 19th streets between Market and Broadway) and the Silk Stocking Historic District (along 24th and 25th streets between avenues L and O). Both can be toured on foot. The East End is where the wealthy residents of the city lived from the late 1800s to early 1900s, and there are numerous beautiful homes to admire. The Silk Stocking Historic District takes its name from the well-to-do ladies of the precinct who could afford to wear silk stockings. It offers excellent examples of 19th-century architecture. Maps of self-guided walking tours are available from the visitors center.

In May, the Galveston Historical Foundation sponsors its annual Homes Tour, which offers visitors a glimpse inside several restored houses, including those that have survived fires and storms.

Nightlife

Unlike its larger northern neighbor Houston, Galveston is not renowned for its nightlife, but you can find fun places to dance, listen to music and drink cocktails.

Postoffice Street and the Strand have the most offerings. You can stroll from one bar to the next, stopping at quiet piano bars as well as livelier neighborhood pubs with live music on weekends.

Dining

Most of Galveston's restaurants are concentrated along Seawall Boulevard and the Historic Downtown Shopping District (also referred to as The Strand), as well as at Pier 21. Not surprisingly, seafood is a specialty, but you'll find Louisiana Cajun, too, and some of the restaurants on the island are owned by the locally based Landry's corporation.

When you've had your fill of seafood, you'll find a proliferation of Tex-Mex restaurants, as well as a handful of Italian cafes and a few sushi places.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.

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