Some of my best childhood memories in Texas involve beach time in Galveston. Hitting the coast was a weekly family event during the summer complete with sand castle contests (fights) and lobster-red backsides despite ample layers of Coppertone. But after being marooned in California, it had been years since my last visit. Now that I’m back, it’s been fun diving into this beach-lined city. Whether you’re looking for activities before or after cruising with Carnival or Royal Caribbean (both launch from Pier 21) or just interested in an affordable beach vacation without the oceanfront price tag, Galveston has a boatload of options. 

Life’s a Beach

Galveston is anchored by a string of beaches where activities abound on and off the water. I spent most summers on the east side of the island (Stewart Beach was a favorite) collecting shells and dipping my “baloney” sandwich in the sand. This waterfront area is known for public beaches that offer food, volleyball courts and rentable umbrellas, boogie, surf and paddleboards. 

The western shores are home to private and rentable beach homes and condos. If you’re looking for more seclusion, go west. Pirates Beach and Jamaica Beach are both great options. Need supplies? Rent just about anything (think surf boards, kayaks, bikes, golf carts, chairs, canopies and more) from Island-famous Rick’s Beach Rentals. A plus: they deliver right to your towel! 

Ready for tasty waves? Try your balance (and patience) with surf lessons taught by local experts. The Gulf’s warm water and sandy bottoms create perfect conditions for the beginner and the area provides plenty of swells to satisfy the more gnarly (skilled) set. 

I don’t know about you, but after a long day in the sun, I get thirsty. If you’re parched too, head to Woody’s second story deck for a bucket of cold beer as you watch the sun sink slowly into the sea. 

Going Ashore

If you’d rather stay dry, there’s plenty to see along the famous seawall that was built in 1902 after the 1900 hurricane. This protective sidewalk winds along the Gulf and is one of the longest in the world stretching just over 10 miles. The area is home to pedestrians, but it’s easy to take a load off with rentable bikes and charming, open-air wheeled surreys. And if you can handle heckling from friends, opt for a segway—just stand up and go! 

Whether on foot or wheels be sure to check out Pleasure Pier located on the east shore. This seaside attraction opened in June and is modeled after California’s Santa Monica Pier complete with rides including a roller coaster that jets out over the water, Midway games, dining, and of course, ice cream. Brand new and very clean, I spent several hours on the pier and never once found gum on my shoe. Trust me, Santa Monica can’t make this promise.

Not into coasters or cotton candy? Head to Murdoch’s, one of my favorite seawall haunts. This family-owned business has been here since 1910 and has laughed in the face of every wave that tried to wash it down. It’s also home to every shell/fish/beach/sand-themed souvenir you can imagine. A beachy bonus: their deck (complete with crisp white Adirondack chairs) rests over the water providing beautiful ocean views and a menu of tasty, post-shopping cocktails. 

Hungry? You can’t visit the island without noshing on local seafood. One of the most famous spots is Gaido’s

My grandparents loved taking me here as a kid, so I have fond recollections of bottomless Shirley Temple mock-tails, fried shrimp and the warm, post-meal washcloth served in a tiny silver boat. The washcloths are gone, but the food is still clean and fresh. And the adult beverages are decidedly stronger than a Shirley Temple, thank goodness. 

Culture Up, Out and Around

Venturing beyond the beach you’ll find a city brimming with history and unique attractions. Locals (lovingly referred to as “BOIs” – Born On the Island or “IBCs” – Islander By Choice) take pride in honoring the heritage and restoring damage from hurricanes that almost destroyed but ultimately enlivened the island. 

Take the Galveston Tree Conservancy tree sculptures. After Ike hit in 2008, this group began commissioning artists to create sculptures from fallen tree skeletons as a way to replace devastation with beauty that symbolizes the city’s rejuvenation. More than 30 sculptures dust the streets—you’ll see a variety of ocean-themed carvings like dolphins and birds as well as a Dalmatian puppy. And an angel. Holding. Baby. Bunnies!  

The Strand is a historic quadrant of downtown lined with Victorian era buildings housing unique dining, antiques and curio shops. This National Historic Landmark brings visitors every day, but there are two annual events that fill the streets with added revelry, costumes and beads: Dickens on the Strand in December and Mardi Gras in February. 

A few blocks over sits Post Office Street, another cultural landmark swelling with galleries, beach-themed installations and artifacts as well as a popular bi-monthly art walk event. Texas’s first opera house is also nearby. The Grand 1894 Opera House’s majestic interiors conjures up the past, but the state of the art sound showcases present and future greatness with a variety of acts from The Nutcracker and Lord of the Dance to Jerry Jeff Walker and Johnny Mathis.  

Galveston is more than just a beach town – it’s a historic city with plenty of wet and dry offerings for tourists to soak up year round.