Galveston is a strange city,” I scribbled in my notebook on a recent visit, a sentiment that over the next several days would only grow more pronounced, along with my affection for the island town. On the one hand, its enticements are obvious. Some six million visitors come every year to loaf on the sandy shores along the seawall and ride the Ferris wheel at the Pleasure Pier and buy T-shirts at the souvenir shops in the Strand District and gobble up crawfish by the pound at Benno’s on the Beach. Indeed, tourism has been Galveston’s chief economic play ever since the Great Storm of 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in United States history, forever changed the city’s trajectory. What was once Texas’s most profitable cotton port and the country’s second-richest boomtown instead settled into its fate as the state’s sunniest, most Atlantic City–esque playground.
But just under Galveston’s festive surface lie dichotomies that give the place a curious electricity: the fleeting and the permanent, the kitschy and the genteel, the fortunes made and the fortunes lost at the whims of a capricious sea. So while I made the obligatory trek to the beach (which, though recently fortified by a million cubic yards of new sand, would never be called Texas’s most picturesque stretch of coast), I found the city’s real vibrancy elsewhere: in the East End’s ornate Victorian-era homes, which have beautifully defied history’s battery of hurricanes, and also in the front-yard sculptures fashioned from some of the thousands of trees lost in the storm surge of Hurricane Ike. In the community of anglers chattering in a multitude of languages as they fish off the jetty at Seawolf Park on Pelican Island, formerly a welcoming point for boatloads of immigrants arriving at the turn of the century. And in the aesthetic juxtapositions downtown, where modern enterprises give new purpose to old buildings whose walls wear high-water marks like badges, testaments to Galveston’s unfaltering resiliency.
SEE + DO
History is a “high adventure” at the Bryan Museum (1), where some 70,000 artifacts, like Stephen F. Austin’s cattle-horn powder flask, tell tales of Texas’s past. To get schooled on Galveston’s bygone days, tour the 1892 Bishop’s Palace (2), a Victorian stunner that’s survived multiple storms, and visit Seawolf Park (3), once an immigration entry site on Pelican Island and now a popular fishing (and ship-watching) spot.
EAT + DRINK
Detour from the well-trod tourist paths for crawfish-and-jalapeño mac and cheese at the Gypsy Joynt (4), a family-run hideout that relocated from the Berkshires last year. For seafood along the seawall, you can eat crabs alfresco at Benno’s on the Beach, or tuck into campechana and gumbo at BLVD Seafood (5). At Mosquito Cafe (6), cap your breakfast with a lemon bar from sister bakery PattyCakes.
The owners of Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor (7) scour ship-breaking yards around the world to bring back brass passageway lights, rope bumpers, and other cool seaworthy salvage. Marine-minded decorators will find driftwood tables and framed surfing photographs at Luna Home & Gifts.
Located blocks from the Galveston Channel, the neo-Renaissance-style Tremont House (8) is an oasis of elegance amid the Strand’s tourist-friendly diversions. Standard rooms are on the small side, but all quarters impress with high ceilings and windows with plantation shutters. If you want to stay on the Gulf side, book an ocean-view room at the sophisticated Hotel Galvez.