A non-traditional Beach town
Closest Major City: Houston
When to Go
Galveston is a great place to visit year round with plenty of beach-going in the spring to fall as well as events like Dickens on the Strand that brings visitors in the winter.
Galveston’s Rich history
It’s hard to believe without visiting Galveston that it was once the largest city in Texas, the “Wall Street of the South”, the “Ellis Island of the West”, a safe haven for pirates, and the Sin City of the South. One may be tempted to dismiss the monumental importance the city had on the growth of Texas and our nation, but when you walk the streets of the sleepy Victorian city its historic grandeur is palpable. The ghosts and stories of its past are evident on every corner, in the mansions of sheer magnitude and beauty basking in the ocean air and the pylons that are the last remnants of where celebrities would flock to gamble and play. Located only an hour’s drive from Houston and with its own private airport, the iconic and unmistakable beach city awaits you to explore its waters, streets and past.
Founding an Icon 1816 - 1900
The island of Galveston was named Galvez or Galveztown after Bernardo de Gálvez by the Spanish explorer Jose De Evia who mapped the island in 1785. Originally the island was inhabited by the Karankawa and Akokisa tribes until the arrival of a certain French pirate by the name of Louis-Michel Aury in 1816 who established a pirate colony on the island with the aid of another famous pirate Jean Laffite. Laffite remained on the island as the head of the “Compeche” and used it as a base during his many raids on merchant ships in Central American ports until the United States Navy forced his leave in 1821. He took with him all his loot and burnt the pirate fortress down as he left the island for good.
In 1939, after the purchase of thousands of acres of land on the island by Michel Menard and others, the Republic of Texas adopted Galveston and incorporated it. Over the next sixty years the city experienced astronomical growth it became the largest port city in Texas, a center for trade, the immigration center for the West and had incredible innovations. In Texas, it was the first to have lights, the first telephones, the first bakery, the first medical college, the first opera house and the second largest economy in the nation. Being the largest city in Texas and the economic hub of the south in the 1800s certainly had its perks. Presidents, celebrities, businessmen and vacationers were drawn to the island city for business opportunities, the access to beach and luxuries like the iconic Beach Hotel. The city continued to prosper and operate peacefully until one September day… the great hurricane of 1900.
Recovery, Gambling, & Renaissance 1900 - 2018
Galveston would never be the same after the 1900 storm which still is the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, claiming over 8,000 lives. Recovery efforts included raising the city and all the houses by 17ft and creating a seawall to aid storm surges in future hurricanes. Despite their attempts the city would never regain its former glory, many moved due to the trauma of losing friends and family, others pursued business upstream in Houston. In 1909 Houston dredged the Houston Ship Channel, putting to rest any hope of the city ever being a commercial trade hub again. However, in the 1920’s the city had a resurgence in tourism and locals Sam and Rosario Maceo began their bootlegging empire. The two brothers were incremental during the prohibition in providing booze and gambling to wealthy Houstonians such as Howard Hughes and other out-of-towners. They established several clubs over the next thirty years, the most famous being the Balinese Room where Sinatra would come to play. The city was bustling once again and was donned, in an Italian mafia fashion, as the Sin City of the South until 1957 when the Texas Rangers had successful raids on the clubs.
Galveston today is in a sort of renaissance. Efforts from the locals, historians, the city and investors like Tilman Fertitta have brought a renewed confidence in the city. Beautification projects have been taken to revitalize beaches, parks, streets and historic neighborhoods. New businesses are flourishing off of increased cruise ship traffic out of the Galveston port and the increasing number of students at UTMB and A&M Galveston.
Flying into Galveston
Scholes International Airport (GLS)
On-site 24-hour ARFF station
No landing fees
Air traffic control services 6 am to 6 pm daily
24-hour passenger and pilot lounge
Outside of Class B airspace
24-hour weather service
Navigational Aids: GPS, ILS, RNAV, VOR/DME, VORTAC, ASOS
Two 6,000' x 150' runways to accommodate a wide variety of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters
In the 1920’s Robert (Bob) Scholes and Fen Waters (among others) were aviation enthusiasts offering private rides and aerobatic demonstrations in Galveston before the issuance of pilot licenses. At the time they were utilizing East beach as a runway until the city forced them to cease. Fen was offered a piece of land by a friend and local farmer which became Galveston Municipal Airport in 1931.
For a brief time in 1938 it was renamed after a Galveston local Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan until World War II when it was designated a United States Army Air Corps base under the name of “Galveston Army Air Field”. The Army Corps of Engineers then designed and built three 6,000ft strips to accommodate military aircraft operations on the site. In January of 1943 the base was officially activated as the 46th bombardment group, flying the Douglas A-20 Havoc and later Lockheed Venturas, pursuing antisubmarine missions in the Gulf of Mexico. The fields primary use was for the 407th Fighter-Bomber Group, a replacement crew gunnery training group, with over 2500 enlisted men onsite. The base was officially deactivated on November 15, 1945 and the airports ownership returned to the city who renamed it Scholes Field, after the local aviation pioneer Bob Scholes.
What to do in Galveston
Swimming & Surfing
Most people don’t associate surfing with Texas, rather cowboy boots, ranching, oil and Walker Texas ranger, but our state is full of great places to “tie up your horse” and surf. Galveston boasts some of the best surfing in the state and an experience that you can’t get anywhere else .
A little south of the busy beaches by the famous “Pleasure Pier with faster waves, deeper water and a good chance for tubes.
A short drive south from Galveston and Jamaica Beach, Surfside is probably the best spot to surf on the Texas Gulf. A lot of wave variety here, which can get real wild when storms are in. Long jettys that offer a great chance to jump onto some peelers. Great for long-boards and short-boards with locals offering lessons and rentals on the beach.
Ship Channel - Tanker Surfing
Surfing wakes is not an uncommon thing, but surfing waves off of cargo ships coming into port definitely is. Captain James Fullbright pioneered the sport in Galveston in the 1990’s with his surf crew and offers charters to advance long boarders only. The location that you surf at depends on the bays traffic, size and shape of the ship, and of course skill level. What you can expect, chasing after ships, paddling hard to catch the wake, possibly surfing in oyster reefs, being joined by dolphin pods and riding for minutes at a time in pure bliss.
Is the water brown?
For most Texans, the ideal vacation spot on the Gulf Coast is and always will be South Padre Island or Mustang Beach near Corpus Christi and for good reasons including white sand beaches, blue water and some of the best waves on the coast. Comparatively Galveston has been a little lackluster when it comes to the beach and color of the water, which for almost a century has remained a certain shade of brown due to currents bringing sediment from the Trinity, Atchafalaya and Mississippi rivers. Contrary to what many may believe the water at Galveston is actually cleaner than Corpus Christi. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality takes samples from Texas beaches 40 times a year Corpus Christi beaches are more unsafe to swim with unsafe levels of bacteria around 30-50% of the time tested. Yes, the water in Galveston might be a little green or brown, but when rain levels are low and the currents are right it can be blue.
What to see in Galveston
Victorian Era Architecture
The 1900 hurricane and the disaster it laid on the city pushed the economic development upward to Galveston’s sister city Houston. Although thousands of original structures were lost to time and water, Galveston still has an impressive amount of Victorian style homes. If you are a history buff or lover of Victorian architecture then you walk around the Historic East End and Avenue O which boast some of the most Iconic and extravagant homes in the state.
Where to stay in Galveston
There are a lot of great spots to get rest after a long day of flying or swimming in Galveston, however in the spirit of an Victorian era beach holiday we narrowed it down to our top three hotels.