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The now-trendy resort town of Galveston is located on a barrier island just two miles off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. It's not just well-known for its 32-mile-long beach shaped by wind and waves, but also for its charming Victorian architecture scattered throughout the downtown historic districts.
Once one of the wealthiest cities in Texas and the "Wall Street of the South," Galveston was nearly swept away by a devastating hurricane in 1900, which killed more than 6,000 people. In 2008, Hurricane Ike made a direct hit, damaging 75 percent of the city's homes and causing more than $3.2 billion in damage. But, the city's 17-foot seawall (a must for strolling), which was built after the 1900 storm, held up to Ike, preventing total devastation, and the waterfront town of Galveston has once again returned to its former glory.
With its visitor-friendly historic district and a host of attractions, ranging from a massive water park to an indoor rainforest with 1,000 species of exotic plants, Galveston offers cruisegoers enough to do to fill a couple of pre- or post-cruise days. Very few ports are as walkable as Galveston; the downtown area of the city is literally right across the street from the terminal buildings. The proximity of the port to many sightseeing-worthy venues is a definite plus. For example, several neighborhoods on the National Register of Historic Places are within walking distance, including the Strand District, where you'll find plenty of shops and restaurants amid Victorian iron-front buildings, and the East End District, where you'll spot exquisite gems like Bishop's Palace.
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Other U.S.A. Cruise Ports:
Baltimore • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charleston • Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades) • Galveston • Honolulu • Houston • Jacksonville • Key West • Los Angeles • Miami • Mobile • New Orleans • New York (Brooklyn, Red Hook) • New York (Manhattan) • Norfolk • Orlando (Port Canaveral) • Philadelphia • Port Canaveral • Portland (Maine) • San Diego • San Francisco • Seattle • St. Louis • Tampa
Galveston is known for its large collection of 19th-century architecture; pick up picture postcards as souvenirs. Or, see a performance of the Galveston Symphony Orchestra or Galveston Ballet at the historic Grand 1894 Opera House, and keep your program as a memento. If you're a little more irreverent, pick up a "Galveston -- Just like the Glenn Campbell song, but totally different" T-shirt at the Bishop's Palace gift shop. Another option for anyone with a sweet tooth is a bag of candy from LaKing's Confectionery, located on The Strand.
English is the primary language spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
As Galveston is part of the U.S., the currency is the U.S. dollar. International visitors will find it easy to access cash at numerous ATM machines. Exchange bureaus so common in Europe are not in the U.S., but major banks also provide exchange services. Most banks are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some are open on Saturday mornings.
Where You're Docked
You'll dock at the Port of Galveston on Harborside Drive. If you're sailing on a Carnival ship, you'll be embarking your ship at Terminal 1. If you're on a Royal Caribbean ship, head to Terminal 2. Editor's Note: On days when two ships are in port (usually Sundays), it's best to arrive between 1:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. to avoid the crowds.
A total of $65 million has been invested in expanding and improving the terminal, which includes a huge passenger waiting area (to accommodate passengers during fog delays), expanded check-in stations and VIP check-in. Large wall signs with area maps have also been hung around the facade of the terminal building; codes on the maps are able to be scanned with cell phone applications for easy navigation of the city. Another $12 million worth of improvements is in the works for things like adding terminal-wide Wi-Fi. Additional improvements currently being undertaken include construction to turn a nearby parking garage into an area for restaurants, complete with a bridge from the building straight into the cruise terminal; LED signage to direct arriving passengers to proper parking areas; and promotional materials that include bus wraps. The terminal is very close to the Strand and all the beaches and attractions. You'll find in town all the usual services, such as telephones, ATM's, etc.
The George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is about 70 miles (roughly 1.5 hours) from Galveston. Hobby Airport (HOU) is closer at about 40 miles (45 minutes to an hour), but there are generally fewer flight options to and from Hobby.
At either airport you'll find all the major car rental agencies, such as Enterprise, National, Avis, Dollar, Thrifty and Hertz. At George Bush Intercontinental Airport (about an hour and a half from Galveston), major car rental companies are located in one common area called the Consolidated Rental Car Facility. Look for the white-and-maroon shuttle buses. Editor's Note: There's an Enterprise car rental location near the cruise terminal, so it's possible to rent at the airport and return in Galveston.
Parking is available at the cruise terminal and will run about $10 a day. Free shuttle service from the parking facilities to the piers is available.
Galveston Limousine offers frequent service from both airports to the cruise terminal in Galveston for about $100 per person roundtrip from IAH and $80 from Hobby. Other limousine companies include Karr Limousine and Action Limousines.
Taxi service from both airports is another option. The fare from Hobby is $95, and from George Bush Intercontinental, $160, plus tip. (The fare is not dependent on number of passengers; a family of four pays the same as a single.) There are a number of taxi companies in Galveston: Busy Bee (409-762-8429), Yellow Cab Company (409-763-3333), Jeff's Cabs and Shuttle Service (409-621-5222) and Tropical Taxi (409-621-4000).
Cruise lines typically offer motorcoach services between the airport and Galveston; these are generally available both as part of air/sea packages and a la carte.
Galveston is a walking paradise, but if you prefer to get around on wheels, consider Island Transit, the city's public transportation system. It operates daily, covering 27 square miles, and stops at designated bus stops and intersections. Fare is $1. Service along most routes runs from approximately 6:15 a.m. until about 7 p.m. (The Bayou Seawall Loop runs until about 11 p.m.) The Galveston Trolley was severely damaged during Hurricane Ike, and it is currently being repaired.
Watch Out For
Although Galveston is small and its people polite, be aware of your surroundings, don't wear flashy jewelry, and leave unnecessary valuables (including excessive amounts of cash) in your cabin safe. If arriving by car and touring for the day, don't leave luggage in plain view.
Schlitterbahn Waterpark features 33 water attractions, including numerous waterslides, whitewater rapids, hot tubs, a wave pool and the Boogie Bahn surf ride. The heated indoor facility is generally open weekends from late September through December and early March through mid-April. The entire facility is open daily for the summer season from mid-April through September. Hours and admission prices vary. (2026 Lockheed St.)
On the National Register of Historic Places' list of buildings of national significance is Bishop's Palace, named for the Galveston-Houston Catholic diocese that was housed there from 1923 to 1950. Designed by Nicholas Clayton as a residence for Colonel Walter Gresham, it took seven years to build and was completed in 1893. Wait'll you see the hand-carved staircase that took three years to construct. Guided tours take place every hour Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (1402 Broadway)
In the East End, visit the Moody Mansion Museum to see the treasures of one of the city's founding families. Memorial Day through Labor Day, guided tours start on the hour and run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Labor Day through Memorial Day, guided tours are at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. (2618 Broadway)
Texas Seaport Museum is home to the 430-ton square-rigger Elissa, which was built in Scotland in 1877 and still sails the Gulf coast and beyond. The museum's computer database lets visitors look for information on more than 133,000 immigrants who passed through the Port of Galveston, much like Ellis Island in New York. Information includes their countries of origin, dates of arrival and planned destinations. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Harborside Drive at Pier 21)
You'll find most of the city's art galleries in the Postoffice Street Arts & Entertainment District and the Strand District. Top spots include the Buchanan Gallery for contemporary works and the E Street Gallery, a co-op that offers oil paintings, acrylics and sculptures from Galveston and Houston artists. There's also an Artwalk, put on by the city on Saturday nights every six weeks or so.
Visit the Galveston Railroad Museum to see an old waiting room -- now called the People's Gallery -- with 39 life-sized "passengers" whose actual conversations you can listen in on. Renovations are continuing on post-Hurricane Ike damage, but the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for self-guided tours. Harborside Express train rides on a vintage caboose are conducted Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (25th and Strand Streets)
Nearly 250 acres of sun, fun and -- believe it or not -- education are what you'll find inside Moody Gardens. There's a 10-story Rainforest Pyramid, which recently went through a $25 million renovation, with a canopy-level walkway that looks down on lush tropical plants, butterflies, birds, monkeys, bats and turtles; three theaters, including a 400-seat IMAX 3D Theater, a 4D Special Effects Theater and an IMAX Ridefilm Theater; Discovery Pyramid, housing interactive exhibits such as "Bones: An Exhibit Inside You"; and Aquarium Pyramid, a 10-story facility with 10,000 marine animals, including penguins and otters. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m (until 8 p.m. during the summer months; special hours for exhibits such as Festival of Lights). Admission varies by attraction. (One Hope Blvd.)
If it has anything to do with Texans and aviation, you'll find it at the Lone Star Flight Museum. Take a look at more than 40 aircraft, the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame and a great gift shop. Flights on four World War II-era bombers and trainers are also offered. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (2002 Terminal Dr.)
If beauty rising from destruction sounds inspiring, take a self-guided tour via car or foot of the more than 20 sculptures carved by local artists out of some of the 40,000 trees that perished in Hurricane Ike. The still-rooted art includes carvings of dolphins, birds, dogs and even an alligator, and it's concentrated on the island's east end. For a free tour map, go to www.galveston.com/treesculptures.
The island's newest major attraction is the Pleasure Pier, which is about 20 blocks from the cruise terminal -- a quick taxi ride. The pier, which overlooks the Gulf of Mexico, offers rides, midway games, live entertainment, shops and restaurants, including the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
Been There, Done That
Consider a ride on a paddlewheeler, day or night. The captain of The Colonel gives a great overview of the sights, and the evening cruises include dinner and live music. The cruise schedule varies, with at least one departure offered Tuesday through Friday and two on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner cruises are also held the second Saturday of each month. (Moody Gardens, One Hope Blvd.)
Some say it is the oldest library in continuous operation in Texas, so do take time to visit the Rosenberg Library. The library houses a Texas history center and several art galleries that feature everything from Art Deco glass to Native American pottery. It's open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. (2310 Sealy St.)
If you'd like to see an exceptional documentary on the hurricane of 1900 or a film about the life and times of pirate Jean Lafitte, stop in at the Pier 21 Theater. Movies are shown Wednesday through Monday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. in winter and until 6 p.m. in summer. The two films alternate every half hour. (Harborside Drive and 21st Street.)
The only winery in Galveston County, the Haak Vineyards and Winery makes premium wines (try the award-winning Semi-Sweet Blanc du Bois) from grapes grown locally and in other areas of Texas. It's down the road a piece (about 20 miles) in Santa Fe, Texas, but it's worth the trip for tours and tastings. It's open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. (6310 Ave. T, Santa Fe)
East Beach: It's party central! You can find everything from umbrellas and water sports equipment rentals to bars, concerts, the Big Reef Nature Park (a birding hotspot) and a gift shop. Drinking on the beach is legal there. Swimming there can be a bit risky, since there are lots of fishermen around, which translates to getting "hooked!" It's closed from October to February. (Boddeker Drive)
Galveston Island State Park: The beach there was severely damaged during Hurricane Ike, but most areas have reopened, including campgrounds and the beachside day-use area, which offers tables, grills and rinse-off showers. There are no lifeguards. This is a good option if you want to mix it up by hiking the four miles of trails and doing a bit of bird-watching. No alcohol is permitted. (On the west end of Galveston Island)
Stewart Beach: This is a nice choice for families. There are plenty of amenities, such as umbrella/chair rentals, snack bars, changing rooms, volleyball courts, a waterslide and even a mini-golf course and a huge human maze. No alcohol is allowed. It's closed November through February. (6th Street & Seawall Boulevard).
Rudy & Paco Restaurant
: Located next to the Grand 1894 Opera House, this upscale restaurant features grilled seafood and steak with a Central American influence. Try the red snapper prepared any of six different ways. (It's open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. 2028 Postoffice St.)
Mod Coffee and Tea House
: It's cheap and delicious. We love the daily lunch specials, which include tamale pie and Thai noodle salad. All are served with the best coffee. (It's open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. 2126 Postoffice St.)
: At this award-winning restaurant, you'll be licking your fingers after finishing up some of the best hickory-smoked food you ever did taste. (It's open Monday through Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. 3428 Avenue S)
Gaido's Seafood Restaurant
: Some of the best seafood around is served in this 100-year-old restaurant. Leave room for the pecan pie. (It's open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Seawall Boulevard and 39th Street)
Shrimp 'n' Stuff
: For nearly 30 years, this cute place is where locals head for gumbo, hush puppies, fried fish and plenty of oysters. In fact, Zagat's once rated their oyster po-boy the best in the state of Texas. (It's open Sunday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 9:30 p.m. 3901 Ave. O)
Sky Bar Steak & Sushi
: If you're looking for trendy, look no further. Boasting the best martinis in town, the restaurant's other claims to fame include wonderful sushi and prime steaks. (It's open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. 2107 Postoffice St.)
Note: Many hotels in Galveston -- including the Hotel Galvez, Moody Gardens Hotel and Hilton Galveston Island Resort -- cater to the cruise clientele by providing guests with shuttles to the cruise port and parking during the cruise's duration, either for free or a small one-time charge.
Total Splurge: The likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Frank Sinatra hung their hats at the Hotel Galvez when they were in town. Built in 1922, the 224-room property overlooks the Gulf of Mexico, and offers spacious rooms, spa services and a top-notch Sunday brunch. (2024 Seawall Blvd.)
The Mermaid & the Dolphin, surrounded by a tropical garden, is a top spot for a romantic getaway. Each suite includes a private "Jacuzzi-for-two AquaSpa." (1103 33rd St.)
Middle of the Road: Moody Gardens Hotel has a fabulous location, sharing the 242-acre spot with some of the city's best attractions, including the Rainforest and Aquarium pyramids. It offers plenty of great rooms for reasonable rates, especially in the off-season. (7 Hope Blvd.)
Tremont House is not only charming but well-priced. The historic hotel offers a four-story atrium and rooftop terrace. (2300 Ship's Mechanic Row)
On a Shoestring: Hilton Galveston Island Resort offers large, clean rooms, and guests have access to amenities that include the tennis courts and a spa of its sister hotel, the more upscale San Luis Resort, located next door. (5400 Seawall Blvd.) The Best Western Beachfront Inn is another good budget bet with rooms that are clean, comfortable and cheap. (5914 Seawall Blvd.)
Staying in Touch
You can find free Wi-Fi in many restaurants and public spaces, including Saengerfest Park, about three blocks from the port at 23rd St. and The Strand.
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