The beaches are the most popular attraction for Houstonians and other Texans who come for a day or a weekend. They are not quite as nice as those at more popular beach resorts; the sand is closer to brown than white and the water isn't transparent. But, on the other hand, they are pure sand without rocks, and the water has the nice, warm temperature of the Gulf of Mexico. East Beach and Stewart Beach, operated by the city, have pavilions with dressing rooms, showers, and restrooms, ideal for day-trippers. Stewart Beach is located at the end of Broadway, and East Beach is about a mile east of Stewart Beach. There's a $5-per-vehicle entrance fee. These beaches suffered less from Hurricane Ike than other beaches in the area, and have already been cleaned up.
Most other beaches are free. The beaches along the western shore of the island have not yet recovered. This area suffered extensive erosion, and a lot of debris, most of which came from the many beach houses in the area. Some of those closest to the water are now in the tidal zone and are the subject of legal action and will probably be condemned and removed. Most of the beach houses that are farther from the shore remain damaged and are waiting for insurance settlements to be negotiated.
Another activity popular with visitors and locals alike is to walk, skate, or ride a bike atop the sea wall, which extends 10 miles along the shoreline.
There are several tours offered in Galveston, but you need to call for availability: Galveston Harbour Tours (tel. 409/765-1700) is part of the Texas Seaport Museum, located on pier 21. It offers tours three to four times per day, depending on the season. Duck Tours (tel. 409/621-4771) offers its trademark amphibious bus tour.
On Broadway, a few massive 19th-century mansions that offered tours are now closed: Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway (tel. 409/762-3933); Moody Mansion, 2618 Broadway (tel. 409/762-7668); and the Bishop's Palace, 1402 Broadway (tel. 409/762-2475). It is unclear when these will reopen. Reports mention extensive water damage and mold. The city will need to find grants to restore them.
Museums -- Except for Moody Gardens and its neighbor, the Lone Star Flight Museum , all of Galveston's museums are in and around the Strand, the old commercial center. The following museums will probably be open by the summer of 2009. Pier 21 Theater (tel. 409/763-8808) shows a short documentary about the 1900 storm that devastated the town, and another about a one-time Galveston resident, the pirate Jean Laffite. On the same pier is the Texas Seaport Museum (tel. 409/763-1877; www.tsm-elissa.org) and the Elissa, a restored tall ship, which suffered little damage. Admission for both is $8 for adults, $6 for children 7 to 18, free for children 6 and under, and a family rate of $23 for up to two adults and three children. The museum also offers a boat tour of the harbor.
Next door, at Pier 19, is a one-of-a-kind museum about offshore drilling rigs. You may have already noticed in the harbor the massive rigs that are often parked on the opposite shore. These rigs are tremendous feats of engineering and are some of the largest free-standing constructions ever built. They are often in the Port of Galveston being reconditioned. Most visitors have never seen one up close, but here you have an opportunity to scamper around on one: the Ocean Star (tel. 409/766-STAR [766-7827]; www.oceanstaroec.com), which is an old rig that's been converted into a museum. Through a short film, scale models, actual drilling equipment, and interactive displays, every aspect of the drilling process is explored, including the many rather daunting engineering challenges. I found the film, the exhibits, and the rig itself fascinating. I imagine that those with a grasp of technical and engineering issues will enjoy this museum more than others, but anyone will appreciate the broader aspects and the sheer size of these constructions. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for students 7 to 18, and free for kids 6 and under. Hours for this and the other museums around the Strand are roughly the same, daily from 10am to 4pm (until 5pm in summer).
The three most popular festivals on the island are Mardi Gras (Feb or Mar), the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sandcastle Competition (June), and Dickens on the Strand (first weekend in Dec). For Mardi Gras, book a hotel room well in advance; it is a tremendously popular celebration with parades, masked balls, and a live-entertainment district around the Strand. Mardi Gras here has some advantages over New Orleans -- there are fewer tourists, and it's very lively without all the public displays of drunkenness. For info, call tel. 888/425-4753 or visit www.mardigrasgalveston.com.
The most unusual event is the annual AIA Sandcastle Competition. More than 70 architectural and engineering firms from around the state show up on East Beach and get serious about the building of sand castles and sand sculptures and take this pastime to new heights, literally. It all happens in 1 day, and the results are phenomenal. Call tel. 713/520-0155 or check www.aiasandcastle.com for more information.
For its Christmas celebration Galveston hosts Dickens on the Strand, a street party for which revelers dress up in Victorian costume. The entire affair is a testament to just how much we associate traditional Christmas with the Victorian era (perhaps largely due to Dickens himself). The Strand -- with its Victorian architecture and the association with its namesake -- is a natural venue for such a celebration. The party includes performers, street vendors, readings of Dickens, and music. Admission is $9 in advance and $12 same-day for adults; $4 in advance for children ages 7 to 12, $6 same-day; free for children 6 and under. Those dressed in full Victorian costume are admitted free. Though Houstonians often come down for it, I'm not convinced it's worth traveling for. It's one of those things you might go to if you're already in the area. Call tel. 409/765-7834 for more information.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.