Last week we visited Galveston Island for a couple of days, followed by a weekend in Houston. Whether you’re there for a week or just a few days, both cities have lots of fun and off-the-beaten-path things to do that won’t break your budget! Whether you’re a NASA fan or love lying on the beach, this area has you covered.
Of course most people come to Galveston Island to have fun on the beach, and the good news is that most of Galveston’s beaches are free! Of the 32 miles of soft, sandy beaches, only Stewart Beach and East Beach charge a usage fee of $8 per car. These two beaches offer showers, restrooms, and food options, while most of the rest of Galveston beaches do not. If you park your car along the seawall, expect to pay for street parking- or book a hotel along the main drag and walk over.
Eating and Drinking
Sitting out in the sun all day makes you thirsty, so around sunset you might be looking for a place to have a drink and get in some shade. The island features every option from high class to local dive, and the latter group is where The Poop Deck fits in. I don’t know how long it’s been in business, but I can attest to the fact that it’s been there for at least 25 years. Don’t be worried by the motorcycles parked out front- everyone is friendly. They don’t serve food there, but you can walk over to The Spot (a block away) or The Float (featuring a swim-up bar) and bring your food back to the Poop Deck and have another cold one.
Historic Downtown and Architecture
Galveston was once home to some of the richest people in America- and a few of their homes and buildings still stand. Among them are the Romanesque Moody Mansion (built in 1895) and the Victorian-style Bishop’s Palace (1892). You can take a self-guided audio tour of either building for $15, or reserve a spot for a more in-depth tour by a registered docent. Additionally, take a walk- or horse-drawn carriage- through downtown Galveston, once known as the “Wall Street of the Southwest”. There are still several buildings built in the late 19th century, including the Opera House and the Bryan Museum, originally an orphanage in the 1880s. These buildings and a few others survived the devastating hurricane of 1900, which changed not only the shape of Galveston Island itself, but reshaped modern commerce in Texas, as investors looked to Houston instead in the aftermath.
Ferry to Bolivar
Another interesting activity for Galveston is to take the ferry to visit the neighboring peninsula of Bolivar (sometimes referred to as an island). You can walk on or bring your car- free! It is thought that the explorer Cabeza de Vaca came ashore at Bolivar in 1528, as well as pirate Jean Lafitte (his cabin boy retired to Bolivar and made his home there for years, and is buried on the island). Rumors persist that buried pirate treasure is still there! In 1836, the Republic of Texas built its first fort, called Fort Travis, on Bolivar. The fort garrisoned troops up through World War II. The ferry ride between the two islands is 20 minutes, and you can visit the top deck and watch the sea birds and look for dolphins playing in the water. Check their website or Twitter account for wait times.
It’s easy to feel like Houston is a concrete jungle, but actually there is nature all around it. One area to check out is the Armand Bayou Nature Conservancy in Pasadena. This 2500 acre nature park supports over 370 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, and features over five miles of walking trails. Check their website for their seasonal hours, and enjoy a day at Martyn Farm watching blacksmithing, candlemaking, yarn dying, and more. Rent a kayak and paddle in the Gulf, or go for a walk and spot birds. Tickets are $6 for adults, $4 for students, teachers, seniors, military, and first responders.
1940 Air Terminal
This beautiful art deco building, located on the grounds of Hobby Airport, hosts a collection of artifacts from the earliest days of air mail and then cargo and passenger service for the city of Houston. For just $5 ($2 for kids, and free for military, law enforcement, and firefighters) you can watch a video about the facility, look at the various items from the golden age of travel, and sit at the dressing table used by Elizabeth Taylor when she’d fly between Houston and Marfa while filming “Giant”. The museum is open 10-5 most days.
A section of Houston’s south side comes alive with color at the Houston Graffiti Building. Located at 1503 Chartres Street, this building is covered with murals which are continually being updated by local artists. If you’re downtown without a car, take advantage of the Houston B-Cycle program at just $3 for the first 30 minutes to get there. Designs on the building range from a memorial to Kobe Bryant, congratulations to recent grads, and a tribute to the recent “Black Lives Matter” protests, and more, so there’s always something to look at. Interested in more street art? Here’s an article listing several other sites.
Historic Buildings Downtown
We like to take guided walking tours when we visit new places, but not every city has one already organized. That’s when I turn to my GPSMyCity app, which has thousands of user-created tours and articles about cities all over the world. Currently, GPSMyCity has nine Houston tours, from architectural, to cultural, to museums, to nightlife, and more. We took the “Downtown Introduction Walk”, a total of ten Art Deco and older sights within one square mile. The app will give walking directions, as well as a photo and the background of the buildings or attractions along the route. I’ve been to some pretty out-of-the-way cities in the world, and so far this app hasn’t failed to deliver.
Houston has 19 museums, divided into four walkable zones- I do not suggest trying to tackle them all on one visit! Several of these are always free, while the others offer times once a week (usually Mondays or Thursdays) when they are free. I like to check this website before we head into the city to see if one of the times will work for our schedule. If you’re wary of spending time indoors right now due to Covid-19 concerns, several of Houston’s cultural attractions such as the zoo and the Bayou Bend Gardens offer plenty of outdoor strolling activities.
This list is by no means a comprehensive of all that Houston and Galveston have to offer. It’s simply some ideas for a way to spend a few hours or a few days in either location. Whether you have some time in Galveston before or after a cruise, or you’re in Houston for business, take advantage of one of these unique sites that you can only find in Texas.