In the late 1800s, Galveston was called the Wall Street of the Southwest. Just beyond Pier 19, you can see the impressive stone buildings on the downtown avenue called The Strand, where wealthy cotton brokers, bankers, and shipping tycoons maintained offices. The hurricane of 1900, which killed some 6,000 citizens, ended that era. Now those old stone buildings house restaurants, gift shops, bars, and other tourist-driven businesses. And that’s the Galveston mystique—it’s an antique jewel of a Southern city mounted in an improbably kitschy setting of tiki bars, seaside amusement parks, and sandy beaches. Its unusual blend of the upscale and the offbeat has attracted some 48,000 residents, as well as more than 6 million tourists annually. Galveston is home to one of the largest motorcycle rallies in North America, the third-largest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S., and one of the country’s best old opera houses.
The fishermen unload glistening red snapper onto a dock where Katie’s Seafood Market owners Kenny Guindon and his brother Buddy supervise a crew of fishmongers. A forklift stays in constant motion, carrying pallets of fish-laden bins onto waiting refrigerated trucks. Some 4,000 pounds of red snapper are being loaded right before my eyes. There was a time when such a catch was unimaginable. Gulf red snapper were almost fished into extinction back in the middle of the last century—but the fish population has bounced back. The Guindon family and fellow fishermen founded Gulf Wild, a nonprofit conservation organization for U.S. fishermen working the Gulf. Their catch is branded with white plastic Gulf Wild tags. The number on the tag tells consumers which boat and which fishermen caught the fish and confirms that customers are supporting a sustainable fishery.
There are dozens of old Victorian homes line streets shaded by massive live oaks. There are more than 2,000 buildings in Galveston listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and nearly all of them have been partially submerged during one hurricane or another. To live in Galveston, you have to accept that this is a place where disaster strikes hard and often. You need to have the grit to dust yourself off and start over, and the grace to go on without complaining.
The blinding white expanse of Sacred Heart Church—a Catholic church with striking Moorish architecture that might remind you of the Sacré-Coeur in Paris, is just one gem of the city. Nearby Bishop's Palace is a four-story stone castle and the city’s grandest building, with interiors featuring stained glass windows, rare hardwoods, and imported fireplaces.
We still love the elegant Hotel Galvez & Spa, aka the “Queen of the Gulf,” a historic property with modern amenities on the Seawall. For a nicely restored stay downtown, try The Tremont House, which has a rooftop bar.
Blvd. Seafood is a modern diner facing the beach. The innovative appetizer list features the Mexican-inspired shrimp-and-crabmeat cocktail called BLVD. Campechana, as well as Hawaiian-style Tuna Poke. The popular Flat Fish Stack is a sautéed flounder fillet topped with a crab cake in rich Mornay sauce. Grouper and Gulf red snapper come grilled, broiled, fried, blackened, and pecan crusted. blvdseafood.com
Gaido’s,the grande dame of Galveston seafood restaurants, was founded in 1911. Local fish, like red snapper, flounder, and yellowfin tuna, are pulled fresh from the water. Oyster dishes include Bienville, Rockefeller, Monterey, Asiago, Ponzini (a local favorite with mushroom stuffing), and grilled oysters in garlic butter. Seafood Bisque is popular, as are the Shrimp Peques, bacon-wrapped shrimp with a brown sugar-chipotle glaze. gaidos.com
Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood,overlooking the marina, has a stunning view. Don’t miss The Grand Amuse, a modernized plateau de fruits de mer with half-shell oysters, cold crab claws, boiled shrimp, and more, served over crushed ice on a silver platter. number13steak.com
Rudy & Paco is the most elegant restaurant in town. Chef Paco Vargas is Nicaraguan, which explains the crispy plantain chips and chimichurri dip on every table and the Latin flair of dishes like Filete de Pargo Elegante (a red snapper entrée). rudyandpaco.com
The Sunflower Bakery and Café is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, with menu items ranging from the sublime Bread Pudding French Toast topped with fresh fruit to Eggs Benedict Surf & Turf with lump crabmeat, poached eggs, filet mignon medallions, and hollandaise on English muffins. Lunch includes burgers, Cuban sandwiches, seafood, and craft beers. thesunflowerbakeryandcafe.com
Waterman’s Restaurant is a marina eatery overlooking Galveston Bay. It serves ginormous Jumbo Fried Shrimp, which are pounded flat, battered, and fried. However, the most popular item on the menu is the Texas Snapper, which is pecan crusted and then topped with lump crabmeat. waterman-galveston.com