Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock
In a state known for big, Galveston packs a ton of fun into a small space. At 27 miles from top to bottom, it’s easy to explore the island by car – but the most fun way to see Galveston is by foot. The Strand Historic District’s galleries and shopping, the harbour, and the one-of-a-kind tree sculptures are all close to the downtown area. Whether you’re in town before a cruise, or you’re spending your whole holiday there, don’t miss your chance to walk this wonderful community.
The Strand Historic District
The impressive Hutchings Sealy building, constructed of grey and pink granite and Texas sandstone, was once home to a bank and an office building. Built to last, it survived the hurricane of 1900, the deadliest storm in US history. (Nearly 4000 buildings were demolished, and up to 12,000 deaths were attributed to the hurricane and subsequent flood.)
The architecture in the area is gorgeous, and there’s shopping galore. For me, the highlight of the Strand is the Galveston Arts Center (GAC). It’s the hub of the arts community, but it was a journey to get there.
The island is defined by its storms – it’s common to see markings around town showing the water level after various floods. Hurricane Ike devastated the island in 2008, and the GAC building was left with ten feet of water and damaged artwork. They moved to a temporary location for seven years while they gutted and rebuilt the historical building.
The Arts Center moved back in 2015, with two exhibition spaces and a room for video installations. The museum store, ArtWorks, features work by local artists. Reyna Collura, GAC’s Director of Education, took me up to the 2nd floor, where she showed me a second-grade art project on barnacles. The room is full of windows, and the sun poured in, lighting up the barnacles like precious jewels.
In addition to hosting 25 exhibitions of contemporary art a year, GAC runs an art appreciation course for learners aged 55 and over. They also organize eight ArtWalks each year, which include fifteen galleries and other businesses. “Our exhibits change with every ArtWalk,” Reyna said, “and typically we have two or three on at a time.”
ArtWalks are an integral part of the Galveston community. The best story I heard came from William, the valet at Tremont House, who told me about the painting he bought for $25 at a garage sale.
“We didn’t even like the painting,” William said, “but my wife liked the frame. When I pulled out my wallet, the owner told us the background.”
It turns out the original owners had bought the painting on a whim at ArtWalk. “They paid $700. We were going to ditch the painting, but with a story that good, we decided to keep it.”
That might be the only downside of the free wine (and beer, and finger foods) offered on ArtWalk nights. You might want to save the drinks until after you’ve made your purchases.
The Arts Center wasn’t the only local institution demolished by Ike in 2008. The storm destroyed 40,000 of the oak trees that graced the island, some of which were planted after the 1900 storm. In places where the stumps remained, many homeowners opted to turn them into sculptures as a sign of rebirth and hope.
On Saturday mornings, you can take a guided tour of all 21 downtown locations, but it’s easy to walk the East End Historical District on your own. Pick up a map of the tour at the Galveston Island Visitors Center (see “What to do” below), and just follow the path.
It’s a lovely walk through quiet residential streets, and most of the sculptures are in the yards of private homes. One of my favourites is in Adoue Park (1123 Winnie Street). The Adoue family donated the sculpture “Grandmother Reading to her Grandchildren” in honour of their own matriarch. This beautiful sculpture depicts two children nestled up against a woman reading; set in a quiet corner of the park, it’s both whimsical and eloquent.
You’ll want to see them all, but I especially loved “Where have all the flowers gone?” carved with hibiscus flowers, sea shells, and sand dollars (1016 Church), and the charming “Squirrel with acorn” (1302 Ball).
The tree sculptures make for a contemplative stroll, and it’s moving to see a community’s resilience reflected in the artwork they made from lost trees.
The Kitchen Chick
If you love cooking – or if you just like rummaging around in kitchen supply stores – you have to make a pilgrimage to The Kitchen Chick. Owner Alicia Cahill is an avid cook, and opened the store in 2012 to bring unique cookware to the island. It’s turned into a passion, and Alicia stocks everything you’d ever want, along with many things you won’t know you need until you see them. If you’re looking for Le Creuset cookware or everyday cooking utensils, you’ll find them here. But you’ll also find an array of unusual merchandise. Jellyfish-shaped food pods for steaming veggies, anyone?
The Kitchen Chick mural hanging behind the front desk helps set the mood of playful artistry. Alicia said, “One of the best things about having my own business is being able to financially support artists by buying their work.” Artist Cara Moore also painted the chicken mural on the front of the building, and the signs on the side and back.
What really makes The Kitchen Chick special, though, are the cooking classes taught in a kitchen at the back of the shop. I’d happily sign up for any of them, from Southern Biscuit Saturday to Food Truck Favs.
Alicia shared one of her favourite cooking class memories. “A few years ago a young couple took a Valentine’s Day cooking class,” she said. “About eight months later the gentleman called to see if he could book a private class. He explained that he planned to propose to his girlfriend on a horse-drawn carriage, and wanted to fill the class with their close friends and family as a surprise! Of course she said yes!”
Even regular classes can be special. Alicia explains that attendees are a mix of locals, weekenders, and out-of-state tourists. “When my local clients meet visitors in a cooking class they quickly switch into ambassador mode recommending sites to visit, restaurants, and hidden gems,” she said. “Sometimes they become so infatuated with introducing Galveston to the visitors, they purchase cooking tools from the shop to give them. I’m pretty sure that kind of magic is rare and I’m so glad my shop is home to it.”
The Rooftop Bar at Tremont House
Speaking of magic, after a robust walking tour around Galveston, you’ll want to save time to recharge at the Rooftop Bar at Tremont House. Although it’s a hotel bar, it’s popular with the locals (always a good sign). The evening I visited, I was the only out-of-towner there. Time your visit for late day when the sun is setting, or the evening: I watched the moon rising over the nearby American National Insurance Company building.
The ambience at The Rooftop Bar is cozy, the house red is delicious, and they serve a range of signature cocktails including – naturally – a Yellow Rose. An eight-foot tall Manzanita tree twinkles with tiny lights strung over its branches. It’s the perfect place to reminisce about a great day in Galveston, and to plan your next adventure.
For more information on Texas and to receive a free copy of the Texas Travel Guide and Texas Official Travel Map, visit TravelTexas.com.
Notes: The writer saw Galveston as a guest of Texas Tourism, who did not review or approve this story.
Where to stay
The Quarters at the Tremont House – This new extended-stay hotel is in the middle of the Historic District, and is a short walk to the harbour. Apartment-style rooms are comfortable and spacious, with king beds and a kitchenette to prepare your own meals. If you’re staying a week or longer, parking is free; otherwise you can opt for street or valet parking.
What to do
Tree Sculpture Tour . Pick up a free map from the Galveston Island Visitors Center at 2328 Broadway. Or call for one in advance, at (888) 425-4753.
Galveston Arts Center . 2127 Strand Street.
1877 Tall Ship ELISSA and Texas Seaport Museum. Only Ellis Island has welcomed more immigrants to the U.S. than Galveston. Give yourself some time to walk through the museum and read the stories of a few of those immigrants. You can also watch a short film about the restoration of Tall Ship ELISSA, a three-masted sailing barque that was rescued from a Greek scrapyard. ELISSA is now one of the oldest ships in the world that’s still being sailed. Be sure to take the audio tour to hear the history of the ship and crew. 2200 Harborside Drive.
The Kitchen Chick. Boutique kitchen shop and cooking classes. 2402 Market Street.
La King’s Confectionery – La King’s was founded in Houston in 1927, and the owner’s son moved the business to Galveston in 1976. They make more than fifty kinds of candy using 19th century recipes and methods, and serve Galveston’s Purity ice cream. If you time your visit right, you may get to see an old-fashioned taffy pull! 2323 Strand Street.
Where to eat
Rudy & Paco – If you’re looking for a special meal in Galveston, make it at Rudy & Paco. Open Table named it one of America’s Top 100 Romantic restaurants in 2018. The black bean soup and grilled salmon were exquisite, and the key lime pie was one of the best I’ve eaten. 2028 Postoffice Street.
MOD – MOD is a hip coffee shop that serves muffins as big and puffy as pillows, still warm from the oven. 2126 Postoffice Street.
Riondo’s – Riondo’s is housed in the Hutchings Sealy building, and it boasts tall ceilings, lovely artwork, and an old bank vault door next to one of the tables. Excellent Italian food. 2328 Strand Ave.
Olympia Grill, Pier 21 – Ask for a table overlooking the water, and you’ll never want to leave. Conveniently located next to the Tall Ship ELISSA and Texas Seaport Museum, at 100 21st Street.