Updated in 2022.
If the seaside is calling your name but a ten-hour drive to the Gulf Shores is the last thing you want to do with the little ones, consider packing up your crew and heading for Galveston. The classic beach town, which was once considered the Ellis Island of the West, is less than five hours away and is full of history, southern charm, and (my favorite part) killer seafood. From little thrill-seekers to baby beach bums or even petite ghost hunters; there’s something for everyone.
Best Places for Families to Eat, Play, and Stay in Galveston
What to Do
Reminiscent of the ’40s era version that originally stood in its place, Pleasure Pier has over 15 rides including a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, 5D theater ride, log flume (look out for the wet zone!), and a small midway. You and your family can easily spend an afternoon seeking thrills and walking along Seawall Blvd. If the kids have cravings for classic carnival bites, try the funnel cakes, turkey legs, corn dogs, cotton candy, and more.
Island visitors can stroll Galveston’s Downtown Historic District in search of classic souvenirs, sundries, and sweets. You can admire the Victorian architecture; a mix New Orleans charm and Wild West, before stopping in at La King’s Confectionary for homemade chocolate, taffy, and ice cream. History buffs can check out the Galveston Island Railroad Museum or the Texas Seaport Museum before taking in a screening of The Great Storm—a film recalling the big storm of 1900; the deadliest natural disaster in American history—at Pier 21 Theater (27-minute doc, shown hourly).
It’s hard to pick and choose what you’ll do and see at Moody Gardens. There are three pyramids: the aquarium, the rainforest, and the discovery zone, all of which are super edu-taining for kids of all ages. Look into the One Day Value Pass (from $50 per) if you plan to visit all of the major attractions. You can also purchase admission à la carte.
The fourth largest aquarium in the Southwest offers plenty for little eyes and ears. You can meet penguins and learn about their habitat during a Penguin Encounter. Littles will love watching the stingrays glide gracefully through the water and will stand in awe at the one-million-gallon sea tank before walking underneath and becoming an ocean explorer.
Insider Tip: Little underwater explorers can identify different species and get their “passport” stamped at various locations throughout the aquarium.
In this pyramid you’ll wander from above the canopy to the rainforest floor—see monkeys, sloths, bats, a Komodo dragon, and other jungle creatures while admiring rare and exotic flora. Watch butterflies flit from flower to flower, see ant hills filled with busy workers (from behind glass observation windows, of course!), and look for fish in the streams that meander through the pyramid floor.
With exhibits that change every six months, the Discovery Pyramid always has something new. For reference, on our trip we experienced the Skeletown exhibit, a miniature city filled with people, places, and things in their skeleton form, which helps kids learn about bones and why they are so important. In the 4D Theater, we got tickets to the SpongeBob Subpants Adventure, a one-of-a-kind interactive experience which takes you on a submarine voyage to explore the world of Bikini Bottom (with 4D elements like scents, bubbles, and bouncing beach balls).
If you’ve come to Galveston for the waves and water, Palm Beach is a seasonal, pristine, white sand beach located on the Moody Gardens property. There’s an interactive 650-foot lazy river, wave pool, and two 18-foot tower slides. Sports fanatics can try their hand at beach volleyball and the Aquarium Adventure Play Area has plenty of water fun for little players. Palm Beach is not part of the One Day Value Pass; purchase entry separately, $25-30 per person).
Galveston is one of the most historic places in Texas and, according to legend, one of the most haunted. Brave island visitors can sign up for ghost tours or just a plain ol’ historical home and building tour. Little ghost hunters will be thrilled by Dash Beardsley’s Ghost Tours of Galveston. Galveston’s “Ride the Rails” tour is longer offered, but it’s something you could recreate on your own: make a circuit throughthe Bryan Museum—which opened in 2015 and houses the largest collection of Southwestern artifacts, documents and artwork—the Galveston Railroad Museum, and the Moody Mansion. Peruse all the Galveston self-guided and guided tours for even more scavenger hunt and sightseeing options.
What to Eat
If you’re in the mood for amazing breakfast food (who isn’t?) head for Gumbo Diner. A mix of New Orleans flavors and Classic American, diners won’t be able to get enough of the very popular and very tasty beignets, the near-perfect waffles (made with Ben & Jerry’s secret waffle cone recipe!), or the large, savory portions of biscuits and gravy, make-your-own-omelets, and other classic breakfast items.
Insider tip: During peak season, get in early or wait for the crowds to disperse, otherwise you’ll be waiting for upwards of an hour.
Here’s a really cool feature of the City of Galveston website: Find a restaurant in Galveston by filtering genre, features (restaurants with a view, group dining, outdoor dining, etc.), and location. It’s a great resource!
Where to Stay
Moody Gardens Hotel is a four-star hotel and spa located on the 242-acre resort. Guests can choose from rooms, junior suites, or full-sized suites, all of which include access to the three restaurants, pool, seasonal kids activities, and other fun events. There are special packages just for families, which will ensure your visit includes all the awesome Moody Garden attractions or day passes to Schlitterbahn water park, which is walking distance from the Moody Gardens Hotel.
If you’d rather have a more personal experience when it comes to lodging, opt for renting a home instead of a hotel room. Airbnb offers a ton of different spots ranging from a room to an entire beachfront pad.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Galveston? Share with us in a comment!
All images by the author unless otherwise noted.