There is little doubt that Galveston is to many minds primarily a beach town, and indeed, the appeal of its beaches and miles of coastline is a major reason for the flood of tourists that the island welcomes every year. But Galveston has a great deal more to offer than simply a day of sand and surf. Its rich history as a busy seaport allows for a convergence of cultures. Art, architecture, history and nature: Galveston has something for just about everyone, and the month of April, in particular, is chock-full of events and festivals that showcase the great variety of sights and activities available on the island.
But first, a bit of background.
“Before the 1900 storm, Galveston was a very wealthy port town,” said Ivette Wilhelm, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. (The 1900 storm refers, of course, to the major hurricane that devastated Galveston and that remains to date the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.) As one of the largest immigration ports in the country — second only to Ellis Island — Galveston welcomed immigrants from many countries. This heritage is particularly reflected in the architecture of the island.
“Many visitors don’t know they can discover Old World charm in the island’s historic districts,” Wilhelm said. “[Galveston] boasts one of the largest collections of well-preserved Victorian architecture in the country.”
The structures that still exist from this time in Galveston’s history include the 1838 Michel B. Menard House, the 1892 Bishop’s Palace and The Grand 1894 Opera House. All these locations are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, with the Bishop’s Palace having the even more impressive designation of National Historic Landmark.
While tours of many of Galveston’s historic buildings are available by appointment through the Galveston Historical Foundation, the last weekend in April will bring a truly unique way to experience some of the locations that house so much of the island’s history: the Third Coast Music Festival, a title that comes from a nickname often given to the Gulf Coast.
“For us, it was descriptive enough that people would associate it with something based on the island. It had extra points [for] quirkiness that ties in well with Galveston,” said Will Wright, who co-produced the festival along with Stewart Ramser, producer of Viva Big Bend music festival and publisher of Texas Music magazine.
This is the inaugural year for Third Coast, and what makes it different from other music festivals is precisely where the artists and bands will be performing. “This isn’t a festival in a field,” the event website declares. Rather, the 40 bands will play at more nontraditional venues, many of which hold historical significance for the island.
Beginning April 26 and continuing through April 29, shows will be held at locations such as Hotel Galvez & Spa (in operation for over 100 years), the Proletariat Gallery and Public House (a former opera house), the 1859 St. Joseph’s Church (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and The Grand 1894 Opera House (the official opera house of Texas).
As far as the types of music visitors will hear, “There’s a great variety of style,” Wright said. “We have rock, country, Americana, blues, zydeco and more. It’s set up for people to easily go from venue to venue and give some bands they might not be aware of a listen.”
Some of the performers include Texas country singer and Grammy nominee Jack Ingram, Austin-based soul group The Nightowls, bluegrass band Wood & Wire and Louisiana zydeco artist Geno Delafose. When asked who he’s most excited to bring to the festival, Wright answered diplomatically: “All of them!” But, he conceded, “We can’t talk about the event and not mention Rodney Crowell’s performance on Sunday night at The Grand 1894 Opera House. He’s got such an amazing history with the Texas music scene. It’s going to be really special to have him at such a beautiful venue.”
Part of the Third Coast Music Festival will also take place at the Galveston Island Beach Revue, which is happening during the same weekend, April 27-28. This island tradition, now in its 10th year, is a celebration of Galveston past and embraces the 1920s roots of its crowning event, the Bathing Beauties contest.
A Friday night kick-off party at Hotel Galvez & Spa features a jazz band and encourages attendees to come in vintage dress. Saturday afternoon activities include musical performances and the Classic Car and Vintage Trailer show (nothing newer than 1975). Saturday evening concludes with the Bathing Beauties contest in which 40 women model retro-style swimwear.
“We hold the event right across the street from where it was originally held,” said Wright, who is also co-founder of the Galveston Island Beach Revue. “It’s a great way to tie into Galveston’s history.”
For more details about the venues, performers and schedule of the Third Coast Music Festival, visit thirdcoastmusicfestival.com. More information about the Galveston Island Beach Revue can be found at galvestonbeachrevue.com.
Another opportunity to experience Galveston’s history in a unique way will be when the Tall Ships Challenge comes to the island for the first time April 5-8. Six tall ships from ports around the world will race to a series of port cities in the Gulf Coast throughout the month of April. (Galveston is first up, followed by Pensacola, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana.)
Each visiting ship has its own unique history and function, but for residents of Galveston as well as visitors to the island, the highlight of this event will almost certainly be the presence of Tall Ship Elissa.
Galveston is Elissa’s home port, and she has been designated the official tall ship of Texas, as well as being a National Historic Landmark. Built in 1877 and acquired and restored by the Galveston Historical Foundation beginning in 1978, this vessel has a long and rich history that is told in the neighboring Texas Seaport Museum.
This weekend-long event will begin April 5 with a Parade of Sail to welcome the vessels to Galveston port. Elissa and the other participating tall ships will be open for daytime onboard tours during the Tall Ships Challenge. The festival will also feature food and drinks, including several full-service local restaurants onsite and food trucks. Musicians and entertainers will also be performing throughout the weekend, and a special area with activities for children will be open on select hours Friday through Sunday. For details, including a full schedule of events, ticket prices and information on each of the visiting tall ships, go to tallshipsgalveston.com.
Families with children who are visiting Galveston for the Tall Ships Festival may also be interested in spending April 7 at The Grand Kids Festival. This free event, put on by The Grand 1894 Opera House, is a full day of arts and entertainment spread out over three blocks. Music, storytelling and acrobatics take center stage, and opportunities for artwork and crafting abound. Local food vendors will be present throughout the day, and a musical theater performance caps off the event. More information is available at grandkidsfestival.com.
A festival to immerse children and their families in the fine arts is very important to Galveston.
“The arts are a big deal in Galveston, something that the community is very involved in,” said Wilhelm. Most events, she added, are decided upon by committee, including the Third Coast Music Festival.
Another location where the community and the arts are celebrated is the Proletariat Gallery and Public House, one of the venues for the music festival. The gallery is located on the first floor of the National Hotel Artist Lofts, a building that was built in 1869 as the Tremont Opera House. Renovated after receiving flood damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008, the first floor opened in 2015 as the Proletariat Gallery and remains a space dedicated to displaying the work of local artists and offering events such as poetry nights and art walks.
Another unique display of art in Galveston not only showcases local artistic talent, but also speaks to the character of the residents.
“Given its history as the place of the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history, the island is home to an extremely resilient and positive community,” Wilhelm said, also praising the residents for being “passionate and involved.” And the same resilience that rebuilt Galveston after the destruction and tragedy of the 1900 storm seems to have passed through the generations to the residents who were left cleaning up after Hurricane Ike. The storm destroyed many of Galveston’s trees, but local artists, determined to make something beautiful out of the mess, carved from scraps and stumps the “Galveston tree sculptures,” which stand in yards and gardens throughout the island for visitors to admire. More information about the locations of the dozens of sculptures can be found at galveston.com/treesculpturetour.
In addition to history and the arts, Galveston is also known as a place where bird lovers can enjoy viewing hundreds of species of birds. The spring is a prime season for seeing not only the species that inhabit the island’s variety of habitats year-round but also for catching a glimpse of species not commonly seen as they migrate north. The Galveston FeatherFest and Nature Photo Festival, held April 17-22 (with the majority of events taking place April 19-22), offers opportunities for both amateur and more experienced ornithologists to participate in excursions for bird-watching and to take tours of various scientific facilities. Workshops will also be held to address topics in nature photography, and social events will take place Friday and Saturday evening, April 20-21. For additional details, including a schedule of events and costs associated with each activity, visit galvestonfeatherfest.com.
And of course, one can’t visit Galveston without experiencing its “culinary flair,” Wilhelm said. When asked for recommendations of the best places to have a meal, she simply wondered, “Where to start?” Local, freshly caught Gulf seafood is a favorite choice. “Your taste buds will never get bored because no two restaurants prepare this island specialty the same way,” Wilhelm said.
Cuisine is another aspect of life in Galveston that strongly reflects its history as an immigrant port with culinary influences from around the world. Two notable local restaurants topped Wilhelm’s list of recommendations: family-owned Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, known as much for its pecan pie as its seafood, and Rudy & Paco, which serves up steaks and seafood with unique Central American flavors.
The month of April also hosts the Galveston Island Food & Wine Festival, April 20-21, which features meals from local venues and numerous wine tastings. For a full schedule and ticketing options, visit galvestonislandwinefestival.com.