Located on an island about 50 miles southeast of Houston , Galveston (population 56,667) is a hotbed for Texas history. Most people remember the Alamo , but they don’t realize Galveston was once Texas’s largest city and busiest port, with thousands of immigrants arriving each year.
Galveston was founded in 1839, and the island town was emerging as a burgeoning commercial center until the Civil War put the brakes on its progress. An interesting historical side note: On January 1, 1863, Confederate troops recaptured the city, while, on the same day, Abraham Lincoln signed the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Word didn’t make it to Galveston until June 19, 1865, when enslaved Texans officially (finally) received their freedom. Afterward, Galveston became the birthplace of the now-national Juneteenth celebration, which commemorates the June 19 announcement.
After the war, Galveston resumed its steady growth due to the hundreds of immigrants, primarily German, disembarking from ocean liners each day. Trade was prosperous, especially cotton exports, and for a while, Galveston was known as the Wall Street of the South due to its robust economy and cosmopolitan amenities such as electric lights, telephones, and modern streetcars.
The stately mansions and downtown business buildings constructed during this era still stand as the heart of Galveston’s historic district. Tourists from across the globe flock to the island to experience these intricate homes (most are now history museums) and the city’s ornate commercial architecture.
Galveston’s fate was forever altered in 1900 when a massive hurricane decimated nearly a third of the island’s buildings. The torrential 120-mph-wind storm caused an estimated 6,000 deaths, a number of casualties that seems inconceivable in these days of 24-hour live weather reports. As a result of the devastation, Galveston’s industrial and residential populations shifted to Houston .
Galveston eventually recovered from its economically challenging times—thanks in part to the construction of a massive seawall to protect the northern part of the island—to become one of the state’s top tourist destinations. The beach remains the island’s main draw, especially for surf-seeking Houstonians, but its rich historic fabric provides a pleasant slice of Victorian-era life for international visitors.
Most of Galveston’s attractions are heritage-related, but they’re well worth checking out since they’re some of the highest-quality cultural sites in the state. The historic commercial buildings along the Strand  and the century-old mansions showcase a distinctive and fascinating time in Texas history that visitors won’t find throughout the inland regions.
Most of Galveston’s museums are located in historic buildings, offering an ideal opportunity to authentically experience the city’s fascinating heritage. The 19th-century house museums, in particular, provide an intimate glimpse into the lives of prominent residents of the time through original furniture, heirlooms, artwork, and informative tours.