September art-work, abstract-By Emily MonacoTexans are known for their state pride. Galveston residents, living on this island off the coast of Texas, both share Texan pride and bring it to a new level. The locals call it “The Republic of Galveston Island,” and is unique with regards to mainland Texas and the rest of the south.Incorporated in 1839, Galveston quickly gained importance from its status as a port city and soon became the home of the state’s first post office, opera house, hospital and golf course, amongst other establishments. But its seaside location placed it in a precarious position with regards to hurricanes: in 1900, the flourishing port town was hit by “the Great Storm,” a hurricane that destroyed one third of the city and killed more than 6000 people. While Galvestonians quickly rallied to rebuild their city, Galveston never regained the economic importance it had held at the beginning of the century.

Nonetheless, Galvestonians take advantage of their rich and varied history, even today. Originally home to Akokisa and Karanawa Indians, Galveston Island was discovered first by Spanish and then French explorers. The island was settled by Jean Lafitte, a French pirate, who lent his name and pirate charm to one of Galveston Island’s premiere gay bars, Robert’s Lafitte. Unlike San Francisco or Provincetown, Galveson Island has flown under the radar for many years. It made for the perfect escape for Houston’s gay community in the 60s and 70s, a community that flourishes in Galveston today.

Rodney Seiler, owner of the bar and club 3rd Coast Downtown, made his move from Houston permanent in 2004, relocating with his partner of 18 years, Lin Hlanak. “We had previously lived in Houston for most of our lives,” says Rodney. “We had friends who lived here and visited the island often. We had a chance to make a change in our lives and decided to purchase one of the historic homes here and make this our semi-retirement residence.”

3rd Coast Downtown is one of many gay-friendly bars and establishments, with a strong set of local regulars as well as an influx of tourists on the weekends and during the summer thanks to special events and theme parties. “We’re well known for our Friday and Saturday night shows,” says Rodney. “They are more than the usual drag show, as we have the pleasure of having Tara Dion as our show director.”

Other great locales for gay nightlife in Galveston abound. The rooftop bar at the Tremont House, an historic Galveston hotel, is lit up with multicolored lights at Mardi Gras. Stars Beach Club offers live music and dancing on a liquid dance floor right by the beach. As Rodney says, “Galveston is at least a 20-25% GLBT population. Many GLBT persons own a 2nd home or get-away house on the island and make up a good portion of our clientèle. Many others visit the island frequently during the year, staying with friends or filling up our hotel rooms.”

As far as the latter is concerned, Galveston has no dearth of gay-friendly hotels and B&Bs. The Tremont House and its sister hotel, the Hotel Galvez and Spa are both Wyndham Grand Hotels. Or, you could try the Avenue O Bed and Breakfast or the Lost Bayou Guesthouse, both family-friendly locales with warm and welcoming staff.

While neither B&B caters particularly to gay tourists, you’ll find – as is true throughout the city – that you’ll feel comfortable and welcomed no matter where you go.

Rodney himself comments on this aspect of life in Galveston, for the straight and gay populations alike. “Although we are a gay owned and operated bar, I jokingly refer to 3rd Coast as Galveston’s only stray bar (straight/gay) as about 25% of our clientèle are straight people,” he says. As a transplant to Galveston, Rodney is perhaps the best person to ask for tourism advice in his adopted city, though getting him to pick a handful of essentials is difficult… perhaps because there are so many interesting sites to see! “If I had a friend visiting Galveston for one day, I’d try to convince them to stay at least 4 days, as there’s just too much to see and do,” he says.

As a transplant to Galveston, Rodney is perhaps the best person to ask for tourism advice in his adopted city, though getting him to pick a handful of essentials is difficult… perhaps because there are so many interesting sites to see! “If I had a friend visiting Galveston for one day, I’d try to convince them to stay at least 4 days, as there’s just too much to see and do,” he says. “A tour of the Bishop’s Palace is a must do, and a visit to the Texas Tall Ship, The Elissa, is another incredible activity.”

The former is possibly Galveston’s best-known building, a Victorian castle built between 1886 and 1892 and cited by the American Institute of Architects as one of America’s most important buildings. You can visit this once-private home and see its ornate sculpture and stained-glass windows, as well as its collection of fireplaces from around the world.

As for the Elissa, this 1877 tall ship is a National Historic Landmark that you can visit to catch a glimpse of what Galveston was like for its early sailors. The Elissa is a part of the Texas Seaport Museum, which tells the story of the more than 133,000 immigrants who entered the US through the port of Galveston. The interactive exploration of the 99-foot-tall restored barque is impressive in and of itself, as is the state-of-the-art computer technology that allows visitors to browse the names of immigrants who passed through this Ellis Island of the South.

Consider a visit to the Moody Mansion – a four-story structure that was once home of the Moody family. A private home until 1986, today, visitors can visit 20 of the mansion’s rooms and its beautiful gardens as well as learn the history of this philanthropic family in Galveston. A special tour created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the mansion’s restoration takes visitors back to the 1911 début of 19-year-old Mary Elizabeth Moody, an intriguing look at this Southern tradition that remains an important event in the lives of some Galveston young ladies, even today.

Free activities abound as well; Galveston has many historic neighborhoods, and you can ride a bike or take a walk through them for a day of exploration. The mild weather means that spending a day at the beach is a regular activity for locals and tourists alike; consider East Beach, the biggest beach in Texas. East Beach is a frequent host to parties and live bands, and it’s one of the only beaches that permits drinking, so don’t forget your cooler of beers!

East Beach also plays host to some of Galveston’s many summer festivals and concerts, which Rodney enumerates at length. “We (…) have a chili fest, a wild game cook-off, Artoberfest, Octoberfest, the Greek festival, various marathons and walk-abouts to benefit local charities and many other events too numerous to mention,” Rodney says. Every six weeks, the art walk permits local artists to show off their work in the downtown area, a local favorite and a great opportunity for tourists to meet Galvestonian artists and perhaps pick up a souvenir or two.

Galveston’s location near New Orleans also makes it a prime spot for Mardi Gras celebrations, with 11 days of parties, culminating in a giant parade on Fat Tuesday.

History buffs will love Dickens on the Strand, hosted the first weekend in December by the Galveston Historical Foundation. “It’s amazing to see tens of thousand of people in The Strand district in beautiful hoop skirts and hats, old time tuxedos, and various other period costumes and a Christmas theme!” Rodney says.

Galveston’s restaurant scene is also quite varied. The Mosquito Café is recommended as one of the top 15 restaurants in the Houston area by Zagat’s guide and chosen as the best restaurant in Galveston by Galveston’s residents. Located in the East End Historical District, the Mosquito Café offers a varied breakfast and lunch menu, including burgers, sandwiches, salads, soups and pastas. Breakfast favorites include the Mosquito Benedict: a poached egg with hollandaise, mushrooms, shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus, all served on a homemade savory scone. For a higher-end eating experience, try the Saltwater Grill, featuring what it calls “fresh-from-the-kettle seafood specialties,” including gumbo, bouillabaisse and cioppino. Other seafood options are available, as well as a steakhouse menu, to please all diners. Be sure to place a reservation as the Saltwater Grill fills up fast. As far as classic barbecue, it’s best to trust the locals. “Queen’s BBQ and Leon’s BBQ are tied, in my opinion, of good BBQ,” says Rodney.

Change is at the heart of Galveston’s history, and a visit to the city reflects that. From its beginnings as a port city to its trials through hurricanes and tropical storms, Galveston prevails and develops. Perhaps this is the aspect of Galveston that draws so many people here; meeting the locals and the frequent visitors and exploring all of the monuments to Galveston’s rich history will be important elements of your stay in Galveston. Change continues: Galveston will welcome a new Pleasure Pier in May, stretching over the water and including games, rides and other entertainment features, as well as restaurants. For other new developments… you’ll just have to pay the island a visit and see for yourself!

  • Pier 21 Cinema – 2100 Harborside Drive
  • Robert’s Lafitte – 2501 Avenue Q
  • Stewart Beach – 201 Seawall Boulevard
  • 3rd Coast Downtown – 2416 Postoffice Street
  • Tremont House – 2300 Ships Mechanic Row
  • Stars Beach Club – 3102 Seawall Boulevard
  • Hotel Galvez and Spa – 2024 Seawall Boulevard
  • Avenue O Bed and Breakfast – 2323 Avenue O
  • Lost Bayou Guesthouse – 1607 Avenue L
  • Bishop’s Palace – 1402 Broadway
  • The Elissa and the Texas Seaport Museum – Pier 21, Number 8
  • Moody Mansion and Gardens – 2618 Broadway
  • The Mosquito Café – 628 14th Street
  • Saltwater Grill – 2017 Postoffice Street
  • Queen’s BBQ – 3428 Avenue South
  • Leon’s BBQ – 5427 Broadway
  • Pleasure Pier (opening in May) – 25th and Seawall

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