A holiday getaway to a tropical destination may sound unconventional, but on Galveston Island, the experience is surprisingly full of tradition. Located just 50 miles south of Houston on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston’s mix of historic charm and modern family fun have made it a regional favorite for the Christmas season.
From lighting festivals and Santa sightings to holiday shopping or indulging in what is arguably the best pecan pie in Texas, Galveston offers plenty of reasons to visit this November and December.
#1 Dickens on The Strand
The first weekend in December, the majestic iron-front buildings found in Galveston’s historic downtown district will make the perfect backdrop for the 43rd annual Dickens on The Strand. This holiday street festival transforms the area, particularly Strand Street, into the Victorian London of Charles Dickens complete with costumed characters, street performers and vendors, parades, holiday food and drink, Victorian-inspired crafts and more. Each year, descendents of Charles Dickens travel from London to be a part of the festivities, and attendees are encouraged to join in the fun by dressing in period costumes.
#2 Festival of Lights
Nothing will put you in the holiday spirit more than a magical walk through Festival of Lights at Moody Gardens. This mile-long trail features more than a million lights and animated light displays with stops along the way to grab hot cocoa, go ice skating or “snow tubing” (yes, they make snow), listen to carolers or visit with Santa. The trail wraps around the Moody Gardens pyramids and along Offatts Bayou, providing a beautiful waterfront view. The festival will take place from Nov.12 to Jan. 8.
#3 ICE LAND
It’s hard to imagine a 28,000-square-foot ice sculpture wonderland being able to thrive in tropical Galveston, but there’s a science to it and Moody Gardens has it down. Its ICE LAND exhibit – made from 2 million pounds of ice – is truly something to see. Here, you can walk through the attraction to view stunning ice carvings, from traditional holiday figures to characters from popular cartoons. Some of these sculptures stand up to 30 feet tall and there is even a 100-foot-long ice slide the kids can ride. ICE LAND will be open from Nov.12 to Jan. 8.
#4 Victorian Charm
With Galveston being home to one of the largest collections of Victorian architecture in the country, it’s not hard for the island to put you in a nostalgic state during the holidays – especially on the East End Historical District’s Victorian Christmas Homes Tour. Held the first weekend in December, this event allows you to tour through several of the district’s private historic homes as they are decked in traditional holiday décor. And, if you’re not in town that weekend, the 1895 Moody Mansion museum is open for tours daily and is also dressed up for the holidays with festive trimmings and elaborately adorned Christmas trees throughout the home.
#5 Surfing Santa
Rumor has it that Santa spends his vacations in Galveston and practices his surf moves at the island’s Schlitterbahn Waterpark, whose indoor section is open throughout the winter. Leading up to Christmas, you can visit Schlitterbahn to go surfing with Santa on the simulated waves of the park’s Boogie Bahn ride, which is a whole lot of fun to watch or experience. This year, Santa will go surfing several times each day from Nov. 25 to Dec. 23.
#6 Gaido’s Pecan Pie
Pecan pie is pretty much synonymous with the holiday season, and no one does it better than Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant. The restaurant has been operating in Galveston for more than 100 years, and its famous pie is made from a secret family recipe that includes an all-pecan crust and a rich center of gooey deliciousness. You can stop in for a warm slice topped with vanilla ice cream or take home a full pie to share. Gaido’s pecan pie has been named on “top” lists throughout Texas for many years and is featured in the Neiman Marcus catalog, where you can order it online and ship anywhere in the country.
#7 Live Holiday Entertainment
For holiday entertainment, Galveston certainly won’t disappoint. The Grand 1894 Opera House, which is a gem in the island’s historic downtown district, offers no seat further than 70 feet from the stage for its exciting lineup of live holiday shows happening throughout November and December. Here you can catch shows like Elf The Musical, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer The Musical as well as performances by Loretta Lynn and Jerry Jeff Walker. New this year, the Moody Gardens Hotel will host the Cirque Joyeux Noel Dinner and Show Dec. 16-25. This one-hour Christmas spectacular features an exciting performance from a cast of international circus and variety talents plus a sumptuous holiday dinner.
#8 Shopping in Historic Downtown Galveston
To escape the madness of major shopping malls, the charming streets and quaint shops found in historic downtown Galveston are a great alternative. In the district’s coastal-inspired art galleries, antique shops, boutiques and quirky shops, you can find unique gifts you won’t find many other places. On Strand Street, the one-stop holiday shop Christmas on The Strand sells everything from Waterford Crystal gifts to Christmas décor and supplies. At Tina’s on The Strand, you’ll find a wide variety of fabulous scented candles or, for a fun stocking-stuffer, you can pick up some sweet and spicy “cider beetles” at Hendley Market. And, no visit to Galveston is complete without visiting the iconic LaKing’s Confectionery for some old-fashioned candy and treats.
#9 The Santa Hustle
If you’re a runner or just like to dress up, you’ll get a kick out of the Santa Hustle, one of Galveston’s wackiest events. More than 5,000 half-marathon and 5K runners are expected to convene in Galveston Dec. 18 for this jolly race where participants are provided Santa attire – including a Santa suit shirt, Santa hat and beard – to wear along their journey. The route is lined with speakers playing holiday tunes and fuel-up stations serving cookies and candy. Yum!
#10 Sunday Brunch at Hotel Galvez
The award-winning Sunday Brunch at Hotel Galvez & Spa is a long-standing tradition for visitors and locals, and during the holidays it gets even better. As if plentiful stations of all-you-can-desire meat, seafood, breakfast, lunch and dessert offerings aren’t enough, brunch comes with free-flowing champagne and mimosas. During December, you can visit with Santa during brunch, and on Thanksgiving and Christmas you can enjoy special holiday menus. On Nov. 25, the hotel will also host the annual Galveston Holiday Lighting Celebration to bring in the holiday season with live performers, visits with Santa and the lighting of the city’s official 35-foot Christmas tree.