The island town of Galveston on Texas's southeast coast is a treasure trove for history-loving travelers. Incorporated in 1839, it quickly became the most active U.S. port west of New Orleans. By the late 1800s Galveston was the state’s largest, wealthiest, and most sophisticated city.
Nothing, however, holds a candle to the historical importance of the spot near the Bay of Galveston where, on June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 announcing that all enslaved Africans were free—an order that came more than two full years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln. A yearly observance of Emancipation Day—or as it is now known, the federal holiday of Juneteenth—celebrating the liberation of all enslaved people, started the following year in Texas. Today Galveston offers visitors a chance to learn about the history of Juneteenth and retrace the steps of Union soldiers.
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Getting to and around Galveston
Galveston is an hour drive south of Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport. George Bush International Airport, Houston’s largest airport, is about 90 minutes away. The island itself is three miles wide and 30 miles long. The historic district's hotels and restaurants are all located within a three-mile radius—making walking, taking street cars, or catching a taxi easy if you don’t have the ability to rent a car.
What to do
Galveston’s Historic Strand District—or just the Strand, as locals call it—is the historic center of the island. Once known as the “Wall Street of the Southwest,” the row of century-old, opulent Victorian buildings on Strand Street is designated a National Historic Landmark. The area in front of the bay has served as the island's commercial center since the late 1880s, and the buildings that once housed dry goods stores, cotton factories, banks, and sailors' boarding houses are now home to a diverse collection of boutique clothing stores, gift shops, antique stores, restaurants, museums, and old-fashioned candy shops.
Visitors to the Strand can walk in the footsteps of Juneteenth’s historic roots with the Freedom Walk Challenge, available on Visit Galveston’s mobile app. Its five stops retrace the emancipation of Texas starting with the Middle Passage marker at Pier 21 that commemorates the enslaved Africans who passed through the port of Galveston in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The walk includes a stop at the 5,000-square-foot Absolute Equality mural, which marks the spot where General Order No. 3 was issued; the mural faces what used to be the Union soldier headquarters at the corner of Stand and 22nd Street. On the other side of the mural wall is the Juneteenth Legacy Project offices, headquartered in the Nia Cultural Center educational nonprofit: Visitors are welcomed to the cultural center for a deeper dive into Juneteenth history, to view local artwork, and to talk with cultural ambassadors about the history of African Americans in Galveston.
What to eat
The best introduction to Texas food culture is through barbecue. Galveston is home to a Black-owned barbecue restaurant that is among the most popular in a state known for its smoked meats: Leon’s World Famous BBQ. For 25 years the family-owned barbecue shack has served smoked beef brisket sandwiches, peppery pork ribs, garlic-smothered beef links, and sweet potato pies. Owner Leon O’Neil credits his special barbecue sauce, been handed down to him through the generations, for making the restaurant so popular.