City in Texas, situated on an identically named island in the Gulf of Mexico, southeast of Houston. The city is located toward the east end of the oblong-shaped island, which shelters Galveston Bay, providing a natural location for a seaport. It's accessible from Texas City on the mainland via Interstate 45, from the lazy seaside towns to the west by a locally operated toll bridge, and from the Bolivar Peninsula to the east by a free ferry administered by the state. The ferry is by far the most enjoyable of the three. Huge flocks of seagulls will follow the boat regardless of whether anyone is feeding them; they pluck tiny minnows out of the ferry's turbulent wake and are generally entertaining whether they hit or miss.
The island, and by association the city and bay, were named after Bernardo de Galvez, an 18th-century Spanish colonial bigwig who didn't even have the decency to set foot on the shores of his namesake. It had earlier been inhabited by various persons of a generally American Indian persuasion - they might've been Karankawas, or perhaps they were other tribes spreading rumors of their supposed Karankawahood so people would leave them alone. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence that either Galvez or the Karankawas were ever there, their names remain as city streets.
Both Galvez and the Indians were long extinct when pirate extraordinaire Jean Lafitte decided in 1817 that Galveston would make a splendid habitation for himself and his band of merry men. Lafitte stayed there for several years, and by all accounts his settlement was just one big party. This would be a recurring theme in Galvestonian history. Legend has it that he left behind buried treasure after being driven out in 1821. Don't believe it. And metal detectors are illegal there anyhow.
Eventually the Texans showed up, and the place of pirates' jolly debauchery evolved into a center of commercial prosperity. Granted, there was probably still plenty of debauchery going on in the homes of Galveston's shipping magnates in the 1840's, but society tends to overlook such indiscretions in Upstanding Citizens who go to church and pay taxes and so forth. Trade was booming in mid-19th century Galveston. Goods arrived from all over the world in that really nifty harbor I mentioned earlier, and a lot of people got rich. The principal row of commercial houses, known as The Strand, was said to be "the Wall Street of the Southwest."
Commerce continued to diddle the fingers of its invisible hand, I suppose, until the pivotal event in the city's history came at the turn of the next century: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Back then nobody bothered to give hurricanes cutesy names, particularly when they drowned 6000 people and leveled a good portion of the city. Many of the bodies were never identified; the hurricane ranks as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
But here's the cool part: the people of Galveston didn't just rebuild their city and wait nervously for the next big storm to strike. Instead, they accomplished a feat of protective landscaping to rival the dikes of the Netherlands. A bunch of civil engineers arrived, equipped with all the latest tricks of their trade, and proceeded to modify the island's terrain so radically that a disaster of the 1900 hurricane's magnitude could never happen again. An enormous, seven mile long seawall was constructed to absorb the bront of any storm surge, and the city itself - hundreds of blocks of ornate buildings - was raised from sea level by several feet.
The rebuilt port city gradually evolved into a resort destination, notorious for holding an annual Mardi Gras celebration to parallel the larger one in New Orleans. The beachfront area behind the seawall and highway is now covered with hotels and restaurants. Somewhat oddly, there are no real "beach houses" until you get to the more rural, undeveloped and unseawalled west end of the island, where houses (occasionally in the shape of geodesic domes!) are built on stilts right on the sand, across the road from pastures with grazing cattle. The far east end of the island is relatively underdeveloped as well; the city government made alcohol legal on the east beach and widely advertised that fact, presumably to get the troublemaking crowd as far as far away from the expensive hotels as possible. I suppose if it's dark and you're drunk all the nasty stuff that washes up on the east beach won't bother you, but I walked down that beach fully sober in daylight and the spectacle of a dead dolphin with a massive head wound, tangled in fishing line, was enough to ruin my mood and appetite for several hours.
The city itself is full of old houses built in extravagant styles and doomed to decrepitude by historical preservationists. The big, palatial residences are kept in good order, but the smaller antique structures often are not. Galveston, for all it's charms, occasionally seems to be held back by relics of its own history.
The downtown area, centered around The Strand, is now far more culturally than commercially oriented. There is a tremendous variety of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops; galleries of fine art next door to purveyors of knick-knacks and kitsch; museums, an opera house, and a military surplus store with barrels full of authentic, obsolete, mothball-smelling gear from around the world. Nearby are the still-active harbor and cargo yards. There is a city park downtown with a life-size outdoor chessboard tiled into the pavement. The city provides giant plastic chessmen so that anyone who walks by can play. Annual events include Mardi Gras and (as kthejoker mentions) North America's largest Charles Dickens festival, "Dickens on the Strand" held every January.
Nearby Pelican Island, considered part of the city and accessible from Galveston Island by a short bridge, is home to privately-held shipyards, a Coast Guard preserve, and a small branch of Texas A&M University focusing on maritime studies. The university has a plethora of boats of all shapes and sizes at its docks; apparently it's one of the best places in the world to study marine engineering or marine biology or just about anything else marine-related. Back on the main island there's a state park which has an outdoor theater presenting plays during the summer. There's also a large medical facility on the island, associated with the University of Texas's medical school.
Despite being heavily marketed as a vacation destination, Galveston is one of the few cities I've visited that'd actually be worth living in. The size and shape of the island keep it from becoming a bloated mess of sprawl. The downtown area, as well as the seawall, harbor, and residential architecture combine to give the city a distinct identity, unconcealed by ugly appendages of suburbia.