As the county seat and home to Baylor University, Waco boasts high-quality museums, historic landmarks, and options for dining and nightlife at the fingertips of residents and visitors alike. Two of the college’s most famous alumni — Chip and Joanna Gaines, hosts of the hit HGTV reality show “Fixer Upper” — have transformed the city into a home decorating mecca with a slew of shops geared toward their chic, modern farmhouse lifestyle brand. Located right in between Dallas and Austin, many of the town’s top attractions, landmarks and recreational spaces are located beneath the shade of live oak trees lining the broad Brazos River, the 11th longest river in America, which winds its way through downtown, en route from New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico.
With so many interesting things to see and do in Waco, this guide will keep you busy on a memorable, family-friendly getaway to one of the Lone Star State’s most underrated destinations.
Magnolia Market at the Silos
Fans of the HGTV show “Fixer Upper” flock to this destination shopping district, where they can immerse themselves in a collection of boutiques showcasing housewares, gifts, garden supplies and apparel curated by the show’s design darlings, Chip and Joanna Gaines. The couple’s empire also features Silos Baking Co., a cafe specializing in cupcakes and lemonade that helps keep patrons fueled throughout their shopping spree.
The more than 2-acre site, which includes an outdoor stage and a half-dozen food trucks, also serves as the backdrop for a variety of community events such as live music performances and a farmers market. Visitors applaud the area for being both charming and family-friendly, thanks to an expansive lawn where kids of all ages can play a game of tag or cornhole while parents rest at a shady picnic table. The historic silos, formerly part of a cotton oil mill facility, anchor the complex and add photogenic interest.
Round out your visit with a stay at Magnolia’s Hillcrest Cottage, a one-bedroom guesthouse renovated by Chip and Jo themselves, furnished in their classic Magnolia style. But be forewarned that the entire market and all of its counterparts are closed on Sundays.
Address: 601 Webster Ave., Waco, TX 76706
Waco Suspension Bridge and Riverwalk
Take a stroll or bike ride along the Waco Riverwalk, a 7-mile paved path that hugs the bank of the Brazos River and connects several city parks in downtown Waco. You’ll pass under several bridges along the river, including the historic Waco Suspension Bridge, constructed in 1870 by the same company that built the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Today this pedestrian-only landmark hosts many community events and festivals. Bronze sculptures commemorating the Chisolm Trail — a popular route for cattle drives following the Civil War — can be found around the bridge, as part of the highly photographed “Branding the Brazos” project. Travelers say the iconic structure is usually a nice place to visit at night when the lights are on, though they caution that current construction has closed off the bridge and limited access to the area. The rehabilitation project is projected to wrap up by late spring 2022. The Hilton Waco hotel is located across the street from Indian Spring Park, which anchors the west side of the bridge.
More than 20,000 students study at this picturesque 1,000-acre campus situated along the Brazos River in the heart of Waco. Although the private Christian institution is well known for its research and master’s programs, one of Baylor University’s most popular attractions is the Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat, which houses the school’s live black bear mascots, Joy and Lady. Visitors are welcome to view the bears in their outdoor habitat free of charge daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; guided tours of the facility are also available and can be scheduled online.
Other notable campus destinations include the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center, McLane Student Life Center and the Burleson Quadrangle. You can explore at your own pace with the help of a self-guided walking audio tour, available by downloading the Baylor University app on your phone. The tour starts from the Wiethorn Undergraduate Admissions Center and covers more than 2 miles in about 45 minutes. For overnight accommodations, the on-campus boutique apartment hotel called 1700 South 2nd offers two-bedroom condos with full kitchens and living rooms.
Address: 1311 S. Fifth St., Waco, TX 76706
Overlooking the Brazos Riverfront in East Waco, McLane Stadium is home to the Baylor University Bears football team. In the offseason, the venue’s state-of-the-art audio-visual technology is put to good use at a multitude of concerts and other entertaining events. Fans applaud the $26 million facility, built in 2014, for its modern design, ample restroom facilities and good variety of concession options, as well as its several gift shops for purchasing festive attire in the school’s signature green and gold colors. Its horseshoe shape also offers spectators a pleasant view of the Brazos River from the stands. This setup has created an opportunity for the unique tradition of “sailgating,” where boaters convene by the dock right outside the stadium on game days.
Guided tours of the facility are available for a fee and last about 90 minutes, giving visitors access to the field, press box, locker room and more. The budget-friendly Red Roof Inn Waco is conveniently located just around the corner from the stadium, offering a free stay for one pet and a complimentary breakfast spread.
Address: 1001 South Martin Luther King Blvd., Waco, TX 76704
This 400-acre city park is an urban oasis of outdoor activity boasting a 20-mile National Recreation Trail system, a 23-hole disc golf course, numerous parks and playground areas, and a plethora of geological and manmade landmarks to explore. Cameron Park’s location at the confluence of the Bosque and Brazos rivers creates a lush landscape with awesome scenery.
A wildflower garden called Miss Nellie’s Pretty Place is a prime picnic spot, particularly in springtime, and visitors adore the well-kept park’s variety of trails. More adventurous types can hike to Emmons Cliff to gaze at the river from atop a towering limestone bluff, or attempt to climb Jacob’s Ladder, a historic staircase with nearly 100 rickety steps. The park, with its network of challenging, multi-use trails for hiking and mountain biking, plays host to competitive events such as triathlons each year. The trails also provide access to other attractions, including the Waco Riverwalk, which travels along the waterfront into downtown.
Address: 2601 N. University Parks Drive, Waco, TX 76708
Cameron Park Zoo
Located on the south side of Cameron Park, this award-winning facility prides itself on creating natural habitats for more than 1,700 animals across 52 acres. Visitors to Cameron Park Zoo appreciate the variety of animals and abundance of shady trees along the walkways; they also note that the animal enclosures seem spacious and well maintained.
Main highlights at the zoo include its exhibits, such as the Brazos River Country adventure, featuring a 50,000-gallon aquarium, where guests will learn about the geography, flora and fauna of the Waco watershed. Patrons get up close and personal with otters, jaguars, alligators and other species who thrive in the Texas wilderness. The Asian Forest exhibit offers a drastic change of scenery in a jungle setting populated with orangutans, Komodo dragons and Sumatran tigers.
Admission is $13 for adults and $10 for children 3 to 12 years old. Parking at the zoo is free. One option for unwinding after your visit is a stay at the Courtyard Waco hotel, located just over 1 mile from the zoo; its family-friendly amenities include an outdoor swimming pool.
Address: 1701 N. Fourth St., Waco, TX 76707
Waco Sculpture Zoo
Pedestrians and cyclists exploring the Brazos River corridor will discover a unique collection of public art in the form of 28 animal sculptures. Scattered across the milelong stretch between the Cameron Park Zoo and Baylor University’s campus, the sculpture subjects represent wildlife that either can be viewed in real form at the neighboring zoo (e.g., elephant, giraffe, lion, meerkat) or are native to the surrounding central Texas region (e.g., fox, whitetail deer, box turtle).
Visitors say this array of artwork is a great addition to the already lovely riverfront area and that kids are especially entertained by the surprise “zoo.” The works were created by a group of artists from across the country, including two local sculptors, and commissioned by the nonprofit Creative Waco. The artists used a variety of materials and methods to interpret their assignment; often the animals are arranged in interesting ways, such as the bronze “Wise Elephant” sitting thoughtfully on a bench or the aluminum “Bats Taking Flight” that swirl upward into the sky. A map with details about each piece can be found at on Creative Waco’s website.
Dr Pepper Museum
Did you know that Dr Pepper is the oldest major soda brand in America — and that it was first created in Waco? You’ll learn all that history and more about the unique soft drink at the Dr Pepper Museum, located in a historic bottling factory downtown. Spend some time browsing the building’s three floors of exhibits that traverse the history and science of soda manufacturing and contain interesting memorabilia like a 1940s delivery truck.
To make your visit more interactive, you can head to the on-site Liquid Lab for the Make-A-Soda experience, where you can concoct your own soda flavor (for a $10 additional fee, which includes a take-home soda bottle and souvenir hat), or the Taste-A-Soda experience, in which a Soda Sommelier will provide a flight of six soda samples for $12. Other activities offered include a guided paranormal tour of the premises or a mystery game you can play through the ClueKeeper app on your phone.
Entrance to the museum costs $10 for adults and $6 for children 4 and older; admission includes a free Dr Pepper soda. Travelers say this attraction is a fun way to spend a couple hours but warn there is no on-site parking.
Address: 300 S. Fifth St., Waco, TX 76701
Historic Waco Foundation house museums
This organization manages three historic home sites in the downtown area to give guests a glimpse of Civil War-era architecture and artifacts, as well as a deeper understanding of Waco’s heritage.
With construction beginning in 1858, the Earle-Napier-Kinnard House was one of the first brick homes in Waco. The structure underwent several additions over the years as families came and went; the current Greek Revival facade was completed in 1868. The McCulloch House features a similar architectural style and was occupied by members of the same family for more than a century. The grand East Terrace House, complete with a ballroom and Italianate villa-style design details, was finished in 1874.
These museum sites showcase original furnishings, family heirlooms and artifacts, such as lamps and paintings. A $5 adult entry fee at each site includes a guided tour with volunteer docents, whom visitors commend for being extremely knowledgeable; children younger than 6 years old and military members get complimentary access. Be aware that the museum complex is closed on Mondays, and the Earle-Napier-Kinnard House is temporarily closed for renovations with plans to open early summer 2022. For an overnight stay nearby, the SpringHill Suites Waco is just two blocks from the Earle-Napier-Kinnard House and features an outdoor pool.
Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum
The Texas Rangers department is the oldest and perhaps most revered state law enforcement agency in the country, having served and protected the people of the region since 1823. The 30-acre Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum complex honors the esteemed agency’s contributions to Western heritage and history with a collection of 20,000 artifacts thoughtfully displayed in exhibits spread across several galleries. Visitors can browse rooms full of firearms, badges, saddles and uniforms used by the rangers throughout the ages, in addition to an impressive collection of fine art paintings and sculptures depicting early Western life. The on-site Hall of Fame gallery features portraits of the 31 notable rangers honored as inductees.
Families with children can download activity sheets to help them navigate the exhibits like a scavenger hunt or a search for bandits. Visitors recommend spending at least two hours exploring this information-rich facility, including watching the 45-minute documentary that is shown each hour. The museum is accessible every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and military, and $4 for children 6 to 12 years old. If you want accommodations near the museum after your visit, the Residence Inn Waco, with its indoor pool and hot tub, is located less than half a mile away.
Address: 100 Texas Ranger Trail, Waco, TX 76706
Waco Mammoth National Monument
Located about 6 miles northwest of downtown Waco, this protected archaeological site was established in 2015 and comprises 108 acres of tranquil forestland along the Bosque River where the fossil remains of numerous prehistoric creatures, most notably a herd of Columbian mammoths, were discovered in 1978. Researchers have posed several theories, including flood or drought, to explain how the animals — which also included a camel, giant tortoise, alligator, pygmy antelope and saber-toothed cat — died nearly 70,000 years ago.
Although the remains found through 1990 have been relocated to the Mayborn Museum Complex downtown, park visitors can explore the climate-controlled Dig Shelter, an active excavation site showcasing most of the recent fossil discoveries. Hourlong guided walking tours lead guests across the elevated walkway overlooking this fascinating facility to see bones, artwork and other educational artifacts. Tours leave every 30 minutes from the Welcome Center, and no reservation is required. Access to the Dig Shelter costs $5 for adults; fees for children vary based on age. Visitors also mention the on-site nature trails and recommend kids ask for an activity book at the Welcome Center to earn a junior ranger badge. Be sure to take a short stroll down the Eagle Scout Trail where you might spot wildlife like roadrunners and deer. The nearby Bed and Breakfast on White Rock Creek offers charming suites in a rural setting.
Address: 6220 Steinbeck Bend Drive, Waco, TX 76708
Mayborn Museum Complex
Located on the Baylor University campus, this educational facility features five permanent exhibits dedicated to the natural and cultural history of the central Texas region, including models of the original fossil collections excavated from the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Included in the $10 adult admission fee is access to the on-site Governor Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village, where visitors can step back in time with a stroll around nine historic structures replicating rural farm life in the late 1800s. Families with children will find fun activities geared toward hands-on learning at the Jeanes Discovery Center, full of interactive exhibits including live animal displays.
Visitors recommend planning to spend two to three hours exploring the facility in its entirety. Note that the museum is closed on major holidays, as well as during Baylor University home football games. Less than a mile from the Mayborn Museum Complex, the Hotel Indigo Waco-Baylor provides classic amenities with local flare.
Address: 1300 S. University Parks Drive, Waco, TX 76706
Armstrong Browning Library and Museum
Devoted to the lives of Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum houses the world’s largest collection of books, letters and more materials related to the Brownings. This attraction is perhaps most sought out for its regal Italian Renaissance architecture, which visitors describe as “exquisite” and “majestic.”
Upon entry to the grandiose three-story structure, located on the Baylor University campus, visitors can marvel at the 62 stained-glass windows decorating the building. Be sure to take your time while meandering through the library’s multitude of rooms, halls and exhibits to appreciate the attention to detail that was paid during construction in the mid-1900s, from the gleaming wood tables in the John Leddy-Jones Research Hall to the elaborate ceiling in the McLean Foyer of Meditation. The library is free and open to the public on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis or with a reservation.
Address: 710 Speight Ave., Waco, TX 76706
A day on Lake Waco
Built in 1965 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flooding prevention and water conservation, this artificial reservoir located west of downtown also provides ample space for recreational activities like boating, fishing, hiking and hunting. Visitors appreciate the numerous scenic parks surrounding the shoreline for sunbathing, picnicking and paddling; most of these are free to enter, but a few require payment of a small facility fee. The 180-acre wetlands area, which is open to the public and situated on the northwest corner of the lake, features nearly 3 miles of hiking trails and serves as a habitat for an abundance of native plants, amphibians, butterflies and 140 bird species. Anglers on Lake Waco will find an abundance of largemouth bass, catfish and crappies. Daily pontoon boats rentals are available from Waco Lake Rentals, while paddleboards and kayaks can be rented at Lake Waco Marina. Campgrounds are located at the Airport, Midway, Reynolds Creek and Speegleville parks.
Waco Tours River Cruise
Get a fresh perspective of the city with a relaxing, two-hour pontoon boat ride down the beautiful Brazos River that winds through downtown Waco. You’ll cruise to some of the town’s top sights, like the Waco Suspension Bridge and Cameron Park, while catching a breeze from the water. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, including alligators. You’ll likely also encounter kayaks and canoes floating along the city’s Brazos Bridges Paddling Trail. Travelers rave about the friendly, funny and knowledgeable guides who entertain with interesting tidbits about the city’s history and geography along the way. Fun fact: Both of the couples who founded the company had their homes renovated and featured on Waco’s famous reality TV show, “Fixer Upper.” Tickets start at $79 per person. Tours depart from McLane Stadium and do not operate in the winter.
Shopping at Spice Village
Housed in one of the city’s landmark buildings, this 30,000-square-foot downtown shopping district is known for its charming, rustic atmosphere and extensive collection of unique boutiques. Built in 1908, the historic complex was once occupied by McClendon Hardware Co. but is now part of the River Square Center development, which hosts Spice Village and its more than 60 independently owned shops. These stores specialize in anything from custom pillowcases and garment bags to olive oil and salvaged barnwood decor. Visitors say Spice Village is an excellent place to find the perfect gift but warn you could easily spend several hours browsing through the multitude of offerings here, so plan accordingly. Complete your boutique experience with an overnight stay at the Pivovar hotel, located half a mile away with a Czech-style beer garden and spa.
Address: 213 Mary Ave., Waco, TX 76701
The Amazing Fixer Upper Tour by Brazos Tours
Die-hard fans of the reality home design TV show will adore this guided tour of the homes, design shops and landmarks regularly featured on “Fixer Upper.” Typical stops include visits to Harp Design Co. and JDH Iron Designs — and sometimes even an in-home tour of one of the latest house projects. Guests are endlessly impressed with the friendly and knowledgeable tour guides, who provide stories about the inner workings of the show and its hosts. Tickets for adults cost $39 for a 2.5-hour tour in a modern van vehicle. Round out the experience with a stay in one of the show’s homes, known as the Three Little Pigs House, and receive a complimentary seat on the tour. Brazos Tours also offers wine tours and a haunted adventure through Waco.
Waco Downtown Farmers Market
Locals and travelers alike love visiting this charming open-air market held on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot across from the McLennan County Courthouse downtown. The sense of comradery and community at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, which has been in operation for more than 10 years and flourished from just a few farmers to include up to 80 vendors on special event weekends, makes it a top-rated, family-friendly attraction.
Thanks to Texas’ long growing and grazing seasons, vendors can convene here year-round to sell foodstuff such as artisan cheeses, homemade jerky, pickles, jellies, baked goods and locally grown produce that varies by season. Marketgoers especially love the gorgeous bouquets of cut flowers from 6G Heritage Farm and recommend that you go in hungry to enjoy the array of food truck offerings such as tacos. Sporadic special events throughout the year add entertainment in the form of live music, craft goods and more. The market site also serves as a perfect jumping-off point for exploring some of Waco’s best dining and drinking options nearby, like Southern Roots Brewing Company, also known for its pizza, and Hecho En Waco, a popular Mexican restaurant.
Address: 500 Washington Ave., Waco, TX 76701
Hawaiian Falls Waco Waterpark
Central Texas is notorious for its intense summer heat, but when temperatures become unbearable Wacoans head to this 10-acre water park located 5 miles north of downtown. The park houses myriad waterslide rides, a lazy river, a wave pool and more, the intensity of which is rated from 1 to 5 on the “Shaka Meter,” referring to the friendly hand signal used by surfers on the beaches of Hawaii. The Tsunami slide has earned a 5 — meaning it is the most thrilling of all — for shooting participants on their backs through a winding water tunnel and into a pool below. On the other end of the spectrum is Keiki Kove, rated a 1, which provides an interactive water playground for children 12 and younger. Guests appreciate the additional amenities like shaded cabanas and miniature golf. Ticket prices vary by visitor height and range from $18 to $26 if you book online to take advantage of discounted rates. The water park is only open from May to September. The Fairfield Inn & Suites Waco North is nearby with an indoor pool to continue the water fun after hours.
Address: 900 Lake Shore Drive, Waco, TX 76708
Heart O’ Texas Speedway
From monster truck shows to stock car shootouts, Heart O’ Texas Speedway, a car racing track north of Waco, provides an evening of fun and entertainment for the whole family. Motor aficionados are especially impressed by the variety of class types and state-of-the-art track facilities. Races are held on Friday evenings from March through September. An annual fireworks show during the Fourth of July weekend is an especially popular time to attend. An on-site concession stand sells burgers, fries, hot dogs and a variety of snacks, in addition to a separate Beer Stand for adult beverages. Grandstands open at 6 p.m.; racing starts at 8 p.m. Adult admission is $15, while tickets for children ages 6 to 12 are $5.
Address: 784 N. McLennan Drive, Elm Mott, TX 76640
Waco Wine Tours
The guided Vintage Tour through the central Texas countryside allows you to experience some of Waco’s best vineyards in one afternoon. Guests, who visit up to three different wineries in an air-conditioned shuttle bus, frequently gush about the friendly and knowledgeable tour guides. At Valley Mills Vineyards, visitors can sample a wide variety of red and white wines made from 100% Texas-grown grapes, such as tempranillo and viognier. The Red Caboose Winery specializes in sustainable practices, such as by using solar or wind power, to produce award-winning Old World-style wines like lenoir and zinfandel. The 3.5-hour excursion includes wine tastings, water and a picnic lunch for $139 plus tax per person. Private tours and brewery tours are also available. The Vintage Tour departs from and returns to the Residence Inn Waco.
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