11 Reasons to Drive to Waco
There’s more to this mid-sized town than Magnolia Market.
Set along I-35 halfway between Austin and Dallas, Waco is a city that countless people drive through but don’t actually visit. In recent years, new attractions like the Magnolia Market have made Waco a worthy destination in its own right, but there’s more going on in this mid-sized town than just Chip and Joanna Gaines. From an incredible surf park to top-notch whiskey, great barbecue, and an ode to mammoths, here are 11 reasons to drive to Waco.
You’re forgiven for not knowing Waco is a hotbed for surfing—because, obviously, it’s nowhere near a beach. But that didn’t stop the enterprising Waco Surf from putting a PerfectSwell surf pool and a cable-operated wakeboard park on a lagoon. Go there to ride some waves and hit ramps on your board, then take on the exhilarating Wedge water slides, which send you flying through the air for a splashdown. Or, just relax on the lazy river. Either way, you’ll want some tacos from the Surfside Shack restaurant and a cold beer from the swim-up bar afterwards.
The Texas Sports Hall of Fame has roots dating back to 1951 when it inducted its first honoree, but the current iteration opened in Waco in 1993. Its purpose is to honor Texas legends, with 400 inductees to date, including Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, who attended Dallas’s Booker T. Washington High School. The museum contains 6,000 pieces of sports memorabilia, including photography and jerseys, and it’s also home to the Texas Tennis Museum and Hall of Fame and the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame. It’s a can’t-miss stop for Texas sports fans.
In 2016, the Texas Commission on the Arts voted to designate Downtown Waco a “State of Texas Cultural District.” That’s because downtown is where you’ll find all manner of art galleries and public art projects, museums, performance venues, local crafts, and clothing stores. There's also a farmers market and plenty of places to eat and drink. This is where you’re likely to find the city’s many festivals, live music venues, and other cultural attractions. So, if any of those things appeal to you, point yourself toward downtown, and prepare to spend a few hours exploring the vibrant neighborhood.
Whether or not you’re a fan of Joanna and Chip Gaines—the power couple behind Fixer Upper and the Magnolia brand—you can’t deny their impact on Waco and beyond. They’ve turned a popular TV show into a lifestyle empire, which includes a swath of tightly curated concepts centered around two 1950s-era 120-foot high silos. Six boutique stores flank the flagship Magnolia Market and peddle everything from men’s provisions and women’s clothing to bags, books, and bath products. If you’re hungry, there’s a restaurant, bakery, and coffee shop on site, and if all that makes you tired, you can stay at one of the four Gaines-designed vacation rental homes located throughout Waco.
It wasn’t too long ago that the country’s best distilleries (and nearly all its distilleries) were concentrated in Kentucky and Tennessee. Today, liquor is produced in all 50 states, with Texas responsible for more than 150 distilleries making every spirit under the sun. Waco’s award-winning Balcones Distilling helped put Texas whiskey on the map and continues to churn out some of the best juice in the country, from single malts and straight bourbon to bottles made with blue corn. Book a tour in advance, then swing by for an up-close look at how the whiskey is made before sampling a few products. There’s also a bottle shop, so go ahead and procure a couple souvenirs straight from the source. They make great gifts, even if the recipient is you.
Located near downtown Waco and the Brazos river, Cameron Park is one of the largest municipal parks in Texas, providing ample green space for locals and visitors to stroll and hang out. The park features 20 miles of twisting recreational trails, perfect for hiking and biking, plus a 23-hole disc golf course, a zoo, and a saltwater aquarium. For the best views, head up to Lovers Leap, which looks over the limestone cliffs to the river below, or hike up Jacob’s Ladder, a series of 100 zigzagging steps that leads to a scenic bluff. There’s lots to do here, so make a day of it, then retire with a picnic under a shady tree and feel good about all you accomplished.
Load up on celebrated BBQ
You can find mouthwatering smoked meats all over the state, in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and many places between. But if you’re craving ‘cue in Waco, you don’t have to leave to get your fix—just head for one of two lauded favorites. Guess Family Barbecue and Helberg Barbecue (technically located a stone’s throw outside of town) both landed on Texas Monthly’s most recent top-50 list. Guess is praised for its old-school approach to spare ribs and brisket, but don’t sleep on its Fried Baby Back Ribs, Brisket Melt Sandwich, and SmashBurger. Helberg gets top marks for its Pork Steak, Smoked Chicken, and Housemade Sausage. There’s no reason to choose one or the other when the two outposts are only a 15-minute drive apart, so skip breakfast and indulge in the double lunch of champions.
Way before there was Magnolia or Balcones, there was Dr Pepper. The iconic soda was created in Waco in 1885. Today, the original bottling plant and the Kellum-Rotan building—one of the oldest in downtown Waco—house the Dr Pepper Museum, which opened in 1991. Take a tour to learn all about the brand and its history, do a soda flight of six hard-to-find flavors with the “soda sommelier,” then try making your own. The museum’s “make-a-soda” experience lets you mix and match different flavors and bottle the results. The museum also holds one of the largest soft drink memorabilia collections in the world, with lots of Dr Pepper ephemera alongside obscure brands—looking at you, Kickapoo Joy Juice. End your day with a trip to the on-site soda fountain, where you can score a drink or an ice cream-laced float.
Fun fact: Columbian Mammoths roamed across Waco approximately 65,000 years ago. They differ from the Woolly variety, standing taller (about 14 feet) and weighing more (up to 10 tons). In 1978, a few men stumbled across some well-preserved bones, and since then, more than 20 mammoths have been found at the site, with experts believing the herd died together in a single natural event. Many of the fossils were excavated and housed at Baylor, but six mammoths remain in the ground in their original position at a protected dig site, now part of the Waco Mammoth National Monument, located on 100 acres of wooded parkland along the Bosque River. Take a self-guided tour of the site to learn about the history of the discovery and the Pleistocene Epoch (or Ice Age, if you prefer) when these animals called North America home.
Quench your thirst at local craft breweries and coffee shops
One cannot (well, should not) subsist on whiskey and Dr Pepper alone. Fortunately, Waco has plenty of other options to sate your thirst, including a handful of craft breweries and quality coffee shops. Sip some local beers and take advantage of the full kitchens at Waco Ale Company, Southern Roots, and Bare Arms Brewing, where you can collectively eat pizza, wings, tacos, and smoked meats, then head to the relaxing, dog-friendly beer garden at Brotherwell Brewing. Along the way you’ll be able to sample IPAs, pilsners, Belgian-style tripels, and more. If you need a little pick-me-up to get through the afternoon, order something caffeinated at local favorites Dichotomy (which also serves booze), Pinewood (which also serves beer), or Common Grounds, which hosts occasional concerts on its tree-lined property.
Baylor University’s athletics program punches well above its weight, with nationally ranked teams across multiple sports. The school’s football team is a regular Big 12 contender, playing in a newly built stadium that seats 50,000 people. Tailgate before the game and stroll around the campus afterward for the full experience. The baseball team is also solid, but basketball is where the school really shines. The mens’ and womens’ teams are two of the best in the country, with the mens’ squad winning the 2021 title and the womens’ team winning the title in 2005, 2012, and 2019. That’s a lot of championships for a small-market school with 20,000 students. See a game for yourself, and you might witness part of another historic title run.