Waco, TX is one of those destinations which inspire the question: Why? Why would you want to go? For fans of Chip and Joanna Gaine’s hit show Fixer Upper and their brand, Magnolia, going to Waco is almost a pilgrimage. And, while I like the show, there is so much more to do and see in Waco! So, I wrote this article as a guide for folks who are not fans of all things Fixer Upper but are still looking to have a great time in this excellent city.
I have been itching to go to Waco for years. There is so much cool stuff to see and do. There’s a unit of the National Park Service, Waco Mammoth National Monument. You can also find one of the best distilleries in the country, Balcones. And, let’s not forget a scrumptious food scene filled with Texas classics that does not disappoint.
That is on top of an excellent downtown area which is quite walkable and offers a lot to see and explore.
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Start Your Morning on the Riverwalk
One of the defining features of Waco is the Brazos River. The city has more than embraced the river, creating an excellent system of trails that follow along the river. This park system provides 7 miles of a multi-use trail along both banks of the river with several entry points.
The Riverwalk follows the river all the way from downtown to Cameron Park. The 416-acre park, complete with a zoo, sits on a bluff overlooking the river. There are miles of trails to explore. If getting out on the water is your thing, there is plenty of paddling to do on the river. There are even vendors along the Riverwalk which will rent kayaks.
Another cool feature of the Riverwalk is the Waco Suspension Bridge. This was the longest single-span suspension bridge when it was built in 1870. Alongside the bridge, you will find statues honoring Waco’s past as a cattle town.
On the north side of the river, you will find memorials to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Doris Miller. Miller was a sailor, born in Waco, and served aboard the USS West Virginia. He was below decks doing laundry when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Miller carried the wounded to safety, including the ship’s commander, who perished in the attack. Then Miller, despite having no training in how to use it, manned an antiaircraft gun. He fired on Japanese planes until he ran out of ammunition and an officer ordered him to abandon ship.
There is an excellent statue to Miller, who the Navy awarded the Navy Cross for his actions. Miller was later killed in action in the Pacific.
Visit the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum
Located not far off the Riverwalk is the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. This museum captures the legend of one of the most storied frontier law enforcement units in the world. It also explains how this legendary unit has evolved into the premier investigative unit in Texas.
Start in the Homer Garrison Gallery, which traces the timeline of the Texas Ranger in terms of equipment and mission as their mission and politics of the American West changed. Stephen F. Austin created the original Texas Rangers in 1823 when Texas was still part of Mexico.
Following the Texas Revolution, the Texas government made the Rangers a permanent presence. They served as a frontier fighting force in conflicts with bandits and Native Americans. The museum traces the evolution of the Texas Rangers following the Mexican American War to the modern day, where they have become the state’s investigative force.
Be sure to check out the exhibits on Frank Hamer. He was a former Ranger who was tasked with tracking down the notorious Bonnie and Clyde. Also, don’t miss the exhibits about Ranger special operations. You can also read about the Rangers who have been inducted in the Hall of Fame.
Finally, check out the 45-minute video on the history of the Rangers. It dispels a lot of the myths surrounding the Texas Rangers.
Waco Mammoth National Monument
Head northwest along the Brazos River to the Waco Mammoth National Monument. One of the newest units of the National Park Service, the City of Waco and Baylor University manage this site.
When you arrive at the site, you will find a small visitor contact station with a limited bookstore and a few small exhibits. Outside, there is a really cool area for kids to “dig” for fossils. At the contact station, you will need to pay the access fee to head down the paved sidewalk to the dig shelter. You can either tour on your own or take a guided tour. I opted for a guided tour and I was glad I did.
On the way down, the Waco Parks and Recreation guide narrated the story of how these mammoth fossils were discovered back in 1978. Apparently, two boys, asked by their neighbor to hunt for snakes, came across a large bone sticking out of a creek bank. The boys reported the find to the Strecker Museum at Baylor University. The site happened to be on the property of a local supporter of Baylor University so the university began excavating the site.
Between their discovery in 1978 and 1997, paleontologists excavated 24 Columbian mammoths, as well as a camel and a juvenile sabertooth cat. Scientists believe three separate flooding events killed these animals.
The Dig Shelter has an elevated walkway above the dig sites which allows the visitors to look down on the partially fossilized remains. It’s a really cool site and I am glad I did the guided tour. The shelter reminds me a lot of the Mammoth Site and Museum in Hot Springs, SD, which we visited back in 2020.
Dr Pepper Museum and Downtown Waco
Located in downtown Waco, the Dr Pepper Museum tells the tale of this iconic soft drink. If you are a “Pepper” like me, you will not want to miss it. This museum goes into the history of the soft drink, following the development of Dr Pepper. A Waco pharmacist created the drink in the early 1880s and marketed it commercially in 1885, one year before Coca-Cola.
The museum is housed in the original bottling plant for the beverage and has three floors of exhibits, following the evolution of the company, including some of its successful advertising campaigns.
When you get done touring the exhibits, be sure to head across the courtyard and get some Dr Pepper from the old-fashioned-style soda fountain. I made a point to get a Dr Pepper float made with some Blue Bell ice cream.
Pro tip: You do not have to purchase a ticket to the museum in order to visit the soda fountain, making it a great stop for dessert on a hot Texas afternoon.
Personally, I loved the Dr Pepper Museum. It was such a great collection of the history of my favorite soda. Even if you are not a fan of the drink, it is well worth the stop if you have never seen how soda is made and bottled.
After visiting the Dr Pepper Museum, take time to just stroll through downtown Waco. It’s a fantastically walkable downtown area. While I was out and about, I came across a nice farmer’s market/festival right in front of the courthouse. I also found plenty of excellent restaurants and shops.
It’s a really cool area and I look forward to spending more time here when I return to show Bonnie around.
Tour Balcones Distilling
Balcones Distilling is a Texas institution when it comes to craft whiskey. I have been a fan since I read an article about them nearly 10 years ago. Years ago, I got a bottle of Brimstone, which is their smoked whiskey. The distillers make this whiskey with blue corn and smoke it over Texas scrub oak. The taste is both smooth and smokey and is one of my absolute favorites.
I decided to spend the money to tour the distillery. I wanted to see where and how my favorite whiskey is made. We have taken various distillery tours in the past and I must say this was the best distillery tour I have ever taken.
The group I was with got a hands-on tour of the impressive distillery and you could see how they have grown through the years. Many tours I have gone on feel like you are going through a modern industrial operation. Balcones, however, built this operation in an old safe factory and the character of the building definitely carries over to its operation.
One of the really cool things about the tour was seeing the small brewery at the facility. Apparently, they started the brewery as a hobby. Now, it turns out some exceptional brews in its own right. That said, you won’t find Balcones beer anywhere but its tasting room and a few other Waco restaurants.
Tasting the Whiskey and Beer at Balcones
At the tail end of the tour, we had a tasting of four of Balcones’ core spirits: Baby Blue, Texas Pot Still Bourbon, Texas Single Malt and Texas Rum. Each of these spirits has a unique flavor profile and it makes for an interesting tasting.
One of the things that makes these spirits so interesting, flavor-wise, is how the whiskey is stored and aged. They age these spirits in a nearby warehouse without climate control. As such, Balcones loses about 10% per year of the barrels’ contents to evaporation, called Angel’s Share. This makes for bolder flavors in a relatively short period of time.
After the tour, I stopped into the tasting room for a couple of beers. I was particularly impressed with Smoaked, a smoked lager. Delicious! The tasting room is a cool space. Even if you don’t take a tour, be sure to hit up the tasting room for a great bar experience.
Can You Visit the Branch-Davidian Complex?
If you are old enough to remember the Waco Siege or have seen the series on Netflix, you might be interested in visiting the site where the siege took place. The short answer is yes, you can see the site. The Branch group still owns the compound.
The site is located about 15 miles east of Waco on a ranch road and is open Tuesday-Saturday. Unfortunately, I visited on a Sunday, so could only see it from the gate. Honestly, I was ok with just the drive-by. While it was kinda cool to see, it was not a priority to me.
Still, I know some folks will want to know about it, since that is one of the things Waco is famous for, so I checked it out.
Where to Stay and Eat in Waco
Waco has become quite a weekend destination for folks from all over the world and there are several nice hotels in the area, including a Hilton in downtown. It is also the home of Baylor University, so make sure you check the football schedule before trying to book a weekend in town.
Since it was just me, I decided to save a bit of money and stay at the Tru by Hilton on the south side of town. While I would have liked to have been able to walk from the hotel, it was still convenient and an easy drive to everywhere I wanted to stay.
In downtown, I stopped for lunch at Jake’s Texas Tea House, a car and gas-themed burger shop. Even on a busy Saturday afternoon, I found a spot at the bar and settled in for a great meal.
I grabbed a Cadillac melt and fries, both of which were outstanding. They even had jalapeño ketchup for the fries, which was perfect. Add in a Shiner Bock and I was in Texas heaven.
For dessert, I stopped at the Dr Pepper Museum for a Dr Pepper float at the soda fountain.
For dinner, I just had to get some barbecue. I headed over to Uncle Dan’s BBQ and Ribhouse for some Central Texas barbecue. It did not disappoint!
I got the Tour of Texas, a massive plate of four meats plus two sides of baked beans and potato salad. I got smoked turkey breast (wow!), pulled pork (pretty good, but not Georgia barbecue good), sliced brisket (a Texas staple and amazing!), and, the star of the show, the smoked Slovacek garlic and pepperjack cheese sausage. WOW! So much delicious barbecue. My only regret is I couldn’t take leftovers home!
For breakfast on Sunday, I needed something more than the standard at the hotel, so I went to Our Breakfast Place. You know you have found the right joint when there are plenty of seats outside for the folks waiting on a table. Still, despite the crowds, I was able to get in for a meal in about 20 minutes on a Sunday morning.
It was the perfect morning for a Texas steak skillet, which was shaved steak, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms all topped with two eggs. Delicious!
Final Thoughts on Visiting Waco
When I told folks I was going to spend the weekend in Waco while Bonnie was in Paris, there were a lot of confused looks. For most folks, it is just a town in Texas where there was a siege, where Baylor University is and where Chip and Joanna Gaines started their home decor and TV empire.
But, having lived in Texas for a few years, I knew there was much more to see and enjoy in Waco. I missed a lot on my trip here and I am really looking forward to seeing and exploring more with Bonnie. There’s a winery outside of town, there are a couple of great parks with a lot of trails and a great live music scene.
I can’t wait to bring Bonnie here so we can see and do even more!
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