- Distance from Dallas: 95 miles
- Best time: February to April; September to November
- Best for: FamilyBudgetArts and Culture
If the only things you know of Waco are Baylor, Branch Davidians, and the signs you pass on I-35 on the way to Austin, get ready for a surprise. About 95 miles from Dallas, this city of about 120,000 residents is both pretty—it sits on the Brazos River and is full of green spaces—and pretty interesting, with museums for a wide array of interests, a noted zoo, and even important prehistoric finds. Booming in the late 1800's thanks to its position along the Chisholm Trail, Waco can claim the first suspension bridge built across the Brazos (opened in 1870), the first skyscraper west of the Mississippi River (the still-standing Alico Building), and the oldest continually-operating university in the state (Baylor, founded in 1886.) It's also the birthplace of Texas' pride and joy, Dr. Pepper, the oldest major soft drink in the U.S. –by Sandra Ramani
1 Before reaching Waco proper, make the first stop of the weekend at Homestead Heritage, located off 1-35, on the way south from Dallas. At this 510-acre homesteading community, residents live and work in a traditional manner, and visitors are welcome to watch as they create quilts, furniture and pottery in the crafts center, grind wheat in the 19th-century gristmill, and work the ranch and farm. There's even a deli/bakery serving lunch items and baked goods, all homemade using ingredients from the farm; grab some pies or pastries for a snack.
2 Enjoy a pre-dinner stroll along the downtown parts of the Riverwalk, a seven-mile, sculpture-lined, lighted path that runs along both banks of the Brazos River, connecting the Baylor Campus with Cameron Park. The path winds under the historic Suspension Bridge, so take a detour and cross the structure, built in 1870 as part of the Chisholm Trail Crossing. You'll find Indian Springs Park on the bridge's west side, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on the east.
3 Enjoy a casual weekend kick-off dinner at George's, a mainstay for chicken-fried steak and free-flowing brews since the 1930s. Despite the collegiate vibe, the place has catered to everyone from students to senators and governors with its menu of Tex-Mex classics, steaks, stuffed baked potatoes, and creatively-topped burgers; save room for homemade key lime pie or fruit cobbler.
1 Drive out to Cameron Park Zoo for a light breakfast in the Plaza or Treetop Cafe, followed by a visit of the excellent attraction. Set on 52 acres along the Brazos, in the midst of the 416-acre Cameron Park, the zoo—named one of the best in the U.S. by Wildlife Conservation Magazine—specializes in re-creating natural habitats for all its creatures. Spy elephants, rhinos, and giraffes in the African Savannah, primates on Gibbon Island, and Komodo dragons and orangutans in the Asian Forest; kids can even slide on a glass tube through the otter habitat.
2 You've seen today's wildlife—now learn about their ancestors. In 1979, a large mammoth bone was discovered in a ravine near the Bosque River, setting off 30 years of excavation work. The Waco Mammoth Site, opened in 2009, details all the exciting discoveries in the area, including evidence of the largest-known concentration of Pleistocene mammoths dying from the same event, and the only recorded discovery of a nursery herd. Walk along bridges in the dig shelter to spot the giant remains below.
3 Head back into the town center for lunch at Uncle Dan's, a local haunt that's been serving "barbecue as tender as a mother's love" since 1978. Dine on brisket, smoked ribs, and catfish, along with sides like mac-n-cheese, mashed taters, and four kinds of beans. Burgers and sandwiches are also on the menu, along with salads, cobblers, and pies.
4 Once re-fueled, head to the Baylor University campus for your next three stops. First up: The Mayborn Museum complex, a family-favorite for its interactive exhibits. The main building features sections on natural history, from prehistoric times to the Native American and pioneer eras, plus 16 hands-on Discover Rooms (don't miss walking through a giant model of the human heart.) Outside, there's a Historic Village with 15 original wood frame structures from the region. Tip: The museum offers cell phone audio tours for certain sections; ask for details at the front desk.
5 Next, stop into the nearby Texas Sports Hall of Fame, a tribute to local teams and distinguished athletes at the high school, college, and professional levels. Watch replays of classic moves in the Tom Landry Theater, browse photos and memorabilia, learn famous fight songs, and trace the evolution of the tennis racket. The museum is divided into three sections: the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame, Texas Tennis Hall of Fame, and Texas Sports Hall of Fame, honoring professional athletes (it's the first of its kind in the U.S.).
6 Wind down the day at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, an interesting homage to the state's oldest law enforcement agency, which is tasked with solving difficult crimes and tracking down fugitives. The various exhibits detail Ranger history, showcase their signature boots and badges, display police equipment through the ages, spotlight women in the Rangers, and give you insight on famous Ranger cases, such as the capture of Bonnie and Clyde. Of course, the hat from Walker, Texas Ranger is also featured in the movie-and-TV memorabilia room.
7 Swap stories about some of the day's more interesting attractions over a Tex-Mex feast at Sergio's. Formerly known as El Siete Mares (and a favorite with the White House staff and press corps during George W. Bush's presidency), the noted eatery serves Veracruz-style seafood dishes, from octopus marinated in lime and white wine to crab-stuffed avocados, plus favorites like marinated pork tacos; it all starts off with chips and Sergio's famous homemade yellow salsa.
1 Legend has it that when Private Elvis Presley was stationed at nearby Fort Hood, he would often stop in for a meal at the Elite Circle Grille, a Waco mainstay first-opened in 1919 (known as the first restaurant in town to have refrigeration and air conditioning). Start the day with a late-ish brunch of salads, burgers, chicken sandwiches, Shiner Bock beer-battered onion rings, and signature Dr. Pepper wings.
2 Speaking of Dr. Pepper, no trip to Waco is complete without a visit to the Dr. Pepper Museum. Texas' favorite soda (and the oldest major soft drink in the country) was created in Waco in 1885, by Dr. Charles Alderton. The 1906 bottling plant now houses the museum; inside you'll find a celebration of all things soda, with tons of memorabilia, vintage commercials, workshops for kids—and, of course, a gift shop and classic soda fountain.
3 Before heading home, stop at Spice Village to pick-up a final Waco souvenir. Set in a century-old former hardware store in downtown Waco, this retail collective features dozens of stalls peddling a variety of products, from exotic spices and stylish home decor pieces to handcrafted cowboy boots, custom artwork, and women's accessories. There's a restaurant on the ground floor if you need some take-out for the drive back north.
Where to Stay
Located across from the warehouse entertainment district and near shopping, the Riverwalk, and a few parks, the Hilton Waco (rooms from $111) is a convenient option with amenities like a pool and restaurant.
Offering low prices with boutique style, Hotel Indigo Waco-Baylor (rooms from $137) is located near several main attractions and the Baylor campus. Rooms come standard with iPod docks, Keurig coffee machines, WiFi, and spa showers.
Set in a 1910 Arts and Crafts-style house just minutes from downtown, the three-story Cotton Palace B&B (rooms from $120) offers seven individually-decorated rooms, all with private baths and cable TV, plus daily homemade gourmet breakfast, complementary drinks, and a "bottomless" cookie jar.
When to Go
Waco's museums are great to visit all year-round, but to comfortably enjoy all the outdoor attractions—including the zoo, Riverwalk, Mammoth Site, and Homestead Heritage—try to visit in spring (February-April) or fall (September-November).
How to Get There
By car (from Dallas): Waco is about two hours (95 miles) from Dallas, straight south on 1-35 along the Dallas-Austin corridor.