Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
If you had heard of Waco, Texas, prior to 2013, you probably knew of it for one of two reasons: Baylor University or the Waco Siege, neither of which were giant tourism draws. But since the 2013 debut of HGTV hit show Fixer Upper, it’s been known primarily as the home of Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia empire, and it’s become something of a pilgrimage site for fans (expect plenty of multi-gen girls’ trips, bachelorette parties, and young couples). Beyond the highly Instagrammable Magnolia businesses, which range from various eateries to a handful of shops, there’s also Waco Mammoth National Monument, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Dr. Pepper Museum, and the Cameron Park Zoo to appease those without an appetite for home renovations.
It’s an easy 90-minute drive down I-35 from Dallas to Waco and a longer three-hour drive from Houston along Hwy 6.
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Whether you’re coming from Dallas or Houston, plan on getting an early start to make the most of your Friday in Waco. Since weekends are the busiest time to visit Magnolia Market at the Silos, arguably the biggest draw in town, beat the crowds by arriving by 10 or 11 a.m. on Friday. Start by having a big brunch at Magnolia Table, Joanna Gaines’ breakfast and lunch restaurant, which is known to have hours-long waits on Saturdays (reservations are for Monday–Thursday only).
In the afternoon, head over to Magnolia Market at the Silos, where you can shop for your favorite farmhouse-chic home goods in the eponymous market, purchase gardening supplies from Magnolia Seed + Supply, or lounge on grass lawn as you digest. If you get hungry for a snack, check out the food trucks that queue up on the lot. Whatever you do, don’t miss Silos Baking Co., which sells Joanna’s famous and absolutely delicious cupcakes.
While the biggest fans could easily spend an entire afternoon at the Silos, not to mention other Fixer Upper–affiliated businesses like the Little Shop on Bosque and Harp Design Co. Those who tap out on Magnolia after an hour or two can hop on the free Downtown Trolley and hop off near Franklin and Austin Avenues, where you can browse a plethora of boutique shops. Check out Spice Village for a single-stop shopping destination.
When it comes time to start thinking about dinner, mosey on over to Vitek’s, a Waco barbecue icon. It’s known for its Gut Pack, a plate piled high with sausage, beans, cheese, and Fritos, among other tasty ingredients. If you’re not in a food coma, check out the programming at the Waco Hippodrome Theatre, which functions as a dine-in cinema (maybe just stick to cocktails or beer if you’re still full).
Get your caffeine fix from Magnolia Press first thing, and grab a sweet or savory pastry for a light breakfast—everything Joanna bakes is dreamy, so you can’t go wrong with your choice. This morning, we recommend a little lesson in Texas history. Visit Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum, dedicated to natural and cultural history, or perhaps the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, if that’s more your jam. Prefer to spend time outdoors? Visit the Cameron Park Zoo, or hit the Brazos River in a kayak, paddleboard, or canoe rental from Waco Paddle Company if the weather’s nice. Alternatively, you could stroll the seven miles of the Waco Riverwalk. Once you’ve worked up your appetite, have lunch at Clay Pot Waco, a Vietnamese hot spot, and don’t forget a bubble tea.
After lunch, we recommend checking out Baylor’s sports scene, depending on the season of your visit. The fall, of course, is prime time for football games—a big Texas tradition. But you can also catch everything from basketball to baseball, equestrian to gymnastics, so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to catch some sort of athletic event! But if you’re in town on a quiet weekend, you can head out on a DIY brewery or distillery crawl and visit crowd favorites like Brotherwell Brewing and Balcones Distillery. Another option if there are no games in town: get to one of Waco’s famous sports bars, like George’s, popular with the college crowd, to catch a game on TV.
For dinner, you won’t want to miss Franklin Ave Mac House, Waco’s only restaurant dedicated to mac and cheese. There are other options, too, like grilled cheese and salads if you’re set on being healthy. After your meal, have a nightcap or two at Dichotomy Coffee and Spirits, which starts as a coffee shop in the morning and transitions into a cocktail bar at night.
Have a hearty Mexican breakfast—burritos, huevos, and even pancakes are all on the menu—at Taqueria El Crucero to start your day. A trip to Waco wouldn’t be complete without visiting Waco Mammoth National Monument. Catch a guided tour of an archaeological dig site filled with mammoth bones (entrance is by tour only), and learn all about Texas’ prehistoric past.
For lunch, keep things light after your big breakfast and dine at D’s Mediterranean Grill—you can’t go wrong with a falafel wrap here. Head downtown afterward to visit the Dr. Pepper Museum, which has exhibits dedicated to vintage Dr. Pepper paraphernalia, as well as a laboratory for live demos and an old-school pharmacy that serves the beverage 1950s-style.
If you’re fascinated by dark tourism, you might also want to save a little time to drive out to see the ruins of the Mount Carmel compound, where the infamous Waco Siege took place. There’s not much left—the old swimming pool is still there, though—but you can see a memorial dedicated to the lives lost that day. There’s a visitor’s center, but it’s not always open. However, as long as the gate is open, you’re able to drive through for your visit.
Before you head home, stop back in town for one more meal. How about a classic burger? Cupp’s Drive-In is a no-frills joint serving up greasy delights since 1947, and it’ll fuel you up for your drive home.
WHERE TO STAY
Waco is filled with your typical chain hotels at budget-to-splurge prices. Fixer Upper fans will want to stay at Magnolia House, the Gaines’ bed and breakfast, but be warned—it books up months in advance. You can also stay in homes renovated by the Gaines, like the Shotgun House, which is listed on Airbnb. The couple is also in the midst of building a boutique hotel, and you can be sure it’ll be the chicest accommodation in town when it opens.
WHEN TO GO
Waco has pleasant weather year-round, with summer highs in the mid-90s and the winter highs in the low-60s, but it’s most visited in the spring, summer, and fall. Expect bigger crowds on weekends with football games, as well as during big events hosted by Magnolia, like the Silo District Marathon and the Silobration, both in October.