In the early 1980’s my family packed up our rental home in Dallas and headed southbound 35 about 90 miles to a tiny town on the interstate called Waco. I was too young to remember the move, but my parents decided that our family would plant roots there. Now, over 30 years later, those roots have grown deep. That was back when there was just one McDonalds in town and we shared an area code with Fort Worth. Everybody knew everybody, and while that’s still kinda true, things have definitely changed in my hometown.
I haven’t lived in Waco since 2005. But, much like one of those trees that you see in the back of a truck on the road that’s been uprooted, there are roots that still exist in the soil that didn’t get pulled up or chopped off with the rest of the tree. I have permanent roots there. Waco conjures up memories of little league sports, jumping on the trampoline in my best friend’s backyard and (not-yet-famous) Pat Green concerts under a covered outdoor pavilion with dirt floors.
Waco was dreamy then. And it’s dreamy now.
But in all kinds of different ways. Here’s my list of things not to miss, organized by the “classics” and the “newcomers”. Because isn’t that what we all do with our hometowns? We gaze with excitement on the new shiny things, but our hearts pitter-pat for the old and familiar. I’m considering anything “new” that’s opened since I left in 2005.
I’m also giving my own subjective ranking for child friendliness on a scale of 1-5 to help you decide whether or not to bring the kids along. These do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the individual businesses.
1 – do not bring children at any cost
2- you’ll probably enjoy yourself more without kids in tow
3- you can bring them, or not. Either way, you’ll love it!
4- kids will add to the experience in a great way
5 – this was created FOR kids, you should absolutely bring them
***Spoiler: there are no 1’s because most people and places in Waco are pretty chill and welcoming. #mypeople
Common Grounds (3) I blame Common Grounds (and nursing school) for my addiction to coffee. Seriously, I’d never had a cup until I walked in as a Baylor freshman in 2001. Grab a cowboy coffee, sit outside in the back and enjoy some live music.
Harold Waites (4) a breakfast staple in Waco for decades. This was our breakfast spot before school on high school game days. AM…Harold Waites. PM…Friday night lights
Cafe Cappuccino (3)- you can bring kids, but this place evokes such fun memories of girls brunches and mother-daughter dates for me, so I’d personally leave mine home. They’ve won best brunch in Waco every year since like 2006, so trust me, you’ll love it.
Sironia (2) is another great place for a dreamy girls brunch. In fact, that’s just what I did with my bridesmaids on the morning of my wedding. There’s also little shops all around the cafe area for some fun shopping.
Olive Branch (3) is one more great spot for breakfast or lunch that I’ve loved since they opened when I was still in college. Grab a bite and then head upstairs for some shopping at Spice Market.
Schmalz’s (4) is my number one, hands down, loyal to the grave, spot. I still pick up a Schmaltz anytime I’m home visiting my family…Every. Single. Time. There’s two locations and they’re open for lunch.
Poppa Rollo’s Pizza (5) is a must-have on your list. Old black and white films are screened on a projector (usually Little Rascals) and there are dead-end secret doors that lead to separate dining areas. And there’s an old school fire engine out front. As a kid, this was the COOLEST place ever.
Baris III (4) is another excellent family-owned Italian restaurant. Everything on the menu is amazing, but make sure you get the bread.
You’ve all heard of Georges (4)…”my brother and I used to go down to George’s bar”. What you don’t know is that my husband and I had our rehearsal dinner there. Get the Baylor Beggars and a Big O.
If you want a burger, like an amazing one, check out Captain Billy Whizbangs (4). Not sure if they still do this, but they used to have $1 hamburger nights and a big group of college kids I knew used to go weekly with a big stack of sliced cheese to add to their dollar burgers…and despite our displayed stinginess, they were so kind to us, I mean, them.
Viteks (3) has changed A LOT since I was a local, but they’ve expanded to accommodate more customers without the crazy line. They’re known for their Gutpack but you won’t be disappointed by their other BBQ options
Uncle Dans (4) is the first BBQ I remember eating as a kid. If you want good, hometown, family-business BBQ, make the 10 minute drive down Valley Mills to push your tray through the cafeteria style line and enjoy.
1424 (2)- need a great date night option, this is your place. Food. Atmosphere. Yes.
Katie’s Custard (4) set up shop in the early 2000’s and has amazing frozen custard creations. You order at a counter and eat outside under a covered pavilion that used to be an old gas station.
I don’t need to tell you that Magnolia Table (3) is a must-do. I’ve been once, and yes, it was divine. Get your name on the list and then hang out in the outdoor courtyard while you wait for your table. Oh, and get a cup of Texas Pecan coffee from the outdoor service window. I’m a fan of the biscuits with strawberry butter, but there are only winners on this menu.
Hey sugar (4) is a super cute candy shop in downtown Waco, where you can find pretty much any candy you’ve ever dreamed of or grab a scoop of ice cream…or both!
Here’s a few other new-ish places that you should definitely try out! I haven’t been to these yet, but locals and tourists alike are loving them! And now I have my bucket list for our visit this summer.
Opening soon: Have you heard the news? Chip and Joanna are converting a vacant building on 8th Street near the Silos into a coffee shop. Can. Not. Wait.
See, shop and play
Spice Waco (3) is an indoor market with local vendors, it’s like shopping on Etsy in person.
Cameron Park zoo (5) is my most favorite zoo. It’s the perfect size and their exhibits are so beautiful and natural. There’s a great little cafe to grab lunch, a slide that goes through the otter display, and a fun playground area. Also, when you arrive, check to see what time they’re feeding giraffes so you can offer them some romaine leaves.
If you don’t have time for the zoo, make a quick stop at the Bear habitat on Baylor University campus (5). (see above) Even if you don’t have any association with Baylor, the campus is beautiful and it’s free to see the bears. While you’re on campus, check out the new fountains, the Armstrong Browning Library and take some photos with the big letters. You can also walk across campus and cross University Parks drive to check out McLane Stadium
Kiddieland(5) ride the train, get tickets for their carnival style rides, play some putt-putt. The first time I visited Kiddie Acres in Austin, I said “This is JUST like Kiddieland in Waco”.
The Mayborn Museum (5) was built when I was still a college student. They have historical exhibits, a play area for 5 and under, and the second floor is completely interactive and super entertaining…even for adults. There’s also a village outside to walk through that you should NOT miss.
Lavertys (2) is a quirky antique shop that was featured on a few of the Fixer Upper episodes. My roommates and I used to shop there to decorate our college apartment and you truly never know what you’ll find. They don’t have set business hours, so your best bet is to drive by and just see if they’re open.
Dr Pepper Museum (4) is walking distance from the Silos. It’s a historical building that survived the tornado in the 50’s and is interesting to walk through. Plus they have Dr Pepper hour (10, 2 and 4) and a nice outdoor patio.
Hippodrome Theatre (3) is a theater downtown that’s over 100 years old. When they brought it back to life a few years back, my heart sang. They show movies and have events, so check their calendar to see what’s going on when you’re in town.
The suspension bridge (4) was built in 1870 and at the time, it was the longest single-span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi (they teach that in school to tiny Wacoans). It’s a pedestrian bridge and it’s a gorgeous stroll over the Brazos. Kids can play on the longhorn statues in the park on west side. We used to throw tortillas from the bridge, (yes, it was a thing), but I just found out it’s illegal now. Sigh…
Waco Mammoth National Monument (5) is a must-see. This site is an active excavation where the bones of a group of mammoths was discovered in the 1978. It was never open to the public during my years there, but it’s on my to-do list for this summer.
Ride the trolley (4) click the link for the map. Lots of places on my list are on the trolley route and best of all, it’s FREE to ride the trolley! There’s also a link here where you can see where the trolley is in real time.
Cameron park (3) is one of the largest parks in Texas, over 400 acres of hiking, fishing, biking, disc-golfing and exploring. Don’t miss Jacob’s Ladder and Miss Nelly’s Pretty Place.
Yes, you’ll love visiting The Silos (4) but you won’t be there all day long. Get in line for the bakery as early in the morning as possible to reduce wait time. You can also stroll through the market and shop, or just hang out on the lawn and sample food trucks.
Here are some links for some other “newer” activities to do in Waco that are all wonderful and highly recommended. And also getting added to my 2019 Waco bucket list.
Harp Design Co. (3)-
If I left anything off the list, please add it in the comments!
I wanted to provide the most thorough list with lots of options, for all types of travelers and interests. With new businesses popping up each month and thousands of tourists filtering through everyday, I’d say (like a proud momma) that there’s absolutely something for everyone to love in Waco. The actual heart of Texas. Because if the state of Texas were to put its hand over its heart to say the pledge, that hand would land right on the city of Waco.
*All photos are my own, or from official company websites or facebook pages.