On a breezy weekday in late May, we are among a handful of visitors exploring Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo. Our boys zigzag across uncrowded, tree-shaded paths with their little sister speed-toddling behind, pausing to marvel at monkeys, talk to tigers and repeatedly slide down a clear tube that puts them side by side with playful otters gliding through the water. This natural habitat zoo spread across 52 acres fringing the Brazos River is our first stop in a day chock-full of Waco adventures, but it accurately sets the pace for an enjoyable day spent in this distinctive city sandwiched between Austin and Dallas. Carve out some time to wander through Waco, named after the Huaco Indians who first inhabited the area, and you’ll discover the “Heart of Texas” provides much more than a pit stop along I-35. Situated on the banks of the Brazos, Waco brims with history, hometown friendliness and an array of attractions that both captivate and surprise.
Distance from Austin: Traveling along I-35 North, Waco is just over 100 miles and an hour and a half from Austin.
Don’t miss: Home to 18 museums, several hundred restaurants and ample opportunities for outdoor adventure on both land and water, Waco offers a little something for everyone. Cameron Park Zoo (cameronparkzoo.com) teems with a collection of more than 1,700 animals spanning 300 species, offering visitors up-close encounters and a greater understanding of conversation efforts through educational exhibits like Asian Forest, home to critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers, and an impressive herpetarium that houses slithering anacondas, reticulated pythons and brightly colored amphibians. There’s no better place to drink a Dr Pepper than in Waco, the birthplace of the popular beverage that was created, manufactured and sold here beginning in 1885. At the Dr Pepper Museum (drpeppermuseum.com), Pepper fans can relive the soft drink’s early days and enjoy a cold one from a restored turn-of-the-century soda foundation. At Waco Mammoth National Monument (nps.gov/waco), a paleontological site that represents the nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths, visitors can get a glimpse of “in situ” fossils spanning female mammoths, a bull mammoth and a camel that lived approximately 67,000 years ago. Chill out from summer’s heat at the BSR Cable Park (bsrcablepark.com), a water ski cable park that pulls skiers around a 12-acre lake where thrill-seekers can also brave the Royal Flush — a wild waterslide that launches riders high into the air before a wet full-body plunge — while those with tamer tastes can float around the Lazy River. Sports fans can lose themselves at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame (tshof.org), which honors the state’s greatest sports legends, while history buffs can tour through the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (texasranger.org), which pays tribute to the state’s oldest law enforcement agency. Find design inspiration and charming home furnishings at Magnolia Market at the Silos (magnoliamarket.com/silos), the creative vision of popular HGTV Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines — family-friendly lawn games and on-site food trucks makes it easy to spend the day here. Tour around or take in a ball game at Baylor University, the oldest continually operated university in Texas founded in 1845, which relocated to Waco from Independence in 1886.
Eat here: Fuel up at the locally-owned and -operated Jake’s Texas Tea House, a funky mid-1900s vintage gas station-themed restaurant offering “hubcap” burgers, “blue plate” lunches and quenching “fluids,” like old-fashioned ice cream floats. I devoured the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted and followed it up with a memorable Monterrey melt on toasted jalapeño sourdough at Cafe Homestead (cafehomestead.com), which serves up locally-sourced, organic, farm-to-table food. You can work off your meal by exploring Homestead Heritage Traditional Crafts Village (homesteadheritage.com), a 510-acre agrarian- and craft-based Christian community, until you’re ready for dessert — Heritage Creamery boasts crave-worthy concoctions like salty vanilla bean, duck fat caramel and smoked nectarine. For a convenient and casual lunch stop, Collins Street Bakery (collinstreet.com) answers with hearty sandwiches and a yummy spread of bakery delights — this Texas bake shop won us over with $2.95 children sandwiches and a section of the display case filled with nut-free cookies and macaroons so everyone in our group could enjoy dessert.
Kids will love: Our crew found hours of entertainment at the Mayborn Museum Complex (baylor.edu/mayborn), which impresses with 17 themed, hand-on discovery rooms geared to all interests and ages. Visiting this Waco hot spot on a weekday once again came with the pleasant perk of having the museum all to ourselves, our kids wandering freely in and out of rooms examining furry animals and reptiles; wrapping themselves in human-sized bubbles and experimenting with water currents; playing dress up and hosting tea parties; and taking a musical walk Tom Hanks-style on the keys of a giant piano while learning all about sound. In the summer, keep kids cool swimming, sliding and splashing at Hawaiian Falls Waco Waterpark (hfalls.com/waco).
Always free: Some of the prettiest parts of Waco don’t come with a price tag. At Cameron Park, a sprawling 416-acre municipal park overlooking the Brazos and Bosque Rivers, outdoor enthusiasts can hike, cycle, walk and run along miles of multi-use trails; kayak and canoe along paddling trails; and go fishing or play a game of disc golf. Waco’s Historic Suspension Bridge serves as the centerpiece of Waco, featuring a landscaped riverwalk and several parks where many free events take place. On Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., fill up on live music, fresh produce and delicious food at Waco Downtown Farmers Market (wacodowntownfarmersmarket.com).
Stay here: Stay overnight in Waco, which offers diverse lodging options ranging from the elegantly appointed century-old Arts and Crafts style Spencer House Bed & Breakfast (spencerhousewaco.com) to the newly opened Hotel Indigo (hotelindigo.com/waco-baylor), a boutique hotel sitting in the warehouse district across from Baylor University.
Not to miss nearby: Dirt track racing fans can enjoy Friday night races through September at the Heart O’ Texas Speedway (heartotexspeedway.com), seven miles north of Waco. Wine lovers can sip and sample at Valley Mills Vineyards (valleymillsvineyards.com), a boutique winery and tasting room sitting a few miles west of Waco.
For more information: wacoheartoftexas.com.