Welcome to the Heart of Texas in Waco

Come to enjoy Magnolia, then stay to catch the slower beat of this small city.

My children and I have a game we play when we're driving through downtown Waco where we look for the most obscure license plate we can find. Rhode Island was the winner for months, until Alaska was spotted.

A decade ago, this game would have been unimaginable. Long known as simply a well-positioned pit stop on the highway between Austin and Dallas, Joanna and Chip Gaines forever altered Waco when they started fixing up houses and then turned two abandoned grain silos into Magnolia Market which, pre-Covid, was bringing in over 1.5 million visitors a year.

"What do people from Alaska do here?" my son asked, after his celebration dance was complete. Magnolia seemed the obvious answer. But then I found myself wondering what else these visitors might be drawn to—and how they could discover our city's slow and steady beat.

For a large lay of the land, a ride along the Brazos River reveals lush landscapes and also slides by another natural peace giver: the 416-acre hike-and-bike haven, Cameron Park. Lunch in East Waco requires venturing away from downtown, but repays the effort with Texas-sourced burgers and beers at Revival Eastside Eatery. Or a few blocks down at Lula Jane's, slices of pie big enough to call a meal, or peek at the garden and playing dominoes, if you please.

On afternoons in every month but scorching August, a stroll can reveal shops that always seem to be popping up. Gather is a long-time favorite for handmade table wares. Cottontail Jones sells baby clothes for the next generation of Instagram influencers. Most recently I discovered Splendid Oaks Chocolates—with their color-spun truffles almost too pretty to eat—conveniently located across from the cozy tasting room at renowned Balcones Distilling.

Not long ago I was in the open-air alley of a neon-lined lounge on the outskirts of downtown, when a friend wondered aloud when Waco had become so cool. "It's always been that way," another friend answered, "Now it's just more out in the open." And it's here for anyone willing to exit the highway and stay a while to enjoy.

Waco, Texas
John McQuiston / Getty Images

Where to Stay

For groups: Book a weekend with friends (sleeps up to 12), at the Hillcrest Estate, renovated and designed by Chip and Joanna.

For a downtown option: Book a night at the Hotel Indigo Waco-Baylor, located in the warehouse district and in walking distance of Magnolia Market, plenty of restaurants, and Baylor University.

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