Admit it. You’ve mostly thought of Waco as a drive-through town on your way to Austin or San Antonio. But thanks to a Big 12 Championship by the Baylor Bears football in 2013 and a little known home goods shop-turned-HGTV-sensation called Magnolia Market, Waco has arrived. This season, spend a weekend in this central Texas gem and see what is has to offer the whole family.
Where: Waco, Texas is exactly 95 miles south of downtown Dallas and Fort Worth. It will take an hour and a half straight down Interstate 35, without traffic.
Why it’s great for families: Even if you don’t manage to get tickets to the Baylor versus Texas football game on December 5, you’ll find plenty to do for a weekend in Waco. Go on an animal adventure, brush up on your Texas history, marvel the Texas sport legends, step back in time to meet pre-Ice Age mammoths and sip on the most quintessentially Lone Star libation: Dr Pepper.
What to do: On a nice day, the Cameron Park Zoo tops the list of sites to see with children. Arrive early on Saturdays and Sundays so the kids can feed the giraffes breakfast ($5 per person), then navigate the well-shaded paths to discover the zoo’s more than 1,700 mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds and invertebrates. Download and print a free scavenger hunt from the zoo’s website for school-age kiddos to play while visiting.
Hours: Monday−Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 11am-5pm.
Admission: Adults, $10; kids, $7; kids under 3, free.
Waco also has several hands-on museums, spanning Texas history, sports and natural science. The Mayborn Museum Complex features several natural history exhibits as well as 17 different discovery rooms for children with fun activities, such as making a tornado and creating giant bubbles.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Sunday 1-5pm.
Admission: Adults, $6, kids (18 months to 12 years), $4.
Slurp up the history of Texas’ most recognized soft drink at the Dr Pepper Museum. Pick up a scavenger hunt worksheet at the front desk when you buy tickets. Indulge in Dr Pepper floats, sundaes, ice cream cones and fountain drinks at the old-fashioned soda fountain within the museum. Fountain drinks cost half price during daily happy hours.
Hours: Tuesday−Saturday, 10am−4:15pm; Sundays, 12−4:15pm.
Admission: Adults, $8; kids, $5.
Learn about the oldest law enforcement agency in Texas at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Dress up like Bonnie and Clyde, pick up activity worksheets for the kids and ask at the front desk how your little ones can become Junior Texas Rangers.
Hours: 9am−5pm daily.
Admission: Adults, $7; kids (6−12), $3; kids under 5, free.
The Texas Sports Hall of Fame honors more than 300 athletes from the Lone Star State who have excelled in—or on—their given field. Stop by the health and wellness area to learn about heart health with simulator games and physical activities. And visit the fight song wall. Every button plays a different alma mater’s signature hymn.
Hours: Monday−Saturday, 9am-5pm.
Admission: Adults, $7; kids, $3; kids under 5, free.
Take a 90-minute stadium tour of the newly built McLane Stadium at Baylor University on Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:30am and 3pm (on Wednesday, December 9, the tours will be held at 3pm, 6:30pm and 7pm) until December 18.
Admission: Adults and kids, $10; kids 2 and under, free.
One of the most unique stops to visit in Waco is the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Recently named a national monument, it showcases the nation’s first and only recorded discovery of a herd of baby mammoths from before the Ice Age during the Pleistocene epoch. The dig site is housed and accessible with a guided tour where you can view the monument from suspended walkways. The exhibit shows several mammoths fully preserved.
Hours: Tuesday−Friday, 11am-5pm; Saturdays, 9am-5pm.
Admission: Adults, $5; kids seventh grade and older, $4; kids sixth grade and younger, $3; kids under 3, free.
Waco & the Heart of Texas (the Waco Convention Center) offers coupons for all of the above listed activities, except the McLane Stadium tours. Visit the website for details.
Lodging: Airbnb rents a handful of stylish homes by owner, including a home with six beds for $300 per night first introduced on HGTV’s Fixer Upper. The Migel House has four bed and breakfast suites, one with a full kitchen, close to all the main attractions starting at $225 per night. The Hotel Indigo is a boutique hotel with rooms from $154 per night in the downtown district, close to shopping and restaurants. And the 1700 South 2nd Street has quirky two-bedroom condos for $175 per night close to the Baylor campus.
Don’t miss: For a legendary dining experience, stop by the Waco staple, Health Camp. The ironically named restaurant serves up burgers, fries and milkshakes that hit the spot. For a sweet treat, order made-from-scratch buttermilk pie or chocolate chip cookies at Lula Jane’s bakery. Or better yet, try a savory bacon cheddar scone.
Published December 2015