It wasn’t very long ago that Waco, Texas, was primarily known as the site of an FBI siege, not a vacation destination. But then came the advent of Fixer Upper on our TV screens and Hearth & Hand on our Target shelves, and suddenly Waco—Chip and Joanna Gaines’ hometown—has exploded in popularity. Now the Central Texas city has become a mighty Magnolia mecca, ideal for a girls’ weekend or quick family getaway. It’s situated between Dallas and Austin, which allows for some flexibility in travel—and the chance to explore those bigger cities if you wish.
As an avid Fixer Upper watcher, I’ll admit I was surprised by how small Waco truly is—a weekend is more than enough time to explore all it has to offer. And one thing to note: Waco is in the heart of the Bible Belt, so it’s pretty dead on a Sunday. If you’re going the long-weekend route, you’ll want to plan most of your activities on Friday and Saturday and leave Sunday for travel or sightseeing in a livelier locale.
Magnolia to the max
Be honest: this is what you came for. Magnolia is the Gaines’ contribution to Waco’s downtown and can be easily identified by the landmark silos that also make for an excellent photo op.
Although there will almost certainly be a line, it’s worth it to nosh on a Shiplap cupcake at Silos Baking Co., Joanna’s to-die-for bakery (the line moves quickly and you order via a menu card, so you’re not struck with indecision at the last minute). Then stop in to Magnolia Market, a 20,000-square-foot space devoted to everything Fixer Upper. You’ll find branded T-shirts, hats and tote bags, Joanna’s favorite jewelry, and all the little design touches seen on the show.
Once you’ve shopped to your heart’s content, head out to the lawn area, where you can play cornhole or grab lunch at one of the food trucks that set up shop on the property.
If you’re addicted to the show, you’re familiar with names like Clint Harp and Jimmy Don Holmes. The good news is that these frequent Gaines collaborators are both relatively close to Magnolia’s home base—Harp Design Co. right in Waco and JDH Iron Works in nearby Valley Mills. Anyone who’s read the Gaines’ book, The Magnolia Story, will be interested to see where it all began; the “Little Shop on Bosque” is an easy drive. And if you’re not lucky enough to book a stay at one of the Joanna-designed B&Bs, Hillcrest Estate and Magnolia House, you can drive by for a quick selfie as long as you don’t disturb the guests. Waco Tours, run by two couples who were on the show, can also give a great overview to what to see and do in town—and maybe some insights into what it’s really like to appear on the HGTV hit.
More than decor
If you have kids with you, don’t miss the Cameron Park Zoo, a mid-sized zoo with an impressive range of animals, including elephants. For a fun Chicago connection, be sure to say hi to resident mama Mei in the orangutan habitat—she originally hails from Brookfield Zoo! Waco is also the home of Dr. Pepper, so a visit to the Dr. Pepper Museum is a must. Kids will enjoy the Liquid Lab demonstrations, followed by a thirst-quenching Dr. Pepper float at Frosty’s Soda Shop. Or head to the Baylor University campus, where the Mayborn Museum blends fascinating natural history exhibits with kid-friendly spaces like you’d see at a typical children’s museum. Other options include the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and the Waco Mammoth National Monument, the site of a paleontological dig.
Shop ‘til you drop
Waco is peppered with antique stores and specialty shops, so you can quite literally spend your whole trip browsing (or spending some serious dough). We enjoyed poking through the array of items at Spice Village, which is an easy walk from the Magnolia property, and discovering a newer gem, Simply Irresistible, which has a decidedly JoJo-esque vibe. Be sure to pick up a Visitors Guide so you can map out your shopping route. And if you’re into handcrafted goods, Homestead Craft Village (10 miles outside of Waco) includes a woodworking shop, gristmill and potter’s house.
Eats & treats
Homestead Craft Village is also home to Café Homestead, a farm-to-table spot that serves its famous breakfast all day. While you’re in Texas, be sure to indulge in Tex-Mex at Torchy’s Tacos, where the menu items have playful names like The Republican, The Democrat and The Independent (and the margaritas really pack a punch). Scratch the barbecue itch at Chip Gaines’ favorite Vitek’s BBQ, where The Gut Pak is a popular choice, or Coach’s Smoke, a hangout for Baylor students. For a one-of-a-kind experience, grab some dinner at Jake’s Texas Tea House (the name is definitely ironic), a 50s diner where you can try some Texas classics like black-eyed peas and maybe get serenaded by a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.
On the sweet treat front, the options are plentiful. Enjoy a scoop of handcrafted ice cream or a root beer float at Heritage Creamery, which is next door to popular coffee shop Common Grounds. Steel City Pops offers gourmet popsicles with a variety of toppings—we were pleasantly surprised by the buttermilk flavor. And in downtown Waco, you’ll find Hey Sugar Candy Store, where kids can spend their allowance on throwbacks like colorful lollipops, and Pie Peddlers, which slices up homemade pies every day (the Key Lime gets all the heart eyes).
There are a few moderately priced hotels in downtown Waco, but we stayed at the Hilton Waco, which offers easy access to most attractions and a great view of the Brazos River and famous Waco suspension bridge. On warm days, there’s a large outdoor pool to help you cool off. And the hotel offers a Fixer Upper Fan Package that includes a $25 gift card to Magnolia Market, a copy of The Magnolia Story and transportation.