Insider Tips

Texas' most unlikely tourist destination? Waco — yes, Waco — quietly pushes to become a major getaway lure

Texas' most unlikely tourist destination? Waco — yes, Waco — emerges

Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Lovers' Leap at Cameron Park
Lovers' Leap in Cameron Park. Photo courtesy of Waco & the Heart of Texas
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Balcones Distillery whiskey
Balcones Distillery. Photo courtesy of © Waco & The Heart of Texas
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 September 2014 Brazos Valley cheese with Marc Kuehl, from left, Tim Everett and Abby Stewart
Marc Kuehl, from left, Tim Everett and Abby Stewart with Brazos Valley Cheese. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Armstrong Library on Baylor campus
Armstrong Browning Library on the Baylor University campus. Photo courtesy of © Waco & The Heart of Texas
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Dr Pepper Museum
Dr Pepper Museum. Photo courtesy of © Waco & The Heart of Texas
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Spice Shops
Spice Village in downtown Waco. Photo courtesy of © Waco & The Heart of Texas
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Waco Mammoth Site bones at Mayborn Museum Complex, part of Strecker Museum
Bones from the Waco Mammoth Site on display. Photo courtesy of Waco & the Heart of Texas
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum
Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum. Photo by Pi3.124/Wikipedia
On the Market 2603 Hopkins September 2014 crafts from Homestead Traditional Crafts Village
Crafts from Homestead Traditional Crafts Village. Photo by Barbara Kuntz
Baylor football Stadium McLane Stadium aerial
McLane Stadium. 2.Baylor.Edu
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Lovers' Leap at Cameron Park
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Balcones Distillery whiskey
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 September 2014 Brazos Valley cheese with Marc Kuehl, from left, Tim Everett and Abby Stewart
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Armstrong Library on Baylor campus
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Dr Pepper Museum
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Spice Shops
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Waco Mammoth Site bones at Mayborn Museum Complex, part of Strecker Museum
Waco & The Heart of Texas September 2014 Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum
On the Market 2603 Hopkins September 2014 crafts from Homestead Traditional Crafts Village
Baylor football Stadium McLane Stadium aerial

Waco is a wonderful place to grow up. Baylor University offers educational and athletic events, the symphony and local community theaters present concerts and plays and Lake Waco provides a weekend place to be for skiing and boating. Getting from one end of town to the other in minutes — even on bicycles — is easy and there are more small-town charms.

When members of the Waco & The Heart of Texas marketing team came to Houston recently to promote the area as a tourist destination though, I was surprised.

Pleasantly surprised, that is, as this home of the Baylor Bears has truly grown with attractions that out-of-towners can definitely enjoy. People flock to the 500-plus-acre municipal park and the city's zoo. The property along the Bosque and Brazos rivers is lined with sidewalks stretching from the park to the historic Waco Suspension Bridge (the longest single-span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi when it was built in 1870), creating the city's own Riverwalk. 

Downtown is thriving with shopping and dining. And the opportunities to make this trip a weekend getaway extend to partner cities Bellmead, McGregor and Hewitt.

As a native Wacoan, I've chosen what I think are the Top 10 reasons to visit Waco on the Brazos. Some suggestions are places that I frequented when young, some have dramatically improved through the years and others are more recent additions. I think you, too, will be surprised at how much Waco has to offer.

Cameron Park
I'm sure "Shakespeare in the Park" is still staged in Cameron Park, bringing back memories of my first viewing of A Midsummer Night's Dream there. Cameron Park, as mentioned above, is teaming with activities for walkers to cyclists to nature lovers. Now in this 1910-dedicated natural sanctuary, disc golf courses are at hand, playgrounds abound and water sports like kayaking are available.

Be sure to hike up (or drive) to Lovers' Leap for incredible vistas of the river below from 100-foot-tall limestone cliffs. You'll be impressed with Cameron Park Zoo, too, designed as a natural habitat for its animal family.

Balcones Distilling
Yes, Waco has spirit, not just of the green-and-gold kind. In fact, the distillery (named after the Balcones Fault that runs through the region), was declared winner of Whisky Magazine's 2012 and 2014 Icons of Whisky awards, as well as earning the distinction of being named Craft Whiskey Distillery of the Year. The Waco establishment's products include handmade blue corn whisky; “rumble,” a spirit made from Texas wildflower honey, Mission figs and Demarara sugar; and Balcones Single Malt, a single malt whisky made with traditional ingredients and aged in new ways.

Balcones Distilling is open by appointment only.

Brazos Valley Cheese
Every one of the cheeses from Brazos Valley Cheese is made with raw cow’s milk drawn from the grass-fed cows that graze freely on three local Brazos River Valley dairies. The hard cheeses are aged in an underground cheese cave.

Sample them all. My favorite: Eden, a brie garnished with a layer of vegetable ash and wrapped in fig leaves grown at the farm.

The Armstrong Browning Library
Located on the Baylor University campus, the Armstrong Browning Library is a popular stop for travelers and school groups who are attracted by the love story and poetry of the Brownings or the unique beauty of the grand three-story Italian Renaissance-style building — or both. Sixty-two stained glass windows, black walnut marquetry paneling, intricate ceiling designs and an impressive terrazzo entrance floor also make this library a place to stay awhile.

Dr Pepper Museum and Free Enterprise Institute
The 1906 Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Co. was the first building dedicated to the manufacturing of Dr Pepper. In 1997, it became the largest tribute to the imagination and talent that fueled the soft drink's success.

Enjoy the displays and listen to commercial jingles that became singable through the years, from Vim, Vigor and Vitality, Drink a Bite to Eat at 10, 2 and 4, I’m a Pepper to Just What the Doctor Ordered. And remember: There is no period in Dr

Spice Village
Get ready to shop until you drop at Spice Village, a 30,000-square-foot space housing more than 80 different shops and services under one roof. Find apparel, accessories, home décor and vintage goods, as well as a skin care studio, spray tan parlor and The Olive Branch Express for a bite to eat. You'll discover a whole lot more while strolling through this restored 1908 building.

Waco Mammoth Site
The Waco Mammoth Site sits on more than 100 acres of wooded parkland along the Bosque River and provides a glimpse into the lives of Columbian mammoths who walked the area some 65,000 years ago. Using hand tools such as brushes and bamboo scrapers, crews slowly excavated this lost world, uncovering from 1978 to 1990 the fossil remains of these giant creatures. An additional six additional mammoths were excavated later.

Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum
Brush up on your history at this state-designated memorial commemorating the service and sacrifices of 30 Texas Rangers who gave their lives in the line of duty or made significant contributions to the development of the service. Inductees are selected by a committee of serving and retired Rangers.

The Rangers, who have protected the people of Texas since 1823, have been called one of the most effective investigative law enforcement agencies in the world.

Homestead Traditional Crafts Village
Residents of this 510-acre community welcome visitors year-round to visit the shops of the craft village, watch craftsmen and craftsmen at work and even attend classes to learn a skill. Enjoy a homemade meal at Cafe Homestead with baked goods to purchase. Inside The Barn, you'll find for sale handcrafted furniture and accessories plus hundreds of one-of-a-kind heirloom gift items.

And West, Texas, is just up Interstate 45 a bit for the most authentic kolaches made in the town's Czech family-owned bakeries — and the giant WestFest celebration held every Labor Day weekend, too.

McLane Stadium
Finished just in time for the Fighting Baylor Bears' 2014 football season, McLane Stadium welcomes not only students with its on-campus location but football fans from across the country. Get ready to join the crowds raising their bear claws into the air and roaring "Sic 'em Bears" in this state-of-the-art facility.