When I told friends and colleagues I was flying to Texas to visit Waco, they invariably had one of three responses.
The first went roughly like this: "Waco? Where that terrible thing happened with that religious sect?"
The second went like this: "Waco? Do you watch Fixer Upper?" (Me: "Yes, I do.") "I love that show!" (Me: "Me too!")
The third went like this: "Waco? Who goes to Waco?"
The answer to that last question has a lot to do with the buzz Chip and Joanna Gaines have unexpectedly brought to the central Texas community through their Waco-based HGTV show, Fixer Upper. In the process, they're helping to rebrand the city from a place known for a haunting tragedy — the 1993 "Waco siege" of the Branch Davidian compound outside of town and its deadly aftermath — to a beacon of heartland values, family life and renewal.
As The Dallas Morning News reported in November reported in November, Chip and Joanna are "an economic boom that's better than an oil gusher. ... Waco's Visitor's Bureau gets daily requests, and not just from people planning to visit. In Fixer Upper's third season ... three of the featured couples moved to Waco because of the show. Waco hotels report that the frequency of visitors from New York, California and the Midwest has jumped since 2014, when the first season of Fixer Upper aired."
I decided to join the pilgrimage to Waco in a quest to understand the place that gave the world Fixer Upper, and to help you decide if roadtripping to Waco is a worthy adventure. Since I've already written about Chip and Joanna's new Waco retail complex — see "10 Things You Need to Know About Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia Market" — think of this as a broader look at the city HGTV's first couple calls home.
Here's what I discovered — and what you need to know:
WACO IS EASY AND AFFORDABLE TO VISIT
First things first: Tiny Waco Regional Airport (ACT) is a one-airline airport; American is the only carrier that serves it. There are no direct flights from where I live (New York City) to Waco, so I had to connect through Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW). Another option would have been to just fly into DFW, rent a car and drive roughly an hour-and-a-half from Dallas to Waco.
Regardless of how you get to Waco, you'll want a car to explore it. The city has minimal public transportation options and outside of the downtown center, it's not particularly pedestrian-friendly. That said, for a car-centric city, there's not much traffic congestion in Waco. (An exception is when there are football home games at Baylor University; more on that in a bit.) The official population of the city is 130,000; the entire metro area is just over double that.
As for lodging, diehard Fixer Upper fans will want to try to stay at Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia House, a bed & breakfast in nearby McGregor, a 25-minute drive from Waco. It wasn't open yet during my visit — and as of my deadline it's still not (sign up here to get word on when they'll start accepting reservations, or enter enter Country Living's sweepstakes to win a stay's sweepstakes to win a stay).
For now, your options include the Hilton Waco (with standard rooms averaging $169 per night as of this writing) and a range of other mid-price national chains, including Best Western, Comfort Suites, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn, Courtyard by Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites. The Hotel Indigo Waco, a "branded boutique hotel" that's part of a chain owned by the InterContinental Hotels Groups (known for its W and Aloft hotels) is arguably your most stylish option (standard rooms were under $150 per night as of this writing); it's also the hotel closest to Magnolia Market at the Silos.
As a veteran road-tripper and inveterate cheapskate, I chose a budget chain mo the Waco Red Roof Inn. My room was clean, the front-desk staff were friendly and helpful, and a basic continental breakfast, served just off the lobby, was included in the price (just under $60 a night, including taxes, during my stay). Using pre-mixed batter and a self-serve waffle iron amusingly shaped like the Lone Star State, I made my myself fluffy Texas waffles my first morning in Waco.
The view from my motel room was of Interstate 35 and Baylor University's hulking McLane Stadium. Speaking of which...
WACO IS ALL ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY—AND BAYLOR FOOTBALL
As much as Chip and Joanna Gaines have been bringing positive attention to Waco, the truth is that their alma mater Baylor, the largest Baptist university in the world, is the city's real driving force.
To Fixer Upper fans, April 24, 2014 is a historic date; that's when the show formally kicked off as an official weekly HGTV series (following the May 2013 airing of the pilot episode). But to Wacoans and sports fans, August 31 of that year — when the Baylor Bears played their first game at the newly opened McLane Stadium — is a much bigger deal.
The $266 million, 45,000-seat stadium is an impressive sight, even if you're not a football fan. It sits right on the shore of the Brazos River, which means pre-game "sailgating" — wherein boaters pull up to designated slips at the edge of the stadium property — is a thing here, in addition to tailgating. Baylor being a Baptist institution, though, alcohol is not served at Bears games.
Beyond football, Baylor's handsome 1,000-acre campus is a major draw for visitors. Instagram-ready architectural gems, including stately Pat Neff Hall, abound.
The coolest things on campus, in my view: the bears — not the Baylor Bears football team, but literal bears — and the Mayborn Museum.
First, about those bears: Baylor University has a long and proud tradition of housing live North American Black Bear mascots, including Joe College, who served from 1932 to 1940; there's a statue of him just outside the McLane Student Life Center. A short walk from the Joe College statue, there's a proper zoo-style indoor/outdoor bear habitat. During my visit, its residents, Joy and Lady, were napping outdoors and rather adorably spooning. Fences and other barriers separate human gawkers from the bears, but you can get surprisingly close to them. Three simple rules are listed on a small sign just a couple feet away from Joy and Lady's yard: "Please stay on the walkway, bears will bite," "Please do not throw objects into the habitat" and "Please do not make loud noises." (My thoughts: No problem! Happy to comply!)
Joy and Lady are full-grown and weigh between 260 and 300 pounds each, depending on the season. In more innocent times, Baylor bear mascots were trotted around campus on leashes, brought to games and given bottles of Waco-born soft drink Dr Pepper to chug. But safety concerns, as well as more sophisticated protocols for the proper care and feeding of captive bears ("As it turns out, bears experience tooth decay much like humans," a habitat sign explains), led to those traditions being abandoned.
As for Baylor's Mayborn Museum ($6 for adults, $4 for children 12 and younger), it's a fascinating place to while away an afternoon. It includes elaborate natural-history dioramas, a replica of a Native American beehive-shaped grasshouse (Waco was named for the Waco, or Hueco, sub-tribe of the Wichitas) and a walk-in scale model of an excavation site elsewhere in Waco where the fossils of 24 Columbian mammoths were discovered in 1978. Throughout the museum there are also plenty of charmingly nerdy educational exhibits offering kids (and adults like me who are a bit rusty on grade-school physics) hands-on explainers having to do with water, bubbles, energy, optics, sound and more.
To top off my visit to Baylor, I stopped by Common Grounds, a local institution that caters to laptop-toting students. Just off the southwestern edge of the Baylor campus, the homey coffeehouse doubles as an indie concert venue; there's an outdoor stage in the backyard.
Common Grounds takes coffee very seriously and works with small-batch suppliers such as Pinewood Roasters, a company that houses its headquarters in nearby McGregor, just a couple blocks from Chip and Joanna Gaines' Magnolia House B&B.
There's a little gift shop area at Common Grounds where you can buy its signature mug, which is emblazoned with "Keep Waco Wacko" in big letters and "Support Local Business" in small letters. Speaking of supporting local business...
BEYOND MAGNOLIA MARKET, SPICE VILLAGE IS YOUR WACO MUST-SHOP
Waco seems to have no shortage of national chain retailers, most notably at the recently expanded Central Texas Marketplace, where the stores range from Ashley Furniture Home Store to Zales. But for my money, the most interesting shopping experience in town — other than Magnolia Market at the Silos — is to be found at Spice Village, a collection of more than 80 shops carved out of a 1908 warehouse building with exposed pine beams.
The shops here vary in size (some are as little as 25 square feet) and can seem to blend into one another. The retail concept is borrowed from antiques marketplaces with individual rental booths, but there's nothing musty about the shops at Spice Village.
Congress Clothing, for instance, is an apparel shop that sells super-soft T-shirts emblazoned with hip typography (the coolest-looking Waco and Baylor shirts in town can be found here). Vibrante is a specialty olive oil and vinegar merchant. Flip Flop Junkie is a purveyor of summer footwear, including the Texas Hari Mari brand. Vine and Branches is a handmade sign seller. The Rustic Acre is a custom furniture and home decor shop. And so on.
Spice Village has been around since 1997; it's a tenant in a mixed-use development, River Square Center, that's had some struggles — in 2013 it worked through Chapter 11 bankruptcy — but seems to be bouncing back.
Over the years, Spice Village sellers have come and gone, and the merchandise mix is ever-changing (Joanna Gaines actually sold vintage sign letters there back in 2012). But these days, the overall DIY/quirky/cute/vintage aesthetic of Spice Village seems like an ideal complement to the Fixer Upper sensibility.
In short, if you're heading to Waco to visit Magnolia Market, you pretty much also have to stop at Spice Village. (They're three minutes away from each other by car, or 10 minutes by foot.)
WACO'S ENTREPRENEURIAL AND CREATIVE COMMUNITIES ARE RALLYING
Situated as it is on an interstate highway, Waco has no shortage of fast-food chain restaurants that can make it look, from certain vantage points, like any other mid-size American city. In one stretch not from Magnolia Market, for instance, you can find Taco Bell, Whataburger, McDonald's, Wendy's and Chick-fil-A all clustered together. Much of the local restaurant scene seems geared to both the student population and the thousands of out-of-town football fans who swarm Waco for home games.
But recently the city's been embracing a less generic, though still entirely unpretentious, style of dining by importing local favorites from elsewhere in Texas, such as Austin's Torchy's Tacos, which opened a Waco location in 2014, and Coach's Smoke, a McGregor BBQ joint that opened a Waco outpost last summer.
My last night in Waco I had dinner at Coach's; I'm still wondering what sort of damage I did to my arteries by eating the extravagant and delicious Pit Boss burger, which comes topped with chopped brisket, fried onion, fried jalapeños, bacon and something called Mojo Sauce. I suspect Coach's lively sports bar atmosphere — there are more than two dozen flat-screen TVs in the place— is the only thing that kept me from slipping into a carb-induced coma.
Though Coach's Smoke calls this its Baylor location (it's not actually on campus) in honor of the Baylor football fans it's meant to appeal to, it definitely doesn't adhere to the Baptist school's teetotalism. Coach's unabashedly offers "Game Day Party Specials," including $3 margaritas and $3.50 "bear drafts" (18-ounce beers).
After dinner, I walked a couple blocks to Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits, a two-year-old coffeeshop/bar/performance space, where Tanner Evans and Sarah Dossey, two-thirds of the Austin bluegrass-folk trio Indian & the Jones, played a free mini concert with their friend Lainey Wright, a folk-pop singer/songwriter also from Austin. Their impossibly lovely voices provided a welcome respite from the din of sports TV at Coach's Smoke.
Like Common Grounds, Dichotomy is very particular about its coffee — it also uses artisanal suppliers, including Tweed Coffee Roasters of Dallas and Avoca Coffee Roasters of Fort Worth — and it takes a high-minded approach to its spirits as well. A menu notes that "the bar uses fresh and local ingredients, from the mint in a mojito to the egg whites in a Ramos Gin Fizz. Only hand-whipped cream is used and fruits are juiced at the time the drink is made." And the whiskey comes from nearby Balcones, an acclaimed craft distillery that was launched out of a converted welding shop in 2008.
When I told a New York friend about Waco and specifically the scene surrounding uber-cool Dichotomy, he asked, "Is Waco the next Austin?"
Well, to be honest... not quite. At least not yet. For one thing, Waco is one-seventh the size of Austin, population-wise. It's unfair to compare just about any city's nightlife to that of Austin, the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," but Waco's music scene is generally rather sleepy. For instance, Waco's historic Hippodrome, which was born as a vaudeville theater in 1913, is meant to be an all-purpose performing arts center, but live performances there are few and far between, and most nights it simply functions as a first-run movie house with in-theater dining.
But Waco's entrepreneurial and creative communities are rallying. Most notably, a group called Creative Waco is campaigning for their city to be named a Texas Commission on the Arts Cultural District, a designation that would help the city become known as an incubator for artistic endeavors. Formally embracing the arts could be a way for Waco to further carve out its own identity, leverage its cheap rents and encourage more entrepreneurs to take a risk and start something new in one of downtown's empty storefronts.
Waco needs more creative businesses like Dichotomy, Balcones and Spice Village. Fortunately, the addition of perfectly sympatico Magnolia Market at the Silos in October has been bringing in countless tourist dollars that can't help but accelerate Waco's renewal.
Waco, home of Fixer Upper, is itself a fixer upper. When you think about it, what makes Fixer Upper awesome is that it's all about hope and possibility.
Right now, so is Waco.