By April Clark
Waco, Texas has long been known for strange events – like David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult and their standoff with the FBI, or the 2015 biker bar shootout. The city is even an answer to the absurd associations card game Apples to Apples, played to invoke unusual circumstances.
But lately, Waco is known for something more lighthearted – HGTV’s home renovation hit Fixer Upper. The show features Chip and Joanna Gaines, longtime Waco residents, as they turn the “worst house in the best neighborhood” into a dream home.
According to Carla Pendergraft, Director of Marketing for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, the annual visits jumped from an average of 700,000 to 1.9 million in 2016. Chip and Joanna can be credited with much of the city’s increase in popularity. The couple has created a home improvement culture in this Central Texas town that showcases its residents’ unique character and genuine hospitality – making it appealing to visitors of all kinds.
For the true Fixer Upper fan experience, visitors can stay at various homes featured on the show. Many of the Gaines’ renovations are listed on sites like airbnb.com or vrbo.com, and can be rented for a single night or entire weekend. Avid viewers will recognize the “German Schmear”, “Mailander”, or “Waco Mid-Mod” houses to choose from.
Any Waco trip revolves around a visit to Magnolia Silos Market, the home base of the Gaines Fixer Upper operation. Pendergraft recommends allowing two hours to take in the full Magnolia experience, starting with a free trolley ride from downtown. Visitors can grab a Shiplap Cupcake (vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream icing) or The Silo Cookie (a classic chocolate chip cookie with peanut butter chips and walnuts added) from Magnolia Bakery, browse the shop and warehouse and take a photo under the “Miles to Magnolia” sign. Kids can play under the pavilion, grab a bite for lunch from the food trucks parked nearby and try their hand at some of the yard games posted throughout the property. Before leaving the area, stop by the Findery, located a block away. The store shows off antiqued furniture and farmhouse chic that has the same Magnolia feel.
Laden down with packages of shiplap and JoJo-inspired decor, hop back on the trolley and get a loud-speaker tour of the town. Scope out one of the many other antique shops, restaurants, and historic homes or head to the Dr. Pepper Museum to see how Texas’s favorite beverage is made. If something catches the eye, simply ring the buzzer and the trolley driver will make a stop.
Waco Tours, operated by former Fixer Upper guests, including David Ridley (the show’s token “single guy”), will answer any question visitors might have about this Central Texas gem. Book online and the guide will show up in a Mercedes van, stopping by all the major destinations including Cameron Park, the Suspension Bridge, Harp Design Co., and Baylor’s newly built McLane Stadium. Ridley and his colleagues started the company to fill the gap needed for the boost in tourism. “Waco has a lot more to offer than people realize,” Ridley said. “Eighteen museums, shopping, dining, a large water park. Some of our customers wish they would have stayed another week to see everything Waco has to offer.”
Another Waco staple is Baylor University. A beautiful, grassy campus that begs to be explored, Baylor is the oldest continuously operating university in Texas. The university boasts two live bear mascots named Lady and Joy who can be visited in their habitat or potentially be seen roaming campus alongside their skillful and trained handlers. After a tour of campus, grab an iced Cowboy Coffee at Common Grounds, the resident student hangout directly across 8th street, where acts including Johnnyswim, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors and Dave Barnes can be seen playing in the evenings.
If traveling as a family, a trip to the outskirts of town would take you to Homestead Heritage, a community of families that lead simple lives and work in farming, trade and crafts. The Homestead Craft Village is open Monday – Saturday from 10am until 6pm. Their annual Thanksgiving fair, a local staple, boasts demonstrations, speakers, and food that offers a peak into their unique way of living. Guests can learn broom-making, watch an agricultural demonstration on beekeeping or goat milking, learn to cross stitch or simply drop by for some unique gifts.
Round out the trip to Balcones Distillery, home to such award-winning Scotch- style whiskies as “Texas Blue Corn Bourbon” or “Rumble Cask Reserve.” Their newly- renovated distillery will be open for tours on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays beginning in April. The fee of ten dollars includes a guided tour of the copper pot stills and a complimentary tasting.
End your day with dinner at any of Waco’s iconic restaurants. Pendergraft recommends George’s, Health Camp, and Vitek’s as college-kid favorites, with menu items like chicken fried steak, burgers, and “gutpacks”— a souped-up version of a Frito Pie that includes beans, chopped beef, hot sausage, cheese, and onion piled high on top of a bed of Frito chips.
Though the nine-hour drive seems daunting from Tupelo, traveling to Waco for a girls’ trip, weekend getaway, or home improvement pilgrimage won’t disappoint.