An urban walk around downtown Waco, Texas, might be the best way to get acquainted with this small city whose popularity just keeps growing. Even as new construction changes the skyline, the urban center’s past is evident in its architecture, historical markers, and open spaces. I’ve put together a self-guided urban walk of this central Texas city to highlight over twenty noteworthy stops within downtown Waco. Even so, this short walking tour is only a glimpse into the historic downtown of Waco and what it offers. Keep reading to learn why an urban walk in downtown Waco is worth your time.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau.
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About Waco, Texas
Waco, Texas, sits between the state capital of Austin and Dallas on the I-35 corridor. Billing itself as the Heart of Texas, tourism in this “big small town” continues to increase.
Any mention of Waco, Texas will likely elicit a response remarking on the Magnolia home and lifestyle brand, founded by Waco’s favorite power couple and stars of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” Chip and Joanna Gaines. Or perhaps there will be a recollection of the tragic and controversial “Waco siege.” In 1993, 76 Branch Davidian religious group members and four federal agents died in a fire sparked during an FBI raid on the group’s compound.
While these recent events may shape Waco’s profile, the city, founded in 1849, has a long history filled with entrepreneurs, tourism, and, unfortunately, other tragedies.
Waco takes its name from the Huaco (Hueco, Waco) Indians, a part of the Wichita tribe that lived near the Brazos River. The area attracted white settlers for the same reasons as the Native Americans: the black soil was ideal for growing crops. Agriculture centered around cotton, and the money generated from its sale grew Waco’s economy from pre-Civil War until about the turn of the twentieth century. Cotton was even part of tourism in the city. From 1894 to 1930, more than eight million Texans visited Waco to attend the Texas Cotton Palace Exposition with multiple exhibits, activities, and entertainment options.
With a growing population, multiple schools of higher education made Waco their home, and the city became known as the “Athens of Texas.” Baylor University, formerly Waco College, continues its mission education and research mission today with 20,000+ students enrolled.
The Waco Tornado
The event that may have had the most significant effect on today’s Waco happened on May 11, 1953. That afternoon, one of the most devastating tornados in United States history hit the city. The F5 tornado, about one-third of a mile (0.5 km) wide, tore through downtown. Exact numbers vary, but around 200 buildings were destroyed, including multiple buildings downtown. Hundreds of others were so severely damaged that they could not be saved.
Walking around Waco, one of the things I noticed is that it’s not as densely packed as many other downtowns. The vacant lots and open spaces are not by design. Rather, they are a legacy of the 1956 tornado. It took away much, and other trends meant rebuilding was not complete. This will be evident as you take a walk through urban Waco.
Walking around Downtown Waco
This self-guided walking tour is a 1.8 mile (2.9 km) loop, much of it within a National Historic District. I’ve also included two detours with some other can’t-miss sights. Check the custom map below for the route and featured sights. This route starts at the First Baptist Church of Waco, but as it’s a loop, you can start anywhere on this course that is convenient.
The streets of the Waco grid are angled away from the usual north-south orientation; therefore, I’ll give navigation instructions by using left-right. Note that if taking the loop in the opposite direction, these directions will be backward.
With that introduction, let’s start walking.
The First Baptist Church of Waco
Located at 5th and Webster, the First Baptist Church of Waco operates a paid parking lot, making this a convenient place to start the walk. The congregation came together in 1851, not long after the incorporation of Waco. This 1907 house of worship is notable for its neo-Byzantine style of architecture, which includes a central dome and arched stained-glass windows. The yellow-brick building underwent a $4 million renovation in 2017.
At this corner, the Magnolia Market Silos are visible. Walk toward them on Webster Avenue and turn right at 8th Street to gain access.
Magnolia Market at the Silos
There is a lot of buzz about this two-block complex built around defunct cotton silos. The grounds feature green artificial turf and quaint white buildings sporting black roofs. Community spaces include lawns, picnic areas, and a Wiffle ball field. The rusted white of the 120-foot (35.6 m) high silos and the remnants of their machinery are a picture-perfect backdrop for the farmhouse chic vibe.
My favorite part of Magnolia was “The Old Church” (formerly the Second Presbyterian Church) on the lawn that greets visitors at the 8th Street entrance. This wooden, Queen-Anne-style building was in serious disrepair before being purchased, moved, and beautifully restored by the Gaineses. Erected in 1894, it’s one of the oldest churches standing in Waco.
Magnolia fans will want to spend much more time here, but there are other sights to see in Waco. To get to the next stop, continue walking on 8th Street, crossing Jackson Street and its parallel railroad tracks.
U.S. District Court
An additional block later, turn left on Franklin Street to stand in front of the U.S. District Court courthouse, one of nine within the Western District of Texas alone. Built in Mission/Spanish Colonial Revival style, this 1936 building initially did double duty as a courthouse and a post office (the post office later moved). This three-story courthouse was built during the Great Depression and funded by the United States Treasury.
This building’s modest appearance gives no hint that the Waco court is one of the country’s top venues for patent litigation. For example, in 2021, a Waco jury returned the second-largest jury verdict to date in a patent case. In that case, Intel Corporation was ordered to pay $2.175 billion damages for using a patented computer chip invention without permission (Intel continues to appeal this ruling).
While thinking about that staggering sum of money, return to 8th Street and travel one more block to Austin Avenue.
The intersection of 8th Street and Austin Ave. is the site of the Raleigh Building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Opened as “The Riggins” hotel in 1914, it’s an example of Chicago-style architecture. The Chicago School utilized steel frames to build some of the first skyscrapers. Other hallmarks of Chicago style include a non-structural brick layer, large windows, and few decorative embellishments. A second owner renamed this building the Hotel Raleigh, and it operated under this name until the 1980s. The abandoned structure was restored and renovated by the state of Texas and now houses government offices.
It’s worth noting that the steel-framed Raleigh Building was not one of the casualties of the 1953 tornado, which destroyed so many of its downtown neighbors.
Now take a look up and down Austin Ave., which was rebuilt as a pedestrian mall after the 1956 tornado. Unfortunately, the mall had many issues and never lived up to the promise of revitalizing the downtown area. The tornado disaster, coupled with the nationwide trend of declining downtown business districts in favor of suburban locations, still echos in downtown Waco today in the form of empty lots and vacant spaces.
Detour Along Austin Avenue
Head left on Austin Avenue, going as far as 11th Street to see other architectural styles. Look for decorative bricks, arched windows and doorways, cornices, and fancy ornaments on the buildings on these few blocks. At the corner of 11th and Austin note the English-Gothic style First Presbyterian Church, built in 1911. Contrast this with the 1950s-era signs of Reed’s Flowers, kitty-corner from the church. This resilient business operated through the years of the post-tornado downtown decline. The flower shop has been family-owned for over 90 years.
After this detour, return to 8th Street and keep walking.
The Waco Hippodrome Theatre and the Green Door Lofts
Moving down Austin Ave. toward 7th Street, look for the Waco Hippodrome Theatre building on the right side. This Spanish Colonial Revival structure appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Named the Hippodrome at its founding in 1914, it was a vaudeville theatre with varied live performances. As the entertainment industry changed, live acts gave way to silent movies. After a 1929 fire, it was renovated in the current style. The venue shut its doors in the 1970s during the downtown decline as customers began to frequent suburban movie theatres, but it reopened in the 1980s after a restoration. The venue is currently hosting live music, with the movie theatres undergoing yet another renovation.
Just past the theatre, look for a whimsical green door. It’s the entrance to the Green Door Lofts. Behind this door are short-term rentals in the form of renovated lofts-each with a different design and atmosphere. Staying at the lofts isn’t cheap, but there is no charge for viewing this fanciful green door.
7th Street Pedestrian Plaza
Past the Green Door Lofts, turn right on 7th Street, an art-filled pedestrian-only zone between Austin Ave. and Franklin Ave. The street art here might change from time to time, but I saw many murals adorning the adjacent buildings. Even the street was painted in a color block design. Take a break at one of the picnic tables here to view it all. After getting your fill of street art, continue down 7th Street and turn left on Franklin Ave. toward 6th Street.
At the corner of 6th and Franklin, look for another building on the National Register of Historic Places, the Praetorian building. Like the Raleigh Building, the Praetorian was built with Chicago Style architecture. Erected in 1915, the outer appearance of this seven-story building is essentially unchanged from its founding. Constructed by the Praetorian Life Insurance Company, it contributed to Waco’s reputation as “The Insurance City of Texas” in the early 1900s. Today this mid-rise tower houses retail shops, offices, and loft apartments.
From the Praetorian Building, continue on 6th Street for two blocks, then turn right on Washington St.
McLennan County Courthouse
The next stop is the McLennan County Courthouse, yet another entry in the National Register of Historic Places. It’s hard to miss this sizeable white courthouse built in a Classical Revival style with elements of ornate Beaux-Arts architecture. It features an elaborate dome surrounded by eagle sculptures atop Corinthian columns. At the apex of the dome, the Greek goddess of justice, Themis, holds a sword in one hand and lifts the scales of justice in the other. Two additional statues at the base of the dome include the Roman goddess of justice, also carrying a sword and scales, and Lady Liberty. The courthouse, the fourth for McLennan county, dates from 1902.
Moving past the courthouse, continue on Washington Avenue toward 5th Street and turn right.
The ALICO Building
You’ve probably guessed that the next stop is the tallest building in Waco, the 22-story ALICO building. ALICO stands for American Life Insurance Company, the predecessor of the current owner. The Beaux-Arts-style building from 1910 has embellishments on the top four floors that draw the eye upward. In addition, this steel-framed skyscraper boasted “fireproof” construction, its own power and water sources, and elevators.
This resilient structure stood firm through the 1953 tornado with minimal damage. The 15-foot (4.6 m) tall neon letters at the top of the building were added in 1954.
If you haven’t already, turn left on Austin Ave. from 5th Street and pass by the front of this Waco icon. Notice that the lower exterior underwent a renovation in a mid-century modern style in 1966 to complement the Austin Ave. pedestrian mall mentioned above. Walk one block to the corner of Fourth and Austin for the following two points of interest.
The 12-story Roosevelt Tower on this corner was built in 1872 as the McClelland House Hotel and has changed hands many times. It became the third-ever Hilton Hotel, bought by Conrad Hilton himself in 1928. Hilton sold the property during the Great Depression, and the new owner renamed it the Roosevelt Hotel. This steel-framed building was another strong structure surviving the 1953 tornado. With the downtown decline that followed the tornado, it closed in 1961 but functioned as a retirement home for 40 years starting in 1963. Today, this Beaux-Arts building is a fully renovated office tower.
Waco Tornado Memorial
The Waco Tornado Memorial stands kitty-corner from the Roosevelt Hotel. Sometimes called the Teardrop Memorial, it describes the tragedy of the 1953 tornado on a teardrop-shaped black granite sculpture. The monument also names the 114 whose lives were lost in the disaster.
Decorative brick in the pavement and two benches frame this somber reminder. But this corner also marks another Waco institution that is more heartening. A tile in front of the sculpture notes the invention of the Dr. Pepper soft drink 1885 in a drugstore that stood here.
After contemplating the memorial, head down Austin Ave. toward 3rd St.
Heritage Square and Waco City Hall
The route passes through Heritage Square, a city park installed by Keep Waco Beautiful. The pergola-covered walkways, benches, and fountains make for a pleasant stop. From Heritage Square, the Waco City Hall is visible across 3rd Street. This 1930 Art Deco building was once the center of a town square. However, after the 1953 tornado and decline of downtown, urban renewal projects cleared the area, and newer development didn’t emphasize the traditional look. As a result, this modest government building looks slightly out of place today.
Travel down 3rd Street to Franklin Ave. for the next sight.
Detour-Walk to the Brazos River
The Brazos River deserves some mention when discussing a walk in Waco. To get there, turn left on Franklin Ave., walk two blocks and cross over S. University Parks Drive to arrive at Indian Springs Park on the banks of the Brazos. This is the site of the Waco (Huaco) Indian settlement that gave the city its name.
Here you’ll find life-sized bronze sculptures of longhorn cattle along with horseback-mounted cowboys taking part in a Chisholm Trail cattle drive. The Chisholm Trail facilitated cattle transport from Texas to railyards in Kansas.
Altogether the Branding the Brazos exhibit includes three drovers (one white, one Hispanic, and one black) and 25 longhorn cattle on their way to the Waco Suspension Bridge ahead. This 1870 bridge was the first over the Brazos River. With a 475-foot (145 m) span, it was also the first significant suspension bridge in Texas.
The bridge made the Chisholm Trail cattle drives safer and more efficient. In addition, the bridge and cattle drives supported the town’s economy and its growth as a commercial center. Today the bridge is for pedestrians. Take a walk across or relax in the park before moving on.
(Note: The Bridge is currently closed for restoration at this writing, and some individual sculptures are hidden within the construction zone).
From here, walk back to the corner of 3rd and Franklin to resume the loop walk.
Walk for one block to Franklin and 4th Street, then turn left.
The next landmark is the Behrens Lofts near the corner of 4th Street and Mary Ave. This 1913 luxury condo building takes its name from the Behrens Drug Company. The building was the headquarters for this wholesale business that sold drugs, beauty products, cigars, sundries, and other products. Another tornado survivor, this property was also fireproof. The original four-story building increased its height with the addition of the 5th through 7th floors in 1990 during the conversion to loft-style condominiums.
For the next stop, continue walking down 4th Street for another block.
The next to last building on this Waco walking tour is the most modern. The Containery at 4th and Jackson is a collection of over 50 shipping containers artfully arranged for the purpose of housing shops, bars, and other small businesses, including boutique hotel rooms. The future of this development seemed to be as bright as the attention-getting colors of the individual containers that made it. Unfortunately, the project encountered some financial difficulties, and the property is in foreclosure. Hopefully, new investment will help the Containery reach its potential.
Leaving the Containery, continue walking on 4th Street for an additional block.
The last stop on this urban walking tour is the Fort House at the corner of 4th and Webster. This 1868 home, yet another entry on the National Register of Historic Places, was the residence of bank president William A. Fort and his family. Originally on a six-acre plot at the periphery of Waco, this stately home has a Greek Revival style–notice the doorway framed by two large Ionian columns. The Historic Waco Foundation acquired the restored home from the Junior League and turned it into a museum showcasing furniture and antiques. In 2019, Historic Waco sold the house to the Gaineses. There is no word on their plans for the house, but it has ceased being a museum open to the public.
Finishing the Waco Downtown Walk
To finish the loop and return to the start of this urban walking route at the First Baptist Church, walk up Webster Ave. to 5th Street.
This walk through downtown Waco has many points of interest, but even so, it doesn’t come close to describing everything on offer. I hope you’ll find your own favorites as you walk around the Heart of Texas.
Custom Map of the Urban Walk in Waco, Texas
I created this map on AllTrails to show the route for this urban walk in Waco
Legend: Red-main loop; Blue-detours
Don’t see the map or want to see the original? Click here to go to the map page on AllTrails.
Practical Information for Visiting Waco, Texas
Waco has its own airport served by American Airlines, but arrive in Dallas or Austin for more flexibility. Plan for two hours of driving from either city or book the Waco Streak shared shuttle. Bus service will be inexpensive, but only a few routes leave from the airports.
With tourism on the rise, Waco added almost 1000 hotel rooms from 2018 to 2021. At this writing, nearly 700 more are under construction. Vacation rentals are also popular. In other words, Waco is filling up with tourists, so research and book your accommodation early. You’ll find major brands and independently owned properties throughout the city.
Food and Drink
This walking tour of Waco passes by multiple bars, coffee shops, and restaurants. Pivovar at 8th and Jackson houses a brewery featuring Czech-style pilsners and upscale bar food. In the mood for curry, pizza, or tacos? Visit Union Hall food hall on Franklin Ave. If you’re torn between coffee and cocktails, head for Dichotomy Coffee & Spirits on Austin Ave. – they serve both.
While I recommend walking around downtown Waco for the best views, there are other options.
Take advantage of Waco’s free hop-on/hop-off shuttle from the Waco traffic circle to downtown. Depending on the destination, rideshare services may be more convenient.
Disclosure: I was a guest of the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Have you walked around Waco, Texas? Leave a comment below!