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Waco: Down by the Riverside

Once defined by King Cotton, Waco offers an enticing array of historic treasures and modern pleasures, including an award-winning zoo and a state-of-the-art water park.
Waco Bridge built to stimulate growth in the area.

I am amazed at how many travelers along Interstate 35 zip right by Waco without partaking of its many wonders. Aside from the fact that actress Jennifer Love Hewitt and comedian/actor Steve Martin were born here, Waco bears the distinction of having more museums per capita than any other Texas city and one of the state's largest municipal parks. This city of 100,000 is frequently extolled, despite its size, for its friendly, small-town flavor. While its affable ambiance is a virtue worth noting, scratch beneath the surface, and you will discover this gem in the Heart of Texas has substance. In its old downtown district–and in random recesses throughout the sprawling community–visitors discover an enticing array of historic treasures and modern pleasures.

Cradled in a niche of the Brazos, near its confluence with the Bosque River, Waco buzzes with activity. Much of its recent economic renewal is concentrated down by the riverside, near the city's famed Suspension Bridge, completed in 1870. The Waco Riverwalk, which stretches for more than three miles on both sides of the river, connects the landmark bridge, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum at Fort Fisher, Indian Spring Park, and other longtime attractions. The steady tourist-traffic in this pocket west of I-35 has spurred new business development that draws from Waco's heritage. The vintage Waco Hardware Building (circa 1900) on the river's west bank, for example, has been transformed into River Square Center, a 30,000-square-foot complex of upscale shops, restaurants, and offices. The Center's first level, unofficially dubbed "Waco's Restaurant Row," is occupied by eating establishments and bars offering American, Italian, and Mexican food.

On a recent excursion, I gave Slopoke's Barbeque a try. The ribs were extra meaty, and the creamy banana pudding made a perfect finale. Afterwards, I explored the building's second floor and the rustic environs of Spice Home Furnishings, part of The Shops of River Square Center. Boutiques here teem with candles, dolls, birdhouses, bath and beauty products, funky adult apparel, children's clothing, fine art, Christmas collectibles, and the like. Home furnishings–from elegant and shabby-chic to wrought iron, cow-hide, and horns–abound. The maze of merchandise, complemented by a beauty salon, lunch cafe, and photography studio, promises a stimulating, one-stop-shopping adventure. In one shop, Hon-ey's Homestyle, owner Honey Rader offers a mix of rare American and European antiques and Texas wares.

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