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A Travel Guide for the Triangle Tour of East Texas: Dallas, Waco, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth

A Travel Guide for the Triangle Tour of East Texas: Dallas, Waco, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth

We recently visited east Texas and travelled to 5 cities in 8 days. Our trip took us to Dallas, Waco, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth, essentially making a large triangle on the map of Texas. Here I recount our whirlwind tour and provide some helpful hints for your future travels to these major cities of Texas.

Itinerary

Day One - Dallas

Day Two - Dallas

Day Three - Waco

Day Four - Austin

Day Five - The Woodlands, Houston

Day Six - Fort Worth

Day Seven - Forth Worth

 

Day One - Dallas

Arriving late the first day we spent the night near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport at Dallas Marriott Las Colinas in Irving, Texas. The hotel had a perfect location given it was so close to the airport, but it was also across the street from the Toyota Music Factory, which provided lots of options for eating establishments, especially dinner. Plus, we came across the first of many larger-than-life bronze statues of western scenes that we soon learned are common across Texas. A square near the hotel had these beautiful stallions traversing a fountain. The area was under renovation when we visited, but the statues were still so majestic to see.

Beautiful stallion statues in Irving, Texas.

Beautiful stallion statues in Irving, Texas.

Meander Among 90,000 Pumpkins

We rented a car for our entire trip since we had a lot of driving ahead of us, and we spent the first full day in Dallas. The amount of attractions that Dallas has to offer is impressive. We spent the day at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and since we visited in autumn, they had their Halloween and Thanksgiving display of over 90,000 pumpkins. The arboretum is beautiful and huge, spanning 66 acres. It is a popular spot to take wedding and quinceañera photos.

One of the many pumpkin displays in the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

One of the many pumpkin displays in the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

Plus, we paid to enter the children’s area named The Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden. I recommend visiting this section of the park, it has tons of environmental and science interactive displays including water cannons, a life-size tree to climb, and a maze.

The food options in this area are a bit slim, there’s a food spot advertised but it’s really only vending machines with tables for picnicking. Your best bet if you plan on staying in this section for any length of time with the kiddos is to bring a lunch. The main body of the arboretum has a stand to buy a quick lunch, plus a higher-end restaurant with linen tablecloths (it didn’t really look like a great place for young kids). We also saw a kiosk which looked like it served some yummy grilled cheese near the main entrance too.

Entrance to the arboretum was $15 for adults and $10 for children, plus an extra $3 for the children’s park.

We rounded out our first day with some very Americana activities including a trip to the arcade Dave and Buster’s, a visit to Half Price Books bookstore, and dinner at The Cheesecake Factory. The bookstore was so cool. It was huge and sold both used and new books. Plus, it had a large display of vinyl records, which just added to its retro vibe.

One observation I had about Dallas is that Dallasites (i.e., people from Dallas) do not stay home on Sundays, instead they go into the city. Every place we went to was packed with people. Strangely, the roads were not congested, but every place we visited – the arboretum, arcade, bookstore, and restaurant – was completely full of people. You go, Dallasites, way to take advantage of all your city has to offer!

We spent the night closer to the city of Dallas at Towneplace Suites Dallas Mesquite to be able to take full-advantage of time. This hotel was really lovely, but it ended up not being as close to downtown Dallas as we originally thought. But, we did get to park our rental car in the parking lot for free, which is difficult to find when you stay in the city of Dallas itself.

 

Day Two - Dallas

Feel Small Among Giants

As I said earlier, Dallas has a lot of attractions. We spent the second day in the Perot Museum of Nature and Science ($20 admission for adult, $13 for child). Such a cool place. First, the building itself is remarkable. It somewhat looks like the side of a limestone slab or cliff with cavities of blue glass in it which serves as an escalator. You actually start at the top level of the building and work your way down through the exhibits.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas.

Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas.

Plus, it’s full of these amazing life-size displays of dinosaur skeletons. You feel so minuscule standing under the skeleton of a brontosaurus-type dinosaur or realizing just how huge prehistoric turtles actually were. Plus, for fun, they periodically turn off the lights and project colored lights across the dinosaur bones creating a disco-type atmosphere.

Also, there are a number of just plain clever displays. One of our favorites was an interactive topographic map. It was a box of sand that showed the topography, by color, as you moved and piled the sand.

My son’s favorite display was a screen where you danced or moved around and dinosaur avatars mimicked your movement, so you can make breakdancing dinosaurs!

There was an additional temporary dinosaur exhibit at the museum that cost extra to attend ($10 for adult, $8 for child). However, we did not feel that the additional exhibit was any more spectacular than just their normal dinosaur display, and it wasn’t worth the additional cost. Also, the museum has a cafeteria, but unfortunately the food was not good. My husband’s hamburger, for example, was a shrunken charcoaled piece of meat, and it was overpriced, so I would not recommend eating at the museum.

Stand Among a Historic Must See

It seemed that it would have been a travesty if we visited downtown Dallas without stopping at Dealey Plaza, the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. It was such an impactful experience to actually stand on the grassy knoll and on the whited painted “X” on the street which indicates where the motorcade was positioned when the bullet killed the former president. Places we’ve only seen in grainy films from that day or television specials since then became hauntingly real. We simply walked around the historic area and read the various plaques and displays, but there is also a Sixth Floor Museum of the Texas School Book Depository and gift shop. Plus, there are plenty of willing tour guides and conspiracy theorists around this area if you want to “learn” even more.

The grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza where President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. The plaque commemorates the speech he was on his way to give when he was shot.

Before we left Dallas for the night, we stopped at Pioneer Plaza to climb among the famous life-size bronze sculptures of 50 long-horned steers located at the corner of Young and Griffin Streets. Interestingly, if you climb up to the top of the hill that the steers are navigating down, there is a historic pioneer graveyard located there.

50 long-horned steers traipse down the hill at Pioneer Plaza in Dallas, Texas.

I was simply surprised to learn all of the attractions that the city of Dallas had to offer. Our two days there did not even scratch the surface of the various venues we would have liked to have visited. So, here’s a list of additional attractions that may be of interest to you, and be sure to let me know about your experience when you visit any of them:

This night we spent the night in Waco at Waco South Towneplace Suites to be ready for our next day in this famous Fixer Upper town. Just a short walk from the hotel was Saltgrass Steak House, which provided a hearty Texas meal with plenty of red meat and the most delicious pumpkin cheesecake.

 

Day Three - Waco

Waco, the city made famous by just two events, the Branch Davidian raid with David Koresh in the early 90s, and the more recent hit HGTV show Fixer Upper which reveals the life of the sweet Christian family of Chip and Joanna Gaines as they flip houses from outdated 70’s-style ranches to shiplap laden gorgeousness. Just to note, we visited because of the latter, not the former. 

In preparation for visiting this city, I even listened to the audio version of Chip Gaines’ then-recently published book “Capital Gaines” during the flight. It provides good insight into how this couple turned a small, home decoration store and construction business into the major enterprise it is today, while sharing some honest truths about running a small business. Surprisingly though, for all of Chip’s charisma and antics on the show, his voice was pretty monotone on the audio book and I have to admit did lull me to sleep a few times.

Come Hungry and Eat Well

We started our morning of the third day eating breakfast at the diner that Chip and Joanna Gaines recently opened named Magnolia Table where they serve Texas-size portions of French Toast, pancakes, eggs, and housemade tater tots. The employees at the restaurant are plentiful and beyond friendly. We were even greeted in the parking lot by an employee stationed there just to say hello to everyone who got out of their car. The diner also has a gift shop and an outdoor café where you can order coffee and such while you wait to be called for your table. Be prepared though, this places is popular, and for that reason they have a well-oiled machine of Disneyland-esque employees that politely redirect you if you attempt to (heaven forbid) try to walk into the restaurant. Thou shall not peak behind the curtain until your name is on the waiting list and you’re called inside to be seated. No looky-loos.

Magnolia Table, the restaurant owned by Chip and Joanna Gaines of the hit HGTV show Fixer Upper in Waco, Texas.

Visit a Paleontological Dig

With our bellies full, we journeyed to the north side of town to see a very cool place, the Waco Mammoth National Monument. For a nominal entrance fee of $5 for adults and $4 for children, you take a guided tour down a short path to this active paleontological site where they have discovered the nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths. This place was well worth the stop. You can actually peer down on real dinosaur bones that are still encased in the ground. Our guide was so knowledgeable and entertaining, it was such a pleasant and educational experience. I highly, highly recommend it.

Waco Mammoth National Monument. The nation’s only recorded discovery of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths in-situ.

The Real Reason for Staying in Waco

We then visited the Mecca of Waco, Texas, that is Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Market at the Silos. The property consists of a bakery, a home goods store, a garden center, a grassy area for romping around and playing lawn games, and a slew of food trucks. We stood in the line for the bakery that wrapped around the corner for their famous cupcakes, ate lunch from the food trucks, and wandered through the store picking up small items that would fit in our suitcase. The Market has free parking that is connected to the property off of 8th Street plus there is street parking, so feel free to skip the lots that offer parking for a mere $10. And like any good Christian store, the Market is closed on Sundays. They also have a discount store called the Warehouse Shop located on Bosque Blvd.

The Silos at Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas.

There are three other attractions in Waco that we did not visit but are worth mentioning. Again, if you check these, please let me know what you find:

  • Dr. Pepper Museum – I mean, why not?!

  • Harp Design Co. shop – The carpentry and now home good store made famous by Joanna Gaines’ devotion to the work of Clint Harp in Fixer Upper.

  • Baylor University

Overall, I was surprised that the city of Waco did not take more advantage of the fame that Fixer Upper brought to their city. The Market brings tens of thousands of people to Waco every day, but the city doesn’t seem to have capitalized on these visitors. The areas around both Magnolia Table and the Silos appear to be exactly the same as they were before the attractions existed. The shops and businesses are few and mostly look older and a bit rundown. There are no attractions in these areas of the city other than these two establishments. I guess I just expected the area to be bustling with boutique shops and restaurants, but none were to be found. 

We finished the day by traveling to Austin to spend the night. We stayed the night at the boutique hotel called Hotel San Jose located in the South Congress area. The hotel is clean and hip and a refurbished two-story motel with polished cement floors in the rooms, a small outdoor bamboo-lined siting area, and tiny rectangular pool. We really liked it and it is a nice alternative to the sometimes sterile large-chain hotels.

Hotel San Jose in Austin, Texas. Located in the funkier area South of Congress, this hotel provides a fun alternative to the traditional large-chain hotels.

We grabbed dinner at a burger place on South Congress in Austin called Hopdoddy Burger Bar, which is a chain restaurant, but they made some outstanding burgers.

 

Day Four - Austin

Pay Homage to the Lone Star State

We started our day in Austin at the Texas State Capitol. This is such a beautiful building. Rather than disrupt the charm of the original building when they needed to renovate for additional space, they decided to tunnel underneath the land to create underground offices for the expansion. You are welcome to enter the building, peer up at the ceiling of the rotunda, and find your way through the underground labyrinth with its skylights that allow natural light in from above.

The dome of the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas.

Walk 6th Street 

From there we walked the famed 6th Street that is lined with nightclubs and bars. When my husband and I visited Austin a decade ago we loved the evening we spent at Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, but we had to pass this time given we had underaged kids in tow. I have to say that 6th street also seemed a lot grittier since the last time we visited. I know it’s best visited at night, but I was surprised by the amount of filth. We did manage to snag some donuts from the famous VooDoo Doughnut which serves crazy donut concoctions 24 hours a day…but cash only, no credit cards accepted.

An Austin, Texas mainstay…VooDoo Doughnut serves up their creative sugar treats 24 hours a day.

Travel by Scooter

The real fun we had was when we visited the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail which is a paved trail along Lady Bird Lake (a.k.a. the Colorado River) in downtown Austin. We walked the area of the trail by The Long Center for the Performing Arts. The area is resplendent with rentable scooters and my kids each rode one around the trail. It is this amazing phenomenon that is happening around some of the larger cities (sorry if you’re already aware of this scooter invasion…we’ve been living out of the country for a bit). Rentable scooters are simply ditched in various popular areas, you activate and pay for them by using an app, ride them around for however long you choose, and then drop them wherever you choose. The scooters available in this park belonged to Bird and Uber. The kids had the most fun scootering while my husband and I enjoyed a peaceful walk.

Do Not Miss the Bats’ Mass Exodus

From the trail, we walked under South Congress Avenue Bridge and watched the massive amounts of bats that roost there during the day take flight at dusk from under the bridge. Just a constant stream of black little beings fly out together in mass and disperse into the night. It’s a major attraction of Austin and a definite must-see.

We ate dinner at Lucy’s Fried Chicken on South Congress which is obviously famous for its yummy fried chicken, but also its oysters. The décor is Texas retro with plenty of neon signs. We enjoyed sitting outside in their area with picnic tables lighted by string lights. Oh, and you’re encouraged to leave your mark on the walls of the restaurant too, so bring a Sharpie.

Lucy’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Austin, Texas on South Congress.

Overall, Austin has changed since our visit 10 years ago. It used to have a funkier vibe and was awash with food truck parks, but the vibe is now more business and the parks are virtually non-existent. Instead, they’ve been replaced by paved parking lots and high-rise buildings that employ the tech influx from Silicon Valley. Most troubling is that my favorite restaurant in Austin, Frank, which served the most delectable melt-in-your-mouth pork butt sandwich I have ever eaten, was shuttered. A notice on the door stated they had not paid their taxes. Beer steins still lined the bar and empty chairs sat around tables with their place settings intact, as if all of the patrons and staff had simply left mid-service. It made us wonder if the major migration of Californians to Austin had changed the atmosphere of the city, and just simply made it too expensive for the funky, homespun haunts of the past. I hate to think that another Googleplex will be standing in this spot during my next visit to Austin, but I would not be surprised.

Frank, a restaurant in Austin that I had the best pork butt sandwich that I have ever eaten…but, when we recently visited Frank was unfortunately shuttered.

 

Day Five - The Woodlands, Houston

I’m hesitant to even say we visited Houston, because we really did not. Instead, we traveled from Austin to the northern area of Houston called The Woodlands. Part of the purpose of this trip was to explore potential areas that we may be interested to live in in the future, hence The Woodlands. The Woodlands is a beautiful area in northern Houston that has done a very good job of doing what the name implies, maintaining the woods. All of the streets in this area are tree-lined, and even the strip malls are placed a good distance from the street and hidden behind stretches of trees.

This master-planned community has a central area with a town green, lined with high-end stores. Think Tiffany and Rolex-type stores. It is a really beautiful area, but we ultimately wondered if we may not have the income level or age level to fit in with the other patrons. It seemed like a great community if you’re retired, drive a high-end car or SUV, and enjoy passing your afternoons having lunch at an outdoor cafe on the green talking about your golf club membership. In contrast, we lunched at Potbelly Sandwich Shop, which is a chain sandwich and soup shop that I frequented during my college days in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

From The Woodlands we journeyed back through Dallas and ultimately landed in Fort Worth for the night. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott at Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards which had the coolest Texas cowboy decor. It was by-far the nicest Courtyard we’ve ever stayed at. And…wait for it…they even have a Starbucks inside.

The western-themed Courtyard Marriott at Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards, complete with cowboy boots and a Starbucks.

 

Day Six - Fort Worth

I LOVED Fort Worth! What a pleasant surprise. First of all, the Fort Worth Visitor Center website is full of useful, clear information on the city and things to do in it. It is probably the best and most organized tourist bureau website I have ever seen. I highly recommend visiting their website before traveling to Fort Worth.

Watch a Long-Horn Cattle Drive

Our hotel was located in the area of the famed Fort Worth Stockyards. The Stockyards is a multi-block area of old-time saloons, western wear shops, the rodeo, and typical western-type things. I loved every bit of it. Twice a day they do a long-horned cattle drive right down the center of the street.

We also watched an entertaining old-time shootout complete with a stern Sheriff and his comical deputy side-kick. The area also has plenty of BBQ restaurants and stores selling cow hides, saddles, and spurs.

The Stockyards holds an entertaining shoot out with a stern Sheriff and his comical deputy side-kick.

Plus, the Stockyards Championship Rodeo is held every Friday and Saturday at 8pm. Our hotel gave us free tickets and we had a blast. I sure do love my rodeos and this one did not disappoint. It had all of the traditional competitions including bull riding, barrel racing, and team calf roping. Plus, it had some fun activities for kids of different age groups to come down in the arena and run around for a prize, and they had a hilarious audience participation game that I won’t share anything else about because I don’t want to spoil the surprise ending…

Walk Among a Waterfall in the Middle of Downtown

We also drove and walked around downtown Fort Worth and visited Sundance Square. It is a cool area with water fountains, an outdoor area with chairs for sitting, and shopping. In the south area of downtown, we stopped at the Fort Worth Water Gardens. The Water Gardens are these large water displays that you can walk around and interact with right in the middle of the city. One is a waterfall feature where you can walk down large steps to reach the bottom by the rushing water. Another is a large tranquil man-made pond that is sunk 20 feet below ground.

Fort Worth is also home to:

 

Day Seven - Fort Worth

Our second day in Fort Worth was spent driving around the city and outlying areas looking for potential areas to live in the future, just in case. We really loved this city and were so impressed with the city’s cleanliness. The roads, sidewalks, parks, and buildings were all so clean and well maintained. It was remarkable and impressive. The citizens definitely take pride in their city, and it shows.

We spent the final night back in Irving at the same hotel where it all began (Dallas Marriott Las Colinas in Irving, Texas) to be near the airport for our very early flight out the next morning.

Helpful Hints

Location: Dallas, Waco, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth are located in the eastern side of Texas, forming a large triangle between Dallas, Austin and Houston.

Accommodations: We are avid Marriott Rewards members, so this trip we stayed at Marriott accommodations that best suited us and our every growing teen-age kids, except in Austin where we chose a boutique hotel in a popular area of town.

Tolls: Be prepared to pay lots of tolls as you navigate through Texas. However, you cannot pay cash for the tolls, they are all automatic tolls charged via your license plate. So, if you rent a car, be sure to read the fine print on how the rental car company handles the tolls or you may be hit with a large toll charge when you’re done, which will amount to mostly fees charged by the rental car company itself. Ask me how I know.

 

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