In the early 1990s, Branson, Missouri famously rocketed to national attention following a profile on "60 Minutes." Back then, the city was billed as a country music mecca. With the turn of the 21st century, however, there has been a concentrated effort to widen the city's appeal by broadening the range of its attractions. You might think of it today as a family-friendly Las Vegas. The effect of this 2008 retooling was that Branson had an estimated 8.5 million visitors.
Branson was founded in the 1880s as a stop on the White River. It owes its early growth as a tourist destination to the opening of the White River Railway in 1906, the publication of Harold Bell Wright's popular novel "The Shepherd of the Hills" in 1907, and the creation of Lake Taneycomo in 1913 and Table Rock Lake in the late 1950s. It also owes its growth to the strength of character of the people who live here in the Ozark Mountains.
The "first families" of local entertainers — the Presleys and the Mabes (a.k.a. the Baldknobbers, from a post-Civil War vigilante group that once operated in the hills here) — began plying their trade at about the time of the opening of Silver Dollar City, an 1880s-themed park, in 1960. Over the years, more acts and attractions followed. In the 1980s, Branson began to attract nationally known entertainers. Then along came the "60 Minutes" profile.
A 72-hour stay in Branson will allow you the opportunity to tramp through three areas: the downtown area, including Branson Landing on the city's eastern edge; the roughly five-mile stretch of Missouri Highway 76 known as the Strip; and Silver Dollar City, near Indian point on Branson's western edge. The Ozark Mountains are also home to scores of other communities and many other attractions.
Driving a car is essential to getting around Branson, as there is little public transportation. Also, many of the city's sights dot the two-lane Strip, from downtown to Indian Point, and spill into the hills and hollows on either side.
Branson is a seasonal destination and many of its attractions are closed in January, February and even March. Exact hours and days of operation will vary for each attraction throughout the year, so check websites or call for exact dates and times.
For many years, the nearest airport was the Springfield-Branson National Airport, located about 55 miles to the north. The Branson Airport, which opened in May 2009, is located just a few miles south of town.
For accommodations, stay near U.S. Highway 65, which bisects downtown Branson at one end of the Strip and provides the most direct route to the area. It also affords easy access to several parallel roads you can use to bypass traffic on the heavily traveled Strip to reach other parts of the city.
Branson Landing, a 95-acre waterfront area on Lake Taneycomo, is one of the town's newest landmarks and offers upscale shopping, dining, entertainment, and lodging set in a cozy village atmosphere. Stay on the landing at the Hilton Promenade hotel (or just across the street at the Hilton Branson Convention Center Hotel).
Mabee Lodge at the Keeter Center, located a few miles to the south at Point Lookout, is an elegant alternative. An added advantage of Keeter is the availability of stylish accommodations in the Good Center that are perfect for budget-conscious families. On the north end of town, the six-room Emory Creek Victorian B&B is a top-rated choice.
DAY 1: Historic Downtown Branson, Discovery Trolley and Patricia's Victorian House
Most of your first day can be spent shopping and sightseeing in the downtown area. Start with an all-American breakfast with the locals just up the hill at the Farm House Restaurant. Follow up breakfast with a leisurely stroll along Lake Taneycomo on the waterfront boardwalk, which connects to the walking trail at North Beach Park.
You have two wonderful sightseeing options today: a cruise on the lake or a train ride through the countryside. You'll want to check the schedules and purchase tickets early so you can return to the attractions at the appropriate times. Branson Landing Cruises, on the boardwalk, offers a one-and-a-half-hour sightseeing cruise on scenic Lake Taneycomo aboard the Lake Queen, a 19th-century-style paddle-wheel boat. Across the street from the landing at the historic 1905 train depot, Branson Scenic Railway features a one-hour and 45 minute ride on the Ozark Zephyr in vintage 1940s passenger cars. The southern route has mountainside tunnels and 100-foot-plus trestles.
Up the hill across the street from the landing lies Historic Downtown Branson. You can walk up Main Street or catch the green Discovery Trolley at either end of the landing, which will drop you off several blocks up the hill on Commercial Street. The bulk of the shops are located on the four blocks at the intersection of Main and Commercial.
Among the many options, visit Patricia's Victorian House, the nostalgic Dick's Five and Dime and Crain's Creations Gallery, which features the wildlife oil paintings of T. Morgan Crain. (Note: You can also view Crain's work, and the works of other local and visiting artists, by participating in the art walk that takes place on the first Saturday night of every month). Some of the buildings and businesses are 100 years old.
For lunch, drop back down the hill to Branson Landing. There are many dining options here. Seek out the White River Fish House on the boardwalk for fresh trout or catfish. This outfit celebrates fishing and the history of the river that once ran through these parts. The restaurant sits on the waters of the lake so if it's a particularly fine day consider sitting outside on the veranda.
Just across the way from the fish house restaurant is Bass Pro Shops, the landing's southern anchor and every outdoorsman's favorite stop. Belk Department Store serves as the northern anchor at the opposite end. Coldwater Creek, Fresh Produce Hand Picked, Hollister, J. Jill, and White House/Black Market are among the nearly 100 retailers that lie in-between. The landing plays host to events such as concerts and strolling musicians and other entertainers. For a thrill on most any day, however, pause at the Town Square for the synchronized water, fire, light, and music show.
You'll take a short drive for dinner, so take the time to make a reservation at Dobyns Dining Room in the Keeter Center at College of the Ozarks. Dobyns Dining Room, staffed by hard-working students of the college, features several signature American dishes in a rustic, yet elegant early 20th-century lodge setting.
Return to the landing or downtown for after-dinner drinks and either plunk yourself down in the convivial Waxy O'Shea's Irish Pub for authentic Emerald Isle specialties or slip into the bar inside the chic Bleu Olive Mediterranean Grille for a cocktail or a martini. For coffee and generous-sized pastries stop by showman Dino Kartsonakis' 24Karrot Café.