With 51 theaters and a slate of more than 100 country western, pop, bluegrass, rock ‘n' roll, and gospel shows daily, the glittery Ozark town of Branson has certainly earned its reputation as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World.
In fact, with its population of a little over 10,000, Branson boasts more live concert venues per capita than any other city on the planet. Like the Midwestern answer to Las Vegas or Nashville, the city offers wall-to-wall entertainment, and it's been done up in an appropriately glitzy, neon-and-sequins style. But it wasn't always this way. The first tourists started pouring in after the 1907 publication of Harold Bell Wright's best-selling novel The Shepherd of the Hills, which tells the epic story of a family of humble homesteaders. They came for the pastoral scenery and the quaint folk traditions, to commune with the real folks who inspired their favorite stories.
That first wave of visitors might not recognize the place these days, at least on the surface. Centered around the Strip, a bustling seven-mile stretch of Missouri State Highway 76, the new Branson brims with amusement parks, water parks, miniature golf courses, and over-the-top, family-friendly attractions, such as Ripley's Odditorium, the Hollywood Wax Museum, and the 100-foot-tall, half-scale replica Titanic Museum. But beneath the theme-park kitsch, there still beats the same small-town heart. You'll see it in the bluegrass live shows, the country-fried comfort food menus, and, most importantly, the stunning Ozark scenery: sparkling lakes filled with prizewinning bass, scenic hiking and biking trails through the surrounding hills, and even dozens of awe-inspiring caves for underground exploration.
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Get into the swing of things at Golfweek's top-ranked Missouri course two years running, the Payne Stewart Golf Club, which reopens for the season on April 5. Built as a tribute to Missouri native pro golfer Payne Stewart, who died tragically in a 1999 plane crash, the 18-hole championship course was designed by famous course architect Chuck Smith and PGA pro Bobby Clampett.
As Branson's average summer highs near 90 degrees, there's no better time to hit White Water at Silver Dollar City, a 12-acre park boasting two million gallons of water and nearly 7,000 feet of slides. Parents can take a breather in a private cabana, but kids won't want to miss the park's main attractions, such as the 7.5-story super-slide Kalani Towers, which blasts you down one of six side-by-side chutes at up to 40 miles per hour. With an 800-foot-long lazy river, 200-foot-tall racing slides, a massive wave pool, and twisting raft slides, you'll find more than enough ways to beat the heat.
Despite its neon-tinged glitz, Branson remains a small town at heart, where tradition reigns and every street is a walk down memory lane. For a slightly different kind of history lesson, head to Stone Hill Winery. Established in 1847, Stone Hill was the second largest winery in the country and the third largest in the world at the turn of the 20th century! At its peak, it produced over one million gallons of wine annually, winning gold medals in eight world fairs. With the advent of Prohibition, the famous wine cellars were used for mushroom growing, until the winery was restored to its former glory in 1965. Today, Stone Hill is Missouri's oldest and most awarded winery, winning more than 3,700 accolades since 1993. Fall is prime harvesting season and the perfect time to take a tour of the 12,000-square-foot facilities. Along the way, you'll learn about the entire winemaking process, from grape harvesting to bottling, all the while sampling wines made from French-American hybrid grapes like Vidal, Chardonel, and Vignoles.
All aboard the Branson Scenic Railway! Take a trip into the past on this 40-mile excursion that winds through the foothills, tunnels, and bridges of the Ozarks. Leaving from Branson's old depot, you can choose one of two routes, either north through the James River Valley all the way to Galena or south into the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. You'll want to make sure to board the train early to snag a seat in one of the train's two 1952 Budd Dome observation cars, which offer panoramic views through domed glass ceilings. In November and December, the train magically transforms into the Polar Express, complete with carolers, cocoa, and visits from Santa himself.