The city of Branson was born in the early 1800s on a broad plain along the White River, just south of its confluence with Roark Creek. Buildings and roads eventually overtook the floodplain as the city grew westward up a gradually sloping ridge, creating what is now Branson's Historic Downtown District .
Downtown The waters of Lake Taneycomo tamed the temperamental White River in 1913. Now, a patchwork of parks, campgrounds, shops and restaurants line the waterfront, forming a thriving shopping district on the city's eastern boundary. Mile-long Lake Street harbors public fishing docks, grassy parks and remarkable restaurants such as Dimitri's, which serves gourmet meals in a floating dining room on the shores of Lake Taneycomo. Also anchored to the waterfront are the huge docks from which The Lake Queen and the Sammy Lane Pirate Cruise set sail for their half and full-day excursions on this crystal-clear lake.
One block from shore at the intersection of Boxcar Willie Drive and Main Street is the Branson Scenic Railway depot, while a couple of blocks up from the tracks is the town's historic shopping district. The popular Dick's Oldtime 5 & 10 is one of the few surviving dime stores in the country. Across the street is Hillbilly Moccasins , where you can find a little piece of the Ozarks to take home with you. Continuing west on Main, the tree-lined tranquility of downtown eventually gives way to the engine that powers Branson's economy: The Strip.
The Strip This is what modern-day Branson is all about. Crammed into this seven-mile stretch of Missouri State Highway 76 are 60-plus restaurants, 70-plus hotels and motels, and more than 30 live entertainment venues, along with dozens of shopping outlets and amusement parks. This area offers a wealth of live music, food and activities. Traveling treasure hunters—mostly retirees and families—jam all four lanes of this road from April through September. Traffic moves at a snail's pace here on most summer afternoons; if you choose to drive, chances are you will see plenty of pedestrians merrily wave and pass by as you remain stuck in your-air conditioned vehicle.
Do not despair. With a little planning, you can book a centrally located hotel and avoid the gridlock. The Boxcar Willie Hotel , on the western reaches of The Strip, is within walking distance of a 90-store outlet mall plus several museums, nine theaters, go-cart tracks, amusement parks and a dozen or so restaurants. You could spend a week taking in these attractions and never have to start your car. After a day running rapids and riding waterslides at White Water Amusement Park, you can feast on Branson's top-rated buffet at the Plantation Restaurant , then end your day with a Sons of the Pioneers show at Mickey Gilley Theatre —all without walking more than a few hundred paces in any direction. The entire length of The Strip offers this sort of luxury, and as you scoot along the sidewalks and wave at static motorists, you will soon discover why those cheerful pedestrians were smiling as you sat in traffic only a few hours before.
Shepherd of the Hills Congestion on The Strip gave rise to alternate routes through town. The second most popular motorway in the city runs parallel to The Strip along a ridgeline to the north. Missouri State Highway 248 was widened during the 1980s and is now known as Shepherd of the Hills Expressway, where existing shops and attractions were joined by hundreds of others as entrepreneurs clambered for prime space in this booming region.
Separating this region from The Strip is the beautiful Roark Valley, with its tree-lined roadways and peaceful, 62-acre Stockstill Park, where Roark Creek flows through a grass meadow with picnic tables, ballparks, playground equipment and stately oak trees. Gretna Road bisects this northern district from the southwest to the northeast. Along this artery are three major factory outlet mall— Factory Merchants Branson , Tanger Outlet Center and Factory Shoppes at Branson Meadows —where you can find incredible bargains on a wide range of name-brand merchandise.
Several fine hotels have been built in this area to accommodate overflow from the bustling Strip. Cascades Inn is a splendid hotel boasting 160 luxurious rooms. Less than a block west is the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre, where a Japanese violin virtuoso wows audiences via nightly shows.
The Falls/College The lumpy terrain lying south of The Strip and north of Lake Taneycomo is known as the Falls District. This region of town embraces gorgeous scenery and includes intriguing geographic features such as The Falls, Compton Ridge and Cooper Creek. Tucked into the wooded canyons and perched on the ridge tops are numerous resorts, hotels and campgrounds. Cooper Creek slices southward through the limestone hills and runs into Lake Taneycomo. Situated at this intersection, Cooper Creek Resort provides a place to escape the commotion of the entertainment district, relax and maybe do some fishing. Across the Lake is the historic College of the Ozarks .
Taneycomo South Resorts and bed-and-breakfasts line the southern shore of Lake Taneycomo, reaching into the seclusion of the wooded hills. A stay at Kite House Bed and Breakfast provides a taste of upper-crust life in Branson circa the 1930s. A mile to the east is the Holiday Hills Resort & Golf Club .
Indian Point/West Branson Indian Point offers a selection of lakeside resorts so vast as to border on sensory overload. Hundreds of resorts, each with its own personality, are scattered across this arrowhead-shaped peninsula, which juts south into Table Rock Lake west of Branson. However, the most popular destination here is the landlocked Silver Dollar City , a multi-faceted amusement park/living museum where residents dress in period costumes and reenact turn-of-the-century Ozark Mountain life. Kids will enjoy the park's fast-moving rides, such as Buzz Saw Falls. Adjacent to Silver Dollar City is Marvel Cave, a must-see natural treasure so vast that hot-air balloons have actually inflated and launched inside its main cavern.
Branson's frontline industry is, of course, live entertainment, and the town boasts more theater seats than it does year-round residents. However, this little tourist haven may also be the biscuits-and-gravy and buffet capital of the free world, too. It features more than 150 restaurants crammed into an area a little larger than a major airport, so you should have no trouble finding something to eat anytime day or night. The only problems will be where to go and what to order once you arrive.
Local Cuisine If country cooking wasn't invented in the surrounding Ozark Mountains, it was certainly perfected there. To really enjoy yourself while you're in Branson, then forget about the cholesterol count, bag the diet and dig in to some of the best country food around. The battle cry among most restaurants here is, "If it ain't fried, it ain't food."
Many local diners were steamrolled by the hundreds of new restaurants that seemed to open overnight during the rapid boom in Branson's tourist industry. But the Branson Cafe has been serving up hominy and grits since before Branson had theaters and stoplights—almost before there were motorcars, in fact. Open since 1910, this cafe in historic downtown Branson has a well-earned reputation as one of the most enduring businesses in town. Although the clientele has changed dramatically since the days when farmers and loggers came for country ribs and collard greens, the menu has pretty much remained the same.
As Branson has grown in popularity, more and more visitors have been pouring off the interstate in cars, motor homes and tour coaches each year. The demand to feed these hungry tourists and get them on their way quickly has resulted in a boom of buffet-style country restaurants. At Docker's , a land-locked, full-sized replica of a Mississippi riverboat, a cholesterol-lover's dreams come true via a 30-foot buffet that is filled to the gills with baked, fried and barbecued meats along with all the veggies you can imagine. To add to the great dining experience, Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass perform here on occasion during lunchtime.
Upscale Dining If you have the urge to splurge, Branson and its numerous fine-dining establishments are prepared to oblige. Dimitri's Gourmet Dining, with its floating dining room and open-air atmosphere, is located in historic Downtown Branson , right on the Lake Taneycomo waterfront. Dimitri's patrons can look out across the emerald waters as they enjoy gourmet Greek cuisine.
The luxurious Candlestick Inn is home to what is perhaps the best view in southwest Missouri. Serving fresh seafood and only the finest aged Black Angus beef, the restaurant has a patio that offers a look into the White River Canyon 250 feet below, where the waters of Lake Taneycomo reflect the Missouri sunsets. The sweeping vista includes the entire city of Branson—a sea of lights after sundown.
The Chateau Grill is a gourmet restaurant enclosed within the Chateau on the Lake overlooking Table Rock Lake . Probably the epitome of luxury dining in Branson, this restaurant drips opulence with its cherry-wood walls, massive granite and marble facades, and tuxedo-clad waiters. Meanwhile, the Atrium Lounge Bar offers an astounding view of the Lake, encouraging guests to take their drinks to the top of the 10-story hotel for a spectacular 360-degree view of the Ozarks.
Inside the carriage house at the Stone Hill Winery gourmet meals are served within this massive historic brick building. The chef there does incredible things with trout, quail, baby back ribs and that ever-popular gourmet fowl, duck.
Moving Experiences If looking out across the lakes and hills is not enough, there are several ways to enjoy a great meal as you ramble through the woods or slide across the waves. Railroad lines were once considered standard-bearers of luxury dining, and the Branson Scenic Railway takes guests back to that era every Sunday night. You will appreciate the soft light of the candles as your train passes in and out of tunnels, creating an exciting, yet romantic setting.
Several outfits offer excursions on the water, but two of them stand out, operating as they do from onboard historic stern-wheeled paddleboats. The Lake Queen stirs the smooth waters of Lake Taneycomo from April through December, offering diners a hearty buffet as they get treated to an entertaining 22-mile tour of the Taneycomo shoreline. On the top deck, you can dance to a live band that effectively drowns out the "chuff, chuff, chuff" of the paddles churning the water. Table Rock Lake's stern-wheeler, Showboat Branson Belle , offers a true dinner-theater experience, as its meals are served by singing waiters and waitresses and a complete show takes place during the cruise against the backdrop of a tree-carpeted shoreline. No alcohol is served onboard, however.
Stepping Out The majority of Branson's visitors are retirees and families in search of a friendly vacation destination. But the local population creates a demand for evening entertainment other than Andy Williams and the Baldknobbers . The dedicated pubs and neighborhood bars are sprinkled very lightly across the city, but they are there. At Beverly's Steakhouse , an open stage beckons musicians every night. Since a sizable portion of Branson's population consists of musicians (both aspiring and professional), the jam sessions here are awesome. The crowd mostly comprises college students who have come to dance and enjoy the incredible impromptu musical sets.
On the ground floor of B.T. Bones Branson Steakhouse , an elevated bar looks across the dining room, although the real action takes place upstairs. The house band has developed a cult following among locals, and they draw a crowded dance floor every night with their country and rock music. On Sunday, bar goers get a chance to take the stage and try their hands at karaoke.