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Missouri is Hard to Forget

Missouri is easy to visit and hard to forget.

The Show Me state has a laid-back Midwestern vibe, but don’t let that fool you. It also features exceptional museums, entertainment and outdoor diversions.

Year-round, Branson delivers a good time from its ever-evolving entertainment and attractions to the yesteryear setting at Silver Dollar City. Columbia buzzes with culture and sports at the University of Missouri, and your group can pick from a host of outdoor activities.

Tantalizing barbecue, rich culture and more than 200 sparkling fountains — more than any other city in the world except Rome — characterize Kansas City. In Joplin, several famous American artists have contributed their creativity to this Missouri town that had the good fortune to be on Route 66. And in Springfield, your group can head to the largest outdoor retailer in the world, tour a cave or dine at the new Metro Eats community project.

Branson

Surrounded by the Ozark Mountains, Branson continues to build on its reputation as the entertainment capital of the Midwest.

In 2020, Branson’s Silver Dollar City was named the No. 1 Amusement Park in the USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards and the best park at Christmas for the third year running. Opened last summer, Mystic River Falls is considered an engineering marvel. It touts a rotating four-platform, eight-story lift and “The Tallest Drop on a Water Raft Ride in the Western Hemisphere.”

Entertainment in Branson appeals to all interests. The new musical “Jesus” at the faith-based Sight and Sound Theatre showcases dazzling special effects and an original score. Dean Z, star of the hit international touring production “Elvis Lives,” combines a 10-piece band and immersive video for his high-energy tribute show that begins with Elvis’ 1950s hits and wraps up with his 1970s Vegas performances. “Escape Reality,” a world-class illusion and comedy dinner show, stars Garry and Janine Carson, who produce award-winning Las Vegas productions. The Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai are celebrating 22 years in Branson with their new “Shanghai Circus,” featuring breathtaking acrobatics, dance, magic and aerial feats.

Noteworthy attractions include the Aquarium at the Boardwalk, with up-close views of sea creatures, and an original 5D submarine adventure. State-of-the-art technology at FlyRide, inside Beyond the Lens, will have your group soaring over mountaintops and lakes in a suspended multiperson ride that glides and tilts, giving the sensation of true flight. And at Fritz’s Adventure, an outdoor flying experience opens this month.

“Groups are flocking here to enjoy both the aquarium and story of Jesus,” said Lynn Berry, director of communications for Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And at Dean Z, some audience members have been moved to tears because he portrays Elvis so authentically.”

Springfield

Not far from Branson, Springfield offers activity options for foodies, outdoor explorers and history lovers alike.

When Metro Eats opens in early summer, Springfield’s culinary scene will bring together farm and city in this creative community project. Food trucks and cargo containers, an indoor food hall and the Where House bar are in the works. Artisan boutiques will sell items from handmade soaps to cheese and much more. Weekly farmers markets with up to 120 vendors and monthly festivals will fill out the calendar packed with live entertainment. The park’s greenhouses will host cooking, planting and gardening classes to educate and entertain.

A visit to Springfield isn’t complete without a shopping spree at the world’s first and largest Bass Pro Shops store: Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. Chock full of outdoor gear, this retail giant houses the free NRA National Sporting Arms Museum, the Archery Hall of Fame and exhibits that detail the history of Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. The adjacent Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium has been named best new attraction and best aquarium in USA Today reader polls.

“People are surprised at how much there is to do here,” said Susan Wade, public relations manager at the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Groups are really pleased with attractions like Bass Pro and Wonders of Wildlife because of the quality of the experience and the attention to detail.”

Your group can explore Missouri’s reputation as the Cave State in this region. At 11 stories high, the Smallin Civil War Cave boasts the state’s largest cave opening; guided tours recount its history and geology. For the adventurous, there’s a two-hour wild-cave tour. At Fantastic Caverns, a Jeep-drawn tram will guide your group through one of the few caves in the world large enough to ride through.

Columbia

On the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, guided tours explore the Mizzou Botanic Garden. Since its inception, this living museum has sustained thousands of plants displayed among famous icons, such as Jefferson’s original grave marker and the Columns of Academic Hall.

Nearby, the award-winning Shelter Gardens supports more than 15,000 annuals and perennials and 300 varieties of trees and shrubs. Five miles from downtown, Rock Bridge State Park sits on more than 2,200 acres. Interpretive programs range from caves and karst systems to bats and ecosystems. Groups can explore the park’s namesake rock bridge, sinkholes, a natural spring and an underground stream in its seven-mile-long cave system known as the “Devil’s Icebox.

“The Mizzou Botanic Garden is an experience people don’t expect because the entire campus is considered part of the gardens,” said Megan McConachie, strategic communications manager for the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Rock Bridge State Park has always been one of my favorite spots because you can have so many different kinds of geological experiences.”

Via the MKT Spur, cyclists of all experience levels can hop on the Katy Trail that ranks as the nation’s longest converted rails-to-trails project. Pastoral landscapes, impressive limestone bluffs and stunning views of the Missouri River are highlights. Several miles west of Columbia, the trail’s only railroad tunnel is in charming Rocheport, where your group will also find boutique restaurants and shops, as well as the award-winning Les Bourgeois Vineyards. Opt for a wine tasting or a behind-the-scenes tour of the production facility. Afterward, dine in their award-winning Blufftop Bistro, with panoramic river views, or in the A-Frame Wine Garden, always popular for picnics.

Kansas City

For an authentic introduction to Kansas City, dig into a plate of barbecue with KC Barbecue Tours. Visit four restaurants that showcase KC originals and “hidden gem” local favorites, or three restaurants on a BBQ and Beer tour. Transportation is provided via minicoach, but a step-on guide can be arranged for larger groups.

Downtown, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s yearlong celebration commemorates the 101st anniversary of the leagues’ formation. Alongside its evergreen exhibits, Negro Leagues 101 will offer programs and events to honor the rich history of Black baseball and its impact on America.

Originally dedicated in 1926, the Liberty Memorial houses the country’s first and only museum focused solely on World War I. A new virtual reality experience opens this month called “War Remains.” It brings to life the conflict on the Western Front from a soldier’s viewpoint. Don’t miss the elevator ride to the memorial’s top for a panoramic city view.

Nearby, the Crown Center touts restaurants, shops, the Sea Life Kansas City Aquarium and the Hallmark Visitors Center. A glass-covered skywalk connects to Union Station, the restored grand dame of Kansas City’s railroad days. Spend the afternoon at the Model Railroad Experience and Science City, or catch a live theater production, a planetarium show or an extreme-screen movie.

In the Kansas City suburb of Independence, an all-new experience awaits at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. One of only 14 presidential libraries nationwide, it will reopen later this year with state-of-the-art technology after the largest renovation in its history.

Joplin

Route 66 bisects downtown Joplin, and City Hall remains part of the Mother Road’s history. Originally known as the Newman Brothers department store, the 1910 Chicago-style structure houses Thomas Hart Benton’s last signed mural. Its story includes Benton’s grandson, Anthony Benton Gude, whose mural hangs alongside his grandfather’s work. Continuing along Route 66, a step-on guide will point out Joplin’s architecture and more than 15 murals that attest to Joplin’s history. En route, the Spiva Center for the Arts attracts visitors to their exhibits and art workshops.

“Spiva is such a treasure, and they’re moving to a larger, multiuse building in 2022,” said Kerstin Landwer, director of sales for Visit Joplin MO. “PhotoSpiva is the longest running photography competition west of the Mississippi. Jurors are internationally known photographers and educators, and all the chosen entries are on display every March and April.”

History, faith and architecture converge on Joplin’s Sacred Places tour. Highlights include historic places of worship, among them a church that was built in 1930 as a Fox Theatre. Also noteworthy is the Murphysburg District, which is on the national historic registry. And the Joplin History and Mineral Museum boasts a larger collection than the Smithsonian.

Just off Route 66, artist Lowell Davis, known as the Norman Rockwell of Rural Art, re-created his hometown of Red Oak, which had become a ghost town after World War II. Davis bought homes and businesses from the town site and other rural ghost towns and moved them to Red Oak II. The Belle Starr house, where the infamous lady outlaw grew up, and a 1920s cottage-style Phillips 66 gasoline station are among the privately owned buildings.

visitmo.com

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.

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