Mountain backdrops, hippie charm, and literary bona fides have enthralled generations of Asheville visitors. Add a craft beer boom and thriving arts scene to that scenic history, and the appeal of the city and its lively neighborhoods has never been quite so sky-high.
WHY WE LOVE IT
For years, visitors were drawn to this town in the Blue Ridge Mountains for its unabashed quirkiness (drum circles, street performers), outdoor excursions (hiking, biking, rafting, and zip lines await the adventurous), and the perpetually popular Biltmore Estate. Now those wanting a new reason to explore Asheville will find a growing beer and restaurant culture bolstered by myriad festivals, pub crawls, and working art studios.
Galleries, boutiques, and watering holes dot Asheville’s walkable downtown. You’ll find the chef Katie Button’s celebrated Spanish tapas spot, Cúrate, which justly tops many visitors’ to-eat lists, and Brian Canipelli’s exceptional Cucina 24, which plenty of locals would peg as their favorite place to dine, both located there. But those stalwarts have lately been joined in the vicinity by ambitious new projects from chefs with impressive Asheville pedigrees.
Jacob Sessoms, the force behind the pioneering New Appalachian restaurant Table, partnered with the beer minds at Wicked Weed Brewing to create the terrifically fun Cultura (functioning in abbreviated form down in the South Slope neighborhood through the end of 2021); Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani and Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing Company helped curate S&W Market, a lively food hall in an art deco gem; and longtime local restaurateurs Hector and Aimee Diaz are remaking the historic Grove Arcade as a dining destination. Yet there’s much to eat, see, and do in buzzy neighborhoods beyond the city center.
Asheville boasts one of the highest numbers of microbreweries per capita in the country, and South Slope is where aficionados belly up. Pay a visit to Burial Beer Co., which also operates the enchanting Forestry Camp in a pair of Civilian Conservation Corps buildings on the outskirts of town. Or skip the suds in favor of Asheville-made sake at live music venue Ben’s Tune-Up. The mural-rich district also hosts a set of art galleries at the Refinery AVL and Buxton Hall Barbecue, acclaimed for its whole hog smoked over wood in Eastern Carolina fashion.
Just a short drive from downtown, West Asheville is in the middle of a renaissance. Residential streets radiate out from pedestrian-friendly Haywood Road, where you’ll want to stop for shops like Reciprocity and Harvest Records, and for casual eats at WALK or Nine Mile. Perennial favorite the Admiral offers fine dining in a dive-bar atmosphere. A perfect West Asheville day might well start with handcrafted doughnuts at Hole Doughnuts and end at a music venue such as Isis Music Hall or UpCountry Brewing.
River Arts District
Open studios have long been a staple of this former industrial area, but the web of streets and warehouse lots was rendered walkable in 2020 with the debut of a longer and upgraded greenway along the French Broad River. In addition to browsing local artists’ wares, don’t miss the chance to order a morning pastry board at Vivian or a charcuterie board at the Bull and Beggar. And if you’re in the mood to shop for art you can eat, stop by French Broad Chocolate’s Chocolate Factory and the Spicewalla showroom, where the small-batch collection includes a pride-themed kit of pantry essentials benefiting the Campaign for Southern Equality.
Please Your Ears
A bevy of bars and listening rooms offer live music that includes—but goes well beyond—bluegrass. The Orange Peel downtown welcomes nationally touring acts; the venue also recently opened Rabbit Rabbit, an outdoor concert space that’s in the habit of screening movies when bands aren’t booked.
The warm months bring free outdoor festivals to green spaces, including RiverFest in the River Arts District, LEAF Downtown AVL, and Shindig on the Green, now more than a half century into presenting free old-time jam sessions on summer Saturdays “along about sundown.” But for 24-7 access to Western North Carolina music, both traditional and contemporary, tune into 88.7 FM for the beloved non-commercial station WNCW.
An array of sightseeing tours give newbies an insider’s perspective. The Asheville Urban Trail features a self-guided, two-mile walking tour among art installations. LaZoom Comedy Tours offers comedy rides, seasonal shows, and a Band & Beer bus tour. The engaging Hood Tours explore Asheville’s historically African American neighborhoods and landmarks.
Western North Carolina has a rich craft history. Asheville makers carry on traditions and innovate new forms in ceramics, glass, wood, fiber arts, and more. The biannual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands spotlights heritage arts while the Big Crafty, which also happens twice yearly, features indie crafters. Outdoor markets pop up on weekends throughout the warm months.
WHERE TO STAY
The Grove Park Inn was good enough for ten presidents, dating back to William Howard Taft, and nobody who’s watched dusk fall over the Blue Ridge Mountains from the legendary resort’s terrace has to wonder why: The Omni-owned hotel, a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts Movement architecture, also boasts a golf course and spa. Another can’t-miss choice is the considerably newer Inn on Biltmore Estate, located on the grounds of railroad heir George Vanderbilt’s former property and designed to give guests a taste of the luxury his visiting friends experienced.
In the heart of downtown, the Foundry hosts the restaurant Benne on Eagle, featuring a menu that emerged from the intersection of Appalachian and African American cuisines. Those keen to get an inside look at Asheville’s historic homes have their pick of several graceful bed-and-breakfasts, including Sweet Biscuit Inn; the Reynolds Mansion Bed & Breakfast Inn, and Chestnut Street Inn.
WHEN TO GO
Autumn leaf peeping brings large crowds to Asheville, but there’s no wrong time to see the city, which enjoys moderate temperatures year-round. To tie your trip to a specific event (check websites for COVID protocols and current dates), consult the round-up below:
With so many outdoor enthusiasts living in Asheville, you can nearly hear people pumping air into their mountain bike tires and waxing their kayaks when the days get longer. If you’re looking to celebrate spring’s arrival in a slightly less strenuous way, you can stroll the azalea and tulip gardens at Biltmore or mark your calendar for the annual Asheville Spring Herb Festival in early May. The season also brings AVL Beer Week and the Carolina Mountain Cheese Festival.
Since 1928, Asheville has hosted a Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in August; other local activities restricted to the summer include tubing, berry picking, hiking to hidden waterfalls, and catching an Asheville Tourists game.
LEAF Global Arts is one of the few major events scheduled for the fall since it’s hard to compete with Asheville’s stunning autumn colors. It’s also prime time to visit one of the city’s cideries, pouring hard drink made from Western North Carolina apples.
Leading tourist destinations the Omni Grove Park and Biltmore are exceptionally serious about the holiday season and the results are great fun. At Grove Park, the National Gingerbread House Competition display always dazzles, and Biltmore’s candlelight evenings have become a local tradition.