When Nicole Owen and her now-husband, Chip, left Asheville a decade ago to open a brewery, they found everything they needed just an hour southwest in Sylva. “Sylva felt perfect for us. We immediately fell in love with it and moved over,” says Owen, co-owner of Innovation Brewing. “It’s just got a really strong sense of community here, more so than anywhere I’ve ever lived.”
Sylva is small—fewer than 3,000 people reside here—but well worth a road trip. Crowds are thinner than in other well-trodden Western North Carolina towns, and Sylva itself has a charming Hallmark movie vibe, with murals gracing the historic buildings and the former Jackson County courthouse perched on a hill above Main Street (it now houses the public library). There’s also a strong sense of place. “It’s smack dab in the mountains. It’s cool to be on the street and look on both sides and be sandwiched in between. It’s a genuine mountain town,” says Don Panicko, the co-owner of the coffee shop White Moon.
The downtown area flourishes with independent bookshops, antique stores, coffee shops, public art, and elevated restaurants, all in proximity to hikes and overlooks. “The downtown has just turned into this bustling little place, day or night, weekday or weekend, with just really great food,” Owen says.
There aren’t boutique hotels here—your best bet is to rent a vacation house with a beautiful view—but don’t let that deter you from spending a couple days exploring this unsung destination brimming with Appalachian flavor. Here are five ways to explore Sylva.
1. Sip coffee in a cozy setting.
With coffee beans roasted by Orchard in nearby Waynesville, White Moon is an inviting place to start the day. Grab a seat in the sunny, plant-filled corner and enjoy an espresso drink and a muffin fresh-baked by co-owner Cecelia White. At night, White Moon transforms into Dark Moon, a moody cocktail bar.
2. Hit the trails.
You don’t have to leave Sylva to find spectacular views. “Right within Sylva city limits is Pinnacle Park, which is an incredible hike,” Owen says. The 1,500-acre park is home to a 3.4-mile trail that takes hikers on a strenuous journey to a craggy mountaintop, plus a relaxing half-mile forest-therapy trail that runs alongside a creek. “Even if you only make it a quarter of a mile, it’s still entertaining; kids can play in the creek and see some flowers,” Owen says.
3. Try a locally brewed beer.
Craft breweries are a dime a dozen in larger cities, but in Sylva it’s all about Innovation Brewing. There’s a taproom downtown and another in nearby Dillsboro; try seasonal brews such as a chocolate stout and several hard ciders.
4. Eat seasonally driven food.
Since 2004, Guadalupe Cafe has served farm-to-table fare in globally inspired dishes such as jerk chicken and a red curry bowl. A newcomer on the scene is Ilda, the brainchild of married couple Crystal Pace, a sommelier who grew up in Sylva, and Santiago Guzzetti, an Italian-American chef who cut his teeth in fine-dining kitchens of New York. Standouts here include the meatballs with polenta and house-made pastas.
5. Go shopping.
This region is known for its crafters community, and that applies to Sylva. “One cool thing about local businesses is you can find local art for sale on basically everybody’s walls, ours included,” Owen says. At White Moon, for example, you’ll find ceramic planters by Earth Disco Studio, and at the FarmHouse Mercantile’s coffee shop, mugs by Mudpuppies Pottery and photography. Swing by End Of Main for antiques and City Lights for books.