Travel

A Guide to Summer in Asheville

Plan a three-day getaway with plenty of art, delicious bites, and lush gardens in the buzzy North Carolina mountain town

photo: TIM ROBISON

Downtown sights.

Call it summer love: I was nineteen when I fell hard for Asheville, the mountainous urban anchor of Western North Carolina. As an interning reporter at the Franklin Press newspaper in the nearby town where my grandparents lived, I slipped away to Asheville every weekend I could to walk the grounds of the Biltmore estate or simply wander downtown, where I discovered art galleries and secondhand shops full of country antiques and Appalachian pottery.

One hot afternoon, my editor (the late, great nature writer and historian Barbara McRae) sent me on a hike to find a rare flower—Stewartia, a cool-air-loving plant in the same family (the tea family) as camellias. Native to the South, Stewartia species known as “mountain camellia” and “silky camellia” bloom in summer. Right around the Fourth of July, I tagged along with a naturalist who knew just where to look and stood in reverence when I saw the flower’s purple center surrounded by tender white petals unfurled in the shade.

Since that summer fourteen years ago, Asheville has expanded, too, from a quiet mountain town to the brewery capital of the country, with award-worthy restaurants and chic new hotels. The city and surrounding Buncombe County now beckon a steady stream of visitors—including, most recently, an influx of big-city escapees seeking fresh air during the pandemic—and locals have responded with new options for dining, drinking, and lodging.

photo: TIM ROBISON

From left:  Danielle Donaldson and Debbie Word of Chemist Spirits; the Antidote bar at Chemist Spirits.

And yet for all that growth, Asheville still manages to feel like its own pocket of personality, a city completely sure of its own identity as a place that supports dreamers—artisans, musicians, chefs, and nature lovers alike. You’ll find a fly-fishing paradise along the French Broad River; on a walk downtown, you may hear mountain music from a classic venue such as the Grey Eagle, or a new band at the cocktail lounge Crow & Quill; in the South Slope neighborhood, restaurants, breweries, and even an innovative distillery might surprise you with Carolina flavors; burgeoning West Asheville’s trails will put you outside in the breeze; and clusters of antique stores and artist studios around the River Arts District will tempt you to take a piece of Asheville home with you.

Even though I’ve traveled often over the years back there from Charleston, South Carolina, where I now live and write about gardens across the South for G&G—in all this time, I’ve never again seen that native camellia. So I set out on an adventure this spring: Here’s how I recently spent an ideal weekend in Asheville searching for my new favorite restaurants, mountain antiques, and one elusive flower.

FRIDAY

A number of great and walkable-to-everything downtown hotels have opened recently, including the industrial-chic Foundry and the Cambria, but I crave green this trip, so I check in at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, which perches in the rolling hills around Biltmore, the Vanderbilt family’s Gilded Age crown jewel of a manor. The inn sits along a rambling path toward the mansion, on-site winery, farmyard, and woodland trails. I drop my bags and admire the panoramic Blue Ridge views from my room, and then take a quick drive to happy hour downtown, in South Slope. Even though the neighborhood has become known as an epicenter of breweries, I slip into Chemist Spirits distillery and its adjoining bar, Antidote, where mother-and-daughter co-owners Debbie Word and Danielle Donaldson sip a gimlet and a Bee’s Knees featuring their citrusy gin. Their dream started percolating when Donaldson, a pharmacist, urged her dad to buy her hobby-loving mom a custom moonshine still for Christmas. Word took to the craft, even consulting with a Scottish whisky maker on techniques and recipes, and in 2018, they opened a gorgeous bar, filled with antique apothecary bottles, and a secret upstairs speakeasy. Carolina botanicals—lemon verbena, barley, and sometimes rose petals from Biltmore’s garden—add nuance to the clear spirits. But Asheville is first and foremost a beer town, and it seems fitting to end the evening at a sudsy haunt. Locally beloved Burial Beer Co.’s new lodge-like restaurant, Forestry Camp Taproom + Kitchen, fits the bill—beneath timber rafters, the juicy trout sandwich with fish from nearby Sunburst farms tastes like a mountain welcome.

photo: TIM ROBISON

From left: brunch at La Bodega by Cúrate, glazed East Fork pottery, and The Trinidadian Doubles dish at Benne on Eagle.

SATURDAY

“The sweet azalea has a wonderful fragrance that smells like clove to me,” says Parker Andes, Biltmore’s director of horticulture, as we stroll the grounds to his favorite spot, the azalea garden. Andes oversees everything plant-related across 8,000 acres and in the orchid-filled conservatory, and his team collected water lilies for Monet & Friends—Life, Light & Color, Biltmore’s exhibition that ends in July. I ask him about the “mountain camellia” of my youth, and he says conditions must be just right for it to flower—he thinks the nearby North Carolina Arboretum might grow it.

Downtown, I stumble into La Bodega by Cúrate, an all-day Spanish café serving exquisite pastries (plus wines, tinned fish, lunch and dinner spreads, and a zippy gazpacho in a bottle to go). After downing cream-filled croissants and coffee, I walk to a few shops: East Fork pottery with its colorful modern earthenware; the dependable indie bookstore Malaprop’s; and the dusty and delightful Lexington Park Antiques, where I sift through shelves of cheerfully painted Blue Ridge–brand pottery and meet a fellow browser who says her mother was one of the artisans who worked for the Erwin, Tennessee, company that manufactured it during its 1940s heyday.

Friendly conversations continue with the energetic staff at the recently opened Nani’s Piri Piri Chicken, run by chef Meherwan Irani, who also owns the Chai Pani Indian street food restaurant and Spicewalla seasonings company. At his new spot, two pieces of tender rotisserie chicken perfumed with paprika and cardamom sing alongside a savory corn pudding.

In nearby West Asheville, a lively, artsy area with charming shops and a bike-friendly walking trail, I check the progress of the Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins; the row of A-frames overlooking the French Broad River Greenway will be ready to rent this summer. “This was our grown-up way to keep working on the river,” co-owner Shelton Steele tells me with a laugh. A former kayak instructor, he and business partner Joe Balcken, who was once a whitewater rafting guide, designed the urban campground around access to the outdoors, and they’ll set up guests with fishing, climbing, biking, and boating outfitters. The pair nudge me toward Foundy Street, just east in the River Arts District, a moderate walk or short drive along the greenway. There, surrounded by fantastically colorful graffiti art, I find the perfect cortado at Summit Coffee and stroll through Foundation Studios, to see local artists at work, and Marquee, a curated design center filled with regional art and antiques. A standout: woodworker Hayley Davison’s restored ladder-back chairs rewoven with colorful Shaker-style fabric tape. Usually, the smell of barbecue at the neighboring 12 Bones Smokehouse would tempt me (I rarely have the willpower to pass up a slab of those brown-sugar-dry-rubbed ribs), but it’s only open during the week, and so I save room for dinner. After a quick refresh at the airy and plant-filled Cursus Keme brewery, hidden off a nearby back road along the Swannanoa River, I meander through another long-standing treasure trove, the Antique Tobacco Barn, and see some of those familiar slat-back chairs with old cane seats that have somehow survived generations.

I drive back downtown for dinner at Benne on Eagle, where chef de cuisine Cleophus “Ophus” Hethington showcases flavors of the African diaspora. The griot, a Haitian-style citrus-marinated pork shoulder covered in spicy cabbage slaw called pikliz, steals the show—a delicious homage to the ways Southern and Caribbean cultures overlap. Just blocks away, Sovereign Remedies bar serves a nightcap of local flavors: the Root Daiquiri with aged rum, lime, burdock, dandelion, and sarsaparilla. I sip and check who’s playing at the Orange Peel, where earlier this year I saw Waxahatchee and Madi Diaz sing down the house. 

photo: Tim Robison

From left: A frothy sip at Cursus Keme brewery,  the antiques-and-art-filled Marquee market, and a 12 Bones turkey sandwich platter and ribs with corn pudding and collard greens.

SUNDAY

It’s tough deciding among all the longtime breakfast greats in Asheville—Early Girl Eatery, Tupelo Honey, Biscuit Head—but I head to a familiar spot that’s on my way out of town: the no-frills country kitchen classic Moose Cafe, for biscuits and gravy and unending coffee refills. It’s right by the forty-five-year-old WNC Farmers Market, and also just a short drive away from the North Carolina Arboretum that Biltmore’s Andes mentioned earlier.

I meet my friend Lauren Northup, a writer and historian who recently moved back home to Asheville from Charleston, and we amble the arboretum’s trails alongside rhododendron and gentle stair-stepping waterfalls. The place is a botanical wonderland right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, with ten miles of trails for dog walkers, runners, and hikers of all skill levels. Rocking chairs look out over a garden with mountain views beyond, and a crew of arborists are trimming shrubs around the Frederick Law Olmsted sculpture just in time for his two-hundredth birthday celebration this year. Olmsted, considered the founder of American landscape architecture, once had the dream of building a tree research center for the state, which eventually led to the creation of this arboretum in 1986.

We run into a staff member who tells me I might find my “mountain camellia” near the bonsai collection. Lauren and I split up to cover more ground but stay within shouting distance. “Is this it?” No. A few more steps. And then, just past the bonsai near the welcome center’s entrance, I see a tiny placard beneath a bending tree: Stewartia. I holler for my friend to see this extraordinary plant, just revealing its lime-green spring leaves, preparing for a summer bloom of silky white flowers. An invitation, as Asheville always gives, to come back again soon.