We found an absolute gem of a place when we ventured east from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Asheville, North Carolina! We love it so much that we’ve visited twice, and are planning our third visit.
What started as Cherokee lands and became a railroad and textiles town has blossomed into something entirely different. Asheville today is a vibrant city full of artists, intellectuals, counter-culture, outdoor adventurists, and liberalism.
This commercial and cultural hub of scenic and mountainous Western North Carolina reminds me of iconic West Coast cities such as Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California; and a smaller-scale version of Portland, Oregon.
There are a dizzying array of things to do in Asheville. To help you plan your visit, here’s a list of 9 things we’ve enjoyed doing there.
Asheville is a great food town. Not only can you get Southern comfort cuisine, but just about everything else you’d find in big cities. Here are a few of our favorites:
Smoky Park Supper Club. This unique restaurant built from shipping containers is situated along the French Broad River. As its name suggests, it serves a dinner menu of American fare from a wood-fired grill. We enjoyed a craft cocktail on their outdoor deck under string lights as a warm spring day turned to night. Sitting down for dinner inside, we were wowed by our wonderfully prepared and delicious meals.
Biscuit Head. We heard about a relatively new breakfast and lunch spot known for its mouth-watering biscuits. Since opening its first restaurant in West Asheville in 2013, they’ve added two more area locations. Camille enjoyed eggs benedict over her biscuit, while I had the country ham biscuit. The meals were made with fresh local ingredients, and were very satisfying. Thankfully, they were not as heavy as you’d find at a traditional breakfast diner. They serve up over a handful of different gravies, and you can even get a gravy flight!
White Duck Taco. After putting in an honest morning’s work, we slipped out on a sunny Wednesday afternoon for some fusion tacos down by the river. Even though it was between lunch and dinner, the place was surprisingly busy. We sat outside and shared a variety of interesting tacos. The Korean bulgogi beef, mole duck, seared ahi, and pork belly tacos were our favorites. White Duck has several locations around town.
Asheville is known as Beer City USA—and for good reason. It’s home to over 30 craft brewers. Even larger craft brewers, Sierra Nevada Brewing and New Belgium Brewing, have set up shop here to take advantage of the local expertise and highly-qualified workforce.
Tap rooms and brew pubs are located all around town and in surrounding communities. But the South Slope neighborhood is home to more than 10 establishments. Walking tours of the area are quite popular.
Our first time in Asheville, in April 2017, we tried to go to Wicked Weed—a brewer known for its hoppy ales. Unfortunately, they were closed for an employee meeting to announce they had been acquired by the world’s largest brewer, AB Inbev (the makers of Budweiser). We had to come back another day to enjoy their beers. Despite the outcry from craft beer purists, Wicked Weed has been left alone by the parent company to continue innovating and creating great craft beers.
For something more offbeat, we’ve twice visited Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium—a shrine to wild-fermented beers and sours. The name alone will draw you there to sample these unique beers. There’s always lively crowd, and often live music. It seems to be a favorite hangout for locals.
We’ve also enjoyed brews from Green Man, Hi-Wire, and Eluvium Brewing, a newer entrant to the scene just up the road in Weaverville.
River Arts District
Along the banks of the French Broad River sits a complex of refurbished industrial buildings which previously served the Norfolk Southern rail line. The decades-long abandoned buildings were converted to artist studios beginning in the 1970s. Today, the area is a buzzing arts district with galleries, working studios, coffee shops, restaurants, and brew pubs.
As we strolled through galleries and working studios, artists invited us in to chat and watch them work. Camille even took a studio art class at 310 ART. It’s a great place to spend a couple hours or half a day browsing, chatting, getting inspired, eating, and drinking. The coffee shop and brew pub have great indoor and outdoor spaces where you can do your own creative work, or just hang out with friends.
Asheville is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the wooded hills and mountains seem to go on forever. There are many great hikes within a short drive from town. Both our stays in Asheville were in the Spring, just as the trees were leafing out and the flowers were blooming.
One of our favorite hikes was at Chimney Rock State Park—a 40 minute drive southeast of Asheville. Chimney Rock is a granite monolith rising more than 300 feet above the woodlands. It is also where the dramatic cliff scenes in the movie, Last of the Mohicans, were filmed.
You can drive to an upper parking lot, but we hiked a mile up from the bottom to reach the rock outcrop. A series of stairways built into the rock lead to an observation deck with dramatic views of Lake Lure and the surrounding countryside. We also hiked a half mile spur trail to see Hickory Nut Falls spill from the smooth granite cliffs above.
Another great hiking area about an hour’s drive northeast of Asheville is at Mount Mitchell State Park. The crown jewel of the park is 6,684 foot Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River. The observation deck at the summit provides 360 degree views of near peaks and far vistas. There are several nearby nature trails and a museum.
I wanted a daylong challenging hike, so I hiked the Mount Mitchell Trail (a section of the 1,200 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail) from 3,700 vertical below. Starting at Black Mountain Campground, my hike was over 10 miles roundtrip. The trail was steep and rocky through lush hardwood and spruce forests. It’s often windy, cloudy, and cold at Mount Mitchell, but I was treated to a clear and pleasant day for my troubles. It’s a strenuous hike that I would only recommend for fit hiking enthusiasts. I was sore for three days, but the feeling of accomplishment was well worth it!
Find your next great hike anywhere you happen to be traveling.
We stumbled upon one of Asheville’s signature events purely by accident. As we were checking out downtown shops and starting to look for a dinner spot on a Friday evening, we heard the sounds of beating drums growing stronger by the minute. A crowd was gathering in a little wedge-shaped greenspace called Pritchard Park. We walked over to see what was happening and were delighted by what we saw and heard.
Asheville’s weekly drum circle has been entertaining visitors and locals since 2001. It’s a free community event held every Friday from April to October from 6pm to 10pm, and offers a slice of what Asheville is all about.
We planned to watch for five minutes, but stayed for two hours. It’s not just the beats from the two dozen or so drummers (everyone is welcomed to participate), but the crowds who come to listen and dance that make this such a feel-good event. You’ll find people hula hooping, blowing bubbles, dancing with their cats and dogs, conga lines, and more. From toddlers to seniors, everyone is smiling and having a great time. You’ll leave this experience with an upwelling of happiness that will last for days.
Go for a Drive
What makes Asheville such a great place for outdoor activities, also makes it great for sightseeing drives. There are scenic byways going in all directions from Asheville.
The world-famous Blue Ridge Parkway—a 469-mile ribbon of road through the Appalachian Mountains—starts in nearby Cherokee, North Carolina, and passes just south of Asheville.
On a beautiful late April morning, I drove a 50-mile stretch north from Asheville. There is no cost to drive the Parkway, but access is limited to specific entry and exit points. This helps to keep the traffic down. Motorists driving the Parkway are there to see the sights so you will not feel rushed.
I felt like I was driving through a green, flowering tunnel of flora as I wound my way up the Parkway. Stopping at several overlooks to enjoy the views, I even met an outdoor photographer determined to photograph all 28 birds of the warbler species. I continued up the ridge around sweeping turns and through low-hanging tunnels. Soon, I left the dense lower woodlands into bare, but scenic stands of hardwoods, until finally reaching spruce and fir forests at Balsam Gap. I was more than a mile high and in the company of little more than a solitary wild turkey ambling along the side of the road. Pack a lunch and go for a drive. You never know what you’ll see, but it will be beautiful.
On our first trip to Asheville, we stayed at the Asheville West KOA campground. It’s about 15 miles west of the city center. We found it to be a perfect jumping off point for a day of exploration through the historic mountain towns of the Southern Appalachians. We drove west to the town of Cherokee at the eastern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There we visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and had lunch alongside the tumbling Oconaluftee River. Later in the day, we saw the quaint, historic towns of Bryson City and Sylva, and the college town of Cullowhee, before returning home after dark—our travel buckets entirely filled.
Asheville Tourists Minor League Baseball
One of the great pastimes in this country is the game of baseball, and there’s nothing more authentic than attending a minor league game. Asheville has a team—called the Tourists—which plays in the Class A South Atlantic League from April through August.
Professional baseball in Asheville dates back to 1897, and the Tourists have been playing at historic McCormick Field since 1924. The cozy 4,000 seat facility is walking distance from downtown and set into the base of a leafy hillside.
The Tourists, like other minor league teams, run all sorts of fun promotions during games that make for a charming and family-friendly experience. An added bonus for adults is the great selection of Asheville’s famous craft beers on tap at the stadium. What’s better than a hot dog, beer, and peanuts when watching America’s game? Go Tourists!
Festivals and Events
Whenever we go to Asheville, we pick up the Mountain Xpress, the weekly community newspaper. It tells us everything going on in town. The difficulty is not finding something to do in Asheville, it’s choosing how many things you can do. Hero festivals, art safaris, craft cocktail contests, pop-up markets, cat circuses, and more, made for hard choices. We wanted to do it all!
On our latest trip, we enjoyed the Weaverville Art Safari, a day of gallery hopping around Asheville’s quaint neighbor to the north. Not only did we see great local art, but we discovered a new craft brewer’s taproom, bought handmade Mother’s Day cards, and a lovely bar of artisan soap. It’s hard to go wrong with whatever event you pick.
Another great online source of information for festivals and points of interest is RomanticAsheville.com. Check out all the festivals and events as soon as you get to town and make a plan. Better yet, look online before you get there!
The day we went to put some south in our mouth at Biscuit Head (their slogan, not mine) was the day we discovered funky West Asheville. Haywood Road, the main drag, is lined with eclectic shops, restaurants, bars, live music halls, tattoo parlors, yoga studios—and even a retro video arcade.
We didn’t end up with any tattoos, but Camille had a chakra energy clearing at a “Hippie Shop” and was told her confidence was blocked. Ha! Ha! Three hours and a locally-sourced ice cream cone, recycled backpack, DVD set of the Ken Burn’s documentary Baseball, and Jack Kerouac classic novel later, and our shopping effort was complete.
We barely scratched the surface. We were back two nights later to meet RVing friends, Julie and Brian Gant of the Wandering Gants for a great dinner and live bluegrass music at the Isis Music Hall and Kitchen.
Don’t miss fun West Asheville the next time you’re in town. It’s a neighborhood full of character AND characters.
Just Missing The List
Honorable mentions go out to a couple of places we also greatly enjoyed. The North Carolina Arboretum is a peaceful, natural place showcasing the region’s diverse flora. And we treated ourselves to a serene and rejuvenating private hot tub and massages at Shoji Spa and Lodge to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary.
Asheville is so much more than home to the famous Biltmore Estate. We keep thinking we’ll visit this historic property, but end up finding so many other interesting and diverse things to do. When your travels take you to Asheville, be sure to plan ahead, and enjoy what this wonderfully vibrant community has to offer.