Imagine waking up in a cabin to views of hazy blue mountains stretching before you. Cup of coffee or tea in hand, you stroll out to the porch and settle lazily into one of the rocking chairs and soak in the views. A gentle breeze wafts the scent of freshly-made biscuits towards you, which makes you wonder: Do we have any more of the blueberry preserves that we bought at the Mast General Store? Your day in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains stretches before you filled with potential. Perhaps you’ll hike to see a waterfall–you are, after all, in the Land of Waterfalls. Or maybe your day will include a more rigorous adventure to see Shining Rock or take your turn down Sliding Rock. Whatever you choose, you know you’ll enjoy more farm-to-table Southern food than you thought possible. You sigh contentedly and sip your coffee, knowing that the day’s adventures can wait five more minutes.
Welcome to the North Carolina mountains, where settling into vacation mode is easy to do. From high-end shopping and arts in town to outdoorsy day-trips in Pisgah National Forest, a trip to the Asheville and the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains holds promise for all types of travelers. Read on for our beginner’s guide to Asheville and the surrounding area.
Located two hours from Charlotte, nestled next to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville is a beloved haven for foodies and artists alike. The downtown features public art at nearly every turn of the steep and twisty streets. Stroll the self-guided, 1.7 mile Asheville Urban Trail to find the Flat Iron Statue, Cat Walk, and other architectural wonders and sculptures. This map takes you through some of downtown’s best stores, including Malaprops Bookstore and Cafe, an independent bookstore that invites readers to go on a “blind date” with a book. The knowledgeable staff take their favorite latest reads, wrap the cover in brown paper, and provide keywords to help you choose.
Be sure to stop by the Mast General Store to find a locally-made souvenir and ply your pockets with old-timey candy from yesteryear before continuing on the walking tour. If you’re starting to get hungry, no worries: Asheville is home to dozens of award-winning restaurants, including Chai Pani, led by James Beard nominated chef Meherwan Irani. Try the okra fries for a Southern and Indian fusion take on French fries; the masala chaat is another crowd-pleasing appetizer. Don’t miss out on the chai–it’s perfectly sweetened and creamy–but grab it to go because there is still so much to do!
The tour continues to meander through town–and through Asheville’s history. Established in the late 1700’s, the town eventually became known as a vacation destination, in no small part due to the Biltmore Estate. The French Broad River flows near town, attracting outdoorsmen to fish its waters and swim the currents; the fresh mountain air was sought as a remedy for those suffering from long illnesses, bringing the wealthy who needed to convalesce to the area. The various stages of Asheville’s development can be seen in the architecture found around town, with Art Deco buildings neighboring soaring Neoclassical designs.
“America’s Castle”: The Biltmore Estate
Those who want to see history come to life will enjoy visiting “America’s Castle,” the Biltmore Estate. George Vanderbilt built the estate as a getaway retreat, and he opened it to friends and family in 1895. The ornately-decorated castle includes a library with 10,000 books, a 70-foot-tall ceilinged banquet hall, and original art by Renoir and Sargent. Winter visitors will want to see the property decorated for the holidays; the Biltmore staff stay true to the era’s styles, ushering you into Christmas holidays of years gone by. The grounds and winery are in stunning full-bloom starting in the spring and through the summer. Autumn’s burst of fall colors are stunning. The gardens, designed by the same landscape architect as New York’s Central Park Frederick Law Olmstead, are a delight for gardeners and photographers alike. Lastly, wine lovers will want to visit the winery for a complimentary tasting and enjoyable afternoon at the outdoor wine bar.
Hike in Pisgah National Forest
After town strolls and Biltmore tours, the outdoors beckons. Asheville is a quick drive to Pisgah National Forest, which covers 500,000 acres of land in Western North Carolina. While there are many options for how to spend a day in Pisgah, a perennial favorite is hiking Shining Rock. This ten-mile hike takes travelers along the Art Loeb trail towards a beacon of bright light: Shining Rock. The quartz-encrusted summit stands out amongst the lush green mountains surrounding it. Be sure to bring layers and be prepared to turn back in case of afternoon thunderstorms.
Brevard: The Land of Waterfalls
Nearby Brevard is an excellent hub for a day trip spent chasing waterfalls. Looking Glass Falls is a perennial favorite due to the many viewing areas and easy access to the base of the falls. Bring a picnic and enjoy the sound of the gushing water and views of the verdant landscapes. To escape the summer heat, consider a fun ride down the natural slip and slide: Sliding Rock. The waterfall cascades 50-60 degree water down a sloping boulder and into a natural pool.
Asheville’s Food Scene
After all the touring, hiking, and waterfall searching, it is time to dive into Asheville’s food scene. If you’re looking for Southern cuisine, try Tupelo Honey Cafe, Early Girl Eatery, or Biscuit Head. Breweries abound, with Highland Mountain Brewing, Wicked Weed, Green Man Brewing, and New Belgium Brewing just a few of the ones in town. Those looking for high-end restaurants might enjoy Curate, a tapas restaurant, or The Admiral for “eclectic, American fare.” Asheville is known for being vegetarian-friendly, and Rosetta’s Kitchen, Laughing Seed Cafe, and Plant prove the reputation true. Wherever you decide to dine, be sure to stop by French Broad Chocolate Lounge afterward for their award-winning truffles and chocolates.
Asheville is a year-round destination, with stunning spring blooms, long summer days, popping autumn colors, and cozy winter nights. Stay downtown at the Grove Park Inn for a classy stay, or consider renting a cabin in nearby Pisgah National Forest. Once you visit, you’ll want to return again and again.