Last weekend I went on a brief trip to nearby Asheville, NC. It was my first time visiting the mountains of North Carolina and I didn’t know much about the city going into the trip, aside from the fact that it’s a big tourist destination. With that in mind, I was surprised by much of what I found and enjoyed there. Here are ten things to know about visiting Asheville:
1) Hippie is the spirit, not the law. See above, where all I knew about the city was tourism. For a city that boast the Biltmore Estate as one of their most well-known, if not most popular (I have no data), tourist attractions with tickets ranging from $50-90/person, I was surprised by the hippie vibe in the downtown area. If you want head shops, tie dye, drum circles and seemingly indigent white guys with dreds, you’ve got em. That said, Asheville is pretty much a choose your own adventure kind of place so if you’re not full hippie (or even part) you’ll still have lots to see and enjoy. The coolest part of Asheville in my mind was the commitment to collaboration. Everyone supports their fellow local businesses. With that in mind…
2) Skip the chains. You can find a Starbucks, but they’re the exception here. Same with regional chains. If you have it in your city, for example we have Tupelo Honey and Mellow Mushroom in Charlotte, save it for when you’re at home. I loved how in every restaurant we visited you could see a list of the local vendors they used. Bread from the place next door, meat from the farm 5 miles away, soap in the bathroom from the local soap maker…you get it.
3) Get to the Biltmore super early. I know everyone says this, but they don’t explain why you really need to – it’s 3 miles from the gate to the house and another 5 miles from there to the winery. We tried to get there 30 minutes early and were late for our house tour because the line of cars going into the estate moved so incredibly slow (it took us over 30 minutes just to get to the parking area from the bridge outside the estate and more time to walk to the door). There’s a lot to see outside the house so give yourself plenty of time to hang out before and after your scheduled time. They generously let us in when we got there but I feel like if it were a “peak” visitor weekend they would have been more strict with entrance times.
3a) Print or download a map of the Biltmore before you go if you buy tickets in advance. We missed the designated house parking lots because we didn’t know they were the only ones. It was a silly thing that could have been helped if the people checking our tickets handed us a map or we’d been able to access one some other way (cell service wasn’t great). I assume you can get them in the ticketing office when you arrive, but since we pre-purchased our tickets and printed them we didn’t stop there. I suggest parking in the shuttle lot, which means waiting in line to get back to the car, but you’re dropped off at the entrance to the house so you can save your legs for the house itself.
3b) If you like wine, you can buy a bottle in the shop and they will open and close it for you so you can sit on the lawn and have a glass (or plastic cup, I suppose). Otherwise, you could easily pass on the shops at the house itself. We didn’t visit Antler village so I can’t comment on what’s there, but the gatehouse gift shop had much of the same stuff as at the main house.
4) Have good walking shoes. I know this is tourism 101, but you will want to do a lot of walking here and there are a lot of hills (because mountains). Parking was pretty easy all over the city, but there are so many things to see you’ll want to be uninhibited. Most places are much closer together than they seem on a map so you can get around easily on foot. It is not an extraordinarily accessible city, however, so if you’re traveling with a walker or wheelchair or even a stroller you might find the uneven, loose brick walkways, heavy doors and lack of ramps somewhat frustrating. Biltmore Estate handled this better than other places but we were there during “off-peak” times and the handicapped spots were full. River Arts was a bit better but I didn’t see elevators or ramps everywhere, just some places, and a lot of places were just plain narrow and cluttered. You’ll want to do some extra planning to find the best restaurants and parking situations if this is a concern for you.
5) Come hungry and eat small meals. We ate almost nonstop. Everyone sent us with recommendations for restaurants to try and there were a hundred more we discovered along the way, plus we asked for suggestions from everyone we talked with. I loved everything I tried, which is not my usual MO. We ate at: White Duck Taco, Red Ginger Dim Sum, Corner Kitchen, Curate, Well-Bred Bakery, French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Battery Park Book Exchange and the Village Wayside Bar and Grill.
5a) If you get to French Broad and there’s a line, they have a smaller counter around the corner with no seating that offers a lot of options too (like their drinking chocolate) and an entire wall of chocolates (see above).
5b) Well-Bred is one of just a few breakfast places in Biltmore Village so you can expect a line (this is actually a theme, there were lines at most places we went during normal meal times). Their caramel macchiato was paltry but I loved my mocha latte and the chocolate chip cookie I saved for later was approximately the size of my face and worth every delicious bite. We desperately wanted to see someone eat the mountain eclair (pictured above) but it wasn’t meant to be.
6) Art, art and more art. I had this idea that I’d see a lot of folk art – quilts, pottery, wood carvings, that sort of thing. There was a little of that, but there were way more paintings than I expected and the parts of the River Arts district we saw felt more like a studio and gallery than a craft fair. You can also watch the artists work if they’re there, which is so wonderful. As delicious as the food was, I think the art was my favorite part of the entire trip.
7) Stay in a local B&B. As a single lady who lives alone, I can never get enough of those moments when someone else is responsible for…anything, really. There are a lot of Bed & Breakfasts in Asheville and it was great to have the upsides of being in a hotel (someone else to make the bed, cook, clean the bathroom, etc.) without being in an actual, generic hotel. Our room was super charming and so comfy. We opted to have breakfast out on our first morning there but we ate in on our second day and it was great.
8) Consider carrying some cash. There were a few things we didn’t do because we didn’t have cash (#millenialprobs amirite?) and weren’t willing to go get some just to have coffee or whatnot. Most places accepted all forms of payment but if you have your heart set on a cup of coffee in the double decker bus cafe, you’ll need paper money.
9) Expect unusual business hours. Almost all of the shops in the busy areas open late and close early. We’re talking 10-5 or 6 on a Saturday, 7 at the latest and rarest. Restaurants were open the hours you’d expect, but if you wanted to look around in the stores you had to be there in the middle of the day. Yes, that’s plenty of time if you know to orient your day around those hours but it was unexpected and seemed odd considering the streets were still full of people at 6:30 on Saturday night.
10) Give yourself time to explore. We drove up on Friday, arriving in time for lunch, and left after lunch on Sunday. I never felt rushed, but we did focus on three main areas: Downtown, Biltmore Village and the River Arts District. With a little more time I would have liked to at least drive around outside those well-known areas and see some more of the area. It wasn’t the right time of year for tubing but the weather we had was ideal for being outdoors. Again, it’s a chose your own adventure kind of place and I know a lot of people like to come to Asheville to hike and camp. While that’s not my scene, it would be nice to visit in the fall and see the leaves. Plus, I legit cried when I saw real mountains. Not big hills like we had closest to where I lived in VA. Actual East Coast Mountains. They just do something for your soul. Anyway, this is a place where you’ll want to give yourself time for more adventuring.
Overall, it’s a really cool place to visit at least once in your life. These are my ten things to know about visiting Asheville just based on one weekend so if you’ve been to Asheville, please leave your favorite tips below! What did I miss?
Photo cred: shoutout to my traveling buddy this trip, Kathy, for the pictures of the paint bottles, pastries at Well-Bred and mountains from the road (I was the one driving, don’t worry), all others are mine. All Rights Reserved.