Sights in Town
For strolling, shopping and exploring, start with Downtown Asheville, where you’ll find more than 30 art galleries and a bevy of boutiques. Stop in the beautiful Basilica of St. Lawrence, a Catholic church dating back to 1909, or visit Grove Arcade, a historic building that’s been transformed into a shopping center offering food, shops and local crafts. Various tours are available downtown (aboard anything from an old-fashioned trolley to a thoroughly modern Segway), but if you’d prefer to guide yourself, check out the Asheville Urban Trail; this 1.7-mile walking tour showcases some of the city’s many public sculptures.
No, that’s not a French chateau — it’s Biltmore, the largest private home in the United States. Built by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800’s and still owned by his descendants, the imposing 250-room estate offers visitors a peek into the past. You can see the bedroom where George’s wife, Edith, gave birth to their daughter; tour the massive banquet hall with its 70-foot ceiling; and see the swimming pool, billiards room and bowling alley where the Vanderbilts kept their guests entertained. Beyond the home itself, there’s much more to do on the estate. The shops, restaurants and winery of Antler Hill Village are also worth a stop — and there’s an outdoor adventure center there where you can arrange for biking, horseback riding and the like.
Other Historic Homes: Author Thomas Wolfe memorialized the Old Kentucky Home boarding house, where he spent part of his childhood, in his novel “Look Homeward, Angel.” Now known as the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, the boarding house is now open for visitors to see where Wolfe lived for 10 years of his short life. Another historic house worth visiting is the Smith-McDowell House Museum, Asheville’s oldest surviving dwelling (it was built by slaves before the Civil War). It offers an intriguing glimpse of 19th-century life.
Museums: Visitors looking for a taste of culture have a number of choices in Asheville. The Asheville Art Museum showcases 20th- and 21st-century American art, with an emphasis on local works. Gens, minerals, fossils and more are on display at the Colburn Earth Science Museum, popular with children and adults alike. Families should also check out the Health Adventure, a museum for kids devoted to exploring the fascinating ins and outs of the human body. The YMI Cultural Center is home to exhibits on local African-American art and culture.
Abandoned warehouses, many of them about a century old, have been converted into artists’ studios in the River Arts District just outside downtown Asheville. Painters, potters, sculptors, jewelry artists and others ply their trades in this tight-knit artisan community. Note that because these are working studios, they are not open to the public at all times; however, on weekends some 60 to 70 studios are open for tours. See RiverArtsDistrict.com or stop by the Asheville Visitor Center at 36 Montfort Avenue (downtown) to get more information.
Delicate blown-glass vases, hand-carved wooden bowls, finely crafted tables and chairs — you’ll find these and much more at Grovewood Gallery, which displays crafts from hundreds of artisans around the U.S. Also on the grounds are the Grovewood Studios, where you can chat with resident artists; the North Carolina Homespun Museum, which exhibits the history of Biltmore Industries’ well-known wool cloth; and the Estes-Winn Memorial Automobile Museum, with its fantastic vintage autos.
Eat your way through town with Asheville Food Tours. Seven to 10 tastings at restaurants, gourmet food shops and microbreweries are included on this 2.5-hour walk through town. After a few bites, you’ll learn why Asheville calls itself “Foodtopia”! Want seconds? After the tour, you’ll get an Asheville Food Passport that will entitle you to discounts at all the places you’ve visited.
Just a few miles outside of Downtown Asheville are the sprawling gardens and greenhouses of the North Carolina Arboretum. One of our favorite stops is the Quilt Garden, a re-creation of a traditional block quilt with colorful plants that change with the seasons. The Arboretum is also home to one of America’s most unique collections of bonsai. In addition to its nature offerings, the Arboretum showcases the work of local artists.
At the Folk Art Center, three galleries showcase rotating exhibits of local art and crafts, while the large gift shop offers an exquisite array of locally made stained glass, pottery, baskets, quilts, jewelry, wooden bowls and clothing. Daily crafts demonstrations are given in the spring, summer and fall.
Located near the Asheville campus of the University of North Carolina, the Botanical Gardens at Asheville are a serene place to stroll and learn about plants native to the Southern Appalachians. A walking trail takes visitors past gurgling streams, vividly colored wildflowers and grassy meadows.
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Sights Out of Town
Asheville is just one stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic byway that connects Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Drive in either direction and you’ll find small artsy communities, panoramic mountain views and great trails for hiking. Stop by the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center outside of Asheville for help planning an itinerary to suit your interests.
Hiking, rock climbing and drop-dead-gorgeous views await at Chimney Rock State Park, about 25 miles southeast of Asheville. The park is named for a 535-million-year-old monolith that towers above the surrounding landscape, offering vistas that stretch for miles and miles.
If you’d like to enjoy the mountain scenery without having to navigate, take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which departs from Bryson City (a little more than an hour’s drive from Asheville). The vintage train carries guests on a scenic ride to either Nantahala Gorge or the historic village of Dillsboro; in each destination, you’ll have 60 to 90 minutes for shopping, sightseeing or grabbing lunch. The ride is particularly spectacular during the fall leaf-peeping season.
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The neighboring towns of Hendersonville and Flat Rock, just 22 miles outside of Asheville, are home to several intriguing attractions — including the working farm where poet Carl Sandburg once lived, the angel statue made famous by Thomas Wolf’s “Look Homeward, Angel” and the beautiful DuPont State Forest. Both Hendersonville and Flat Rock are historic towns worth wandering, full of old-fashioned Southern charm.
In Cherokee, a two-hour drive from Asheville, you can learn about the local Native Americans who’ve had a presence here in western North Carolina for more than 11,000 years. While most southeastern Native Americans were forced to move west in the early 1800’s (in what’s known today as the Trail of Tears), some of the Cherokee people managed to hold onto their homes here in North Carolina; others returned later. Today the community is strong once again, and guests can visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Oconaluftee Indian Village to learn about Cherokee traditions. Not to be missed is the “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama production, which vividly enacts Cherokee history.