WHAT TO DO
Asheville is located at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers in western North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Before the arrival of Europeans, the land where Asheville now exists lay within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. A town at the site of the river confluence was recorded as Guaxule by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto during his 1540 expedition through this region. His group was comprised of the first European visitors, who carried infectious diseases that killed many in the native population. European Americans began to settle in the area around 1784, after the United States gained independence in the American Revolutionary War. In 1797, the town was named Asheville after North Carolina Governor Samuel Ashe. The American Civil War did not reach Asheville until early April 1865, when the Battle of Asheville was fought at the present day site of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Today, with its vibrant arts scene, historic architecture, wonderful museums, stylish restaurants, homegrown craft breweries and easy access to nature, Asheville is a traveler's dream.
Begin your adventure at Asheville's top attraction - the impressive Biltmore Estate. America's largest private home, this grand chateau was completed in 1895 for shipping and railroad heir George Washington Vanderbilt II. Sitting on 8000 acres of immaculately manicured grounds and gardens, the house features 250 rooms including 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, plus an indoor bowling alley and swimming pool. More than a thousand men were hired to complete the Biltmore over a period of six years. Vanderbilt was able to enjoy his palatial summer home for less than twenty years before he died unexpectedly. His heirs did their best to keep the estate going through the Roaring Twenties, Great Depression and World War II - eventually opening it to the public and allowing it to operate as a museum rather than a private home. There are a number of different tours that showcase different aspects of the property, from the sprawling gardens to the servants' quarters to even the rooftops with their commanding views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Note: self guided audio tours of the house are your best bet, being included in estate admission, and give you a chance to take in dozens of points of interest. A two mile drive through the impeccably manicured estate, which also holds several cafes and two upscale hotels, leads to Antler Hill Village & Winery. A complimentary wine tasting is included in daytime admission to the Biltmore Estate.
From there, make your way to the River Arts District (RAD). Aging warehouses along the French Broad River now house a diverse collection of galleries and working studios. Indie restaurants, hip coffee shops and the Wedge Brewing Co keep the neighborhood buzzing throughout the day. More than 200 artists exhibit and sell their work - jewelry, paintings, ceramics, glassware, metal textiles and wood - in this still growing district, which stretches one mile along the river southwest of downtown. Note: there are no official 'open hours,' but at any given time throughout the year, you will find a multitude of open studios and galleries. Also, a gallery walk with workshops, demos, live music and wine tastings occurs the second Saturday of the month. Next, head to the Asheville Art Museum, located at 2 South Pack Square. The glass fronted West Wing is a striking introduction to this downtown museum, which is looking sleek after a welcomed renovation that added a lot more exhibition space. New features include the revamped West Wing, a rooftop sculpture terrace and the large oculus window, which overlooks Pack Square. The permanent collection showcases 20th and 21st century American art, with a focus on the Southeast. Note: the museum is open from 11a-6p and is closed on Tuesday.
Nearby at 56 Broadway Street is the totally rad Moogseum. This immersive, interactive space spotlights the work of Bob Moog, a long time Asheville resident who invented the first commercial synthesizer, which electronically reproduces the sounds of instruments. The museum is a project of the Bob Moog Foundation. It represents the convergence of the Foundation’s goals of educating and inspiring people through electronic music, just as Bob did himself. It serves as an educational, historical and cultural resource to Western North Carolina and the worldwide electronic music community. The Moogseum displays archival items, rare photographs and a few Moog synthesizers, which you can play. Note: the museum is open daily from 11a-5p. Up the road at 160 Broadway Street is the manufacturer Moog Music, Inc. Not affiliated with the museum - Moog synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments are designed and handcrafted at this factory. Found at 1 Battle Square is the Asheville Pinball Museum. No quarters are needed at this popular spot, where you can play as many games as you want on the old school pinball machines and classic video games with paid admission ($15). Note: it is first come, first served so get there early and put your name on the waiting list. If you need to kill some time, walk across the street and check out the historic Grove Arcade. Opened in 1929 by EW Grove, Asheville's original mall has ornate architecture along with an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants.
Part gallery, part store, and completely dedicated to Southern craftsmanship, the superb Folk Art Center stands directly off the Blue Ridge Parkway, 6 miles east of downtown Asheville. Handcrafted Appalachian chairs hanging above its lobby make an impressive appetizer for the Southern Highland Craft Guild’s permanent collection - a treasury of jewelry, textiles, pottery, glassworks and woodcarvings that’s displayed on the 2nd floor. There are daily demonstrations by experts and the Allanstand Craft Shop on the 1st floor sells high quality traditional crafts. While outside of town, take advantage of the great outdoors. The Blue Ridge Mountains are beacons for adventure. Hiking trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway lead to waterfalls, wildflowers and bald mountains with sweeping views. If you truly want to indulge with nature, do visit Shoji Spa at 96 Avondale Heights Road. This Japanese style, outdoor hot tub retreat is nestled on a mountainside along the Blue Ridge National Forest. Experience deep relaxation and the benefits of salt hydrotherapy and thermal soaking in your own private tub.
After achieving tranquility, explore the numerous shops of West Asheville and Downtown. The hip and funky West AVL neighborhood is full of locally owned shops and galleries selling vintage clothing, books and records. Stop by Firestorm Books at 610 Haywood Road, it is one of the most unique and radical bookshops in town. Horse and Hero is located at 14 Patton Avenue in Downtown AVL. For a taste of Asheville’s contemporary creativity and a distinctly psychedelic take on Appalachian art, drop in to this groovy gallery. I believe that chocolate is art and I am a connoisseur. There are 2 chocolate shops that should not be missed. The first is The Chocolate Fetish, located at 36 Haywood Street. With its silky truffles, decadent chocolate rounds and sinfully good caramels - this shop, owned by Bill and Sue Foley, deserves a pin on any chocolate addict’s map. Be sure to sample the Chai Moon (chai tea with cinnamon) and Mocha Magic (almond with espresso). The second is French Broad Chocolate Lounge, located at 10 South Pack Square. This chocolate specialist uses carefully sourced beans to create scrumptious truffles, bars and other sweets. I fancied the Milk Chocolate 3 Bar Collection (brown butter milk, malted milk, dark milk). Note: a second location, French Broad Chocolate Factory is located north of town at 821 Riverside Drive. Tours of the factory are offered, golden ticket not required.
Conclude your tour of Asheville with a serious craft beer crawl. With over 50 craft breweries in its greater metropolitan area, AVL is appropriately nicknamed Beer City USA (it’s second only to Portland, Maine for the highest number of breweries per capita). Breweries here exude a cooperative vibe that encourages exploring. If you’re staying downtown, walk to the compact South Slope District - a former industrial neighborhood now home to several craft breweries. I would like to discuss some of my favorites, in no particular order. Burial Beer Co is located at 40 Collier Avenue. This progressive brewery gives experimental batches of Belgian leaning styles a Southern kick in the pants, using local ingredients such as wildflower honey, chokeberries and juniper branches. The Funkatorium can be found at 147 Coxe Avenue. This rustic spot is the East Coast's first taproom dedicated to sour, wild ale and funky beer. The old world style taproom holds more than 600 aging barrels and rotating taps spit 8 ounce pours for the cause. Hi Wire Brewing is at 197 Hilliard Avenue. Set in what used to be a mechanic’s garage, this popular South Slope brewery offers a choice array of easy drinking brews.
Wicked Weed is located at 91 Biltmore Avenue. King Henry VIII called hops ‘a wicked and pernicious weed’ that ruined the taste of beer. His subjects kept drinking it anyway - just like the lively crowd in this former gas station, which overflows with hoppy brews. Equipped with 60 taps and a broad front patio, it’s a big and breezy spot to chill. Thirsty Monk can be found at 92 Patton Avenue. This scruffy but lovable place nails a fine drinking trifecta. Downstairs you’ll find 20 taps and nearly 200 bottles of Belgian ales; at street level, 20 taps of proprietary, North Carolina and regional craft beers; and on the roof, craft cocktails dating back to before Prohibition. Green Man Brewery is at 27 Buxton Avenue. The legendary Green Man has existed for centuries but it’s no myth that he’s been brewing award winning ales in Asheville since 1997. As one of North Carolina’s original breweries, Green Man has been producing some of the beer scene’s most iconic English style ales.
WHERE TO EAT
Asheville has a number of great places to eat, drink and see live music. Start your day at The Med, located at 57 College Street. This iconic diner has been serving creative takes on classic breakfast plates since 1969. Snag a counter stool and enjoy the country ham and eggs with homemade hash browns and biscuits. Nearby at 12 College Street is Tupelo Honey. The flagship downtown location of this Asheville based chain is renowned for New Southern favorites, such as the in house made biscuits and gravy with a side of apple cider bacon. Not far away at 8 Wall Street is Early Girl Eatery. It's the all day breakfast menu that draws the crowds to this downtown farm to table cafe, where the sunny dining room overlooks a small central square. Go for the house benny - tomato, spinach, avocado and poached eggs on grit cakes. The 2 most well known breakfast spots in town are in the West Asheville neighborhood. Sunny Point Cafe can be found at 626 Haywood Road. Loved for its hearty homemade food, this bright spot fills up each morning with happy faces. The breakfast burrito was divine (scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, white cheddar, chorizo, topped with cilantro crema and red salsa). Biscuit Head is at 733 Haywood Road. This hip joint does biscuits with authority. Go with the traditional biscuit and pork sausage gravy or the dynamite biscuit sandwich - buttermilk biscuit topped with cheddar cheese, scrambled eggs and maple sausage.
A few splendid takeaway spots are The Rhu, Old Europe and Rowan Coffee. The Rhu is located at 10 South Lexington Avenue. This cafe, bakery and pantry celebrates local foods and producers. Enjoy a cup of locally roasted coffee with the ham and jam (two buttermilk biscuits - one with Benton’s ham and one with Imladris berry best jam). Yum. Old Europe can be found at 13 Broadway Street. Since 1994, this charming place has been providing locals and visitors alike with welcoming service, incredible pastries and great coffee. I destroyed the Hazelnut Napoleon - alternating layers of a flakey puff pastry, chocolate hazelnut mousse and fluffy white cake. Rowan Coffee is up the road at 66 Broadway Street. This recent addition to downtown has some of the best coffee in town. One of the coolest locations in AVL is The S&W Market, found at 56 Patton Avenue. Set in a grand 1929 art deco building, this food hall and taproom houses 5 local eateries along with Highland Brewing Co. There's a fried chicken sandwich stand, plus a place for hot dogs, tacos and ice cream. My go to spot was Bun Intended, a Thai food truck stall that specializes in homemade steamed buns. I obliterated the pork belly bao (Thai barbecue sauce, cucumber, radish, herbs and scallions) and washed it down with an iced Thai tea.
One cannot visit Asheville without sampling the local barbecue. There are 2 places that are not to be missed. The first is Buxton Hall, located at 32 Banks Avenue. This South Slope joint prepares its pork Eastern Carolina style, infusing a whole hog with a peppery vinegar sauce then slow cooking it for eighteen hours over hardwood coals. Be sure to save room for the mouthwatering key lime pie. The second is 12 Bones Smokehouse, located at 5 Foundy Street. Situated beside the French Broad River in the River Arts District, this spot is beloved for its slow cooked smoky meats and its magnificent sides - smoked potato salad and 'damn good corn puddin'. Staying in the RAD, there is Baby Bull at 1 Roberts Street. This understated burger shop is curated by the close by Bull and Beggar team. Get the double cheeseburger (two certified angus beef custom grind of brisket, shank and chuck, American cheese, pickles, mayo, caramelized onions on a potato bun).
If you're in the mood for oysters, hit Jettie Rae's Oyster House at 143 Charlotte Street. This neighborhood destination is a place to celebrate life and enjoy the finest oysters and hand crafted cocktails. I thoroughly enjoyed a dozen local oysters, peel and eat shrimp, and the crab rice - Carolina gold rice, fresh crab, bacon, basil and asparagus. I washed it all down with the 'Best Gin & Tonic' (Hendrick's, tonic, juniper, cucumber, mint and citrus). If you crave modern Mexican, do try Limones at 15 Eagle Street. Chef Hugo Ramirez brings the intense and varied flavors native to his hometown of Mexico City to his innovative restaurant in Western North Carolina. Start with the ceviche sampler of tuna, shrimp, papaya, avocado, pickled onion and lime juice. Move on to the carne asada with arugula, shishito salsa and heirloom tomatoes pico. To drink, me gusto Paloma (Milagro reposado tequila, fresh grapefruit, lime, sparkling water and simple syrup). For dessert, the tres leches cake with peaches and pecans fue muy bueno. If you fancy French cuisine, make your way to Bouchon at 62 North Lexington Avenue. This downtown bistro serves French comfort food in a cozy setting. I went with the classics - escargot, onion soup and steak frites with homemade garlic butter. The creme brulee etait tres bon.
For dinner, head to Asheville Proper at 1 Page Avenue in the Grove Arcade. This laid back eatery does seafood and wood fired meat dishes along with craft cocktails and a robust wine list. Do try the grilled bone marrow with dill pickled blackberry, miso crumble and truffle aioli on sourdough. The wood fired shrimp with white bean hummus and smoked feta was also delightful. I enjoyed it all with a Peach Old Fashioned (bourbon, bitters and smoked peach). Note: the restaurant is closed on Tuesday. Vivian is located at 348 Depot Street in the River Arts District. The European influenced menu changes with the seasons at this lovely establishment. A few highlights include the nordic deviled eggs with smoked fish, potato, cornichon and topped with caviar. The confit heritage pork belly had sauteed beans, mustard seed and fried shallots. For dessert, the blueberry pie with bourbon vanilla ice cream was just like heaven. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Corner Kitchen can be found at 3 Boston Way in the Biltmore Village. Set in a Victorian cottage with a patio, this upscale venue serves New American fare and craft drinks. I started with the crispy cauliflower and artichokes with toasted almonds, honey lemon brie and spring onions, then moved on to the CK shrimp and grits with peppered shrimp, Benton's ham, roasted pepper medley, corn, tomato, Creole butter, stone ground cheddar grits and scallion. Note: the restaurant is open daily from 5p.
The Admiral is stationed at 400 Haywood Road. Situated in a cinder block building, this low key West Asheville spot is excellent. One of the state's finest New American restaurants, it serves wildly creative dishes - watermelon with pickled bamboo, black garlic and togarashi, plus beef tartare with horseradish cheddar, pickled red onion, chili aioli, egg and crostini. My beverage of choice was the Kiss and Tell (blanco tequila, cointreau, pomegranate and lime). Note: the restaurant is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Nearby at 715 Haywood Road is Jargon. This intimate setting offers upscale modern American cuisine along with specialty craft cocktails. To begin, I enjoyed the roasted beets with cashew labneh, watercress and pomegranate beet molasses. My main was the whole roasted Sunburst Farms trout with fennel, orange, watercress and trout caviar. My sweet tooth satisfaction was the malted milk ganache with cocoa nib crumble, chocolate sponge cake and sea salt. It all paired perfectly with the Ice Breaker cocktail (Knob Creek bourbon, tawny port, demerara syrup, orange bitters and a rad smoked ice ball - which they break in front of you). Note: the restaurant is open daily from 5p and reservations are recommended. My favorite dining experience was at the super popular Curate. Found at 13 Biltmore Avenue, this superb Spanish tapas place should be on everyone's must visit list. Owned by chef Katie Button and her husband Felix Meana, this hip spot has been sharing the flavors and culinary traditions of Spain with guests since 2011. I pretty much demolished the entire menu: gilda (skewer of anchovy, olive and piparra pepper), jamon (cured pork from free range Iberian pig), gambas (sauteed shrimp in garlic broth), ajo blanco (chilled almond soup with crab, garlic and grape ice), pimientos (piquillo peppers stuffed with Spanish goat cheese), and the tarta de queso (burnt Basque style cheesecake with a blueberry tarragon compote). I'll stop there. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday and reservations are essential.
Asheville has a number of cool places to have a drink and see a show. Sovereign Remedies is located at 29 North Market Street. This stylish, multilevel bar with a vintage vibe does some fine cocktails. Of the several libations offered, I enjoyed the Sovereign Sweet Tea (happy tea vodka, honey, lemon and cava). Note: the bar is open daily from 4p. Around the corner at 32 Broadway Street is Botanist and Barrel. This colorful spot specializes in natural wines and cider - it also has a welcoming tasting bar. Some of the samples I enjoyed from the Anything Goes Cider Flight included the Paw Paw Jasmine Tea (North Carolina paw paw fruit co fermented with homemade cider and infused with jasmine tea). Note: the bar is closed on Tuesday. Asheville has a cool music scene and some of the best venues in the Southeast. They are on the small side, so performances feel up close and personal. There are 2 in particular that stand out above the rest. The Grey Eagle is located at 185 Clingman Avenue in the River Arts District. This fun music hall showcases up and coming local, regional and national acts playing a mix of genres from bluegrass to rock. Note: to complete the hospitable atmosphere is an in house taqueria featuring original and creative meals and an ever expanding beer selection. Located at 101 Biltmore Avenue is one of my favorite venues anywhere in the world - The Orange Peel. This classic 'Social Aid & Pleasure Club' opened its doors in 2002 and has a capacity of just over 1000. In 2008, it was named one of the top five music venues in America by Rolling Stone magazine. The Orange Peel has hosted many well know acts including Queens of the Stone Age and The Smashing Pumpkins residency in 2007.
WHERE TO STAY
Asheville offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Windsor Boutique Hotel, located at 36 Broadway Street. This luxe all suite property in a restored turn of the century hotel is one block from the Moogseum and not far from the River Arts District. The stylish suites with a rustic chic vibe have two flat screen TVs, free WiFi and separate living areas with sleeper sofas, as well as washer/dryers and kitchens. Amenities include an art gallery in the hotel and access to a spa next door.
A second option is the Foundry Hotel, located at 51 South Market Street. This polished modern hotel is close to the Asheville Art Museum and a short drive from the Biltmore Estate. The contemporary rooms offer complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs, safes and coffee makers - plus wet bars with mini fridges. Upgrades add living areas and city or mountain views. Other perks include an elegant lounge and the Benne on Eagle restaurant.
Asheville is full of natural beauty, delicious cuisine, countless breweries, and fabulous art and architecture. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.