Asheville, N. Carolina: Artsy and eclectic
Thomas Wolfe set his autobiographical novel Look Homeward, Angel in the sprawling Victorian boarding house he grew up in a century ago in Asheville.
Today, legions of tourists look toward this small western North Carolina city for its thriving farm-to-table restaurant scene, dozens of art galleries and quirky vibe.
Dubbed the Paris of the South, the city of 93,000 residents surrounded by the dusky folds of the Blue Ridge Mountains routinely lands on numerous best travel destination lists.
In 2021, USA Today named it one of 10 “beautiful North American mountain destinations you need to see.” Travelocity found it to be the top spot for socially distanced, family-friendly weekend getaways this year as well.
And in July, Money magazine declared Asheville one of the best cities in the world for beer drinkers, with the most breweries per capita in the U.S.
At 470 miles from downtown Washington, Asheville is a day’s drive away, and several airlines offer non-stop flights.
Start with art
Asheville is known as an epicenter of art in the South, with more than 25 art galleries downtown alone.
Past and present merge in Woolworth Walk, a 1938 F. W. Woolworth store reborn in 2001 as a showcase for 170 local artists, with everything from pottery to photography to jewelry for sale. A reconstructed 1950s soda fountain offers original menu items, such as egg creams, ice cream sodas and club sandwiches.
A mile and a half from downtown Asheville, the River Arts District stretches along the French Broad River, where once churning mills now house more than 200 artist studios.
A multi-million-dollar redevelopment project completed last spring includes a two-mile greenway along the river, with a paved sidewalk and bike lanes dotted with public art.
Here the North Carolina Glass Center offers free glassblowing demonstrations, as well as walk-in sessions to create your own glass ornament, paperweight or cup.
The Wedge Studios, housed in a brick former warehouse, is comprised of three stories of painters, illustrators, sculptors and folk artists. If you work up a thirst, the first floor is the Wedge Brewing Company, with more than a dozen beers to choose from.
Asheville’s art extends to its architecture. The city is home to the most Art Deco style buildings in the Southeast outside of Miami.
Built in this style of the 1920s and 30s are City Hall, with its fanciful pink and green tiled octagonal roof, and the S&W Cafeteria Building, with soaring arched windows topped with terra cotta and blue tiles. Today, the building houses a newly created food hall with offerings from a number of local chefs.
Downtown residential streets in the Montford Area Historic District are lined with early 20th-century bungalows and Arts & Crafts style houses, along with 19th-century Victorians. Some have been turned into bed-and-breakfast inns.
Thomas Wolfe’s yellow boyhood home is located downtown and is open for tours. His novel presented a realistic and not always positive portrayal of the town and its residents. Though names were changed (the city was called Altamont), the uproar caused the 1929 book to be banned by the local library.
Wolfe’s mother owned the house, which she operated as a boarding house, and she and Wolfe lived among the 19 boarders for about 10 years.
Asheville’s most famous architectural spectacle by far is Biltmore, America’s largest home. It’s decked out for the holidays starting in November each year.
The estate sprawls across 8,000 acres about six miles from downtown Asheville. Built by mega-millionaire George Vanderbilt in the 1890s, the castle-like building features 250 rooms, including 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces.
Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, created the estate’s numerous gardens, including a conservatory and a rose garden featuring more than 250 varieties. In the spring, the gardens bloom with one of the largest azalea collections in the country.
This time of year, a holiday theme blooms across the estate, which also includes hotels and stores. In all, there are more than 100 decorated trees, 10,000 ornaments, and 100,000 twinkling lights.
The house, with a 35-foot Fraser fir in the banquet hall and 1,000 poinsettias, opens in the evening for candlelight tours, with lit fireplaces and live music. Biltmore Christmas decorations are on display through Jan. 9.
You don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy Biltmore, but this opulence doesn’t come cheap. Evening holiday tickets start at $119; daytime at $106. Both include audio tours. Tickets at non-holiday times start at $76. There are no senior discounts.
A local food mecca
If you work up an appetite from exploring, Asheville is home to more than 250 independent restaurants and no fewer than 14 farmers markets.
Restaurants offer far more than Southern cooking, focusing on fresh, local ingredients, including such Appalachian traditional produce as ramps (wild onions), serviceberries (dark purple berries that grow on trees, melding the taste of blueberry and strawberry), apples and wild mushrooms. Meat is often sourced from local farms, and goat and cow cheeses from nearby dairies.
Here are few of the standouts: The Market Place features American farm-to-table cuisine, leaning heavily on meat dishes with local produce that range from $18 to $40. It’s open for dinner only on weekdays, and for brunch and dinner on Saturdays and Sundays.
A vegetarian option is the Laughing Seed Café, with salads, sandwiches and pizzas; many have vegan and gluten-free options. Most items are $15 to $18.
To fully appreciate Asheville’s stellar views, enjoy the sunset while dining at one of the city’s many rooftop restaurants. One option is the Montford rooftop bar that tops the DoubleTree Hotel at the edge of downtown. In addition to a variety of drinks, it offers a selection of flatbreads, salads and desserts that can be enjoyed alongside a 180-degree view of the mountains that grow a deeper blue as the sun slowly sinks behind their ridges.
If you go
Buncombe County, where Asheville is located, currently requires masks to be worn at all public indoor locations.
Some Asheville businesses may require proof of vaccination, particularly restaurants that offer indoor dining.
Nonstop round-trip flights on United start at $187 from Dulles in late November. No-frills Allegiant airline makes nonstop trips from BWI several days a week for $136 round-trip.
The Blue Ridge mountains offer a beautiful backdrop for Asheville. If you can’t get enough of their misty, gentle peaks, consider driving one way on the Blue Ridge Parkway, often cited as one of America’s most beautiful drives. It connects to Skyline Drive, which can be accessed in Shenandoah National Park and has a few exits in Asheville. But beware that the twists and turns of the parkway and the 45-mile-per-hour speed limit make this a two-day trip.
And because Asheville is nestled in the mountains, expect some snow this time of year. The annual average is 10 inches, but like Maryland and Virginia, every few years it gets a year’s worth in just one storm, sometimes in December.
Asheville has a variety of hotels and B&Bs. While there are somewhat cheaper chain hotels a couple miles from the center of the city, consider staying downtown so you can walk to many restaurants and galleries. There’s not a lot of street parking downtown, but there are plenty of garages. DoubleTree prices start at $154 per night.
If you’re looking for luxury with historic ambience, the Omni Grove Park Inn, built of massive granite stones in 1912, fits the bill. Guests have included presidents ranging from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama as well as such varied stars as Michael Jordan, John Denver and Harry Houdini. The Grove Park Inn has an annual national gingerbread house competition. Room rates start at $464/night.