11 Experiences You’ll Only Have in Asheville
With a creative streak that constantly reinvents the arts, food, music and beer -- plus a natural setting that changes by the day -- a visit to Asheville is never the same experience twice.
Mixed among old favorites such as Biltmore Estate, the Flat Iron Sculpture and Grove Park Inn are experiences you’ll only discover in this small North Carolina city tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Here are our recommendations on what you can't miss on during a trip to Asheville this spring or summer.
1. Thousands of blooms at Biltmore Estate
The gardens around Biltmore Estate burst into color in the spring months, with more than 130,000 flowers -- from orchids to tulips to azaleas -- in bloom as the days lengthen. Don't miss the Walled Garden to see 96,000 tulips blossom in shades of pink, orange, white and purple. #NoFilter needed for those Instagram posts.
The Biltmore Blooms event runs from March 20 to May 25 and is included with your admission to the expansive house and grounds of the one-time home of George Vanderbilt. A spring visit also gets you in to see the impressive "Designed for Drama" exhibit -- in which 40 elaborate costumes from films are displayed through the 250-room French Renaissance chateau, including in the expansive library that houses some of Vanderbilt's 22,000-volume collection.
Buy your tickets online seven days in advance or drop by the Asheville Visitor Center to save $10 on admission. And, if you go in the middle of the week, you'll save another $10 compared with the weekend "peak" prices. Kids 9 years and under are free, and those aged 10-16 are 50% off the adult price.
Once you're done exploring the grounds and house, stop by the estate's Antler Hill Village. There's a winery that offers Vine to Wine tours, tastings and Saturday grape-stompings; there's also plenty of shopping and activities, including a petting zoo with baby goats, chicks and lambs at Antler Hill Farm.
2. Mountain hikes & wildflowers
The blooms at Biltmore Estate aren't the only colors on display in the Asheville area. There's the North Carolina Arboretum, with 65 acres of gardens and 35 sculptures, or the Botanical Gardens at Asheville, a five-minute drive from downtown.
Just about any hike through the hundreds of miles of trails in the area this spring will showcase wildflower blooms -- daffodils, dogwoods, painted trillium, japonica and more. Craggy Gardens off the Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular spot for late-blooming purple rhododendron -- and awesome views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hiking in the Asheville area runs the gamut from easy trails suitable for kids and beginners to more extreme hikes that may climb 2,000 feet or more in elevation. Wherever you go, it's a good idea to come prepared: Check the weather forecasts, bring a jacket and pack plenty of water and snacks.
If you're headed to a "bald" or "knob" -- a hilltop without trees such as Sam Knob -- or the appropriately named Lunch Rocks 15 minutes from downtown, you might want to bring a picnic lunch with you. Stop by The Rhu bakery & café from James Beard Award finalist John Fleer and pick up a picnic basket that includes local specialties like salami from Hickory Nut Gap Farm and Lusty Monk Mustard.
3. Bellyaking on the French Broad River
Have you tried bellyaking? This phenomenon is described as swimming meets kayaking meets surfing -- and it got its start in Asheville.
Imagine the paddling part of boogie boarding but on a more substantial board that resembles a kayak. You're headed face-first through the water -- it feels like you're almost gliding above the surface -- as you lie on top of the bellyak and paddle with webbed gloves on your hands.
The French Broad River floats through Asheville and is easy to explore via bellyak, kayak, tube or stand-up paddleboard (solo or with five of your closest friends).
For the more adventurous, you're smack-dab in the middle of white-water rafting country on the French Broad, Pigeon and Nantahala rivers. Several companies offer half-day, full-day or overnight rafting options to run the rapids.
4. Ride the purple bus through town
One of the best ways to get to know Asheville is to get on the bus -- the purple school bus.
LaZoom runs several tours that take guests through the area with costumed guides that offer up an irreverent and lively history of Asheville's landmarks and attractions. (One character, Sister Bad Habit, is even honored with a beer at Asheville Brewing Company.) The company offers up a comedy tour, a haunted tour and the Band and Beer Tour, which includes a live band and stops at three of Asheville's breweries.
Those tours all have age restrictions, but the new Kids' Comedy Tour offers up family-focused humor as you learn about Asheville's unique history.
Other ways to explore the area include the popular hop-on, hop-off or nighttime haunted tours offered by Gray Line Trolley; guided walking tours that cover everything from art to culinary offerings to local history; or the Amazing Pubcycle, a 13-person BYOB bar on wheels that pedals through downtown Asheville.
5. "Food shopping" in the forest
In a city christened "Foodtopia," you'd expect to find chefs that push the envelope with creative dishes and innovative techniques on the way to recognition by the likes of the James Beard Foundation. There's a real focus here on local, sustainable foods.
But the concept of "find dining" is one that takes cuisine back to the future (by way of the forest). Go on a morning foraging tour with No Taste Like Home to find wild edibles like chicken-of-the-wood mushrooms or sassafras tea. You can even bring your bounty back to a spot like The Market Place for a forage-to-table appetizer.
On Wednesday evenings from April to October, check out the Asheville Wild Foods Market for wild edibles, pestos and teas from foraged finds at the River Arts District Farmers Market. It's one of 17 "tailgate" markets that dot the spring and summer schedule in Asheville, including the Asheville City Market downtown on Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon.
Another natural product in abundance here is honey -- so much so that Asheville was the first spot to earn a Bee City USA designation. Honey sweetens many recipes around the area. Don't miss out on morning biscuits and honey at Tupelo Honey Café. Then head over to Asheville Bee Charmer for their honey tasting bar. You might end up taking some of their spicy "hot honey" home with you.
6. Plan a Beercation
The Asheville area is hops heaven for a beer connoisseur, with 33 craft breweries pumping out everything from heady IPAs to funky sours to approachable ales and lagers. Many of the breweries can be found in the South Slope, an up-and-coming area near downtown that includes Green Man Brewery, Burial Beer Co. and the Wicked Weed Funkatorium (which was just named the No. 1 brewery in the Southeast by Southern Living magazine).
Spring is a great time to visit Beer City USA. Grab a drink or two at one of the rooftop bars downtown or at cool outdoor spaces at breweries like Highland Brewing Company, Wedge Brewing Company and Catawba Brewing Company. Many of the brews you'll only find on tap in Asheville.
Don't know where to start? Pick up a brewery tour that will go behind the scenes and offer up tastings at several breweries.
Asheville Beer Week kicks off this year May 26 to June 3, with 40 breweries participating in a nine-day celebration of craft brewing. There are special releases, chances to meet the brewers, food pairings with some of Asheville's best chefs and the Beer City Festival on May 27 at Pack Square Park.
7. Join the Drum Circle
What started as an impromptu gathering has continued for 16 years. Every Friday night, you can follow the beat to Pritchard Park for the Drum Circle -- a free event where you can join in, dance to the rhythm or just enjoy the scene.
During the rest of the week, it's not hard to find street musicians playing guitars, musical saws, spoons and saxophones. Buskers are big in Asheville, and it's not uncommon to find a crowd two- or three-people deep enjoying one of these outdoor concerts. Don't forget to drop a tip in the guitar case.
In the spring months, outdoor venues like Salvage Station and the amphitheatre at the Sierra Nevada brewery host concerts, and in the summer, the Biltmore Concert Series brings big names to the area.
Asheville hosts several music festivals as the weather warms. Highlights include the Montford Music & Arts Festival in May, the free and funky All Go West in June and the 90th annual Mountain Dance & Folk Festival (the nation's longest running folk fest) in August.
If you're not in town for these events, bring a blanket downtown to Pack Square Park at sunset for the free Shindig on the Green concerts each summer Saturday night.
8. Make your own art
Asheville has a long history of fostering creative minds, and the River Arts District (RAD) is the epicenter of the arts community here.
Set in converted warehouses and textile mills along the French Broad River, this two-square-mile stretch is home to 200 galleries and artist studios. If you're lucky, you'll catch the artists at work.
Explore RAD on your own or try a small-group Experience Tour with Asheville Art Studio Tours. This walking tour takes you behind the scenes and will have you blowing glass and making pottery alongside the artists.
Art Connections offers curated tours with insider Sherry Masters, who draws on her vast knowledge and network of artists to give guests a one-of-a-kind experience exploring the art of Asheville and Western North Carolina.
9. Walk in Serafina's footsteps
Fans of the New York Times best-selling book series will want to visit Asheville to explore the world of Serafina. Written by Asheville resident Robert Beatty, the novels center around a 12-year-old girl living secretly at Biltmore Estate in the late 19th century and solving mysteries in the forests of Asheville.
Pick up a Serafina Adventure Map at the Asheville Visitor Center and explore the area through her eyes. Hotels in the area offer Serafina-themed packages, and you can taste Serafina Dark Forest ice cream at The Hop.
The third installment in the series will be published in early July 2017.
10. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
If life is about the journey, not the destination, then the Blue Ridge Parkway might be the ideal road to take.
This 469-mile highway is a national park and an engineering marvel. It can be a vacation unto itself as it winds through the dramatic scenery of the mountains of Virginia and western North Carolina with views like this.
Mornings feature foggy blankets shrouding the valleys. During the daytime, wispy cotton clouds dance in and out of the peaks. Evenings feature vibrant sunsets with purple, orange and red hues overtopping the deep greens of the mountains.
Asheville is well-positioned to be a base camp for this exploration. The park headquarters are just a few miles from downtown at Milepost 384, and the Parkway Visitor Center here has an interactive 22-foot map to plan your journey. Make time for several stops along the way for hikes to spots like Graveyard Fields, Black Balsam Knob or Mount Pisgah, a 5,721-foot peak that's visible from downtown Asheville.
Whether you're there to see the wildflowers (western North Carolina boasts a bigger diversity of flora than Europe), the birds, the wildlife or just the amazing views -- it's a drive you won't want to rush through.
11. Go chasing waterfalls
If you're a fan of waterfalls, you'll find these cascades in spades a short drive from Asheville.
DuPont State Forest is about an hour from downtown Asheville and offers up the trifecta of Triple Falls, High Falls and Hooker Falls on an easy hike. These waterfalls are stars in their own right -- with supporting roles in movies like "The Hunger Games" and "Last of the Mohicans." They'll star next on your Facebook or Instagram feed.
In Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Falls is 45 minutes from downtown Asheville and easy to see from the roadside observation deck on US 276. Nearby you'll also find the 150-foot Daniel Ridge Falls and Moore Cove Falls, where you can walk behind the 50-foot waterfall.
One popular waterfall you can do more than just gawk at is Sliding Rock Recreation Area. This popular summer attraction opens Memorial Day weekend and is a natural 60-foot waterslide that drops you into an 8-foot plunge pool of chilly water. It's a great way to beat the heat.
When to go
As you can imagine, Asheville is a very popular getaway for many in the Southeast. Interstates 26 and 40 converge here, and there are nonstop flights from nine airports. Expect hotel rates to be higher on the weekends as a result.
To get the biggest bang out of your vacation budget, visit Asheville during the week. You'll lock up the season's best hotel rates, and many of the experiences we recommended won't be as busy.