Top 10 Reasons to Visit (or Live in) Asheville
“may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.”
ﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠﾠ -- E.E. Cummings
Asheville gets more than 3 million overnight visitors annually. Here are the top 10 reasons so many relish a visit to the area and keep coming back again and again. Many decide to stay, relocating or retiring here.
1. Setting: Asheville is in a valley at around 2200-2400 feet, but it’s surrounded by the highest mountains in the East, including Mt. Mitchell, highest peak east of the Rockies. You can be having a cappuccino Downtown and in 30 minutes be somewhere in nearly 2 million acres of wilderness. Two of the most visited National Park Service units in the country are here – the Blue Ridge Parkway, which gets 14 to 22 million visitors a year, runs through Asheville, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which gets 10 million visitors a year, about an hour away. Plus, there are two huge national forests, Pisgah (513,000 acres) and Nantahala (531,000 acres) and many state and local forests and parks.
You can do just about anything outdoors. There are more than 50 golf courses around Asheville, 4,000 miles of trout streams, 1000s of miles of hiking trails, rock climbing, white water rafting on the Nantahala and other rivers, several snow ski resorts, about 400 waterfalls (250 in the Pisgah National Forest alone), many ziplines, mountain biking, gem mining and more.
Plus, right in Asheville is the amazing Biltmore Estate – 8,000 acres of gorgeous parkland and gardens, with the largest private home in America, the country’s most-visited winery and two hotels. With a relatively inexpensive annual pass, you can visit and enjoy the estate any day of the year.
2. Diversity: An eclectic mix of people creates the Asheville and Western North Carolina vibe – old hippies, young hipsters, retirees, tourists, students, artists, eccentrics, New Agers, gays and lesbians, plus locals and good ol’ boys from the mountains. My daughter told me that when she was in Downtown Asheville one day someone said "Look, there's a giant gingerbread man with dreadlocks walking across the street!" The reaction was, “So what?”
3. Amazingly Vibrant Downtown Asheville: Downtown Asheville is active day and night, packed with visitors and locals. On a summer weekend around Pack Square you can hardly walk. Parking lots are full.
Until the 1980s Downtown was a dead zone, but in the last 30 or 35 years it’s been transformed into one of the most vibrant small cities in the U.S. with hundreds of restaurants, clubs and bars. And it’s virtually all local and independent – for instance you can walk through Downtown and find a dozen coffee shops but not a single Starbucks. There is only one big chain store Downtown, Urban Outfitters.
Downtown has several dozen condominiums developments, with hundreds of condos priced from the $100s and $200s to well over a million. In and around Downtown, many within walking distance of the heart of Downtown, are vibrant neighborhoods with houses and apartments in all price ranges.
There are also plenty of interesting places for visitors to stay – for example, TripAdvisor lists more than 40 bed and breakfasts in Asheville and just 29 in Atlanta, a metropolitan area of more than 6 million people. By our own count there are actually more than 50 B&Bs in and around Asheville, plus many more across Western North Carolina.
Downtown Asheville is finally getting much-needed new lodging choices. It started with Hotel Indigo on Haywood Street. Aloft opened in 2013 on Biltmore Avenue, and then there was the renovation of Haywood Park Hotel and the Marriott Renaissance Asheville. Now there’s a new Marriott AC near Pack Square, Cambria Suites across from the Grove Arcade, a new Hyatt Place on Haywood Street, a Hilton Garden Inn and, in progress, a conversion from the 17-story BB&T Building into a mixed use project with hotel, condos and retail space. Other hotels are planned.
4. National Art and Crafts Center: Art and especially craft art have been keys to what Asheville has become. Nobody knows exactly how many working artists there are in and around Asheville, but it’s estimated that there are several thousand potters, painters, sculptors, glass blowers, fiber artists and others. They’re concentrated in the River Arts District, in West Asheville and in areas around Asheville such as Penland School near Burnsville, which is perhaps the best crafts school in the country.
There are around 50 art and crafts galleries in Asheville alone, about the same number as in Atlanta. Asheville was named the #1 and #2 (in different years) small arts city in American by AmericanStyle magazine -- along with places like Santa Fe and Sarasota.
Big Crafty in July and December, RAD Studio Stroll in November and the Southern Highland Craft Guild show in July and October, plus many gallery walks in summer, are good places to see and buy crafts and art.
One of the unusual museums here is the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center, which is dedicated to keeping alive the history and spirit of Black Mountain College, the radical experimental college.
From 1933 to 1957 Black Mountain College was a home for artists, writers and thinkers like Robert Motherwell, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards, Josef Albers, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Charles Olson. There are other creative workers here, too: MovieMaker magazine named Asheville the #1 town to live and work in as an independent moviemaker.
5. Architecture: In the South, Asheville rivals Savannah and Charleston for architecture and arguably has a wider variety of building styles than those cities. It was a resort area for wealthy Low Country South Carolina and Georgia planters in the 19th century.
Then came the building of Biltmore House in the 1890s with great architects, artisans and many hundreds of skilled workers, who moved on to the construction of thousands of new homes and commercial buildings in the booms of the early 20th century. The bust of the Great Depression stopped building and reconstruction until the 1950s, leaving most of the Art Deco and other architectural masterpieces untouched.
Thus, Asheville has a large inventory of interesting historical buildings. Asheville has more Art Deco buildings than any city in the Southeast except Miami Beach. Prime examples are Asheville City Building, First Baptist Church, Asheville High School and the S&W Cafeteria Building.
But there also are many other styles such as All Souls Episcopal Cathedral in Biltmore (Romanesque Revival) and Basilica of St. Lawrence on Haywood St. (Spanish Baroque Revival), plus beautiful old homes the late 19th and early 20th century, with hundreds of examples each of Craftsman style (Arts and Crafts), Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival and the pebbledash stucco English style of Richard Sharp Smith.
Outside Asheville, in the countryside and small towns, you’ll find a surprising selection of fine old houses and log cabins, along with plenty of trailers.
6. Unusual Things to Do: Interesting things to do abound. Such as: sip coffee in a double decker London bus (parked on Biltmore Avenue) ... float down the French Broad River on an inner tube and stop at Bywater bar and restaurant for a drink or food ... drink wine and read a book in the Battery Park Champagne Bar and Book Exchange in the Grove Arcade.
Or, go to the Drumming Circle at Pritchard Park Friday nights from spring to early fall ... take a LaZoom tour of Asheville -- it’s like a comedy club on wheels ... take an old-fashioned staffed elevator up to the Sky Bar in the 1920s-vintage Flat Iron Building for a great view of the city from the fire escapes.
Or, listen to mountain music at Shindig on the Green or the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival (oldest in U.S.) ... watch the chimney swifts migrate through Downtown each year in mid-September ... see the synchronous fireflies put on a flashing show in the Smokies in late May/early June ... visit the Moog facility (electronic synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog lived the last three decades of his life in Asheville).
Or, buy a high heel shoe made of chocolate at Chocolate Fetish ... go to the more-than-a-century-old Grove Park Inn (now owned by Omni Hotels and Resorts) and see the room where F. Scott Fitzgerald spent summers in the 1930s, trying to work and kick his booze habit (he switched to beer, which he didn’t consider alcohol, and often drank a 24-botttle case a day) and whose wife Zelda was in a mental hospital here, Highland Hospital, and died in a fire at the hospital in the 1940s.
7. Get Your Liberal Fix: If you tire of living with conservatives, get your liberal on in Asheville. Asheville rivals Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Durham as the most progressive city in the state and for its size is arguably the one of the most liberal small cities in the South. It went heavily for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Hilary Clinton in 2016. The local register of deeds, Drew Reisinger, was the first public official in the South to hand out applications for same-sex marriage.
PETA once named Asheville the most vegetarian-friendly city in the country. Yoga Journal called it one of 10 “fantastically yoga-friendly destinations.”
The local NPR station, WCQS, now a part of Blue Ridge Public Radio, gave away “Cesspool of Sin” tee shirts, proudly celebrating the comment of a Charlotte-area politician about Asheville. Battle Cat coffee shop in West Asheville has a bucket full of free condoms. There has been an Erotic Poetry Slam at the Odditorium, a dive bar and event space in West Asheville, and occasional topless days Downtown.
On the other hand, if you’re more on the conservative or libertarian side, you’ll find plenty of like-minded souls in the mountains around Asheville, along with back-to-the-earth organic types. Much of Western North Carolina was settled by the Scots-Irish, who are notoriously independent-minded.
Whether you’re left, right or just don’t care, you can find your place in Asheville and Western North Carolina. Fact is, most local residents don’t give a hoot what your politics are, as long as you don’t try to impose your views on them.
8. Eat and Drink Like You’re in a Big City: For a small city, Asheville has amazing selection of restaurants, bars and nightlife. A new restaurant opens just about every week. With more than 600 restaurants in the Asheville area, you can eat at a different spot every night for two years, and then you have the food scene at all the quaint mountain towns around Asheville to explore – Hendersonville, Black Mountain, Waynesville, Weaverville, Highlands, Bryson City, Brevard and more.
Food is happening in Asheville’s River Arts District, at The Junction, 12 Bones, Bull & Beggar and elsewhere, not to mention other parts of Asheville. Around and near Pack Square and along Biltmore Avenue has become a hot dining area, in part due to the opening of the Aloft Hotel with a big city parking lot under it, along with the Marriott AC. Rhubarb, Nightbell, Blackbird, Wicked Weed and Chestnut are among newer spots there, adding to all the popular places that have been there awhile, like Cúrate, Limones and Posana.
The so-called South Slope south of Patton has Buxton Hall Barbecue, Ben’s Tune-Up, Storm Rhum Bar and Bistro, and a growing number of brewpubs. In fact, the South Slope is now known as Asheville’s craft brewing district.
Elsewhere in Downtown there’s Red Ginger, Zambra, Table, Bouchon, Strada, Mayfel’s, Salsa’s, Isa’s Bistro, Cucina 24, The Market Place, Hemingway’s in the new Cambria Suites... the list goes on and on.
West Asheville is still the hipster district, and lots of restaurants and bars, such as BimBeriBon, Foothills Butcher Bar, Isis, WALK, Pizza Mind, The Mothlight at Mr. Fred’s, King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffles, plus old standbys like The Admiral, Universal Joint, Sunny Point, Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, Westville Pub, Tastee Diner and many others.
North Asheville is seeing a bunch of new spots, from Gan Shan Station (with an outpost in West Asheville) to Chiesa to Ambrozia along with well-established favorites like Nine Mile (also with a West Asheville location), Vinnie’s, Plant, Avenue M and others.
Other top restaurants: Dining Room at Inn on Biltmore Estate and Fig Bistro, Corner Kitchen, Red Stag Grill and Rezza in Biltmore Village. For steak, the local outpost of Ruth’s Chris Steak House is red meat leader, but dozens of other restaurants serve up great beef. Speaking of beef, try the big, inexpensive cheeseburgers at Storm Rhum, Farm Burger, Avenue M, Tupelo Honey, Early Girl, Rankin Vault, Foothills Butcher Bar and Pack’s Tavern to name a few.
The prevailing food ethos in Asheville is farm-to-table, natural, organic, Southern with a twist, but of course you can also enjoy Korean, Thai, Indian, Cuban, Brazilian, French, German, Italian, Greek, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican (there are around 50 Mexican places here, of all varieties and hyphenations), Lebanese, Ethiopian, Nepalese, Mediterranean or whatever your heart and stomach desire.
9. Welcoming People: Everybody says that about just about every place. But in the case of Asheville and Western North Carolina, it’s actually true. Be forewarned, though: At first, you may think that’s not true, because the original mountain people here sometimes tend to be standoffish to newcomers. But, take our word for it, they’ll warm up to you. And the diversity of people from all over the country and the world who have moved here, especially over the past 20 or 30 years, adds an extra layer of welcome. Among your neighbors, you’re almost certain to find someone from “back home,” whether home is New York, California, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia or Mexico, Germany, the Ukraine or the U.K.
10. Beer City USA and Bee City USA: Asheville was voted #1 Beer City for four straight years in an online poll by Imbibe magazine and named one of five top beer cities by Forbes.
The Asheville area now has about 50 craft breweries and brewpubs (nearly 25 in the Downtown area alone), more than some large cities in the South, and more are coming. Nearly every serious restaurant has a long list of local beers on tap, and increasingly you’ll also find artisan hard cider, sake and even upscale moonshine.
As noted, South Slope is becoming the “beer district” of Asheville, with eight or 10 breweries here alone. National craft brewer Sierra Nevada has opened its Eastern brewing center near Asheville (Mills River), and New Belgium located its second national brewery and distribution at the edge of the River Arts District. There are several brews tours and cruises, plus a Pubcycle – 13 people pedal around to various breweries.
Asheville is also America’s first BEE City USA, giving a thumbs-up to the organic and natural side of Asheville and the mountains.
All content copyright © Lan Sluder except selected photographs used by permission and brief quotations or other fair use text, which are owned by the copyright holder.
We have made every effort to confirm the accuracy of information on this website, and in the Amazing Asheville book and ebooks, but travel information is subject to frequent change, and no warranty is made, express or implied. Please notify us of any errors or omissions, and we will attempt to correct them as soon as possible. All opinions expressed are those of the author, Lan Sluder, unless otherwise noted.