DescriptionTucked away in the scenic Appalachians just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, Asheville should by rights be an unsophisticated backwater of interest only to adventure travel types and those who just want to get away from civilization. Yet somehow the city manages to combine the homey feel of a small mountain town with a funky, artsy vibe you'd expect to find in a much larger city. Things to see like museums and art galleries, carefully restored buildings and edgy civic sculptures, sidewalk cafés and local restaurants, street performers and a flourishing live music scene—they are all part of the mix that makes this vibrant destination so distinctive.
Asheville has been a vacation mecca since the days when 19th-century doctors prescribed the city's fresh mountain air, mild climate, abundant mineral waters and hot springs as the perfect prescription for rehabilitation as well as relaxation. In the late 19th century, when tuberculosis was still a devastating illness, the first tuberculosis sanitarium in the United States opened in Asheville. Following the arrival of the railroad in 1880, the town became a renowned health resort and the destination of choice for a select group of rich and famous Americans.
Artists, writers, statesmen and socialites have all been drawn to Asheville since rail lines first crested the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of the first well-heeled visitors was George W. Vanderbilt, who accompanied his mother on a trip to town in 1888. Smitten by the mountains' beauty, he envisioned building a magnificent country estate; the following year construction of his dream house began. The 250-room, French Renaissance-style Biltmore was completed 6 years later. To furnish it Vanderbilt traveled throughout Europe collecting expensive artwork and antiques, and hired Frederick Law Olmsted to transform 125,000 acres of farmland into a vast tract of carefully laid out gardens, parks and woodland.
Another visionary who left an early imprint was Edwin Wiley Grove, a medicine manufacturer who visited the area in 1897 seeking relief from a bronchial condition. In 1913 he constructed The Omni Grove Park Inn out of hand-cut boulders hauled by wagon train from nearby Sunset Mountain. The inn was designed to resemble a rustic lodge Grove had seen at Yellowstone National Park, but offering all the comforts and amenities of a top-notch resort hotel. Today it maintains the elegant atmosphere that has attracted presidents, generations of Rockefellers and distinguished guests like Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Ford.
Despite the massive scale of these twin landmarks, the biggest construction boom was yet to come. By 1930 Asheville's skyline included such impressive buildings as the neo Gothic-style Jackson Building and the distinctive octagonal, terra-cotta tile roof and chevron accents of City Hall, designed by North Carolina native Douglas Ellington. Other Ellington landmarks are the architecturally distinctive S&W Cafeteria building, an ornate eye-catcher on Patton Avenue, and Asheville High School.
Also notable is the Grove Arcade, a Gothic-looking indoor shopping mall at Battery Park and Page avenues. The 1909 Basilica of St. Lawrence, 97 Haywood St., has a tile-and-mortar dome built without an underlying supporting structure. It was designed by Spanish-born craftsman and architect Rafael Guastavino, who came to Asheville to work on the Biltmore and later retired to the area.
Pink granite markers embedded in the sidewalk mark the Asheville Urban Trail, a 1.7-mile loop tour through downtown. The 30 artworks along its length interpret various aspects of the city's heritage and are fun places to go. Free self-guiding tour maps are available at the Asheville Art Museum, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Thomas Wolfe Visitor Center, and at many downtown hotels and galleries.
One Urban Trail focal point is the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site featuring the author's boyhood home. Wolfe drew from childhood memories growing up in an Asheville boarding house to craft his autobiographical 1929 novel “Look Homeward, Angel.” The story was set in a fictional North Carolina mountain town called Altamont, but residents recognized their city and were outraged at the unflattering portrayal. The book was banned for a time from the local library, and Wolfe felt so unwelcome that he didn't travel to his hometown until 8 years after it was published; phone (828) 253-8304.
For many writers, Asheville and the mountains have served as a muse. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a frequent visitor, stayed at The Grove Park Inn while his wife Zelda was being treated at a local psychiatric hospital. O. Henry (William Porter) married an Asheville native and is buried in Riverside Cemetery not far from Wolfe. Station #4 on the Urban Trail features a bronze comb and watch chain set into the pavement, symbols from O. Henry's Christmas story “The Gift of the Magi.”
Following the Urban Trail also brings you to Pack Square Park, Asheville's historic center, which encompasses more than 6 acres of green space sprinkled with fountains, food places and specialty shops, all framed by the surrounding mountains and an Art Deco skyline.
Concerts and cultural events are presented at several venues throughout downtown, including the U.S. Cellular Center Asheville (formerly Asheville Civic Center) and Thomas Wolfe Auditorium; phone (828) 259-5544, or (800) 745-3000 for tickets. The Diana Wortham Theatre presents more than 150 performances annually; phone (828) 257-4530. The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., is a favorite venue for live music; phone (828) 398-1837. And the Asheville Community Theatre has entertained audiences with homegrown productions since 1946; phone (828) 254-1320.
While Asheville offers many big-city diversions and things for couples to do, the natural setting really stands out. Many heavily forested slopes are threaded by winding roads and hiking trails, bringing outdoorsy types face to face with some of the state's most beautiful vistas. For details about recreational opportunities and travel sites, contact Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Services, (828) 250-4260, or the Pisgah National Forest Ranger District, (828) 877-3265. If you'd rather appreciate nature from the comfort of a car window, three scenic highways beckon: the Blue Ridge Parkway, US 74 and I-40.
Two rivers, the Swannanoa and the French Broad, and a number of lakes guarantee almost year-round rafting, canoeing and kayaking. Fly fishing fans flock to abundant streams and fishing holes. Various adventure travel tours and group travel packages are offered by area outfitters; contact the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau for a list of companies.
French Broad River Park, on Amboy Road just off I-240, includes a multiuse track for walking and biking, play and picnic areas and a dog park. In-line skaters and skateboarders find fun at Food Lion SkatePark, Cherry and Flint streets. The park's layouts cater to all levels of expertise and are fun things to do with kids. Safety helmets are required and admission is charged; for more information phone (828) 225-7184.
InfoOfficeAsheville Area Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitors Bureau 36 Montford Ave. Asheville, NC 28801. Phone:(828)258-6101 or (800)257-1300
Shopping in AshevilleThe centerpiece of Asheville's downtown shopping district is the beautifully restored Grove Arcade, 1 Page Ave. Finished in 1929, the white, neo-Gothic structure complete with gargoyles was the brainchild of E.W. Grove, a Tennessee millionaire and builder of Asheville's luxurious Omni Grove Park Inn. Used as a government building for decades beginning in World War II, Grove Arcade reopened as a public market in 2002 and offers fun things to see.
Inside the Arcade, skylights bathe spiral staircases, ornate moldings and delicate wrought-iron balustrades in filtered sunshine. The specialty stores and boutiques you'll find here are far from run-of-the-mill, tending to offer rare collectibles and high-end imported goods. By contrast, the colorful Portico Market outside the building's south entrance offers shaded stalls where craftspeople, artists and farmers sell a variety of goods, catching the attentions of both serious shoppers and those just passing by along the sidewalk.
Asheville's downtown shopping district continues along nearby Haywood Street, home to jewelry stores, chocolatiers and such local institutions as Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe. There are also several stores along the length of Broadway/Biltmore (the street is called Broadway north of Patton Avenue, and Biltmore Avenue south of Patton) including Mast General Store, 15 Biltmore Ave., a branch of the famous emporium that opened in Valle Crucis in 1883. Perusing the retro merchandise, which includes cast-iron cookware, pottery, crafts, baskets and folk toys, feels like wandering through a museum, although the store also sells the latest hiking and camping gear, too.
Scattered throughout downtown are more than 20 art galleries, a reflection of Western North Carolina's rich craft tradition. The Asheville Downtown Gallery Association publishes a brochure that includes a map and the dates of periodic art walks. It's available at member galleries and the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau (36 Montford Ave.).
A similar brochure highlights the River Arts District, just west of downtown at Haywood Road and Roberts Street. It shows the locations of the working artists' studios housed in 22 converted early-20th-century industrial buildings along the French Broad River. Painting, pottery, sculpture, wood working, glass making, weaving—with more than 200 artists working in all sorts of media—are things to see; the variety here is dizzying.
Adjacent to The Omni Grove Park Inn, the Grovewood Village, 111 Grovewood Rd., offers contemporary and traditional furniture, rugs, glassware, pottery, clothing and jewelry by some of the Southeast's finest artisans. The gallery is housed in restored English-style cottages built in 1917 to house Biltmore Industries, renowned at one time for its homespun wool.
Another one of Asheville's prime shopping destinations is Biltmore Village, on busy US 25 next to the Biltmore entrance. Originally a model community designed in the 1890s to enhance the approach to George W. Vanderbilt's opulent estate as well as benefit the area's citizens, Biltmore Village today is a small, walkable district with tree-shaded lanes, brick sidewalks and historic English-style dwellings housing shops, local restaurants and art galleries. Although the din of traffic rumbling along US 25 may subtract somewhat from the otherwise tranquil setting, Biltmore Village is still a pleasant area to travel and shop for antiques, jewelry, gourmet food and upscale clothing.
Just off the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, the Folk Art Center is home to the Southern Highland Craft Guild. The center not only interprets Appalachian Mountain culture but also houses galleries selling contemporary as well as traditional crafts produced by guild members. The guild also has a store in Biltmore Village.
Farther afield, the WNC Farmers Market, 570 Brevard Rd., sells mountain crafts, produce and local food specialties. Biltmore Park Town Square, I-26 exit 37, is a modern villagelike shopping center featuring shops, boutiques and eateries.
Attraction PlaceHoldersAsheville Art Museum
Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park see Chimney Rock
Mount Mitchell State Park see Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina Arboretum see Blue Ridge Parkway
ZiplinesAdventure Center of Asheville