Courtesy of Chimney Rock State Park
Photo by Victoria Grace Photography
Tour George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate with its indoor pool, bowling alley, and on-site winery.
This North Carolina city stands out with its singular culture—celebrating craft beer and culinary upstarts, artists and free spirits—and a rich history.
Asheville, North Carolina, has become a trendy destination in recent years, drawing visitors with a dynamic art scene, a plethora of local breweries, and scenic mountain views. The city also has an exciting history, with attractions like the largest privately owned home in America, built by George Vanderbilt in the 19th century and now open to visitors, complete with a bowling alley and on-site winery.
Over several visits to his mother’s home in the early 1880s, George Vanderbilt fell in love with everything Asheville had to offer, from the weather to the views. In 1895, he and his wife, Edith, decided to build what he referred to as his “little mountain escape,” but is actually the largest privately owned home in the country, surrounded by 8,000 acres.
These days, tourists and locals alike visit the Biltmore Estate to see the house’s many lavish rooms, including a library with 10,000 volumes, a banquet hall with 70-foot ceilings, an indoor pool, and even a bowling alley. In the summer, visitors can also explore the gardens, where more than 20 miles of walking trails wind past a gorgeous orchid display; during the holiday season, the house fills up with dozens of intricately decorated Christmas trees. Whenever you go, be sure to stop by the on-site winery for a complimentary tasting before heading home.
The sprawling Chimney Rock State Park is so picturesque it served as the filming location for the 1992 epic The Last of the Mohicans. In addition to being a spectacular setting for a battle scene, it’s a go-to hiking spot for both beginners and advanced climbers—many local schools take field trips to summit Chimney Rock, which stands 2,280 feet above sea level. To reach the top, you can hike the steep incline or take an elevator if you prefer. Once you’re up there, be sure to savor the panoramic mountain views, which stretch all the way to Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure.
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Fun fact: Asheville has more breweries per capita than any other city in the country. To narrow it down, take the Asheville Brews Cruise, which offers four-hour tours of the city’s best spots, teaching about the brewing process and the history of Asheville’s beer scene along the way. Guests ride in a refurbished school bus and get to taste their way through four separate breweries. Whether you’re into hops, cider, or something lighter, you’ll find a beer to love.
Cue up your bluegrass playlist and drive the country road curves of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 469-mile route, which runs along mountain ridges from Virginia to North Carolina, offers many memorable views, but you’ll find some of the most photo-friendly vistas in the Asheville area. The speed limit hovers around 45 miles per hour so be prepared for a leisurely ride; stop at one of the designated parking spots for a picnic or hike. If you’re a fan of foliage, also know that the Blue Ridge Parkway is an ideal place to snap photos of the changing leaves come fall.
Places like the ever-growing and -evolving River Arts District are a big reason why Asheville has long been a haven for the creative community. Bordered by the French Broad River—the third oldest river in the country and the fifth oldest in the world—the area flooded in 1916, devastating the industrial tract that called its banks home.
Over the past few decades, it’s been reimagined as an art destination, with working studios filling the abandoned buildings. Visitors can now tour the site to see everyone from potters and glassblowers to painters and sculptors at work. If you’re in town on the second Saturday of the month, join a gallery walk that includes demonstrations, live music, food trucks, and winetastings.
Those familiar with New York City’s famous streets might be surprised to find many of the same names in Asheville, thanks to the fact that the New York–based Vanderbilts helped build the city’s infrastructure. To learn more about Asheville’s fascinating history and explore downtown at the same time, walk the Urban Trail, a two-hour stroll that passes 30 different stations featuring stories about the city and its notable residents, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Duke Ellington. Just print out the map and follow the route, and save time to stop off at a few of the appealing restaurants, boutiques, and galleries along the way.
Slightly south of Asheville, next to milepost 393 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, is the North Carolina Arboretum, a paradise for nature lovers full of cultivated gardens and groomed trails. For the past 30 years this 434-acre public garden has served as a beloved escape for locals, especially recently engaged couples seeking a dreamy background for photos, but visitors also will appreciate the beautiful plants, shady paths, and bike trails through the trees. Thanks to the diverse ecosystem in the southern Appalachian mountains, you can expect to see everything from babbling creeks and forested coves to wildlife like skunks, racoons, and opossums. There are also various events and exhibitions throughout the year, such as book launches and photography shows.
This favorite mountain about 90 minutes outside Asheville earned its nickname because, from the side, it looks like the profile of a sleeping grandpa. At Grandfather Mountain State Park, visitors will find 11 hiking trails, ranging from easy walks in the woods to challenging treks with ladders and cables. Whichever you choose, make it to the top and you’ll be standing 5,646 feet above sea level, with sweeping views in every direction. For a slightly less strenuous activity, take the elevator to the Mile High Swinging Bridge—America’s highest suspension bridge. The 228-foot span hangs more than one mile above an 80-foot chasm and offers stunning views across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For Asheville locals, no summer is complete without a trip to Sliding Rock. Located in Pisgah National Forest, the 60-foot natural waterslide ends in an eight-foot-deep pool, offering the perfect place to cool down after a hike through the trees. And cool down you will—the water here is mountain runoff, so it’s cold year round. Don’t forget to pack a towel, or head to one of two observation platforms and relax in the sun instead.
If you’re a fan of retro arcade games, a visit to the quirky Asheville Pinball Museum is a must-do. Located downtown, next to the Grove Arcade and within walking distance of the Basilica of Saint Lawrence, it’s the perfect break from sightseeing, with 50 pinball machines to play while enjoying a beer, soda, or snack. The museum is owned by a former science teacher who turned his collection into a beloved business that has a very local, welcoming vibe.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Asheville
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