In a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina, first appeared on the tourist map as a health resort in the late 19th century, developing into a playground for the rich during the Jazz Age before eventually falling out of favor. After decades of decline, artists revived the flagging downtown in the 1980s, preserving blocks of art deco buildings and attracting new residents seeking the natural beauty, emphasis on the arts, and close community that was growing here.
Now, Asheville regularly appears on top travel destination lists, with icons such as the Biltmore Estate drawing well over 1 million visitors a year. But there are still experiences in Asheville that offer that under-the-radar, inventive appeal that made it so popular in the first place. Here are a few to check out.
Foundation Walls and Studios
Like many of the coolest places, the skateboarders got to this abandoned industrial tract first, building ramps and jumps between run-down buildings along the river. Then the taggers showed up, spraying the weather-beaten walls with a visual feast of murals. Now this area around Foundry Street on the fringe of the city’s River Arts District is also home to Foundation Studios, a community arts center with studios, two galleries, workshops, and frequent exhibits, as well as popular hangouts like Wedge at Foundation brewery, local favorite 12 Bones Smokehouse, Summit Coffee Co., and the sprawling Riverview Station artist studios, where you can experience art both in and outside the Foundation walls.
A triumph of the record revival, Citizen Vinyl opened last fall as North Carolina’s first record manufacturer, transforming Asheville’s downtown Citizen-Times building into a multi-experience destination. While a curated playlist fills the two-story atrium with that crisp vinyl sound, visitors can enjoy Counter Culture coffee, sandwiches, and amari-focused cocktails at Session café and bar; browse the record store stocked with new and used vinyl, local art, and home decor; view one of the rotating exhibitions; or attend a community art or music talk. Because Citizen Vinyl is first and foremost a record press facility, guests can also watch records being made through a glass wall behind the bar or attend a live performance that will then be pressed into a limited-edition recording.
Just 25 minutes from downtown Asheville, the 30-acre Franny’s Farm might contain the most concentrated dose of Asheville’s back-to-the-land spirit in one place. Here, you’ll find a perfectly local mix of goat yoga, solar-paneled rental cabins, bee and pollinator gardens, a U-pick blueberry hill, and the main attraction: Franny’s organic, regenerative farm, where the team grows hemp for a range of applications, from medicinal CBD products to pet treats. The farm also serves as a venue for weddings and festivals, and while events like Hemp X and Asheville Barnaroo are currently on pause due to the pandemic, the goats (and their barn-mates: the chickens, turkeys, sheep, and donkey) carry on unfazed. Spend a night in one of the cabins or simply stop by the farm store for honey, organic CBD tinctures, locally made soaps, and wooden board games.
Asheville native DeWanye Barton (B-Love to his friends) has deep roots in the community and has made it his life’s mission to empower the city’s Black residents. On his Hood Hugger International Tours, he leads visitors to significant locations downtown (such as the Block, Asheville’s Black business district in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and in the historically Black Burton Street neighborhood (especially the Burton Street Community Peace Gardens, a project he spearheaded), teaching them a story of resilience in the process. During the pandemic, Hood Huggers is limited to walking or driving tours (three people maximum in a 1970s convertible Cadillac), but Barton plans to resume his van tours as soon as it’s safe.
Grind AVL, Asheville’s first Black-owned coffee shop, is in the center of Pink Dog Creative studios on Depot Street in the heart of the River Arts District. With the garage door open, light pours in on the inviting space, which offers barista drinks and pastries from local bakery the Rhu, but also serves the needs of the Black entrepreneurial community with coworking and event space, networking opportunities, and business support. Open until 10 p.m. every day, Grind sells organic coffee by the pound and hosts a late-afternoon “study hall” during which high school and college students can focus and caffeinate with a discount.
Fleetwood’s Rock-n-Roll Wedding Chapel
“Shop–Drink–Get Married”—Fleetwood’s tagline covers all the things you can do at this West Asheville garage turned vintage shop, cheeky bar, and wedding chapel. Quality vintage clothing and fun, miscellaneous finds (from old records to Fleetwood’s tote bags) are available inside and at parking lot flea markets; beer, wine, and champagne cocktails can be enjoyed at the wood-paneled bar; and there’s live music (and sometimes stand-up comedy) every week. And then there are the weddings—Vegas-quick and easy, with great photo props. If you’re not ready to commit, you can rent the space for a different event or get “fake married” for just $75, complete with a “Fake as Hell” wedding certificate and Polaroid pictures.
>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Asheville