How to Experience the Good Life in Asheville
Local author Ashley English recommends the city’s best bookstore, year-round hiking spots, where to drink coffee among plants, and other things to do, see, eat, and drink for a mindful trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
If you’ve visited the Asheville area you’ve probably heard of (or more likely become obsessed with) Malaprop’s, an independent bookstore and café. “As a teenager, who lived a fairly sheltered life, it was the most magically enchanting place to visit,” says Ashley English, who’s based in the North Carolina city and the author of 11 books, including her Homemade Living series with such titles as Canning & Preserving, Keeping Chickens, Keeping Bees, and Home Dairy, as well as A Year of Pies and Handmade Gatherings, to name a few.
Asheville has a long history of attracting and inspiring those with a literary bent. Thomas Wolfe grew up in the mountain town, where he wrote his most famous work, Look Homeward, Angel, a fictional book about his childhood, and F. Scott Fitzgerald spent two summers in the mid-1930s at what’s now the Omni Grove Park Inn working on parts of The Great Gatsby. Today, ways to experiences this rich local culture include the AVL Lit Tour and a visit to bookstores such as Malaprop’s.
The popular bookstore, founded in 1982 by first-generation Hungarian immigrant Emöke B’Rácz, has been a constant for English, from frequenting the shop as a high schooler in the early 90s to the multiple book launch events she’s held there. It’s also a fitting cornerstone for a trip filled with English’s recommendations for how to experience the “good life” that’s the subject of her books: the awe in the everyday (including modern Southern food) and taking care of ourselves, our families, our communities, and the planet.
More than just a bookstore
B’Rácz writes that she opened Malaprop’s to be “a place where poetry mattered, where a woman’s words were as important as a man’s, where excellence was customary, where good writing had a home, where I could nurture my addiction to literature, and play, enjoy, and entertain people drawn to quality books.”
“As an independent bookstore, Malaprop’s carries both the popular, larger publishing house bestsellers alongside small-press publications, presenting a vast array of known and emerging voices, which I truly appreciate,” English says. In the café, which serves locally roasted coffee and pastries from Asheville bakeries, you’ll find locals getting lost in good reads every day of the week. Many give B’Rácz credit for being one of the first businesses to help revitalize Asheville’s downtown—and an unsung leader who helped others believe in the future of what it could be.
Restaurants, bars, and shops in downtown Asheville and beyond
Over the past few decades, the city has evolved dramatically, and English welcomes its overall renaissance. She goes to Little Chango for the stellar arepas and tostones, and says, “The ever-changing flan is not to be missed.”
Benne on Eagle, located in downtown Asheville’s historically Black neighborhood, The Block, features foothills cuisine (defined by Southern traditions that have flourished at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains) with soul. Nearby, Rhubarb, helmed by chef and English’s friend John Fleer, remains one of her all-time favorites. “Southern Appalachian foods shine here,” she says. “Rhubarb never disappoints, from cocktails to dessert.”
Sip craft cocktails on the French Broad River at Anoche, in the River Arts District. “They feature creative, beautiful mezcal-based beverages served in a gorgeous, casual setting where I meet all my friends for drinks,” the writer says. And of course, no eating agenda is complete without hitting French Broad Chocolate. “It’s the place to go for rhapsodic desserts and treats, with convenient locations in both downtown and along Riverside Drive.”
English visits The Gardeners Cottage in Biltmore Village and Flora in West Asheville often. The floral design studios and boutiques feature all manner of home and garden goodies, from houseplants and planters to candles, books, textiles, and more. “I always leave both locations completely inspired,” she says. A coffee shop inside Flora offers drinks using Black Mountain’s Dynamite Roasting Company coffee and tempting baked goods from The Rhu and French Broad Pantry.
Getting outdoors in and around Asheville
For fresh air in Asheville, a favorite of English is The North Carolina Arboretum, arguably one of the Southeast’s most stunning botanical collections, which sits within Bent Creek Experimental Forest of the Pisgah National Forest, just southwest of the city near the Blue Ridge Parkway. “[The Arboretum is] filled with gorgeous installations that change with the seasons, as well as an educational facility with a delightful cafe, and a permanent bonsai collection,” English says.
The surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains give ample opportunity to revel in nature too. “These mountains are ancient,” English says. If seeking peace and inspiration, no matter the seasons, Black Balsam and Craggy Gardens are on the Blue Ridge Parkway and great for hiking and scenic picnicking, she notes.
To enjoy reading or writing on a solo sojourn, the author envisions bringing along a book or notepad to Sam’s Knob, a hike located off the back end of the Black Balsam parking lot. “It’s beyond beautiful up there, with everything from mile-high mountain vistas to dense conifer forests and idyllic creek-side settings,” she says. “If you’re looking for a location to encounter a muse, you’ll no doubt find her there.”
The enchanting mountain air and mesmerizing natural landscapes are part of what makes Asheville so attractive. “You feel silent intimations of deep, abiding wisdom when you’re in these places, a true balm to the modern, fast-paced soul,” says English. The creative spirits who call it home, from the author herself to living legends like B’Rácz, also bring the “good life” to Asheville, making it an unparalleled dreamy destination that’s welcoming to all.