Artsy & Adventurous Asheville, North Carolina: Fun Activities for the Whole Family by Ann Marie Patitucci
My teen son and I recently traveled to Asheville, N.C., to visit his friends. Neither of us had ever been to the Southeastern city before, known as “Land of the Sky,” “Beer City, USA” and the “Paris of the South." While my son spent his time bowling, mini-golfing, seeing movies and hanging out with his buddies, I had time to check out Asheville.
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, Asheville has a population of just under 95,000, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. I spent the majority of my time downtown (i.e. Biltmore Ave.) and found it charming, artsy, quirky and welcoming, with boutiques, bars, coffee shops, art galleries and more. There’s even a double decker bus-turned-coffee shop (Double D’s Coffee & Desserts)!
Asheville is known as an arts-friendly city. I enjoyed the vibrant murals as I explored the city both on foot and by car. The South Slope Mural Trail includes 17 murals, examples of public art "created for the people" and "meant to engage, to inspire, to provoke and to enliven, transform[ing] the ordinary into the extraordinary." In addition, Asheville has a popular live music venue called The Orange Peel which hosts music acts, performances such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 80s vs. 90s dance parties and free summer movies
I visited a couple of downtown galleries, including the Liz Lane Gallery. This gallery features female artists from the Southeast, including local artists. I especially appreciated the work of a few: Liz Lane herself (abstract floras), Bridgette Martin (local landscapes) and Kelli Newsome (bears). I was drawn to the bears in part because of the Airbnb we were renting. The owner left a note which included: “Do not leave food in your car. It will attract bears. No, seriously.” While I was surprised (and somewhat terrified) by this, we were staying in the mountains, after all.
As a writer and lover of chai lattes and iced mochas, I am drawn to local coffee shops. Asheville has several and they all seem welcoming and unique (see above for unique!). I spent the most time at City Bakery Café. Their iced mocha is just perfect and their baristas Stacey and Allen are friendly and knowledgeable. I must add that the “Tab” sandwich is honestly one of the best healthy sandwiches I've ever had (clearly I was so excited about it that I forgot to take a photo until I’d already taken a bite!).
Biltmore Village is an especially unique part of Asheville. Within the city limits, it’s a small village adjacent to the entrance of the Biltmore Estate (more on that below). Its design reminds one of a quaint English village from the past, though it has a variety of modern shops, restaurants and more. One of the most surprising elements: the McDonald’s looks more like a village home than a traditional fast food restaurant, and inside you’ll find a self-playing baby grand piano! As far as I know it’s also the only McDonald’s with an Italianate ceiling!
Speaking of the Biltmore Estate, this is an historic property, museum and tourist attraction in Asheville. Set on 8,000 acres, with 135,280 square feet of living space, the Biltmore is the largest privately-owned house in the country. The Gilded Age mansion was built for George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 1800s and is still owned by the Vanderbilt family. You can stay in the hotel, inn or cottage; eat in one of the restaurants; enjoy the award-winning winery, and tour the grounds and/or the Biltmore House. Admission ranges from $55 per person (garden and grounds admission only) to $384 (includes everything with a 90-minute guided tour). Short on time on an especially hot and humid day, I chose to skip what would have been an abbreviated, pricey visit to the Biltmore. Locals tell me that the best time to visit is at the holidays.
If you’d like to get out of the city and experience nature, you’ll appreciate that Asheville is just steps from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The most visited National Park Service site, it is known as “America’s Favorite Scenic Drive.”
The Parkway offers frequent, paved overlooks with gorgeous views of some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River. It’s easy, free to explore and open seven days a week, 24 hours a day, all year. Some favorite activities among locals and tourists alike: hiking, biking, picnicking and driving. Note that there are no gas stations on the Blue Ridge Parkway; fill up before you enter!
There really is something for everyone in Asheville. For instance, with more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the U.S., the city's impressive breweries boast roughly 100 local beers. In addition, the city offers quirky thrift shops, antique stores and various tours, including haunted/ghost tours. One company in particular, LaZoom, offers a “ghost comedy bus tour” for ages 17 and up. From their website: “Scream your ‘ashe’ off ... you’ll see real (real actors, that is) murders up close and personal. While this tour does have a few screams, it’s got waay more laugh out loud moments!”
Asheville has waay more to offer than these highlights; this is only a sample of activities. I hope the city remains as unique, charming and quirky as it is now – these qualities set "AVL" apart and no doubt encourage visitors to return.
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