The western North Carolina mountains are calling and you must go—to Asheville. Unplug in the wild spaces. Sample craft brews and farm-to-table cuisine. Hang with the local artists, musicians, foodies, and other forward-thinkers whose creative energy helps keep Asheville homegrown, welcoming, and unabashedly weird.
PADDLE THE FRENCH BROAD RIVER
For an up-close look at Asheville’s wild side—including herons, otters, and turtles—stand-up paddle (SUP) one of the world’s oldest rivers with Wai Mauna (open late April to October). Never SUPed before? No problem. Wai Mauna uses wide and stable boards, and expert guides provide personal instruction. On hot summer afternoons, the four-mile SUP route on the French Broad can get crowded with river tubers. To ensure a serene experience, begin the day with a Wai Mauna Dawn Patrol tour. An added bonus of getting on the water early: you’ll finish in time for breakfast tacos at Taco Billy or BattleCat Coffee Bar in West Asheville.
GO HOT-AIR BALLOONING
Get eagle’s-eye views of the Hominy Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and beyond on a sky-high flight with Asheville Hot Air Balloons. “When I’m flying, it feels like I’m in the middle of a living art display,” says Asheville Hot Air Balloons co-owner and pilot Rick Bowers. “Imagine the ancient mountains of the Blue Ridge rising to over 6,000 feet in the distance [and] the drama of Mount Pisgah in the foreground looming larger than life as the jewel of that crown. Beneath us the fog rolls like white-water rapids.” Flights are available year-round, weather permitting. Early spring and late fall typically have the fewest flyable days.
VISIT GALLERIES AND STUDIOS
Bring home a Southern Appalachian original, including pieces crafted from local clay, “reclaimed urban harvest” wood, and other locally sourced materials. The River Arts District alone is home to more than 200 professional artists—such as jewelry makers, potters, painters, and metal sculptors. At the Folk Art Center, home of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, watch live craft demonstrations (March to December). The center houses the nation’s oldest continuously operated craft shop (founded in 1897 in neighboring Madison County), where you can buy fine traditional and contemporary crafts, including mountain quilts, leather satchels, and handblown glass ornaments.
HIKE FOR A SUNRISE OR SUNSET VIEW
Awe-inspiring sunrise and sunset views can be seen all around Asheville, if you know where to look. Some vantage points, including 5,892-foot-high Craggy Pinnacle and the summit of 6,214-foot Black Balsam Knob, require a moderate uphill hike. The rewards? From Craggy Pinnacle you can see 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. Black Balsam Knob is one of the top spots to watch the setting sun glow over Shining Rock Wilderness, Looking Glass Rock, and Mount Pisgah. For a different sort of hike—and spectacular views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park—climb up the Fryingpan Mountain lookout tower.
EAT AND DRINK LOCAL
Food is an art form in Asheville, where chefs, farmers, and foragers collaborate to create delectable culinary experiences. Sample the city’s field-to-table fare at Nightbell (try the Barkley’s Mill grit hushpuppies served with orange Wild Mountain Bees honey butter), Sovereign Remedies, Early Girl Eatery, and other cozy downtown restaurants. For a deeper dive into the Asheville food scene—dubbed “Foodtopia” by locals—gather and taste wild edibles on a No Taste Like Home foraging tour. Pair any Asheville meal with a pint crafted by a local brewer, such as Burial Beer or Wicked Weed Brewing in the South Slope Brewery District.
JOIN THE DRUM CIRCLE
Asheville moves to the beat of an unabashedly different drummer. So it’s no wonder that the community’s iconic Friday night drum circle is the best all-sensory introduction to local culture. Held outdoors in downtown Pritchard Park during warmer months and indoors at the New Mountain AVL music venue in winter, the pulsating gathering is a rhythmic bonfire of sorts. People of all ages are drawn to the circle to drum, dance, sing, hula hoop, or simply watch in wonder. The beat goes on from about 6 to 10 p.m. To unleash your inner drummer at the circle, build some basic skills in a beginner class at Skinny Beats Drum Shop.
Come home to America’s largest private residence, the 250-room Biltmore House. Completed in 1895 by industrialist George Washington Vanderbilt II (and still owned by his descendants), the French chateau-style mansion has four acres of floor space—more than enough to hold its 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, and indoor swimming pool. You can’t sleep in one of the 34 bedrooms, but there are two places to stay—the Village Hotel and the Inn on Biltmore Estate—on the 8,000-acre Biltmore grounds. Rent a bike to explore the outdoors, and take one of the guided tours to see rooms, rooftops, and other spaces off-limits on the standard house tour.
EMBRACE THE AFTER-DARK SCENE
When the sun goes down, the action heats up in Asheville’s brewpubs, clubs, restaurants, and outdoor cafes. Live music regularly is on tap at local brewpubs—including Wedge at Wedge Studios, Highland Brewing Company, and Black Mountain’s Pisgah Brewing. The old-school Jack of the Wood Celtic pub hosts weekly singer-songwriter nights and bluegrass jams, and Isis Music Hall is one of the top spots to hear new artists. After catching a show at Asheville’s preeminent music hall, the Orange Peel (past performers include Bob Dylan, Macklemore, and the Smashing Pumpkins), walk across the street to Bartaco for a taco-and-tequila nightcap.
Discover uncommon finds—such as honey drop necklaces from Asheville Bee Charmer—on a shop-hop around downtown. Browsing and lingering are widely encouraged at the historic Grove Arcade and over coffee at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. At Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, sip a glass of wine, bubbly, or espresso as you search the stacks stocked with over 22,000 gently used books. Shop for local art and crafts in Kress Emporium and Woolworth Walk. The former five-and-dimes have been restored as artist retail showcases, and the latter comes with a sweet bonus: an old-fashioned, full-service soda fountain.
A dose of Asheville is the perfect prescription for stress relief. Breathe the cool mountain air, soak in the thermal springs, and rejuvenate at one of the area’s many day spas or wellness resorts. In the Asheville Salt Cave (inconspicuously located beneath a downtown parking garage), experience the healing benefits of salt therapy. A 45-minute session combines healing salts (particularly helpful in clearing clogged sinuses), soothing music, and a therapeutic light treatment. At the Spa at the Omni Grove Park Inn, indulge in a bliss-inducing body treatment. For an only-in-Asheville experience, try the spa’s mountain honey wrap—an exfoliation, wrap, and massage using locally harvested sourwood honey.