LGBTQ Travel Guide: Asheville

Asheville, North Caroilna, USA Skyline
Sean Pavone / Getty Images

Some consider Asheville, North Carolina the Portland, Oregon of the Southeast, thanks to its verdant mountain setting, a famously progressive mindset, rich arts scene, LGBTQ-friendliness, and tattooed hipsters of all gender identities. Of course, others will argue that Portland is the Asheville of the Pacific Northwest since they're so fiercely proud of their home and all it entails.

Founded in the late 1700s and officially named Asheville in 1792, the town immediately proved a magnet for artists, writers, and poets—more than a few of them queer. During its brief yet legendary existence from 1933 to 1956, the area's progressive Black Mountain College, subject of a 1972 book by gay historian/author Martin Duberman, proved an incubator for some of the 20th century's most trailblazing creatives. Students and visiting mentors/lecturers included "Midnight Cowboy" author James Leo Herlihy, director Arthur Penn, choreographer Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and even Albert Einstein. In the 1880s, insanely rich art collector and philanthropist George W. Vanderbilt II built the Biltmore, an 8,000-acre estate home that remains one of Asheville's most famous must-visit attractions.

Today, Asheville sees a still thriving scene of local artists and craftspeople—many with studios in the River Arts District—while LGBTQ+ individuals are well integrated among the population. In fact, the official tourism office, Explore Asheville, notes there is no "gayborhood" per se on its LGBTQ+ website page. However, it's worth noting that West Asheville has become increasingly queer and a hotspot for new businesses and foodie spots, especially along Haywood Road—its RuPaul and Dolly Parton mural is a great selfie spot!

Asheville Art Museum

Lawrence Ferber

Things to Do

Get a literal overview of Asheville through a group or private tour with the lesbian-owned Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours. Smitten by Asheville's magnificent views and a growing range of spectacular rooftop F&B spaces, former postal worker Kaye Bentley founded the company in 2018. Her information-rich tours take travelers to a rotating selection of three venues, with a sample cocktail (or mocktail) at each and chauffeured van transport between them. Be sure to request drinks crafted with local spirits.

Another lesbian-owned business (founded by Chicago ex-pats Jillian Kelly and Kim Allen), Asheville Bee Charmer is a must for its selection of locally sourced (like Appalachian Mountain sourwood) and international honey, which can be sampled at its famed honey bar. Honey-centric body care products and merchandise are also available for purchase. There are currently two locations: on Battery Park Ave and Broadway.

In late 2019, the Asheville Art Museum unveiled a $24 million expansion and renovation that incorporates a stunning glass front with its 1920s Italian palazzo landmark building (former home to the Pack Library). Also reopened in 2019 following a renovation, the nonprofit Center For Craft serves as an exhibition gallery, studio/workshop spaces, and an incubator. Admission to the exhibitions is free, while day passes are available for the working space.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2022, the LGBTQ-owned Malaprop's Bookstore is exalted for its incredible curated selection, and hosts a who's who of guest author appearances, like NC native David Sedaris.

Sovereign Remedies

Sovereign Remedies / Facebook

Where to Eat

Celebrating its 8th anniversary in 2021, the two-level yet intimate Sovereign Remedies places equal emphasis on clean seasonal-centric ingredients in its creative menu of craft cocktails and ultra-modern cuisine. Try to snag the upper floor's single two-person table that overlooks the bar. Openly gay owner Charlie Hodge is also behind two other LGBTQ-friendly bars: Asheville Beauty Academy, which throws a Sunday Drag Brunch, and another drag show destination, The Getaway River Bar. Most recently, Hodge brought his magic touch, curation, and taste for charcuterie to Bodega on Broadway, which carries locally made provisions, goods, and to-go eats.

After a winning stint as Chef de Cuisine at Asian fusion restaurant Gan Shan West, trans-masculine identified Silver Cousler decided to open their own venue, Neng Jr's, on buzzing Haywood Road in West Asheville (a strip percolating with foodie spots). Set to open in 2022, Asheville's first Filipinx restaurant - Cousler's mother is Filipino, hailing from Manila, and father is a native North Carolinian, and they met in Tokyo when the latter served as a US Marine - will put a twist on classics like sinigang, Shanghai lumpia, pancit, and Adobo BBQ chicken.

At the fast-casual style, multi-location White Duck Taco, tacos receive a delectable, often saucy fusion reinvention through iterations such as banh mi tofu, lamb gyro, Bangkok shrimp, and crispy chicken BLT.

Early summer 2021 saw the opening of Asheville's first food hall, the S&W Market. Occupying a historic 1929 Art Deco downtown building designed by architect Douglas Ellington, S&W's vendors include Buxton Chicken Palace, flavor innovators Hop Ice Cream, and, on the mezzanine level, a Highland Brewing taproom.

Many local breweries also serve food, and it's quite good. Besides Wicked Weed Brewing Pub and sister sour beer specialist Wicked Weed Funkatorium, Burial Beer Co. (which has sister venues in Raleigh and Charlotte) features a super tasty menu with bites, barbecue, burgers, sammies, and vegan/vegetarian options.

Let's not forget breakfast: Skip the overrated, touristy Biscuit Head and its sometimes hours-long lines. Instead, beeline to All Day Darling, which offers up fantastic coffee with its menu of brekkie staples, brunch-y salads, bowls, and plates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Asheville Bee Charmer

Lawrence Ferber

LGBTQ Bars and Clubs

When Smokey's Tavern ended its 60-year run in 2015, the 55-year-old O. Henry's officially became Asheville's oldest gay bar—actually, bars, if you include its attached second space, an industrial dance bar dubbed "The Underground." A lodge-style stone and wood building with plenty of seating inside and a pool table, you can partake in karaoke nights on Wednesdays and drag shows featuring local talent on weekends. Meanwhile, The Underground hosts a First Friday dance party titled "Total Gold Dance Your Ass Off," as well as other themed dance nights and entertainment.

Slightly newer on the block, the three-floor Scandals opened in 1982 and occupies a former YMCA. It's part of the Grove House Entertainment Complex, which includes two additional venues—Club Eleven On Grove and Boiler Room Asheville—each with their own respective vibes and dance floors. Drag shows featuring a house cast of queens and kings like Viktor Grimm take place every weekend, while visiting guests like DJs and go-go boy revue Studs of Steel fill out the events calendar.

The buzzy South Slope district is home to many of Asheville's craft booze makers, from beer to cider to spirits. Wicked Weed Brewing Pub and its sister sour beer-centric sibling, Wicked Weed Funkatorium, are extremely LGBTQ friendly, while the gay-owned winery Marked Tree Vineyard in Flat Rock, NC (about 35 minutes outside Asheville) opened a South Slope tasting room in 2021.

Formerly a biker bar dubbed Old Shakey's, the now gay-owned Getaway River Bar features a monthly "Sissy Sunday" drag show on second Sundays, featuring local talents like Dixxie Normus Evans, Nova Jyna, and horror/goth queen Kashmir Kohl. Dubbed an "all-inclusive" (or mixed, if you prefer) bar, South Slope's spacious Banks Ave. Bar also hosts drag shows, sometimes with an alternative bent (try to catch bearded queen and community activist Natasha Noir Nightly in action). Plus, they have karaoke on Sundays, dance parties, and freeroll Skee-ball on Wednesdays.

Meanwhile, a new queer-inclusive lesbian bar, Ruby Red Avl, is in the works and currently does pop-up parties at various venues. Check their Facebook for upcoming events.

Do note that North Carolina law requires memberships for gay bars that don't serve food, but these can be easily purchased on-site for $5 (although an arcane formality, it at least allows staff to refuse entry to homophobes, hot messes, and obvious bad apples).

Kimpton Hotel Arras

 Kimpton Hotel Arras

Where to Stay

The towering 128-room Kimpton Hotel Arras is not only a part of the famously LGBTQ-friendly brand, but it boasts one of the most enviable, buzzy locations. It's smack dab downtown at Pack Square, housed in the visually striking stone and metal, Art Deco-tinged former BB&T Bank building. Like most, if not all Asheville hotels, it's especially pet-friendly (they allow dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, and even reptiles according to their website!), with curated pet goodies from the local Patton Avenue Pet Company. Meanwhile, in-house F&B offerings include the Mediterranean-influenced farm-to-table Bargello restaurant and District 42 cocktail lounge and outdoor patio.

The 278-room Renaissance Asheville, likewise, boasts some great mountain and city views, a swimming pool, and a gay-friendly reputation. Formerly the Hyatt Place Asheville, the DoubleTree by Hilton Asheville Downtown was unveiled in summer 2021 and occupies a slightly quieter location off downtown: Ask for a corner room with downtown views, and of course the free, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. If planning to go out to gay bar O. Henry's, this property is conveniently just a few blocks away, and the price point is lower than downtown's hotels to boot. Ditto for the 115-room neighboring property, Hotel Indigo.

Fans of B&Bs will find a true gem in the gay-owned 1889 White Gate Inn & Cottage. Innkeepers Ralph Coffey and Frank Salvo funneled their combined passions and skills for gardening, design, and art into the 11-room, gorgeously landscaped property. For a romantic treat, book the separate one-bedroom, kitchen-equipped guest cottage with a two-person jacuzzi and private porch.

Over in Biltmore Village, located just a block from Biltmore Estate, the 197-room Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Asheville Biltmore played host to the city's first same-sex wedding expo in 2016. For a real immersion (and potential splurge) there are several properties on the Biltmore Estate itself, including a hotel, luxury inn, and cottages.

Blue Mountain Pride

Sheryl Mann

LGBTQ Events and Festivals

Asheville's annual Blue Ridge Pride Festival, launched in 2009, takes place in early fall. Highlights include art and a festival at Pack Square Park, movie screenings, pageants, and procession through the streets. With some New Orleans ex-pats in the mix, there's also a pretty queer, glittery, and beads-filled Asheville Mardi Gras parade and celebration on Fat Tuesday every year, plus some other associated events during the year like January's Twelfth Night Dance Party. Do keep an eye peeled for appearances by local "Boulet Brothers' Dragula" contestant Priscilla Chambers!

For other LGBTQ+ goings-on and current local intel, check local news and events website Ashvegas and Explore Asheville's events page.