Introducing Asheville as Gateway to the Highlands
For decades, tourists came to Asheville to marvel at the spectacular Biltmore Estate while largely ignoring the rest of the city. Nowadays Asheville is one of the hottest travel destinations in the Southeast. A thriving arts and culture scene attracts attention, as do newly renovated neighborhoods that host design studios, trendy restaurants and the nation’s largest concentration of microbreweries.
This 48-hour itinerary includes the iconic Biltmore Estate along with beautiful scenery and delicious food. When it comes to accommodations, visitors have booked rooms at the luxurious The Omni Grove Park Inn for generations. If you’re in the mood for a less expensive stay, consider Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville, or one of the area’s many bed & breakfast inns.
Day One: Morning & Afternoon
Morning: Grab a hearty breakfast at The Corner Kitchen (3 Boston Way) in Biltmore Village or, for lighter fare, visit Well-Bred Bakery & Café (6 Boston Way) for freshly baked scones and an assortment of coffees. After breakfast be sure to check out Biltmore Village. Originally the staging area for servants at the nearby estate of the same name, the village has become an attraction in itself, offering popular shops and restaurants within a tree-lined historic district.
9 a.m.: Take a car to The Biltmore Estate and enjoy a self-guided tour of the grounds and mansion. George Vanderbilt spent a short weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his mother in 1888, when he was 26. This grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt left the area inspired, and within a year, he returned to begin construction on what today is billed as America’s premiere home. The Biltmore Estate is a 250-room French chateau with an astounding four acres of floor space. Outside, the carefully manicured grounds offer 2.5 miles of garden walking paths on 8,000 acres. Savvy travelers arrive as early as possible, especially in the busy warm-weather months. Reserve an entry time when purchasing online tickets. (1 Lodge Street. Tickets: $80 for adults at the gate, $70 for adults in advance, youth and children 16 and under enter free during the summer. Discounts available for AAA members.)
12:30 p.m.: Take a break from your exploration to enjoy a light lunch at The Kitchen Café, (located in the Antler Hill Village and Winery). The nearby winery also offers free samples of their product. Make Antler Hill Village the transition point between outdoor and indoor explorations. Which should come first? Check the weather forecast before making that decision.
Your level of interest will dictate the length of time spent at Biltmore, but it certainly is possible to spend an entire day on the estate and not see everything. At minimum, reserve five hours for exploring.
Day One: Evening
5 p.m.: Drive up the northbound Blue Ridge Parkway east of Asheville for a look at one of Western North Carolina’s beautiful sunsets. Just a few miles north of the junction with US 70 is Haw Creek Valley overlook (milepost 380): a great vantage point for viewing sunsets. Get there early, because on clear nights the relatively small parking lot will fill up quickly.
6:30 p.m.: As light dims, there will be the temptation to keep traveling northward to visit more scenic pull-offs. Save that pleasure for tomorrow. Head back south to US 70, then access eastbound I-40 to the town of Black Mountain, home of the Red Rocker Inn (136 N Dougherty Street). Casual fine dining awaits, with specialties such as hand-cut pork chops, fresh mountain trout and homemade pastas, flatbreads and desserts. Reservations are suggested; closed Sundays.
Day Two: Morning
8:30 a.m.: Start out your day with a tour of Asheville’s iconic Omni Grove Park Inn (290 Macon Avenue), which appears on the National Register of Historic Places. This classic resort emerged from the proceeds of “elixir” sales in the early 1900s. From Wednesday to Sunday each week, guests can take a free, 45-minute guided tour that begin in the lobby at 9 a.m. For day visitors, joining the 20 person tour costs $10 per adult. On days when tours aren’t offered, it’s still worth a quick stop to see one of the first great mountain resorts in the American South.
10:15 a.m.: Just a few years ago, the area that is now Asheville’s River Arts District was a blighted industrial neighborhood along the French Broad River. The only tourists arriving here in those days probably took a wrong turn in their search for the Biltmore Estate. Today they arrive to visit 22 art studios housed in restored factories and buildings. Artists will be working on their latest creations, and you can sometimes engage them in conversation about their techniques and creations. For those who like to buy original pieces from up-and-coming artists, it can be a profitable stop.
Day Two: Afternoon and Evening
11:20 a.m.: Arrive at Buxton Hall Bar-B-Cue (32 Banks Avenue) before the restaurant’s opening at 11:30 and expect to stand in a short line. The minor time investment yields one of the first tables of the day. Those who arrive an hour later wait much longer. Buxton Hall has a reputation for its “all-wood, whole hog barbecue,” and side dishes such as “mussels cooked under the pig.”
1 p.m.: If you deny yourself dessert, more temptation lurks around the corner in this South Slope neighborhood. The French Broad Chocolate Factory (21 Buxton Ave) is open daily, and offers a 75-minute guided tour of the facility on Saturdays that requires a reservation and a $10 fee. At other times, shorter free tours also explain the philosophy of bean-to-bar cacao sourcing and fair trade with the farmers who produce the beans. The owners also serve their creations at a downtown chocolate lounge on South Pack Square.
2:15 p.m.: Fortified with barbecue and chocolate, head east on US 70 to the same interchange where that great sunset view was pursued last night. Once on the northbound Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll soon encounter the Folk Art Museum (milepost 382). Stop to see a variety of handicrafts created by mountain people—some from necessity for household jobs, and others for sheer beauty. Travelers who revel in such creations could spend half a day here, while others will be satisfied with a quick look. In either case, leave your camera locked in the car. Rules prohibit photography inside the building.
Continue driving northward on the winding, climbing parkway until you reach Craggy Dome overlook. Park and begin a 0.7-mile hike to Craggy Pinnacle Summit (milepost 364). This short hike is rather strenuous in spots, but those who continue eventually enjoy one of the best scenic views in this part of the country.
If the weather isn’t cooperating, other Asheville-area activities that could fill an afternoon include a trip to the Asheville Museum of Science (43 Patton Avenue), or a tour of Asheville’s 50 breweries. The Wicked Weed Brewpub (91 Biltmore Avenue) offers free tours.
5:30 p.m.: Asheville’s restaurant scene includes some innovative eateries. Southerners enjoy varieties of “hot chicken,” usually fried with varying degrees of spices and hot sauces. Sample this trend at Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack. The Arden location (3749 Sweeten Creek Road) is located only a few miles from the intersection of US 25A and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The term “shack” is for marketing effect only, Rocky’s offers a sit-down restaurant with a bar and a Zagat rating.
Day Three: Morning
10 a.m.: If your departure day falls during the weekend, visit Posana Café (1 Biltmore Avenue) for a gourmet brunch. The restaurant serves only locally sourced products and features a contemporary American menu. It makes a nice dinner stop for those who can’t make it to brunch.
11 a.m.: Posana is a great place to launch a brief walking tour of downtown Asheville, which is possible along the Urban Trail and accessed using a smartphone. Make the tour as short or as long as you wish. A piece of street art marks each stop.