Why Asheville is Special
Ask anyone who’s been what they think of when you say “Asheville” and you’ll get a vague answer about things to do and “cute town”.
That’s because Asheville is best described by the feeling you have when visiting rather than any specific place or event.
It’s big-city amenities with a relaxed, small-town vibe. The perfect balance of getting away from the world while enjoying all your creature comforts. It’s like no other city in North Carolina.
How Big is Asheville
Asheville is almost 46 square miles with a population of around 92 thousand. While it’s not exactly small, because of the low-key vibe, many people consider it one of North Carolina’s small towns.
One thing I’ve noticed is that most people tend to refer to a region in Western North Carolina as “Asheville”.
This could include Lake Lure, Bryson City, and Chimney Rock State Park an hour away. Asheville is the largest city in this area and the hub for most of its activities.
What is there to do in Asheville?
From Asheville’s bustling downtown area with its relaxed vibe and great food, to the surrounding areas with the best outdoor sporting in western NC, there’s something for everyone.
If you’re looking for views, take a drive along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway with a stop at the top of Mount Mitchell. A perfect way to enjoy the fall colors.
Hikers can explore the rugged Black Mountains and Pisgah National Forest, traipsing through sections of the Appalachian Trail, while viewing a multitude of waterfalls.
Let’s not forget the kayakers and other water enthusiasts who can brave the French Broad River.
Not sold yet? What if I told you that this area of North Carolina is so incredibly scenic it’s been the setting for multiple movies? As you walk around, you may notice some “familiar” locations.
In the late 1800s, wealthy New Yorkers frequented Asheville seeking what they considered “healthy” air. They built their homes and changed the framework of the city to what you see today.
There’s a bit of a New York vibe in the buildings as you walk around. For example, the same architect who created the tiling system used in Grand Central Station also designed Basilica Saint Lawrence.
It may be more obvious as you walk through Pack Square and catch sight of the 13-story Neo-Gothic Jackson Building, complete with gargoyles.
Feeling a little hungry with all that walking around? Asheville is full of fabulous restaurants and boasts five James Beard nominated chefs.
If you’re looking for something simpler, many local hotspots offer items from burgers to tacos. Tea and coffee are easy to find, as are decadent specialty chocolates.
Beer connoisseurs will be in heaven with the over 48 microbreweries in the area (at least at last count). From sours to full bodied IPAs, the choices are overwhelming.
Shopping along the two main streets of downtown offers a plethora of options. Mast General Store is the closest you’ll come to a chain store with its 9 local locations selling anything from candy to outdoor gear.
Local shops offer handmade clothing, cards, and little doodads.
The Omni Grove Park Inn
This magnificent hotel is a must-see if you’re in the area. Edwin Wiley Grove specifically built the resort on the western slope of Sunset Mountain.
This determined man managed to have it built in less than 12 months.
The Inn’s incredible history includes its use as an internment center for Axis diplomats during World War II.
A favorite for celebrities and statesmen, the Omni Grove is also reportedly the secret bunker for the Supreme Court in the event of a nuclear attack (unconfirmed because it’s a secret).
Visitors are welcome to tour the grounds and enjoy the views of downtown Asheville and the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains from the Sunset Deck.
The Biltmore Estate
Asheville and the Biltmore Estate go hand in hand.
The striking home built by George Vanderbilt is one of the key attractions in the area.
Be sure to include a full day on your itinerary to explore the house and grounds.
The amazing gardens are world-renowned and there are several hiking trails, including one that leads you around the Bass Pond with views of the back of the house.
Don’t forget to visit Antler Village and the winery. Kiddos will love the creamery with its fresh ice cream.
For a special treat, try to visit when the house is fully decorated for the holidays. There’s a special candlelight tour in the evenings, but if fills up quickly. Even during the day, it’s spectacular.
Remember those movies filmed in Asheville mentioned earlier?
Biltmore has graciously allowed several films to use their grounds for scenes including The Last of the Mohicans, Mr. Destiny, Nell, My Fellow Americans, and Patch Adams, just to name a few.
The first movie filmed at the Estate was Grace Kelly’s final film, The Swan.
Places Nearby Asheville
There are several small mountain towns near Asheville. If you don’t want to stay in the Asheville area itself, try Black Mountain, NC.
There’s also a lot to do in Black Mountain. It’s a beautiful downtown full of art galleries, craft stores, and restaurants.
Areas South of Asheville
Nearby Lake Lure, just 45 minutes outside of Asheville, was the setting for much of Dirty Dancing.
The town celebrates with a Dirty Dancing festival every year, usually in September. Attendees enjoy a screening of the movie, dance lessons, and of course, a “lake lift” contest.
While we’re down in the southern area, let’s talk about Chimney Rock State Park.
An hour southeast from Asheville, it’s got an incredible view thanks to a large granite outcropping.
Even better, there’s a 24-hour webcam that streams to their website. Make the moment special and call your friends while you’re up there so you can wave at them!
The park offers more than just the view though. There are also hiking trails and waterfalls, including one of the highest in North Carolina.
You may recognize it as the magnificent waterfall used in the final scenes of The Last of the Mohicans.
Though the movie was filmed throughout the area, including the Biltmore Estate, the waterfall scene from Chimney Rock tends to stick with you.
Areas West of Asheville
Bryson City and Great Smokey Mountain Railway are a must visit if you’re in the area.
Check the online schedule and buy your tickets ahead of time.
As you ride along the Great Smokey Mountain Railway, you may see something familiar. Remnants of the iconic scene from The Fugitive where the locomotive crashed into the bus remain along the side of the tracks.
Hiking and Outdoor Adventures
There are hikes for beginners through advanced available in the area. Be sure to ask several people and check online before heading out.
Many folks in Asheville grew up outdoors and their idea of easy may not be the same as yours.
Here in Asheville, the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST) runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway (for the most part) with several areas for you to park and hit the trail.
For those unfamiliar, the MST is a 1175-mile trail that runs across North Carolina from Clingman’s Dome in The Great Smokey Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.
Look for the white circle blaze and know that you’re hiking something special.
If you’re not looking for a big adventure, head to Bent Creek Wilderness area and park at the Hard Times Trailhead.
Head through the gates and make a left at the T. You’ll follow the trail right into the North Carolina Arboretum.
This is the only trail I recommend in Bent Creek for beginners and anyone without a GPS app or map of the area since the trails are not blazed.
Another good bet for beginners is Dupont State Recreational Area. Follow the well-blazed Triple Falls trail, on a journey past three waterfalls.
One of those falls (the second one), is the famed triple falls from The Hunger Games.
You’ll actually see several areas used in the Hunger Games. The movie was filmed throughout the area with nearby Bent Creek and Dupont National State Forest featured in the Hunger Games arena.
Hikers wanting a little bit more should consider driving about 40 minutes to Max Patch and hiking along part of the Appalachian Trail (AT).
You can also drive into Hot Springs and pick up the AT there. Check with locals for great ideas on where to go.
Intermediate to Advanced hikers can Linville Gorge. Hike up to Shortoff Mountain or Table Rock.
Take plenty of water with you. It’s not called the Grand Canyon of the East for giggles. The sun and heat are relentless.
Looking to expand your outdoor sporting horizons? Local mountain bikers love exploring the miles of trails throughout Bent Creek.
Kayakers and white water rafters can head to Hot Springs and meet up with an outfitter for a day of fun on the French Broad.
Asheville For Everyone
No matter your interests or activity level, Asheville has something for everyone. From spas to major outings, the city offers just about everything.
If you’re willing to drive about an hour outside of town, there’s an entire world of outdoor fun that awaits.
As you enjoy your vacation, keep an eye out for those magical spots from your favorite movies. With so many movies filmed in the area, you never know what you may see.