Why Asheville, North Carolina
Downtown Asheville is a bustling city with an urban feel and a liberal college-town vibe.
With one day in Asheville, you can learn about the history of this eclectic town and view many of the sites.
As you wander through the streets, you’ll see a variety of architecture blending somehow seamlessly.
The History of Asheville
Asheville was a playground for rich tycoons like George Vanderbilt and Edwin Grove who brought in world-renowned architects to build their homes and hotels.
Many of these talented craftsmen stayed and continued to put their mark on the landscape.
Surprisingly, Asheville was the hardest hit city during the Great Depression, surpassing Chicago and New York.
Asheville opted to pay off its debt with the last payment made in 1976. This decision meant there wasn’t money to modernize and many of the original structures still stand untouched.
The city boasts Neo-Gothic mixed with Neo-Classical and Art Deco, and many other styles.
It’s a visual feast for any photographer and those that appreciate the decorative details.
The Best Way to See Asheville if You Only Have One Day
The Hop-on/Hop-off trolley is the perfect way to explore Asheville in one day. It takes you through downtown Asheville and surrounding areas, reaching almost all of the highpoints.
The first trolley leaves at 10 am from the Visitor Center and there is free parking. Make sure you check the schedule as it changes in the winter months.
You can hop off at any of the stops and then hop back on a later trolley.
While it is possible to walk ahead and meet the trolley at the next location, the drivers are also tour guides that tell great stories about the areas you are driving through.
You’ll hear more information if you get back on and pick up the story where you left off. The guides are excellent storytellers and knowledgeable about the incredible history of Asheville.
The Tour Begins
Stop 1: Historic Montford
The trolley starts with a drive through the Montford historic district. This area is lined with old Victorian homes, reminiscent of New England.
Our guide shared the sordid tales of past families living in the area, including a woman who buried her husband twice.
You’ll also learn about some of the famous residents like Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda was institutionalized in a hospital and you’ll pass the porch where she sat and the oak tree she painted.
Stop 2: The Omni Grove Park Inn (Hop-Off)
Hop off at the Omni Grove Park Inn and take the time to explore this Arts and Crafts style hotel.
It was built by Edwin Wiley Grove in 1912, taking less than a year to complete. The Omni Grove is a AAA four-diamond hotel and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Be sure to explore the west-facing Sunset Terrace. It’s said to have one of the best sunset views in the area.
You can explore the terrace and snap great pictures of the hotel, the mountains, and Asheville off in the distance.
Stop 3: Renaissance & Four Points Hotels
This stop brings you to the Thomas Wolfe District. The famous author grew up in Asheville and you’ll learn about his upbringing and eventual death.
There’s a Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site and his Historic Boyhood Home.
If you’re excited about Thomas Wolfe, you can hop off here and visit the museums, otherwise, stay on to the next stop.
Stop 4: Pack Square/Asheville Art Museum (Hop-Off)
Pack Square Park is Asheville’s main square located at the intersection of Patton and Biltmore Avenues.
The current rendition is due in large part to George W. Pack. He donated property for a new courthouse with the condition the former site become part of the public square.
Lining the square are buildings such as the Jackson building, a neo-gothic tower, the first skyscraper in western North Carolina. Gargoyles line the top of the building and it had a spotlight to draw in tourists.
On the far side of the park are the Art Deco Asheville City Hall and Buncombe County Courthouse.
City Hall has an octagonal red and green tiled roof, the decoration highly unusual for a civic building at the time. The Courthouse is less ornate with a more stoic feel.
Aligning the upper side of the square are more modern buildings, one of which houses the Biltmore Corporate Offices.
This juxtaposition of old and new, different styles, and different heights seems to work in the square, giving it an eclectic feel.
Continue Viewing Downtown Asheville
Make the most of this stop since it’s centrally located in downtown. Walk down Biltmore Avenue, the main street in town, and enjoy the colorful storefronts.
For additional downtown pictures, go down Patton Avenue to Lexington Avenue and College Street for a quieter look at the city.
If you have time, stop for a beer at one of the many micro-breweries, or grab coffee or tea at one of the local shops like Green Sage or Old Europe.
Stop 5 and 6: Haywood Park Hotel and Grove Arcade (Hop-Off)
Stops 5 and 6 are close in proximity, I would wait for the Grove Arcade stop to hop off.
This is the Haywood Street area, a vibrant section of town full of restaurants and shops. It has more of a local neighborhood feel than Pack Square.
Asheville’s Wall Street is here with its own Flat Iron building, easily identifiable thanks to the triangular shape and the large sculpture of an iron across the street.
Don’t expect banks and financial institutions, Wall Street is a small cobblestone street lined with shops and restaurants.
Two places you must see at this location are Chocolate Fetish and Woolworths.
Chocolate Fetish is a high-end chocolate shop with inspired flavor combinations like the “Dragon’s Breath” truffle, a mix of chocolate and wasabi.
Woolworths is now an art gallery, but the owners kept the old soda fountain shop inside. Only in Asheville can you can get a milkshake and hotdog, then wander around looking at fine art.
The Grove Arcade
The Grove Arcade is a small mall with a few shops. What makes it special is the architecture.
It’s a Tudoresque building with Venetian Gothic Interior. There are wrought iron spiral staircases inside and a peaked glass ceiling to let in light. It rivals any Hollywood mansion entryway.
One of the shops along the Grove Arcade is Battery Park book shop. Part book shop, part champagne bar, you can grab a mimosa and wander through the stacks.
Saint Lawrence Basilica
While you’re in the vicinity, head north up Haywood Street to the Saint Lawrence Basilica. It’s a beautiful brick building with large wooden doors designed by famed architect Rafael Guastavino.
The Basilica is said to have the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America using Guastavino’s patented arch technology for self-supporting arches.
The technology was used to build part of Grand Central Station in New York and the Boston Public Library.
The interior of the Basilica has beautiful stained glass windows with the light bouncing off the domed ceiling. It’s opulent yet reverent at the same time.
Per his wishes, upon his death, Guastavino was interred in the Basilica St. Lawrence. His tomb is behind the altar in a side room.
Stop 7: River Arts District
The River Arts District is an old warehouse area now housing artist studios. While it is worth visiting, if you really want to see the River Arts District, I’d head back later with a car.
Only about one mile the area is walkable, the remaining five miles require driving since the sidewalk disappears.
The trolley tour doesn’t take you through the best parts so if you’re into art and the beautiful graffiti alongside the buildings, definitely head back.
Stop 8, 9 and 10: Doubletree Hotel/Biltmore Village/Grand Bohemian Hotel
This is a small shopping area across the street from the main entrance to the Biltmore Estate.
It’s a quaint downtown area, but there isn’t much here. Restaurants close from 3-5 pm and you can wander the entire area in 10 minutes.
Stop 10 is a quick stop to drop off guests of the Grand Bohemian Hotel. It’s a magnificent stone structure exuding opulence.
If you enjoy architecture and unique buildings, you may be able to convince your guide to let you hop off for a minute to snap a photo.
One Day in Asheville – What Next?
You’ll have plenty of time after the trolley tour to return to any areas where you’d like more time and grab dinner at any restaurant in town.
To finish up your one day in Asheville, if you can stay a bit later, take a walking Haunted Tour of Asheville. It’s another perspective on the city and well worth the effort as you learn even grittier details about the history of this wonderful city.