Hip hotels and buzzworthy restaurants are staking claim across Asheville, but a communal sense of fun is keeping this mountain town grounded – at least for now. This collegial spirit is maintained in part by the many free activities offered across town, from public art and live concerts to trail-filled parks and brewery tours.
The list below is a good jumping-off point for experiencing the best free things to do.
Asheville Urban Trail
Art, history and exercise collide on the 1.7-mile Urban Trail in downtown Asheville. Similar to a self-guided scavenger hunt, this city-sponsored trail stops by 30 official stations. At each station you’ll find an informational plaque and whimsical public art. Listen to the audio commentary at each stop – find it on the Urban Trail website – and enjoy learning about the city and its most interesting characters. The trail starts at Pack Square Park, but you can jump in anywhere.
Folk Art Center
The region’s rich Appalachian heritage is on display at the Folk Art Center, which borders the Blue Ridge Parkway six miles north of the city. The Allanstand Craft Shop here is the oldest craft shop in the country, and it sells artisan-made pieces – jewelry, pottery, glassworks, apparel and more – by members of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Exhibits in the gallery spotlight the history and craftsmanship behind various high-quality works from the Guild’s permanent collection. Stop by for craft demonstrations daily from March through December.
For an introduction to the city’s craft beer scene and to learn the basics of the brewing process, step behind the taps on a guided tour. Popular Wicked Weed Brewing offers free tours daily of its brewpub downtown, with samples and a commemorative glass thrown in for guests. Free tours at Highland Brewing, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada at Mills River are temporarily on pause due to Covid-19 precautions, so confirm they have resumed before making a special trip.
Mount Mitchell State Park
An easy thirty-mile drive takes you from the bustling streets of downtown Asheville to the parking lot beside the summit of 6684ft-high Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River. A short walk leads to the observation deck and 360° views of the soaring Black Mountains, a sub-range within the Blue Ridge Mountains. Bring a jacket – the climate and ecosystems of the Black Mountains resemble those of Canada. Numerous hiking trails crisscross the park.
Shindig on the Green
For an enthusiastic introduction to mountain music, make your way to Pack Square Park for Shindig on the Green. This outdoor concert series celebrates the homegrown sounds of the Southern Appalachians with fiddles, dancing and a communal sense of fun. Mountain music – which includes old-time and bluegrass – originated in the hills and hollers of the nearby mountains, but young performers keep the sounds fresh with their own innovations – which you might just hear during an impromptu jam. Concerts are held most Saturday nights from late June through early September.
Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway
Asheville sits just west of a graceful bend in the Blue Ridge Parkway, a national scenic drive that ribbons along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Overlooks, trailheads and historic sites are scattered along the 469-mile roadway, but you won't find stoplights or any commercial distractions. Parkway highlights near Asheville include the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, the Folk Art Center, the swimming hole at Skinny Dip Falls and wildflowers at Craggy Gardens
Foliage along the parkway typically changes color from late September through October, depending on elevation. Check the fall color report for the latest updates.
Montford Park Players
Puck, Hamlet, Falstaff and other Shakespearean favorites take the stage every summer at the outdoor Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre in the historic Montford neighborhood just north of downtown. The longest-running Shakespearean Company in North Carolina, the Montford Park Players attract 18,000 theater-goers annually. Players pass the hat for donations at intermission.
For locally sourced produce, cheese, honey, baked goods and crafts, visit one of the city’s many farmers markets. Check the ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) website for a list of the weekly markets, also known as tailgate markets. You can also drive to the Western North Carolina Farmers Market, which is open daily and fills several sheds on a 36-acre site six miles southwest of downtown. The popular Asheville City Market is in temporary digs on the campus of A-B Tech (340 Victoria Rd) during COVID-19, but should return to downtown in 2022. The River Arts District Farmers Market is Wednesdays from 3pm to 6pm (May-Nov).
Mountain biking in Bent Creek Experimental Forest
Got your bike? For a quick ride only 20 miles from downtown, drive to the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, which sprawls across nearly 6,000 acres of woodlands in Pisgah National Forest. Research about forest management is the primary goal here, but local bikers know it's home to a network of almost 30 miles of trails. Difficulty levels vary. A few trails flow across the North Carolina Arboretum, which is within the Experimental Forest. There are also hiking trails here. Download a trail map from the forest service website.
Hikers are spoiled for choice in Asheville, which sits within a short drive of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Pisgah National Forest, several state parks and Great Smoky Mountains National Park – all filled with trails. For meadows, waterfalls and a swimming hole, drive to Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Big views of mountains are the reward on the Craggy Gardens Pinnacle Trail, which is also on the Parkway. The Appalachian Trail climbs to expansive views at Max Patch, Charlie’s Bunion and Roan Mountain, all within a 75-mile drive.
Come for the craft beer and music, get distracted by the art – an unexpected treasure in this overgrown mountain town. More than 30 art galleries cluster downtown, many of them along busy Biltmore Ave. Public art is also plentiful, with bright murals and quirky sculptures keeping the vibe offbeat. The River Arts District plays host to the largest collection of galleries in the city. You’ll find another handful of galleries in Biltmore Village just outside the entrance to the Biltmore Estate.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
A lush wonderland of thick forests, mossy streams, tumbling cascades and abundant wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. Admission is free, thanks to the Tennessee legislature, which insisted in the early 1930s that the deed transferring ownership of the land to the federal government include the restriction that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed” upon Newfound Gap Rd. Newfound Gap is the lowest mountain pass over the Smoky Mountains and its namesake road is the primary artery across the park, linking North Carolina and Tennessee.
Who needs a pricey waterpark when the kids can get soaked for free in the heart of downtown? After a complete rebuild in the spring of 2021, the Splasheville splash pad in Pack Square Park has reopened – complete with synchronized water jets and colorful lighting. Splasheville is open in summer – and into September – from 10am to 8pm daily, unless there is an event in Pack Square. Check the Asheville Parks & Recreation Facebook page for Splasheville updates.
Friday Night Drum Circle & Live Music
On weekends, downtown Asheville doubles as one enormous performance stage, with the Blue Ridge Mountains as the backdrop. Birthed in the Appalachian Mountains, old-time music and bluegrass are the musical forebears here, but the music scene today is incredibly diverse. Buskers are welcome, and jazz, zydeco and the sounds of a didgeridoo might complement your wanderings. On Friday nights from April through October, the Drum Circle kicks off around 6pm in Pritchard Park. South Slope breweries and festivals often have live music too.
On a multi-acre site beside the Omni Grove Park Inn, the historic Grovewood Village celebrates Appalachian history and handmade arts and crafts in a handful of galleries and museums. The Grovewood Gallery sells high-quality crafts, including jewelry, pottery, glassworks and furniture. The Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum spotlights Biltmore Industries, which encouraged and promoted local craftsmanship in the early 1900s. Grovewood Village once housed the weaving and woodworking operations for this Edith Vanderbilt-backed enterprise. Also on-site is the Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum – check out that Ford Model T!
Basilica of St Lawrence
Your first reaction after stepping into the Basilica of St Lawrence downtown? Whoa, I wasn't expecting this! Designed by the architects behind the Biltmore House, the Basilica was completed in 1909. The granite foundation and the solid-brick walls are topped by the largest freestanding dome in the US – you won’t find wooden or steel beams anywhere inside the structure. The grand interior is marked by ornate stained glass windows and striking tile work.
The city’s colorful murals are an unexpected treasure in this busy mountain town, where craft beers, James Beard nominees and the Blue Ridge Parkway tend to hog the spotlight. Breweries, alleys, the Lexington Avenue Bridge and the River Arts District are your best bets for mural-spotting. For maps and more details, check out the listings in the South Slope Mural Trail. Dolly Parton and Chicken Alley await!
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