Asheville is a city in a very good mood. Whether it's the mountain air, the buskers, the craft breweries, the dynamic food scene or the hordes of relieved hikers just off the Appalachian Trail bringing the magic, it’s hard to pinpoint.
But the city exudes a collegial vibe. And the whole shebang is backdropped by the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville is a busy place with lots going on, but this list of top things to do will get you started.
1. Wander downtown Asheville
When you fall in love with Asheville, it will likely be while wandering downtown on a Friday night. Buskers play banjo on the corner. Patios buzz with diners. The purple LaZoom bus rattles by with its joke-y joie de vivre. And the thumping beat of the drum circle adds a primeval edge to the scene. Daytime wanderings are equally appealing. You can admire off-beat murals, pop into indie shops or discover the history of Asheville while following the Urban Trail. And the nearby South Slope breweries? Most open at noon on weekends.
2. Order a Dessert Flight at French Broad Chocolate Lounge
If you’re having a tough time deciding which confection to choose at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, consider the Dessert Flight. This decadent platter includes five different desserts, each with at least a whisper of chocolate: shortbread with chocolate ganache, a hazelnut crunch bonbon, a strawberry macaron with dark chocolate ganache, chocolate mousse and a scoop of coffee-nib ice cream. The chic lounge overlooks Pack Square downtown.
3. See the sunflowers at the Biltmore
More than 140,000 sunflowers bloom on the Biltmore Estate in summer. The bright yellow flowers can grow to a height of eight feet and typically bloom for one week in July and again for a week in early September. Completed in 1895 for shipping magnate George Washington Vanderbilt II, the enormous estate, with its lush gardens and manicured grounds, is Asheville’s premier attraction. You’ll see the sunflowers while driving to Antler Village & the Winery after taking the house tour. Tickets start at $76 per adult (yes, that much).
4. Get into the rhythm at the Friday Night Drum Circle
What began as a 10-person drum session in 2001 has become a downtown tradition drawing hundreds of spectators and a slew of drummers – not to mention belly dancers, hula-hoopers, music-loving families and folks simply looking for a fun communal experience. Held in Pritchard Park, the free event lasts from 6pm to 10pm on Friday nights, typically from April through October. Feel free to bring your own drum and join in!
5. Sample craft beer
With 48 craft breweries in its greater metropolitan area, Asheville is appropriately nicknamed Beer City USA (in fact, it’s second only to Portland, Maine, for the highest number of breweries per capita). Best part? Breweries here exude a cooperative vibe that encourages exploring. If you’re staying downtown, walk to the compact South Slope District, a former industrial neighborhood that's now home to ten craft breweries. Further afield, heavy-hitters New Belgium and the Sierra Nevada are also drawing thirsty crowds to their taprooms. For a world of choice – but in an intimate pub – stop by the bar at longtime favorite Thirsty Monk. The Asheville Ale Trail will get you started.
6. Go on a foraging tour
If you enjoy berry picking but want to up your game, sign up for a foraging tour with No Taste Like Home. These knowledgeable folks will meet you in a nearby natural area for a morning of foraging for wild local edibles, which may include mushrooms and fruit. Sample your discoveries on the trail with your guide, watch a cooking demo and then take the rest of your plants to a participating restaurant, where the chef will whip up your find into an appetizer.
7. Hike, paddle or mountain bike the great outdoors
The Blue Ridge Mountains are beacons for adventure. Trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway lead to waterfalls, wildflowers and grassy balds with sweeping views. Paddlers seeking whitewater beeline to the French Broad River while mountain bikers hurtle down singletrack in Pisgah National Forest. Ziplines and canopy tours are scattered across the mountain foothills. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, another adventure hotspot, is 55 miles west of the city.
8. Get immersed in local culture at the Folk Art Center
With three galleries, a well-stocked gift shop and daily craft demonstrations (Mar-Oct), the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway is the best place in the region to immerse in Southern Appalachian arts and crafts. The Allanstand Craft Shop sells high-quality jewelry, textiles, pottery and glassworks, all made by artisans from Southern Highland Craft Guild. The galleries showcase contemporary and traditional pieces and works from the permanent collection.
9. Sample local barbecue
BBQ fans are divided: 12 Bones or Buxton Hall? Perched beside the French Broad River in the River Arts District, 12 Bones is beloved for its slow-cooked smoky meats and mouthwatering sides. Buxton Hall prepares its pork Eastern-Carolina-style, infusing a whole hog with a peppery vinegar sauce, then slow-cooking it over hardwood coals. With James Beard nominee Elliott Moss as pitmaster, this is the place to eat before exploring the South Slope breweries.
10. Have a sunset cocktail at the Omni Grove Park Inn
Mother Nature shares some of her best work just beyond the terrace at the Omni Grove Park Inn, particularly at sunset. With clouds aglow, forests and mountains on the horizon and stone craftsmanship framing the view, it's an inspiring place to recap your day – over fancy cocktails, of course. In fact, the entire hotel, an Arts and Crafts-style lodge that opened in 1913, evokes a long-lost era of glamour and adventure.
11. See live music
Old-time music and bluegrass were birthed in the Southern Appalachians, and this high-lonesome heritage is the default musical vibe across the city. But an influx of innovative musicians keeps the traditional sounds fresh, and the music scene is thriving. Most music venues are on the small side, so performances feel up-close and personal. The Orange Peel welcomes big-name indie bands, while the Grey Eagle showcases up-and-coming local, regional and national acts playing a mix of genres. Breweries often have live music too.
12. Visit unique museums
No quarters are needed at the Asheville Pinball Museum, where you can play as many games as you want on the old-school pinball machines with paid admission. There are about 70 machines available for play. The interactive Moogseum spotlights the work of Dr Bob Moog, a long-time Asheville resident who invented the first commercial synthesizer, which electronically reproduces the sounds of instruments. Both museums are downtown.
13. Savor tapas as Cúrate
In a city dubbed Foodtopia, it seems ill-advised to focus on just one restaurant. But consider Cúrate a gateway culinary experience that will inspire you to discover what the rest of the chefs here have to offer. Opened by Chef Katie Button and her Catalan husband Félix Meana in 2011, Cúrate was at the forefront of Asheville’s transformation into a nationally acclaimed dining destination. Folks from far and wide continue to clamor for a spot at this intimate yet festive restaurant that showcases the sensual flavors of authentic Spanish tapas.
14. Learn about area plant life at the North Carolina Arboretum
With 65 acres of gardens, groomed hiking and biking trails and innovative exhibits blending nature and art, the North Carolina Arboretum is a pretty place to escape. The themed gardens reveal the diversity of plant life in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and their designs often nod to the region's cultural heritage. The Quilt Garden replicates a traditional quilt-block pattern – but rendered with blooming flowers.
15. Explore the River Arts District
Aging warehouses along the French Broad River now house a diverse collection of galleries and working studios. Indie restaurants, hip coffee shops and scrappy Wedge Brewing Co keep the neighborhood buzzing throughout the day. More than 180 artists exhibit and sell their work – jewelry, paintings, ceramics, glassware, metal textiles, and wood – in the still-growing neighborhood, which stretches one mile along the river southwest of downtown. A gallery walk with workshops, demos, live music and wine tastings occurs on the second Saturday of the month.
16. Shop local...and regional
There are numerous shopping districts in Asheville, but the best all have one thing in common: an abundance of independent owners and locally produced goods. Downtown is chock-full of local shops, from galleries and bookshops to chocolate boutiques and outdoor stores. Art in all its forms is sold in galleries across 23 buildings in the River Arts District. Craft galleries are a highlight in the town of Black Mountain just up the road.
17. Take a LaZoom City Comedy Tour
Climb aboard the purple bus for a raucous comedy tour of the city. Learn about Asheville’s history and its coolest hidden spots on a drive through the historic downtown, the South Slope District and the River Arts District. Dogs are allowed onboard, and there’s a brewery stop along the way. Kids tours, a ghost tour and a band-and-beer tour are also offered.