These recommendations were written in 2021 assuming it’s the right season and with the forethought of the covid pandemic not being a factor. Be sure to do your own research to make sure any of these suggestions are operating or feasible during the actual season of your visit. This is for general tours and activities. Note that Eating, Drinking and the Outdoors each have their own dedicated posts.
One of the most fun ways to get to know Asheville is to book a ride on the La Zoom Comedy Tour bus, which starts and ends downtown, and also gives you a taste of the edges of town, all with a festive and irreverent flare and a libation friendly ride. The Asheville Trolley tour is informative and also fun, with less zaniness.
Check out the weekly publication Mountain Express. New issues come out every Wednesday, free from distribution boxes and shelves all around town, or also online: https://mountainx.com/ It’s the best resource for “what’s happening” any given week or weekend. Such as: What bands are playing where, what festivals or fundraisers are going on, listings for dance, theater, lectures, comedy, kid-friendly, etc.
For live music, unless there’s a specific band or ticketed show you aim to see, we recommend bars where local musicians/bands play for tips. Our favorite is 5 Walnut downtown (both its name and address). It’s a wine bar with a speakeasy feel, often eccentric local bands every night of the week, always fun. On a warm night, get a window seat if you can as it’s fun not just to listen to the bands, but watch the passing pedestrians stop and listen and wish they were sitting where you were. Other venues that frequently have musicians playing are Jack of the Wood pub, the Cork and Keg at the Weinhaus, and the Asheville Club.
The Grey Eagle is one of our smallest ‘big’ venues and brings worldwide and local musicians alike in a setting that from the outside could be mistaken for rust belt abandonment. Most shows are ticketed but they do have evening shows in the patio some days. There is also a taqueria on location which is an added bonus.
The Salvage Station is a great outside music venue, particularly with navigating pandemic limitations. It has an indoor space and stage as well, but the ample outside space along the French Broad River is the main draw, with its repurposed scrap for landscaping and decor shows where it got its name. Even without music it’s a cool space to meet friends and share a drink.
In the summer months, on Saturday nights, the city hosts Shindig on the Green in Pack Square in downtown Asheville. It’s more of a down home, family vibe where local musicians and clogging dance groups are invited to take the stage. Stop by for a short visit, or bring a blanket and/or picnic to sit a spell.
To clarify, we’re not talking about the electronic dance club scene, but more community dances with live musicians. Contra dancing is very popular with young and old alike – go expecting to dance with friendly strangers. It’s the kind of “caller” mingling dance where you can go solo and even if you go with a partner, you’ll end up dancing with strangers. Swing dancing (and its various forms) is also popular, and Square Dancing can be found in more sporadic venues. All these dances tend to happen in mid-week rotations rather than weekends, and schedules and venues can vary (especially as the pandemic lingers), so we recommend checking out these resources for the latest offerings:
Old Farmer’s Ball (Contra, English Country, Waltz): https://oldfarmersball.com/
Dance Asheville (All types and workshops): http://danceasheville.com/
Swing Asheville (Swing, Lindy, Balboa, Blues): http://www.swingasheville.com/
Square Dancing / Mixers: https://www.facebook.com/ashevillesquaredance/
Planning to pay a visit to America’s largest privately owned home? With its hefty entrance fees, you’ll certainly be “paying” for a visit. The question is if it is worth it. If you think of it as what it is – a whole “estate” with a variety of structures and landscaping to spend a lot of time in, then it will probably seem worth it and more. But if you think of it as just a short mansion tour as part of a brief Asheville visit, it might not seem worth it or even possible. We suggest to allow at least a half day on the estate to make the most of it.
Here’s what I recommend (Isaiah used to work there by the way) Of course the house itself is the big draw. Built and furnished in the 1890’s by George Vanderbilt, it is akin to the royal palaces of Europe. It will take an hour to tour the house. Near the house are amazing terraces and gardens. Walk them all, and give yourself another hour or two. The best view of the house is the overlook that most people “over look” – the Diana statue with a pergola pavilion that sits on the hill above the house. This is the postcard view where you can see the house with the mountains in the background. Most people miss it because it’s out of their way if they didn’t park near it. If you can park at the upper reaches of A1 lot, then you can stop there on your way down to the house, otherwise you’ll need to walk up the hill. Take time to walk the flowers gardens, conservatory and landscaped foot paths. There’s no “official” parking down where the trails end at the Bass Pond, so you may need to walk back or arrange for a curbside pickup. The other major part of the estate is Antler Hill Village and Winery. The 1902 Historic Horse Barn is original and along with the Farmyard, has displays and demonstrations about the working side of the estate beyond the mansion. There are several restaurants in this area, ranging from the take out Smoke House or Creamery, to finer dining at Cedric’s Tavern or the Bistro. While the food there is good, we highly recommend packing a picnic for the experience, as a blanket will afford you a better setting than any of the restaurants There are two awesome spots to picnic: 1. On the grassy lawn in front of Diana (mentioned above) 2. On the northwest banks of the Lagoon accessible by gravel road, looking over the water reflecting the majestic house above. Even if you don’t picnic, a photo stop at both these spots is a must, and they are typically uncrowded because people don’t know they are there or how to get to them. Another tip if you like to avoid crowds, do the Antler Hill Village area first and visit the House the last hour it is open; then wander all the gardens in relative solitude (they’re open till dark), while everyone else is either heading home or on the other side of the estate. Don’t forget just driving into and around the estate takes time too, so all in all, give Biltmore 5-7 hours and try to go with when it’s nice weather to be outside.
You don’t have to stay in a room at the Grove Park Inn to visit this natural stone grand hotel constructed during Asheville’s pre-depression era boom. There’s not a lot of public places where you can get the iconic view of Asheville downtown with the mountains in the background, but the Grove Park Inn’s terrace is one of them. Fancy dining is there too, but we recommend just grabbing a “to go” drink from the Market / Gift shop and sip it while enjoying the sun and view on the terrace, where anyone is welcome to stand and relax. Note, this view is also western facing, so it’s perfect for sunsets. You might also enjoy driving or jogging the winding roads above the Grove Park Inn and intentionally getting lost gazing at the houses. These roads are heavily wooded and interspersed with “dream home” type architecture.
It can be a bit muddled separating “kid-friendly” from “adult-friendly” or even “dog-friendly” in Asheville since so many of the things we enjoy (walks, hikes, breweries, festivals) are welcoming to all kinds, but here are some recommendations for places that do it better than others.
Breweries that have more open outdoor space for kids to run around and enjoy themselves along with the adults: Rabbit Rabbit (Asheville Brewing) is downtown, but most such open air places are on the edges or outskirts of town: New Belgium Brewery, Zillacoah Brewery, Highland Brewery, Sweeten Creek Brewery, Blue Ghost Brewery, Turgua Brewery, Whistle Hop Brewery and Sierra Nevada.
Similarly restaurant / bars that have spacious and creative outdoor settings: White Duck Taco on Riverside Drive, the Salvage Station, Creekside Tavern, 12 Bones & Wedge Brewery at the Foundation (ask the kids if they like the graffiti art on the buildings better than the artists’ work in the studios inside the buildings).
Another popular indoor place for Families is Asheville Pizza & Brewing on Merrimon Ave. Watch a popular film while eating a meal, or visit their big arcade, or just enjoy the quirky decor. They show family friendly movies in the afternoon, but it’s more about the place than the movies.
In summer, put them in a swimsuit and go downtown to “Splashville” in Pack Square (it’s a small fountain plaza that shoots spouts of water at random from holes in the tiles).
As for hiking, kids may need more than just scenery to enjoy themselves. Work in some swim holes to play and cool off in the summer. If doing my most recommended hike to Black Balsam (see outdoor section), make a stop at Skinny Dip Falls at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 417. Despite the name, people are clothed and it’s a popular stop with families and youth groups. Upstream from there a few miles is Graveyard Fields, and the lower falls create a great swim hole, while the more level zone upstream from the falls allow for pleasant wading and splashing.
If going to Biltmore with kids, be sure to let them explore the paths of the gardens and spend a lot of time in the Antler Hill Village area where there’s the Farmyard with animals, the Historic Horse Barn with demonstrations, the Creamery, and a playground.
For older kids (over 70 lbs) consider Navitat for zip-lining and ropes course elements, located about a half hour north of Asheville.
The Asheville Museum of Science and the Asheville Art Museum both downtown, have kid friendly, and kid centered exhibits. In East Asheville, the Nature Center is more or less a small zoo and very kid focused.
For a taste of what “gaming” looked like in the good ol’ days, check out the Asheville Pinball Museum. For a fee and time allotment, you can play unlimited games.
It’s always good to grab a free copy of the Mountain Express, found almost everywhere around town, to see if any local events grab your interest. They maintain specific listings for kids and family in the events section.
Just For Fun…
For a fast and festive sample of Asheville’s variety of things to experience, check out my video below. Several years ago, I made this compilation video featuring my favorite things and places in Asheville. I have a history of doing numeric challenges to match my age on my birthday. For both my 40th, 44th, and 50th birthdays, I ran my age in miles on routes around town and to significant places in my life. For my 45th, I organized the “26.Brew” Asheville Brewery Marathon in which we hit every Avl brewery (on foot) en route to sampling 45 local beers. But on my 47th, I danced my way all over town, along with my faithful dog, as a tribute to our eclectic city. Enjoy.