Unique Asheville: A local's Guide

June 9, 2022

Each area of the country has special things you can only find there. Because of its rich history and geography, Asheville has an abundance of these unique experiences.

If you're planning a trip to Asheville, these are the unique experiences and activities that are not to be missed.

Biltmore Estate

George Washington Vanderbilt was the youngest of a very large family that built very large "cottages." So when George built his own "cottage," he outdid them all on an exponential level. That would have made the Biltmore Estate unique in its own right, but he went even further by creating an actual working estate. The Biltmore Estate is a full-fledged working estate to this day. The Biltmore Winery replaced the Biltmore Dairy, and The Cecil family recently offered Pratt and Whitney a hundred acres to build a jet engine plant for only one dollar.

Perhaps more well known is the tradition called a "cabinet of curiosities" that The Biltmore Estate continued. Families like the Vanderbilts collected art, sculpture, and historic artifacts---many of which would later be donated to museums like the Getty. If you've read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you'll remember Lizzy Bennet running into Mr. Darcy while she and her family were touring his mansion in the Lake District. They wouldn't have been just admiring the house but also his own "cabinet of curiosities."

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That's why the Biltmore House is not just unique for the house itself, but the items inside the family have been carefully collected over the years. You'll find details like pen and ink sketches, tapestries, and furniture. Napoleon's chess set may make the headlines, but don't forget the smaller items---like the painting in the Gameroom of dogs cornering a badger. 

fall foliage surrounding Biltmore Estate

Credit: https://www.facebook.com/Biltmore/photos/a.10150772552212619/10157831776577619

Downtown Asheville

The bumper sticker says, "If you're too weird for Asheville, you're too weird." But Downtown Asheville isn't weird--- it's unique. The reason for its unique nature isn't just in the mix of eclectic shops and characters--- it's the history of downtown itself.

My college art teacher explained to our class that Asheville boomed in the Roaring Twenties, leaving the city with a huge debt they chose to pay off instead of defaulting on. This limited downtown development through the Eighties, leaving much of it intact. I haven't seen the mix of architecture in Downtown Asheville anywhere else. 

When you combine the architecture in Downtown Asheville you literally won't find anywhere else with the eclectic local culture you literally won't find anywhere else; it's magic. Today investment in downtown is booming, but it's a very measured development. You'll find the nationally known edgy cafe in a space that may have held a "speakeasy" during the Twenties. When you visit Downtown Asheville don't forget to look for historic connections at places like the Grove Arcade.

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Edwin Wiley Grove built the Grove Arcade in the Twenties, along with the Grove Park Inn and a planned community named Grovewood just east of Asheville. During the Second World War, the Federal Government took over The Grove Arcade, and the Weather Bureau moved in. My college art teacher said there was local speculation that D-Day was planned there. 

The Government stayed there well into the Eighties, preserving the Grove Arcade from demolition. Now restored to Mr. Grove's original vision, you'll find a uniquely Asheville destination. I remember one Saturday browsing the Arcade with a friend, watching glass blowing in one of the studios before grabbing lunch in one of the Arcade's restaurants.

Asheville North Carolina Skyline

Downtown Asheville North Carolina NC Skyline Aerial.

The shops you'll find in Downtown Asheville reflect the history I just described. As time has gone by an eclectic variety of businesses and attractions, have been opened, such as The Battery Park Book Exchange. Located in the Grove Arcade, it's a wonderful place to enjoy conversation with friends. They shut off the wi-fi around 6 or 7 in the evening to encourage conversation. Quite often, I've settled in a chair among the bookshelves, enjoying a coffee or tea while editing a manuscript.

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Across from the Grove Arcade in the old Citizen-Times building, you can enjoy coffee while watching them "cut" LP vinyl records. If you stroll along Haywood Street, you can browse Malaprop's Bookstore before heading back to Battle Square and enjoying the Asheville Pinball Museum, located across from the Grove Arcade in the old Battery Park Hotel. 

This fourteen-story hotel now houses apartments and the Asheville Pinball Museum on the street level. That's where you'll find nearly a hundred pinball machines and arcade games you can play for free on one ticket. Several folks, I know love to go there for hours on end.

Aerial view of Green Man Brewery in the South Slope Brewery District at sunset in Asheville, North Carolina, USA

photo credit: Green Man Brewery via Facebook

The Unique Asheville Music Scene

Asheville has a uniquely rich dining and live music scene. Several nearby cities are almost as vibrant, but you'd have to go to Nashville or Memphis to beat Asheville for live music. This is a tradition uniquely preserved in this area by the Scots-Irish who settled in these remote mountains.

Maggie Greenwald's movie "Songcatcher," starring Phantom of the Opera's Emmy Rossum--- is loosely based on the real-life work of musicologists in the area over a hundred years ago. That's why Old English--- "King James"---language like "vittles" from the old "victuals" or even the regional use of "polecat" for skunk survived in the region.

The music scene you'll find in Asheville has come a long way from Songcatcher, but that tradition is still alive and well. Feed and Seed in Fletcher is an old farm store where folks get together for jam sessions. There were informal Friday night music sessions at a house near the Farmer's Market in West Asheville for years. Don't forget that David Holt and Steve Martin are two national celebrities that continue this tradition on stage.

Three years ago, I previewed Ken Burns' "Country Music" documentary at a special viewing at the University of North Carolina's Highsmith Student Union. Perhaps the most surprising part of the film was when Asheville itself popped up as the place where Jimmie Rodgers—The Singing Brakeman— was living when he first emerged on the country music scene. Asheville's tradition of music runs deep.

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Of course, the music scene today stretches across all genres. The Orange Peel is one of the best-known venues. With famous artists frequenting their stage. These have included actress Zooey Deschanel's with her duo She and Him. I still remember a friend of mine talking about seeing Ice Cube and his son perform there.

The club scene in the entire area is incredibly rich in live music. In West Asheville, Haywood Road's old stores from the Twenties have been renovated to house a variety of music venues. The Isis Music Hall was an actual theater in the twenties and a nice pizza place in the Nineties. Today it features incredible artists in a beautiful environment. If you step upstairs, you'll find seats directly overlooking the stage or chat with friends on the red leather couch along the back wall.

Of course, if you're looking at the Asheville Music Scene, don't forget the Drum Circle in Pritchard Park. On Friday nights, you'll find it full of people enjoying the original crowd-sourced music. The Drum Circle has grown in popularity, and even if I forget it's Friday night until the folks walking along the streets carrying their drums reminds me.

Wide shot of the Friday Night Drum Circle with lots of people attending in Asheville, North Carolina , USA

photo credit: Steve McClure via Facebook

Outdoor Adventures

You can enjoy outdoor experiences anywhere, but Asheville offers a particular brand of outdoor adventures. Thanks to the efforts of the Biltmore Estate's Vanderbilt family, much of the area's forest and mountains are preserved for future generations like us. Now you and I can enjoy the hiking trails and rivers they worked so hard to preserve.

The Pisgah National Forest is one of the premier attractions when it comes to outdoor adventures. If you're into mountain biking, don't forget to bring yours along. There are countless trails to explore!

If you'd rather move on your feet, there are as many hiking trails. Don't forget to bring your comfortable shoes!

The Dupont State Recreational Forest and Gorges State Park sit just south of Asheville, and Shining Rock Wilderness are just to their west. This end of the Blue Ridge Mountains is not only beautiful but well preserved.

Photo over looking Craggy Gardens with a road running through it with a blue cloudy sky in Asheville, North Carolina, USA

photo credit: Roanline via Facebook

You'll find any level of outdoor experience you're looking for here, from strolls through Craggy Gardens on The Blue Ridge Parkway to the Hurricane Creek "Primitive Campground" near Otto. (I don't know what a "primitive campground" is, but it sounds like the room service will be well below one star, and the wi-fi might be dodgy.)

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West of Asheville, you'll find the Nantahala National Forest, along with the entire Great Smoky Mountains. North of Asheville, you can climb Mount Mitchell. You could do the Black Mountain Marathon and Mount Mitchell Challenge in February if you really want to have some fun. This is a one-day challenge where very energetic locals trek nearly seven thousand feet up and back in one day.

If you only have a few hours to devote to your outdoor adventures, don't forget about:

  • zip-lining
  • paddle boarding
  • canoeing
  • tubing on the French Broad River

Or just strolling around one of Asheville's many parks. There's a velodrome in Carrier Park where the Asheville Speedway used to be. You can race your bicycle on the same track stock cars once traveled. The city even has a bicycle service "station" with an air pump and various tools attached to it.

Two couples and a guide rafting on French Broad River on a sunny day in Asheville, North Carolina, USA

photo credit: Matt Wienk via Facebook

Asheville Arts, Culture, and Crafts

The Arts and Crafts Scene in Asheville is unique because of the history and people you'll find here. The University of North Carolina in Asheville, Warren Wilson College, and Black Mountain College are only a few of the reasons for this. While George Washington Vanderbilt was busy building a working estate, his wife Edith was busy creating Biltmore Industries. She had a goal of teaching traditional handmade crafts to locals.

You can see the result of her work next to the Omni Grove Park Inn. They were moved here in 1917 after the Inn's owner bought it. These efforts are similar to those you'll find in the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This rich arts heritage laid the groundwork for what you can find in Downtown Asheville's River Arts District.

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The River Arts District is a fantastic Asheville success story. Originally warehouses along the river, the area has become a vibrant art and cultural center. On any Friday night, you'll find residents and visitors alike browsing studios and enjoying the restaurants that opened there. The city has created a fantastic riverwalk area with sidewalks and a double bicycle lane along the French Broad River.

Photo of the door to the Art Garden with a sculpture to the right of it at the River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina, USA

photo credit: River Arts District Artists, Asheville via Facebook

As outstanding as the River Arts District is, don't forget about the galleries on Biltmore Avenue or in neighboring towns. Many of these artists grew up here, while others came to enjoy the art scene. West Asheville's Haywood Road has recently seen a revival in arts and fine dining. Don't forget to drive west through what used to be "downtown West Asheville" and look for murals along the way.

When in Asheville, do as the locals do and check out these five hidden gems.


David Lanier Shook headshot contributing writer for Tripster

Written By D. Lanier

D. Lanier Shook lives in Upstate South Carolina, which is right in between the most amazing travel destinations. He was homeschooled without tv, but finds hi ...

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