Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers is Asheville, North Carolina – a trendy small-ish city devoted to craft beers, vibrant arts, and seemingly endless outdoor activities – all surrounding a Vanderbilt in his full glory. And food! If you require your vacations absolutely swimming in deliciousness, you’ll be wowed by Asheville’s food culture with its critically acclaimed fine dining and well-reviewed and inexpensive restaurants – plus, more than one hundred food trucks.
But lots of small-ish southern cities have art and food. Let’s begin with a marvel only found within Asheville’s confines.
Asheville’s Crown Jewel
George Washington Vanderbilt wasn’t an early founder of Asheville, but he was the one to put Asheville on the family travel map. As a young man, he happened upon this small town, was dazzled by its magnificent mountains, forests, and waterfalls, and decided to build a country home for his one-day family.
One-hundred-and-seventy-five thousand square feet later (with a four-acre footprint), George was ready for a wife. Completed in 1895 (the same year as The Jefferson Hotel and two years after the Dooley mansion at Maymont), and long called the largest privately owned home in the U.S., the Biltmore Estate boasts 250 rooms, thirty-five bedrooms, forty-three bathrooms, and sixty-five fireplaces. George married three years later.
In George’s day, the estate consisted of more than 125,000 acres, but sits today on a tidy 8,000 acres, wreathed in formal gardens, miles of hiking and biking trails, and a working winery set within the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Opened as a museum in 1930, house tours include both an adults’ version and a 50-minute kid version (narrated by Cedric, the Vanderbilts’ Saint Bernard). The kids’ audio corresponds to the adults’ so the family is touring together.
Antler Hill Village, which opened in 2010, is two miles from Biltmore along the main road through the estate. Access to Antler Hill is included in the daily admission to the Biltmore.
Most younger kids will appreciate this village more than the estate with its climbing-and-sliding playground, a petting zoo, a green space for running around, and a fun train exhibit. And they likely won’t turn down ice cream from the creamery.
Parents will find casual food and wine tasting in the village, but hot tip: The winery’s lines can be long, so avoid crowds by tasting at the gift shop at the estate.
There’s a formal restaurant in the village – Cedric’s Tavern (pricey) – and a handful of casual spots to
grab a bite.
Outside of Biltmore is Biltmore Village, originally built in 1895 for the Vanderbilt builders and staff. Today the village is home to a handful of luxury shops, restaurants, and the lovely and historic Episcopal church, Cathedral of All Souls, where George’s daughter, Cornelia, was married in 1924. Open to the public Wednesday through Friday afternoons, there are three services every Sunday.
Doing and Dining in Asheville
There are so many outdoor adventures to be had in Asheville that it could easily have been named Outside-ville.
Adventure Center of Asheville. My kids’ review of the Adventure Center: When can we go back? I could barely pry them away from this exciting spot that offers an array of activities for kids, teens, and adults who love zip-lining, mountain biking, and obstacle course adventuring. You’ll also find whitewater rafting tours (ages four and up), and all activities are led by instructors. Younger kids will love the KidZip, a zip line made for the four- to ten-year-old crowd. The Adventure Center is nine minutes from Biltmore.
Blue Ridge Parkway. One of Asheville’s biggest draws is a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You’ll find several spots to park and marvel at the wondrous views. There are five entrances to the Parkway in the Asheville area.
Drum Circle in Pritchard Park. This free, don’t-miss experience happens every Friday (through October) beginning at about six o’clock. Bring your own drum, dance to your own beat, or just take in the fun.
Pack Square Park. Check out the park’s art, order something tasty at French Broad Chocolate, and let the kids cool off at the popular interactive water feature called Splashville.
Shindig on the Green. This free music festival in Pack Square Park has been jamming for fifty years. The mountain bluegrass music starts at seven on Saturday nights (through early September). Bring camp chairs or a picnic blanket.
Sliding Rock Falls. Featured on the Travel Channel, Sliding Rock delivers a thrill-and-chill ride on a 60-foot natural mountain slide that dumps riders into an eight-foot-deep swimming hole. The site has bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards during warmer months. Sliding Rock is crowded by noon, so arrive early.
Western North Carolina (WNC) Nature Center. This rescue center is a giant yes. Go early to avoid the heat and meet sixty species of wildlife including mountain lions, black bears, otters, owls, wolves, a bobcat named Missy, red pandas, and more.
Hiking, Lakes, and Waterfalls. Asheville is close to about a gazillion amazing hiking trails for families with kids of all ages and abilities, and the mountains surrounding it are teeming with gorgeous lakes with sand and water features.
If you have a waterfall trail bucket list, this will be a very satisfying vacation. Locals say the best waterfalls near Asheville are Rainbow Falls, Catawba Falls, Crabtree Falls, Moore Cove Falls, Mingo Falls, or Looking Glass Falls. Also Triple Falls in DuPont State Forest, which had a brief appearance in the movie Hunger Games, is a three-tiered, 120-foot waterfall, not swimmable, but breathtaking to behold.
If the weather isn’t cooperating or you need a break from outdooring with the family, Asheville is blessed in the inside fun department, too.
Gray Line Historic Trolley Tours of Asheville. I give the Gray Line Tour five thumbs up! We toured at the beginning of our trip to learn about the area from a funny and knowledgeable tour guide.
LaZoom Kids Comedy Tour. Geared toward kids twelve and under, this highly rated tour bus is like a show on wheels. With famously kooky tour guides, the kids will learn about Asheville’s history and modern-day Asheville. Under three are free, and the tour is sixty minutes long.
Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum. Your kids loved the movie Cars? Then they’ll dig this quick vintage car visit. Housed in a 1923 building, this no-charge museum is home to four horse-drawn carriages and nineteen vintage cars, including a rare 1957 Cadillac (only 400 made) and a 1922 fire truck. Surprisingly, all vehicles are in running condition.
Asheville Pinball Museum. Kids of every age will go wild for this in-name-only museum. For a flat entrance fee of $15, the kids can actually play on thirty-five vintage pinball machines and thirty-five video games. Only sixty-five players are allowed in at a time. Closed Tuesdays, so plan accordingly.
Mountain Play Lodge. This indoor run-around spot for kids six and under is a favorite of the locals and ideal for rainy days or when you want to tire out the kids before calling it a night. Ages three and up play for $15, and two and under are $10. Socks are a must. Parents are free, but also need socks.
Well Played Board Game Café. For an inexpensive one-time fee, families can play the zillions of board games at this innovative recreational spot. There’s good food to order, too.
Like its mansion and mountains, Asheville takes its menus seriously. Earlier this year, three Asheville chefs were nominated for the renowned James Beard Award. Additionally, Asheville was the first city in North Carolina to receive the Green Dining designation to mark sustainability and stewardship as part of the North Carolina GreenTravel initiative.
Food Trucks. You’ll often find many of Asheville’s food trucks outside of the breweries and parks. Locals rave about El Querubin, Gourmet Grilled Cheese, The Purple People Feeder, The Usual Suspects Sandwiches, the Wicked Vegans, and over one hundred more. Also consider installing Asheville’s food truck location app on your phone while you’re vacationing.
French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Chocolate calories galore. A don’t-miss with great seating in Asheville’s Pack Square.
Mellow Mushroom. Sure, Carytown has Mellow Mushroom, but Asheville’s MM is a kooky sight to behold. Go for the silly, and stay for the pizza.
Piazza Wood Fired Oven. Where the locals inhale pizza.
Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian. If you love authentic New York Italian, head to Vinnie’s on Biltmore Avenue. On Saturdays, arrive at five to avoid a wait because the word is out on Vinnie’s. Or visit on Mondays for half-off-bottle-of-wine night. Reviews rave about the food, ambiance, servers, and cocktails. Vinnie’s has two locations, and Vinnie’s South is closed on Tuesdays.
Well Bred Bakery. Located in Biltmore Village. The Bakery specializes in bakery treats, salads, and tasty lunch fare.
White Duck Taco. Great Mexican with three locations. The flagship is on the East Bank of the French Broad River.
When You Go and Where You Stay in Asheville!
Driving from the Richmond area to Asheville should take about six hours (with quick gas and potty stops). If only air will do, American, Delta, and United fly from Richmond International to Asheville Regional. The one-hour flight cost about $500 per person round-trip, but this will change and vary widely in the coming year.
Broadly speaking, the weather in Asheville is quite temperate. March to May and September through early November, Asheville temps settle between the high fifties and the mid seventies – perfect weather for taking in Asheville’s beauty in the spring and the splendor of the foliage in the fall.
Are you planning a trip this summer? Don’t despair. Asheville’s July temps hover around eighty-four degrees (thank you, altitude!), while Richmond’s are more consistently in the nineties. Asheville’s rain is similar to Richmond’s, so pack the umbrellas and lightweight rain gear, just in case.
When it comes to lodging, some prefer a quality budget hotel and spending their hard-earned money on activities, while others don’t consider it a vacation if there’s no mint on the pillow. Still others look askance at hotels and want a more home-like setting (think, VRBO or Airbnb).
Given the spectrum available in Asheville, it’s difficult (okay, impossible!) to include it all here. When you read this article under TRAVEL at RFMonline.com, you’ll see lodging options in and near the Biltmore Estate, as well as hotels in Asheville.
And one more thing: Leaving behind a beloved pup when you travel is not fun. Do I have a solution for you! After a bit of research, I found Barkmore Park. This doggie daycare and boarding facility was perfect for our German shepherd River, who gives the Barkmore four paws. Each morning before we dropped him at the daycare, he’d do a happy dance in the back of the vehicle. (River is picky so this was new behavior.) In the end, River played at the daycare during the days, and we brought him back to our pet-friendly hotel at night. Highly recommend.
With that base covered, may I offer my best tip for staying at any schmancy resort while you’re vacationing? Only book a pricey overnight for days when you know you’ll be on the property to use the amenities. On days when you’ll be out and about, stay somewhere budgety, like a Hampton Inn. Otherwise you’re paying big bucks to snooze.
I know I’ve covered a lot of ground here, but that’s what makes this North Carolina city so special. If you merely give Asheville a passing glance, you’ll miss her many layers. Whether you’re planning a few days or a week or longer, once you dig deeper, you’ll find a small city buzzing with family-oriented activity. George Vanderbilt – the man who commissioned the Biltmore for his one-day family – would surely applaud!
Photography: courtesy The Biltmore Company and ExploreAsheville.com