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Why a Trip to Asheville, NC is a Breath of Fresh Air
Calm, cool, and quirky are words that come to mind when describing the small mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains 2 hours east of Gatlinburg, Asheville offers a breath of fresh air from the heat and humidity of southern cities and a slower, friendlier pace than larger northern ones. Asheville is truly a haven for lovers of the outdoors, arts, food and drink, and history. My family and I stopped there on a whim for a few days at the end of our annual New Orleans-New York road trip recently, and we can’t stop talking about it. Here’s why you should check out this city nicknamed “The Land of the Sky.”
Elevation and outdoors opportunities
Asheville promises low humidity, cool, clean air, and plenty of hills — conditions that New Orleanians find themselves longing for, especially in summer. The city sits at 2,134 feet of elevation — that’s nearly 4 times higher than Louisiana’s tallest peak, Driskill Mountain (535 ft.). Your kids will marvel as their ears pop as you climb in elevation (chewing gum helps!). A visit in the fall promises breathtaking views of fall foliage in the surrounding mountains (one of the many reasons why my family plans to return).
Many visitors to Asheville use the city as a base for exploring the surrounding region. There are endless trails and hikes possible along the Blue Ridge Parkway, including a visit to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet. Whitewater rafting is possible all along the French Broad River, which flows through the city. Nearby state and national parks offer many camping opportunities and the Asheville Botanical Gardens are located just outside the city, near the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
During our visit, we chose to focus on exploring downtown Asheville, which is incredibly pedestrian-friendly, offers lots of hills, centrally-located Pack Square Park, and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
As seasoned New Orleans foodies, my family and I were really impressed by the diverse variety of restaurants, eateries, and coffee shops in Asheville’s downtown — especially for a city with a population of just over 90,000. We were faced with the problem that often plagues us in the Big Easy: so many good choices, but where to go? A dizzying variety of farm-to-table and vegan/vegetarian-friendly stops abound, as well as restaurants with traditional Southern fare, Japanese, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Mediterranean, or Mexican cuisine.
Pack’s Tavern, located right next to Pack Square Park, is one of the following restaurants and eateries we ate at (and highly recommend). The yellow 1932 Model A Ford Truck parked outside the restaurant makes it easy to find, and had me thinking of the landmark truck outside Jacques-Imo’s on Oak Street in New Orleans. At Pack’s local rainbow trout, grass-fed Bison meatballs, and brisket Mac and cheese are some of the most popular items on the menu.
A few blocks away is Double D’s Coffee and Desserts. Housed in a London double-decker bus and nestled in a courtyard, this one-of-a-kind cafe features “fancy drinks and delicious treats. (I’m still dreaming about the Iced Dirty Chai I savored here — made with Espresso and a Chai Latte!). Our kids begged us to visit Ben and Jerry’s which did not disappoint. I ordered “Colin Kaepernick’s Change the Whirled” 100% vegan ice cream, made with Sunflower Butter, caramel, fudge chips, and graham cracker and chocolate swirls. None of us could believe it was non-dairy– truly delicious!
During our stay, we also visited Shanghai Dumpling House (which offers delectable ramen as well as traditional dumplings) and French Broad Chocolate Lounge (a pastry shop named for the local river, where all of the “bars, bonbons, brownies, confections, and pastries” are made from their own bean-to-bar chocolate in their Asheville factory).
Twisted Laurel (Mediterranean-inspired comfort food), Tupelo Honey (well-known for its fried chicken and waffles and fried green tomatoes), and Chai Pani (Indian restaurant awarded the 2022 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant) were also highly recommended to us (and are at the top of our list to visit next time!).
Bursting with Breweries
Asheville offers about 30 breweries in and around the city. It’s very much a craft beer city. Many breweries and their restaurants are designed to be family and dog friendly. We saw kids, pets, and families dining outside at Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium location as we walked around town. New Belgium Brewing Company, famous for its “Fat Tire” beer, opened its Asheville location in 2016. Most restaurants offer local beers on their menus, so you don’t have to go to a brewery to sample local favorites. Pack’s Tavern offered us a “light to dark” beer tasting flight before we settled on our draft of choice. Shanghai Noodle House included beers from Asheville’s original craft brewer, Highland Brewing Company.
Arts and shopping galore
Arts and shopping lovers should start their exploration of Asheville at the Grove Arcade, America’s first indoor shopping mall, designed by E.W. Grove and opened in 1929. The Arcade itself is a work of art — an architectural marvel situated in the center of downtown. The bottom floor of the Arcade features shops, restaurants, and galleries. My kids’ favorite shop was Enter the Earth, which features a dazzling variety of gems, minerals, and fossils from around the world. (I was excited to visit the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, also housed inside the Grove Arcade, which features a bookstore, wine bar, AND cafe in one — but it was closed the day we visited.)
Another shopper’s delight is the Woolworth Walk, a privately and locally owned gallery housed inside an original 1938 F.W. Woolworth building just a few blocks from the Grove Arcade. Woolworth showcases the work of about 170 local artists, offering decorative arts and crafts, fine art, jewelry, handmade clothing and accessories in its 20,000 square feet of space. Visitors can also stop by the Woolworth Soda Fountain, designed to look like an original 1950s Woolworth’s Luncheonette. Gallery goers are welcome to pause here or peruse art as they sip one (or several) of the unique milkshakes, soft drinks, or coffees on offer (we enjoyed a lemon sorbet float with strawberry boba during our visit– a drink that definitely wouldn’t have been on the original Woolworth’s menu).
Asheville’s downtown streets are filled with dozens of galleries and unique shops. Art lovers may also wish to visit the Asheville Art Museum (right next to French Broad Chocolate), or the River Arts District, located just outside of downtown.
Located about 30 miles from downtown Asheville is “America’s Largest Home:” the Biltmore Estate. Built by the Vanderbilt Family in 1895, the Biltmore mansion features four floors with 250 rooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, 3 kitchens, and some antique elevators. Set on 8,000 acres of land and still owned by descendants of the Vanderbilts, it is considered the third largest private home in the world. At the Biltmore, visitors can tour the mansion, gardens, and grounds, hike or bike trails on the expansive property, and enjoy an on-site winery and dining. The immersive art exhibit “Leonardo Da Vinci: 500 years of Genius” is running until February 2023. Visitors can even opt to stay overnight at the village hotel, cottages, or Biltmore Inn. Clearly, a visit to the Biltmore requires at least one entire full day — or easily up to several days or even a week — which is why my family skipped the Biltmore during our short stay in Asheville (all the more reason to return again soon!)
Asheville’s downtown is also home to a Pinball Museum featuring 35 pinball machines and 35 classic video games. The $15 fee per person allows visitors to play any of the 70 games for as long as they wish; admission is limited to 65 total visitors.
Asheville’s downtown area includes several newly-installed historical markers commemorating lynchings that took place in the area during the Jim Crow era. The Buncombe County Remembrance Project, completed through a partnership with the Equal Justice Initiate (EJI), “aims to honor and commemorate Black Buncombe County residents by acknowledging racial violence” that took place from 1877-1950. On these markers, visitors can now read about the lives of John Humphries, Bob Brackett, and Hezekiah Rankin, who are also memorialized at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Asheville is truly a world in itself. It’s a community where all are welcome and accepted, and the city and surrounding region truly offer something for everyone of all ages and backgrounds. While it’s a 10-hour drive from New Orleans (nearly the same distance away as Gatlinburg, just further east), it’s a destination that can be easily combined with a longer stay in the Blue Ridge or Smoky Mountains, or as my family experienced, as a truly memorable pit stop on a much longer road trip. Do yourself a favor, and plan a trip soon!*
*If you go: Try NOT to go on a Tuesday (many museums, restaurants, and shops are closed on Tuesdays!)