A three-day itinerary of what to eat, drink and do… that doesn’t include the Biltmore.
Confession: I have been meaning to visit Asheville, North Carolina for years. It has been described to me by various East Coast friends as no less than charming, delicious, eclectic and outdoorsy. Since that is a short list of my favorite things, I really had no excuse not to have visited. But for one reason or another, it just never happened.
But that recently changed – thank goodness – and I must say that Asheville does not disappoint. It welcomes you with its hippie charms, dazzles you with its seriously delicious food, and inspires you to get outside with its 360-degree mountain views. It celebrates its local breweries and is beyond farm-to-fork. It is a place to take a minute to breathe and to remind yourself not to stress over the small stuff.
What follows is a short list of recommendations for how to spend three glorious days in Asheville. I suppose now that it has been named as Lonely Planet’s top U.S. destination to visit in 2017 and it is among Travel + Leisure’s top 15 U.S. cities, there’s never been a better time to discover this mountain gem.
This itinerary is scaled with a long weekend in mind. All opinions are my own and have not been sponsored. Notably, it does not include a visit to the Biltmore, arguably the biggest tourism draw to the region. This is not because I have anything against stately old homes, but rather because my priorities for a short trip like this lean toward the food- and outdoors- related. I have been told that one can happily spend hours exploring the Biltmore… so if you have enough time, you may want to factor that in to your stay.
Where to Stay:
First things first: where will you stay? We ultimately decided on an Airbnb in the River Arts District. (New to Airbnb? Click here to receive $40 off your first stay.) To be honest, I was very torn between staying somewhere in town versus going all out for a cabin in the mountains. Ultimately, for this first visit, I think staying close to downtown was the way to go. The River Arts District is quiet and residential while still very short drive to restaurants and shops, not to mention all the quirky street art that Asheville is known for. I found that there are not a ton of rental properties available in the city limits, so plan accordingly.
What to Eat:
Assuming you are arriving on Friday evening, your next order of business should be finding something good great to eat.
Enter: Gan Shan Station.
Set in a refurbished gas station, this restaurant is beyond hip but somehow not full of itself. The prices are reasonable and the service is prompt. Gan Shan has long been on my radar since the chef was also one of the founders of Charleston’s Xiao Bao Biscuit. After our drive down from D.C., we were famished and ordered accordingly: a sampling of meat dumplings, Korean chicken wings, salt and pepper tofu, pork ramen, drunken noodles, and green curry chicken. The flavors are bold and the dishes are beautiful. If I lived in Asheville I would definitely be a regular. If the weather is nice, sit outside on their covered patio that is surrounded by greenery. I would love to go back and try one of their “Sunday Supper” pop-ups that feature collaborations with other area chefs, or maybe a visit to their chef’s table to celebrate a special occasion.
143 Charlotte Street
Open Monday – Saturday, 11:30 am – 10 pm. Closed Sundays.
Dog friendly patio
What to Do:
On the way to dinner, be sure to fit in a little art hunting. Click here to plan your visit to a local studio along the artist’s walk located in the west side of town. Asheville is a city made for Instagram… find your favorite backdrop by checking out this list of popular spots compiled by the Local Adventurer blog.
If it’s Friday, be sure to check out the drum circle located at Pritchard Park downtown. It’s a true community effort… drummers come and go, young and old dance in the square. The beat starts up in early evening and continues until about 10 pm. It reminds me of a better organized version of the impromptu drum circles of Meridian Hill park in D.C.
What to Drink:
Asheville has no shortage of cocktail options. For the literary among us, I suggest a visit to the downtown Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. Their (perfect IMHO) motto is “dogs welcome, people tolerated.” This place has a delightful collection of used books of every genre, a coffee bar, and a focus on wine and champagne. They also serve off one serious cheese plate that could serve as a meal unto itself. Quiet and casual, it’s a great spot to cozy up on a cold day.
1 Page Avenue #101
Open until 11 pm Thursday – Saturday; closes at 9 pm on Sundays.
Dog friendly inside and out!
For something a little different, but also cozy, check out Sovereign Remedies for craft cocktails. The bar area of this downtown spot feels like you are hanging out in a friend’s quirky sitting room circa 1920 or so, with big picture windows, houseplants, beautiful industrial chic bar, etc. The cocktail menu is appropriately classic, but with some twists. I loved the Root Daiquiri = rum + sarsaparilla + dandelion. The bar is friendly and the people watching is top quality. If the weather is nice, there’s a few tables for outdoor seating.
29 N Market St
Open late night until 2 am.
Reservations available for brunch/dinner.
What to Eat:
When a donut is named Bon Appetit’s 2016 Dessert of the Year, it demands your attention. Get up early and head over to Hole Doughnuts to pick up a dozen or so of these made-to-order, perfectly-imperfect, light-and-airy little guys. The Toasted Almond Sesame Cinnamon flavor is unlike any other donut you have experienced, I promise.
As an interesting side note, check out the story behind the original owner’s decision to sell the company (after it was crowned best of 2016!) to the current owners. I have respect for her decision to step away at such a lucrative but undoubtedly stressful moment. And I can attest that the quality of the donuts is stellar, no matter who is at the helm.
168 Haywood Road – near Historic West Asheville… look for the little blue truck.
Open 7:30 am – 2 pm, closed Tuesdays.
What To Do:
Spend most of the day getting lost downtown. One of the things that struck me most about Asheville is how much there is to do and see compared to the size of the city. You can easily spend hours wandering. A short list of things not to miss: Mast General Store (historic outfitter that has everything you didn’t know you needed!), Purl’s Yarn Emporium (for the crafter in your life), and Loft of Asheville (for fun and funky gifts). Another testament to the greatness of this town is the fact that it is home to the United States’ first official Dog Welcome Center. If you need a snack while you wander, stop by the Gourmet Chip Company (think fresh hot potato chips with a variety of toppings) and/or Double D’s bus for specialty coffee served out of an English double decker bus. Because, why not?
Dog Welcome Center – 1 Battle Square
Double D’s – 41 Biltmore Avenue
Gourmet Chip Company – 43 ½ Broadway Street
Loft of Asheville – 53 Broadway Street
Mast General Store – 15 Biltmore Avenue
Purl’s Yarn Emporium – 10 Wall Street
What to Eat:
After all that walking, it’s most likely time for dinner. While Asheville is a town chalk-full of restaurants, I would like to highlight two options for your consideration. First, The Marketplace, one of restaurants that pioneered the farm-to-table movement in Asheville. It is a place that is very proud of the agricultural heritage of North Carolina. This feels like a special occasion restaurant, but it is not flashy. Instead, it impresses you with the chef’s clear quiet confidence in its seasonal menu. I think I ordered the best out of our group – go for the sunburst farms trout with beluga lentils, smoked bacon and tomato confit.
I can’t personally vouch for my second suggestion because we weren’t able to get a table given we were in town during a busy holiday weekend. But – the next time I visit Asheville, I will make time to visit The Admiral. This place has achieved an almost infamous reputation as the most delicious dive you will ever experience. It is a testament to the old “don’t just a book by its cover” adage, a cinderblock building in West Asheville that serves up Michelin quality food. At least I have been told. Don’t make the same mistake I did… make your reservations early.
The Marketplace – 20 Wall Street
Monday – Sunday, dinner starts at 5 pm.
Reservations – yes.
The Admiral – 400 Haywood Road, West Asheville
Monday – Sunday, dinner starts at 5 pm.
Reservations – yes, but well in advance!
The best thing to do after a great meal in Asheville is to find some live music. We had a wonderful time at Jack of the Wood, a cozy spot that was the original home of Green Man Brewing. It feels like a proper English brew pub. They offer live music most days with a minimum cover charge. It’s the kind of place that you can sit down for a pint and then realize that three hours have just gone by. Not that that’s a bad thing.
Another music venue that I have heard great things about is the Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall. We drove by but sadly there wasn’t an act in town while we were there. The Grey Eagle often brings big(ger) name entertainers to town and also offers a dance floor, a large beer selection (as one would expect in Asheville), and tacos. It has a friendly, laid-back feel that is worth checking out.
Jack of the Wood – 95 Patton Avenue
Grey Eagle Tavern and Music Hall – 185 Clingman Avenue
What to Eat:
The choice is easy for breakfast today. Have you ever heard of the term “cat head biscuit”? One of my favorite things about southern cooking is the many variations on the biscuit. The biscuits served at Biscuit Head are fluffy drop biscuits that are the “size of a cat’s head”…hence the name. Come for the gravy flights (your choice of three gravies + biscuit), stay for the homemade jam and butter bar. There are also many variations of biscuit sandwich to try. Get there early or be ready to wait, although the line moves pretty fast. (If you are looking for something sit-down but also classic Asheville, I would encourage you to check out the original location of Tupelo Honey downtown. While it is now a chain, this spot is where it all started.
Monday-Friday, 7 am – 2 pm; opens on 8 am on weekends.
Two locations; I like the dog friendly patio at 733 Haywood Road.
What to Do:
After carbo loading on biscuits, it is time to head to the hills. The greater Asheville area is home to miles and miles of hiking trails, many of which feature waterfalls. Looking Glass Rock Trail is a good choice for a day hike. The trailhead is about 40 minutes from downtown Asheville near the town of Brevard. However – note that cell service is minimal and it can be challenging to find the trail. Here are some tips: from Brevard, take US Highway 276 North (the Forest Heritage Scenic Byway) to enter the Pisgah National Forest. After about 5 miles, turn left at the sign for Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and the State Fish Hatchery, after 4/10 of a mile you will see a parking area on the right for Looking Glass Rock Trail Head. For the record, we got lost and parked on the side of the highway and walked a couple of miles before we reached the trailhead. Don’t be like us. Download your map before you get in the car.
The Looking Glass Rock Trail climbs 1,700 feet and is 6.5 miles out and back round-trip. Be sure to pack lots of water and factor in at least 4 hours for this hike. The trail has a lot of switchbacks that make it seem a lot longer than it is – but the view from the top is worth it.
Notably, and confusingly, you will not find Looking Glass Falls on this hike. That waterfall is accessible off U.S. 276 about a mile past the turn off to the trailhead. There is no admission fee and parking is located close by.
Another attraction located close-by is Sliding Rock – a natural water slide that has a lifeguard and changing rooms open every day from May 27 – September 4, 10 am – 6 pm. It’s $2 to visit. We didn’t get to go water sliding because our hike took longer than anticipated.
What to Eat (and Drink):
After reconnecting with nature, the next Asheville bucket list item to check off your list is a visit to a brewery. Click here for an interactive map of the ever-growing number of breweries in the region, including some self-guided tours.
Our choice of brewery was simple. My husband and I are originally from Northern California and met while at Chico State. Chico is home to the original location of Sierra Nevada, a brewery that will forever hold a special place in our hearts. Sierra Nevada opened its second location in 2015, just a few miles outside Asheville proper. We were not prepared for this experience. To anyone that has visited the Chico brewery: our best analogy is that Chico is to Disneyland what Asheville is to Disneyworld. It’s unbelievable. The brewery offers both guided and independent tours. There is a large restaurant and they often have special events and food tents outside in their beautiful sprawling gardens (in addition to a private amphitheater with live music). Like I said, it’s an overwhelming, magical place.
100 Sierra Nevada Way, Mills River, NC
Tasting Room open Sunday-Thursday: 11 am – 9 pm; Friday/Saturday: 11 am – 10 pm.
Various tours also available – check out their website.
If you need to re-hydrate or grab a snack for the road, I suggest that you stop by the McDonald’s in Biltmore Village, which Mental Floss has called “the world’s classiest McDonald’s”. Don’t get it twisted… the food is the same, but the atmosphere is a nod to its neighbor, the Biltmore. Think fireplace, gold ceiling tiles, and a baby grand piano.
So there you have it – a few favorites from my long-awaited first trip to Asheville. I hope this helps you plan a trip of your own. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments!