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AARP’s Guide to Asheville, North Carolina

Plan a visit to this creative, culinary Southern city with stunning mountain views

spinner image left the biltmore estate right downtown asheville north carolina at night
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina, is home to the Biltmore Estate.
Alamy / Getty

Called “the Paris of the South” since the early 1900s, Asheville, North Carolina, is a city full of artists, chefs, innovators and creators who have added clout to the nickname. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, minutes from the storied Blue Ridge Parkway and a short drive from the Great Smoky Mountains and America’s most-visited national park, it’s a haven for outdoors lovers. The city’s galleries, concert venues, cuisine and beer scene have given rise to new generations of visitors who come to celebrate the city’s creative zeal. Hop-headed IPA lovers, sour beer connoisseurs, cider fans and craft brew novices will all find a tasty pint or two in Asheville. Whether you travel for nature, art, culture or food, Asheville belongs at the top of your list. Here’s how to plan for an exceptional getaway to this Southern charmer.

When to go to Asheville

Asheville shines year-round, but fall reigns as the city’s high season. Leaf-peepers descend on Asheville from late September through early November, driving hotel prices to their annual highs and filling reservation books. Summer’s cooler temperatures, mild weather (expect the occasional summer thunderstorm) and bounty of outdoor activities make it the second busiest season, with spring following and winter bringing up the rear. Still, fall is prime time for your visit, with early and late summer as your next best options.

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How to prepare for your trip

Book your hotel — and any must-have dinner reservations or concert and event tickets — well in advance, especially if you’re visiting in fall or summer, the city’s two busiest seasons; during Christmas at Biltmore; or on holiday weekends. Downtown Asheville and many of its neighborhoods are walkable and accessible to those with mobility issues, but certain activities — such as hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway — will be less accessible or even inaccessible for some. Sunscreen, bug spray and appropriate footwear are recommended, especially if you’ll be doing any outdoor activities.

How to get there

Driving or flying to Asheville are the easiest ways to visit. The city sits on Interstate 40, and the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) is about a 30-minute drive from downtown. Several taxi companies offer rides, including AVL Taxi, J&J Cab and the accessible Loyal Lifts; Uber and Lyft rides are plentiful; and ART — Asheville Rides Transit — provides bus service (adult fares are $1, 50 cents for ages 65 and up) in the city, to the airport and to a few nearby towns. Downtown Asheville and many outlying neighborhoods are walkable and accessible to those with mobility issues. 

Where to stay

From camping to glamping to B&Bs and world-class hotels, Asheville has options that are wallet-friendly, lavish and everything in between. Best of all, you’ll get a view of the gorgeous mountains surrounding this town anywhere you stay.

spinner image the omni grove park inn in downtown asheville north carolina
The Omni Grove Park Inn is perched on the mountainside overlooking Asheville.

The Omni Grove Park Inn cuts a fine figure perched on the mountainside overlooking Asheville. Built in 1912-13, this historic hotel has played host to presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama and a who’s-who of Gilded Age big shots from Henry Ford to Harry Houdini to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The guests-only spa, the Donald Ross-designed golf course and a quartet of dining venues deliver luxury around every corner, and it’s nearly impossible to match, much less top, an evening drink on the Sunset Cocktail Terrace. A stay here is pricey, even if you’re not in one of the suites; but you can save with senior discounts, Omni’s rewards program and bundled packages.

Downtown, the Foundry Hotel occupies a former steel factory, and it’s made quite the splash with its industrial-chic look, desirable location and on-site dining: Benne on Eagle, a restaurant paying homage to the cuisine of Asheville’s African diaspora. Rooms are comfortable, but they aren’t cheap. The Foundry is only a block from Pack Square, the heart of downtown, and that means a quieter stay with all that downtown has to offer close by.

Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins calls itself an “urban campground,” but there’s not a tent in sight. Instead, there’s a row of 16 A-frame cabins — they’re too chic to properly call them cabins, they’re more like ski-less chalets — about 1 mile from the River Arts District. Add $25 if you’re bringing a dog.

If you want to stay in the middle of the bustle of downtown Asheville, two options will catch your eye. Kimpton Hotel Arras overlooks Pack Square, and a block away, AC Hotel Asheville Downtown has an exceptional rooftop bar (where the drinks are served with an admirable view). At Kimpton Hotel Arras, a pair of restaurants — District 42 and Bargello — keep guests and visitors fed. At the AC Hotel, Capella on 9, the rooftop bar and restaurant, dishes up small plates and entrées to hungry guests and diners.

On the more affordable end of the scale, Asheville has several options, including the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Asheville-Biltmore. The setup is perfect for couples and larger multigenerational groups and families: a short drive (or Uber) to downtown, two blocks from the entrance to the Biltmore Estate and walkable to the antique shops, galleries, boutiques and restaurants in Biltmore Village.

Fun things to do

Nature lovers see Asheville as an outdoor playground, and there’s plenty to do in your hiking boots or from the saddle of your mountain bike. But there’s more: a huge collection of art deco architecture (one of the largest in the Southeast); loads of live music; galleries and studios; history to discover; and a beer scene that rivals those in cities twice this size.

spinner image people walking into a glass blowing studio in the river arts district asheville north carolina
The River Arts District captures the city’s creativity.

See Asheville from an e-bike with a guided tour from The Flying Bike. These pedal-assist bikes pack a battery-powered punch to help you up Asheville’s hills as you explore downtown (with or without a food tour option); West Asheville; the River Arts District; architecture from art deco masterpieces to the Grove Park Inn; and more. There are seasonal tours — focused on cocoa and sweets during the holidays — and plenty of family-friendly options.


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Within a short drive of downtown Asheville, more than two dozen breweries keep the suds flowing. Asheville Brewery Tours offers downtown walking options as well as mobile trips (they do all the driving) that’ll have you exploring beyond downtown — or you can put together your own beer tasting tour. Must-visit locations include Highland Brewing (Asheville’s original craft brewery), Sierra Nevada and New Belgium; and smaller operations such as DSSOLVR, Burial Beer, Hi-Wire Brewing (head to Foothills Meats food truck for an amazing burger on site) and Archetype Brewing.

Take a deeper look at Asheville with Hood Huggers International. DeWayne Barton leads walking tours through The Block, the once-thriving heart of Black Asheville; Burton Street, one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods; and driving tours to significant locations around Asheville, telling the unvarnished — and at times harsh — history. From the Young Men’s Institute (a sort of YMCA for the early Black community) to Green Book sites (welcoming spaces for Black travelers during the Jim Crow era) to what remains of Stephens-Lee High School (the gymnasium is now a recreation center), one of the top schools in North Carolina despite segregation, Barton offers valuable insight on the history of the community.

spinner image high falls in autumn at the dupont state recreational forest in north carolina
High Falls is one of three falls at DuPont State Recreational Forest.

Asheville makes a great base camp for outdoor adventure. You can keep the adventure on the mild side and head out to chase waterfalls, catching some frame-worthy photos along the way. Follow the Blue Ridge Parkway south to Milepost 412 where you’ll follow U.S. Route 276 south to Brevard. Along the way, you’ll pass Looking Glass Falls (a 60-foot fall right by the road), Sliding Rock (Mother Nature’s original waterslide) and a short (sometimes muddy) hike to Moore Cove Falls. Keep heading south to DuPont State Recreational Forest where a trio of falls — Hooker, Triple and High Falls — wait alongside easy hiking trails.

Where to eat

Pack your stretchy pants because Asheville sits at the top of the list of great Southern food cities for a reason. A pair of James Beard Award-winners, leading several Beard semifinalists and nominees, call the city home and offer cuisine from Southern to Indian to Spanish to classic greasy spoon goodness. You’ll find more great restaurants to choose from than you could dine at in a week, which makes for difficult — but delicious — decisions.

North Carolina is synonymous with barbecue, and you’ll find one of the best in town at Buxton Hall Barbecue. This is whole hog ’cue at its finest: cooked low and slow over wood coals, pulled apart and dashed with sauce. The barbecue focuses on East Carolina — sandwiches and plates and hash — but stretches to include sausages and the ubiquitous smoked and sauce-slathered chicken quarters. Sides, sauces, desserts (oh, that banana pudding pie) and even drinks keep it traditional but playful (Bourbon & Cheerwine Slushie, anyone?).

Downtown, steps away from galleries, bookstores, oddities shops and the general weirdness of Asheville, Isa’s French Bistro’s patio offers excellent people-watching with a side of great food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch never fail to please whether you’re after an entrée-size salad, steak frites, the vegetarian-friendly jackfruit cassoulet or something that brings French and Southern cuisine together such as duck perloo.

From a storybook cottage in Grovewood Village, eldr serves a smash burger that shows why this restaurant is dedicated to open-fire cooking. But this new American restaurant is more than a burger joint, it’s a celebration of the seasonal flavors and ingredients of southern Appalachia with an international flair. Eldr — Old Norse for “fire” — puts a fine touch on every dish, from the fried chicken sandwich and beet smørrebrød at lunch to dinner’s house-made pasta, fire-roasted duck and exceptional seafood dishes to seasonal dishes such as the pawpaw-bread French toast, duck hash and pork schnitzel at brunch.

You’ll put Cucina 24 on your “every time I’m in Asheville” list before you finish your appetizer. Why? Because Chef Brian Canipelli has found a beautiful way to marry the traditions of Italian cookery with ingredients from the Appalachians in a cozy and romantic setting. The wood-fired oven churns out perfectly crisp sides and to-die-for take-out pizzas, but the stars of the culinary show are the entrées, including fresh pasta, smoked lamb, roast duck and a proper branzino. If you want someone to take the decisions out of your hands, have dinner for the table — a feast and showcase of the best the menu has to offer.

spinner image the french broad chocolate lounge in downtown asheville north carolina
French Broad Chocolate Lounge is in the heart of downtown Asheville.

Many visitors view the French Broad Chocolate Lounge as a post-dessert dessert, lining up well after dark for the bars, bonbons, cookies and brownies. But you can have your sweet treat any time of day. The Chocolate Lounge and sister store, the Chocolate Boutique (coffee, ice cream, chocolate, shorter lines), sit on Pack Square in the heart of downtown, but you can tour the factory if you want an up-close look (and taste) of how the bars and bonbons are made, including the roasting of cacao beans.

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Gateway to national parks

From Asheville, it’s easy to visit a pair of spectacular national parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 90 minutes west, and the Blue Ridge Parkway about 15 minutes from downtown. The best part? You can take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Great Smoky Mountains, and it’s worth all 89 miles of the drive for the views alone. Follow the parkway north and you’ll reach Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rockies (with a steep but accessible path to the summit); head south and you’ll find waterfall hikes and jaw-dropping vistas. When you reach Cherokee and the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head west on Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park, before heading back to Asheville. 

Ways to save: Admission to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free, but parking tags are required at Great Smoky Mountains ($5 for a daily tag).

Biltmore Estate, gardens and winery

Asheville’s status as a getaway haven predates your visit by more than 100 years. When George Washington Vanderbilt visited in the late 1800s, he fell in love with the place, bought up a county’s worth of land and constructed the Biltmore Estate, a chateau-style home surrounded by gardens and a manicured forest (courtesy of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead). Visit and tour the massive home (more than 4 acres with 250 rooms), stop by the winery to taste estate-grown and Biltmore-labeled vintages and be sure to tour the gardens. Home and garden tours start at $89; gardens and ground tickets start at $65.

Ways to save: Discounts are available for seniors, active-duty military and veterans ($8 savings), and online ticket purchases; next-day-visit, activity and tour discounts are also available. If you visit Biltmore more than once a year, consider purchasing an annual pass, which includes discounts for guest tickets, tours and companion tickets.

Laugh your way across town

Featuring a beer bus with a live band and a comedy-laced haunted tour, LaZoom offers a delightfully weird taste of Asheville, a town with a delightfully weird side, served with a side of (true) history, (comic) history and sightseeing. Hop on the purple school bus and sit back while guides tell you all about Asheville and its haunted denizens. If you’re traveling with the family, don’t sweat it, the Lil Boogers Kids’ Comedy Tour keeps the jokes and outlandish guides age-appropriate.

Ways to save: Visit the LaZoom website for discount codes (typically 10 percent off tours).

A moveable feast

With so many culinary options, why not sample dishes from several restaurants, pick your favorite bite and make a reservation for dinner? Eating Asheville leads three tours that stop at the city’s best farm-to-table restaurants. The Classic and High Roller Tours offer stops at five or six restaurants (respectively) with at least two drink pairings; Cold Ones focuses on the city’s breweries and delivers pints or flights at four breweries plus lunch.

Ways to save: You’ll be so well fed on this food tour you can skip your next meal (a savings of anywhere from $30-$150), though a late-night snack from the French Broad Chocolate Lounge may be in order. If visiting in January, take advantage of Asheville Restaurant Week for special pricing. In the fall, take part in the Chow Chow Food + Culture Festival.

A blooming good time

The North Carolina Arboretum boasts 65 acres of cultivated gardens, a bonsai collection and quiet outdoor garden “rooms.” The arboretum is home to the National Native Azalea Collection — which features nearly every species of azalea native to the U.S. and a good number of hybrids. The arboretum has 10 miles of accessible to rugged trails. The seasonal events are impressive: Winter Lights brings more than a million twinkling LEDs to the garden, and there are evening concerts in the summer. Special exhibitions round out what you’ll discover here.

Ways to save: There’s no admission fee to the arboretum, but there is a parking fee ($20). Plan a visit on the first Tuesday of the month to save on parking ($10). Active-duty military and veterans receive free parking on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

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