Asheville is a trendy city nestled in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s known for a thriving arts scene, more breweries per capita than any other city in America, and historic architecture, including the dome-topped Basilica of Saint Lawrence and the famous 19th-century Biltmore estate. Exuding a distinctly bohemian vibe, are no shortage of exceptional things to do in Asheville NC, from the downtown Art District, the River Arts District, stunning mountain landscapes, idyllic gardens, lush forests, and hipster culinary scene.
- Elevation: 2,134′
- Population: 91,560
Here are our picks for the 10 best things to do in Asheville NC, plus some bonus attractions at the end.
10 Navitat Canopy Adventures
About 30 minutes north of Asheville, thrill-seekers can fly high above the Southern Appalachian forest at the expansive zipline tours offered by Navitat Canopy Adventures. The park features some of the longest and highest ziplines in the Southeast. The original 80-acre aerial trail features two sky bridges and 10 ziplines, including one that sends you 200 feet above the forest floor.
9 Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Located in the heart of downtown Asheville the Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a historic house in which the famous author spent much of his childhood. Considered by many to be one of the giants of 20th-century American literature, the memorial offers insight into the struggles Wolfe endured during his life, including his tragic death from tuberculosis at the young age of 37. The home, which was served as a boarding house run by his mother, is used as a setting in his novel Look Homeward, Angel.
Wolfe is considered North Carolina’s most famous writer, inspiring the works of many other authors, including Prince of Tides author Pat Conroy, who said “My writing career began the instant I finished Look Homeward, Angel,” Ray Bradbury who was influenced by Wolfe and included him as a character in his books, and Earl Hamner, Jr., who created the popular television series The Waltons, after idolizing Wolfe in his youth.
You can take a tour of the 29-room house, learn about its fascinating history, and watch a film about Wolfe’s life and work here.
8 French Broad Rafting
The French Broad River winds its way past Asheville, one of the country’s most sought-after destinations for whitewater-rafting enthusiasts. A good mix of calm water and exhilarating rapids make the guided trips a popular activity for both beginners and experienced rafters. Knowledgeable guides will point out wildlife along the way, such as ospreys and blue herons.
7 Pisgah Forest
The Pisgah National Forest is a large 500,000-acre forest about 25 miles northeast of downtown Asheville. Set in the southern Appalachian Mountains, it’s known for its stunning viewpoints, hundreds of miles of trails, waterfalls, ponds, rivers, and woods. Popular day activities in the park include hiking, horseback riding, cycling, and fishing.
Established in 1916, Pisgah was one of the first national forests in the country and once a part of Biltmore Estate. The recreation center is home to the main ranger service school in the United States and also the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute and Mount Mitchell, the most noteworthy mountain east of the Mississippi River.
Cradle of Forestry
The Cradle of Forestry is nestled in the Pisgah National Forest and is considered to be the birthplace of forestry in America and home to the country’s first forestry school. You can discover the profession’s history and roots at the Cradle Discovery Center and in the surrounding grounds.
The trails offer visitors a chance to explore seven historical buildings from the time of the Biltmore Forest School (1898-1914), climb aboard and ring the bell of a 1915 Climax logging train engine, and interact with historical interpreters through programs and special events.
Looking Glass Falls
Within Pisgah National Forest, Looking Glass Falls is one of the top Asheville attractions in part because it’s one of the easiest waterfalls to access. Located just off the side of the road, it’s possible to view the stunning waterfall from the landing above, but for the best view, climb down the short staircase for a closer look.
6 North Carolina Arboretum
Nature lovers will relish the 434-acre North Carolina Arboretum just south of Asheville, next to milepost 393 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The park is jammed with gorgeous species of North Carolina plants, 65 cultivated gardens, babbling creeks, 10 miles of groomed walking and bike trails, and the exotic bonsai garden.
The gardens enjoy a reputation as a dreamy photo backdrop for engaged and newly-married couples.
5 River Arts District
A former industrial tract, the River Arts District (aka RAD) is now one of Asheville’s hottest neighborhoods, with murals, artist studios, restaurants, and shops. In the 1980s artists began transforming the once dilapidated mile-long stretch of industrial buildings on the French Broad River into several city blocks of colorful bohemian working studio spaces.
Visitors can now tour the 23 delightful vintage structures to peek in and admire an eclectic array of paintings photography, weaving, jewelry, pottery, goldsmiths, sculptures, and glassblowers at work. There is no better place in Asheville to pick up an authentic local souvenir.
4 Chimney Rock State Park
25 miles from Asheville is Chimney Rock State Park, famous for its centerpiece – a granite monolithic rock piercing the sky. Chimney Rock was one of the stunning filming locations for the 1992 movie “Last of the Mohicans.” The rugged backdrop was used in the dramatic last 20 minutes of the movie; other locations here were used in the waterfall scene, the fight scene, and the bathing scene.
Follow a network of stairs from the parking area to the Chimney plateau. Along the way, are also magnificent views from Vista Rock and Pulpit Rock, and duck into the Subway and the Grotto.
We climbed the 500 winding steps to get to the 2,280-foot high lookout point at Chimney Rock State Park. 75-mile views overlook Lake Lure (filming location for “Dirty Dancing”) and the Hickory Nut Gorge.
It is a bit strenuous with so many steps combined with the altitude, but if you need to go slow, I believe most people would be able to make it to the top and there are benches all along the path. But if that’s not possible, no worries, you can also take an elevator to the top and still appreciate the panoramic views.
3 Downtown Asheville
Nicknamed “Paris of the South,” due to its striking array of Art Deco buildings, Asheville is a small city and the downtown is easily walkable, with arts, music, culture, and a charm all its own.
Be sure to take your time meandering the streets, popping into vintage boutique shops, cafes, and breweries. You can admire local street art, talented street performers, or even an intoxicating drum circle all in the same day.
The Asheville Urban Trail is a great self-guided 2-hour 1.7 mile path weaving through the city where visitors can learn about some of its famous residents such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, George Vanderbilt, and Thomas Wolfe, as well as take in 30 stations of attractive artworks and architecture-filled streets, interesting historical monuments and museums. The trail is divided into 5 time periods, from the Gilded Age to the present.
2 Blue Ridge Parkway
Called “America’s most scenic drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway is more of an experience than just a mere drive. The Parkway has spectacular views are on the 469 miles that stretch from North Carolina to Virginia, connecting Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Part of the Parkway winds through the mountains just outside of Asheville offering some of the most Instagram-worthy vistas in the south.
The speed limit is only around 45 miles which seemed just right to us as we wanted to safely observe the natural splendor. There are lookout points where you can get out of the car to admire the landscape, have a picnic, take a hike, and/or snap photos. If you’re a fan of foliage, the Blue Ridge Parkway is full of vibrant colors and is one of the best places to experience fall in North Carolina.
The parkway intersects Asheville at US 25, 70, 74, and NC 191, and closes seasonally. Be aware that many sections of the Parkway close in the winter months because of snow and ice.
1 Biltmore Estate
If like me, you are a Downton Abby lover, you will want to explore the Biltmore Estate. George Vanderbilt, an heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, fell in love with everything Asheville had to offer, from the weather to the views in the 1880s. In 1899, he and his wife, Edith, began building their dream home, a turreted French Renaissance-style chateau surrounded by 8,000 acres of forests, which ultimately become (and still is) the largest privately owned mansion in the entire United States.
The expansive 178,926 square foot “castle on the hill” is an opulent example of the wealth acquired during America’s Gilded Age. The dwelling boasts over 250 lavish rooms, 43 bathrooms, a library with 22,000 volumes, a banquet hall with 70-foot ceilings, an indoor pool, and even a bowling alley. The grounds encompass manicured gardens, woodlands, stables, 20 miles of hiking trails, and an award-winning winery. During the holiday season, the house fills up with dozens of intricately decorated Christmas trees.
Growing up in Rhode Island, I’d taken many tours of the mansions in Newport, including Cornelius Vanderbilt’s summer mansion, The Breakers, considered the most beautiful of the long row of opulent oceanfront “homes.” I was surprised to learn that they had an even bigger mansion in North Carolina. The two are quite different, with the Newport model built in a similar Italian Renaissance style, but with a much lighter and brighter interior.
At $70, the tickets for a guided tour are quite pricey, but you could spend a whole day touring everything the extravagant site has to offer, so it’s worth it to do once.
As usual, our preference is to do outdoor activities. If you’re looking for more things to do in Asheville NC indoors, here are a few to check out:
- Craft Breweries
- Basilica of Saint Lawrence
- Pinball Museum
- French Broad Chocolate Factory & Tasting Room
- Lexington Glassworks
- LaZoom Bus Tour
10 Best Places to Eat
- Hemingway’s Cuba
- Jerusalem Garden Café
- 12 Bones Smokehouse
- Jettie Rae’s Oyster House
- Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian
- Buxton Hall BBQ
- All Souls Pizza
- Biscuit Head
- Tupelo Honey
Where to Stay
Click HERE to find just the right type of hotel in your budget in Asheville!
Special thanks to Kary Kern Photography.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.