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When you have a place that combines distinct mountain culture with an urban-sized appetite for renewal, it’s no wonder there are so many unique things to do in Asheville, North Carolina.
Situated in the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains and western North Carolina, it was once known as the “Paris of the South” in the early 1900s. After the arrival of a railroad connection in 1880, the hundred-year-old city boomed as visitors began to spread the word of its breathtaking landscapes, fresh mountain air, and cooler summer climates. It wasn’t long before creators and dreamers flocked to Asheville, setting the foundation for an artistic culture that thrives today.
As the co-owner of Eda Rhyne Distilling Company puts it, “There’s an abundance of great people here. People who have been able to flourish who do weird stuff. People who wouldn’t necessarily be as easily accepted in other places in the country and world.”
Asheville is a place where the contributions of its people have made it a vanguard of the creative spirit. I promise once you read through these recommendations below, you’ll be itching to book a weekend getaway to Asheville, a true gem of a destination!
Unique Things to Do in Asheville, NC
1. Stop & Shop at The Folk Art Center
Before you actually go into Asheville proper, be sure to take a leisurely drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Not only is it one of the most scenic drives in America with views that will fill your soul, but it’s also home to The Folk Art Center. In a city where craft lovers thrive, nowhere is this more apparent than here.
Built in 1980, the center was a joint project between the National Park Service and the Southern Highland Craft Guild to preserve Southern Appalachian culture. It’s home to one of the oldest craft shops in the country and houses the guild, allowing them to cultivate their skills.
While I visited, I met with angler and craftsperson Sam Johnson, who creates the most beautiful bamboo fly rods. He practices a technique developed over 150 years ago – a process that takes him a minimum of 50 hours to complete.
Depending on when you visit, you might even be able to watch a live demonstration where Sam shows you how he creates his fly rods right down to the way he spins silk thread to hold everything together.
2. Taste the Many, Many Flavors of Asheville
Are we even surprised Asheville is home to a thriving food and drink scene? Of course, a city with such inspiring culture extends that passion to its cuisine.
One place that you must visit: Chai Pani. I know what you’re thinking. Indian food in a southern mountain town? However, I promise you will not be disappointed.
Chef Meherwan Irani opened Chai Pani in 2009, introducing America to the concept of Indian street food. He even named his restaurant after a slang phrase Indians use when they want to go out for a bite to eat or a cup of tea.
The key to Chef Irani’s food is the mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes, for example, takes a southern favorite – okra – and puts an Indian twist in how it’s seasoned.
Spice, after all, is key to Indian cuisine! So much so that Chef Irwani created the Spicewalla Brand to recreate his recipes at home. I personally found the dishes at Chai Pani to have the perfect blend of texture and flavor, and I can see why he’s been nominated for the James Beard Award a whopping five times!
On the opposite end of Asheville’s culinary scene is the Eda Rhyne Distilling Company. While the city is known for its craft breweries, I’d argue Eda Rhyne is even more Appalachian than beer! North Carolina is a factor in all aspects of the spirits founders Chris Bower and Rett Murphy create. And this goes beyond the local heirloom corn and grains they use.
“You know a lot of people when they think of Carolinan spirits, they sort of get this idea of the hillbilly in the woods making illicit liquor,” Chris tells me when I visit for a tasting. “And that’s definitely part of our history. But what a lot of people don’t understand is that there were portions of each run of the moonshine that actually went to the medicine makers in the community.”
It’s this lesser-known “ancient art of the hills” that Chris and Rett pay homage to at Eda Rhyne. They infuse their spirits with foraged greenery, using local folk knowledge passed down through generations. I found you truly get a taste of North Carolina when you sip from one of their creations.
3. Visit the Iconic Biltmore Estate and Grounds
No trip to Asheville is complete without a visit to Biltmore Estate. To fully appreciate just how magnificent it is, I first have to tell you a bit more about George Vanderbilt, its founder.
Born the youngest of the famous family, he was more interested in art and travel than railroads and steamboats. When he visited North Carolina in 1887, he naturally fell in love with the area and wanted to build a sort of mountain escape to rival the great European country manors he saw on his travels.
With famed architect Richard Morris Hunt, Vanderbilt created a home inspired by both a number of châteaus in France as well as Waddesdon Manor in England. The result was a stunning 250-room French Renaissance château that would play host to a number of prominent individuals and historic events over the course of the 21st century.
When you visit, I recommend visiting both the estate itself as well as the impressive grounds. The 8,000 acres were designed by the father of American landscape architecture himself, Frederick Law Olmsted. Back when Vanderbilt first purchased the 700 parcels of land, he called in Olmsted to lay out the grounds before he even began construction on the estate.
His designs – from the pathways to the garden rooms – have remained largely unchanged to this day. As Parker Andes, the Director of Horticulture at Biltmore, explained to me when I visited, it used to take an hour to get to the house from the railroad station.
This meant Olmstead had to create a sort of experience using the natural landscape. Visitors would then have an hour of beautiful scenery before turning a bend and seeing the magnificent estate.
All of this is something visitors can enjoy today, even the journey to Biltmore is much shorter.
4. Explore The Block
One of the most unique things to do in Asheville, NC is to explore The Block. This historic Black business district was once home to over 65 Black-owned businesses and nicknamed Asheville’s Black Wall Street. At the heart of this is the Young Men’s Institute, which is one of the oldest Black community centers in the country.
An absolute must is signing up for one of DeWayne Barton’s Hood Hugger tours. Barton defines a “hood hugger” as somebody who heals themself while rebuilding their community. Starting with a timeline mural in Triangle Park, which local nonprofit Just Folks organized with over a hundred volunteers, Barton showed me the story about the past, present, and future of African Americans in Asheville.
After your tour, head over to Noir Collective AVL. Founded by Alexandria Monque Ravenel in the middle of the pandemic to help Black entrepreneurs, this collective is a space where artists, craftspeople, imaginaries, visionaries, health workers, and more can thrive together.
When you visit, you’ll find a boutique shop as well as an art gallery that features 13 Black artists, including painter Jenny Pickens, whose works focus on women and allow her to imagine what her mother, who she has not seen in over 40 years, would look like today.
5. Don’t skip Citizen Vinyl if you’re a music lover.
As a child of the 70s, I will always love records. There truly is nothing like holding a record in my hand. Taking it out, hearing it leave the cardboard, the smell, reading the liner notes… There’s such a sense of memory that you just don’t get from streaming.
You can just imagine, then, how excited I was to visit Citizen Vinyl. Housed in the historic Citizen Times Building, Citizen Vinyl uses the ground floor as a community space where you’ll find a cafe and bar, a record press facility, and an analog art and record store.
They then use the third floor, which once housed the WWNC radio station, as an analog recording studio and media lab. It’s in this very room that bluegrass music was introduced over the airwaves to North America by the Father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe.
Since then many hallowed musicians have passed through this studio, including the talented artist Alexa Rose, who was recording on my visit.
And there you have it – a few unique things to do in Asheville, NC that’ll show you just how special of a destination this is. To seek the weird and the wonderful and the not known is why we loved visiting and seeing this creative city for ourselves!
If you want even more unique things to do in Asheville, NC as well as what else we got up to on our visit, check out our Asheville episode of Season 5’s “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love”!