22 Best Things To Do in Asheville 2021 — Outdoors, Historic, Cultural, Art, For Families, Day Trips
To some travelers, North Carolina is mostly known as a summertime haven, the Outer Banks a playground especially for those fleeing the cooler temperatures of the Northeast. But North Carolina is so much more. You have the Queen City, Charlotte, with all her culture and southern charm; Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, which make up a triangle of progress and innovation; and then the beautiful mountain destinations, not least of which is Asheville.
The primary travel destination in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville offers a little bit of it all — arts and culture, local dining and shopping, history, and outdoor adventure. Here are the 22 best things to see and do while you’re there.
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The Blue Ridge Mountains offer picturesque spots to hike, kayak, and climb. Even if you don’t care to don your hiking boots and other gear, you can still enjoy the Blue Ridge Mountains from the comfort of your car.
1. The Blue Ridge Parkway
Easily one of North Carolina’s most popular attractions overall in the entire state, the Blue Ridge Parkway attracts travelers from all over the world. The scenic highway traverses more than 200 miles of North Carolina, with a slow and easy speed limit of 45 miles per hour. Visiting during the fall is especially advised, thanks to the parkway’s gorgeous fall foliage. Asheville makes an easy basecamp for travelers who want to see the Parkway with ease. Drive the scenic roads yourself or relax with a scenic driving tour. A guided waterfall hike is another option.
2. Pisgah National Forest
For those who want to get out of the car and explore, Pisgah National Forest is your gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is located less than a half-hour drive from downtown Asheville. The huge forest contains tons to do and see. There are enough hiking trails to keep you busy for days — even weeks! Summertime swim holes are plentiful and mountaintop vistas are entirely Instagram-worthy. Full-day hiking adventure and trail running tours are available.
3. Bent Creek Experimental Forest
Within Pisgah National Forest, you’ll find Bent Creek Experimental Forest. This smaller forest-within-a-forest was designed to study and research forest ecology. But for those not in a scientific field of study, it makes a great place for recreation. Hiking and horseback riding trails are abundant, but the spot is especially popular for mountain biking.
4. The North Carolina Arboretum
Nearby, the North Carolina Arboretum provides a tamer way to enjoy the great outdoors. There are more than 50 acres of lovingly landscaped gardens set on a larger plot of more than 400 acres. Gardens and exhibits focus on groups of plants such as bonsai trees, wildflowers, pollinator plants, and more. If you want to exercise, consider booking an Arboretum running tour.
5. Craggy Gardens
However, if it’s wildflowers that are truly wild that you want to see, Craggy Gardens is the place to go. Not really an official garden, Craggy Gardens is, instead, a spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is known for its incredible display of wildflowers over the summer months. Visit in June to see the famous rhododendron blooms.
6. Nantahala Outdoor Center
Prefer your outdoor adventures to come with a side of water? Asheville has you covered there if you take to the French Broad River. At the Nantahala Outdoor Center, you can climb aboard a raft and enjoy a half-day tour along the water. It’s even suitable for kids. A more intensive, all-day, eight-hour tour that takes you through some challenging rapids also is an option. While by the French Broad River, you may also want to consider a 4-mile guided paddleboard tour.
7. Asheville Botanical Gardens
If you don’t make it out to the North Carolina Arboretum, but you still want to see some of the best gardens in the state, try the Asheville Botanical Gardens. Learn about the native flora. Take in the more than 500 native plant species. And, try to catch the wildflowers during the spring and summer months.
Historic & Cultural Attractions
From art to architecture, history to hip exhibits, Asheville blends old and new with seamless style.
The Biltmore estate may just rival the Blue Ridge Parkway for the most famous Asheville attraction. It is a humongous French Renaissance mansion built by George Vanderbilt in the late 19th century. The estate is now visited by thousands of tourists wanting to get a glimpse of the extravagant opulence within. It includes more than 200 rooms. Check the estate’s calendar for special events that may be occurring during your trip to Asheville. For a special treat, consider spending a night or two on the estate grounds, at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. For quick views of the estate, consider a French Broad River kayak tour.
9. Asheville Breweries
Okay, so maybe it’s not historical, but beer is part of Asheville’s culture and has been for some time. Check out the brew scene in Asheville with stops at some of the most notable breweries around the city. Highland Brewing Company is worth a stop as the first brewery in Asheville. Others include Asheville Brewing, Hillman Beer, One World Brewing, Hi-Wire, Burial Brewing Co., and Catawba. You may also want to consider a downtown Asheville guided brewery walking tour. If you are adventurous, opt for the electric bike brewery crawl.
10. The Asheville Urban Trail
The Asheville Urban Trail is a short trail that takes you through nearly two miles of downtown Asheville. It allows you to explore a few dozen stops that help display the city’s history, culture, and arts. The trail is divided into a handful of historic periods, starting with Asheville’s Gilded Age. Seeing all of the stops along the trail only takes a few hours. This is an easy way to see some of the top sights in the city in a single afternoon.
11. Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site
The Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site was home to the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of the same name. But, even if you’re not familiar with Sandburg’s work, a visit to the site is still worth your time. The more than 250 acres feature not only the Sandburgs’ historic home, but also a dairy barn, goatherd, ponds, gardens, lakes, and an apple orchard. It’s a lovely little pastoral getaway in the mountains.
12. Thomas Wolfe Memorial
Another literary site, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial consists of both a historic home and a museum. The best part, it’s located right in downtown Asheville. This makes for an easy visit while you explore the rest of the city. The home, a former boarding house, contains more than 500 artifacts related to Wolfe’s life and was featured as a setting in Wolfe’s work. Literary enthusiasts may also be interested in the Asheville literary tour.
Explore Asheville’s artsy side. You have plenty of ways to do so, no matter your favorite medium.
13. The River Arts District
Over the years, Asheville has attracted its fair share of artists. Many of those artists have taken up residence in the River Arts District. Take a stroll around this neighborhood to take in the historic buildings, as well as the street art. You’ll find lots of artist galleries and boutiques while you’re there, and artwork in an array of mediums, from ceramics to textiles. Take a River Arts District sightseeing walking tour or explore the area on your own.
14. The Folk Art Center
The Folk Art Center is your destination for Appalachian arts and crafts. Tracing its roots back to the late 19th century, the center features a historic craft shop. It also has multiple galleries and a library. Learn the arts of quilting, basket weaving, and more. Explore artwork from more than a thousand different craftsmen (and women) from around the Southeast and Appalachia.
15. The Asheville Art Museum
The Asheville Art Museum focuses on artwork from the 1900s and 2000s, with a particular focus on artwork from Southern Appalachia. In total, the museum’s collection includes more than 600 paintings, 800 drawings, more than 2,000 photographs, and more than 200 sculptures. Beyond the permanent collection, the museum’s rotating exhibitions are pretty cool too. They include everything from pottery exhibitions to Olympic photography collections.
16. Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center
The Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center focuses on artwork from the early 20th century forward. Its collection includes a range of mediums, from weavings to collages and ceramics to written work. There are more than 4,000 objects in the collection in total, in addition to the rotating exhibits. Check out the museum’s calendar before your visit, if you want to try to catch one of the center’s live music or art performances.
Attractions for Families
Traveling with the family in tow? Here are a few Asheville attractions worth your consideration.
17. Western North Carolina Nature Center
If you like a little wildlife spotting during your outdoor adventures, try a visit to the Western North Carolina Nature Center. It’s an outing that’s especially fun for families with animal-loving children. The center connects visitors to the state’s resident wildlife, including bears, cougars, and otters. However, the star residents are the wolves.
18. The Asheville Pinball Museum
Who doesn’t love a vintage pinball machine? The Asheville Pinball Museum is an excellent stop on any family’s itinerary (or any itinerary — no need to be a kid for this one, just a kid at heart). In addition to seeing all of the cool vintage arcade machines at the museum, you can pay a mere $15 and play the machines for as long as you want.
19. The Asheville Museum of Science
Make your trip to Asheville not only fun but also educational, with a trip to the Asheville Museum of Science. Here, kids can learn a little bit about… well, a little bit of everything, no matter where their interests lie. Fossils, forests, STEM activities — it’s all a possibility. The Teratophoneus skeleton is particularly cool.
Day Trips from Asheville
With the Blue Ridge Parkway right there, it’s very nice to have a rental vehicle while staying in Asheville. You can easily explore outside of downtown, whether you simply stick to the parkway, or you travel a bit further. If you decide to do the latter, there are a few great day trips that you can take from Asheville.
20. Hendersonville, North Carolina
Only about an hours’ drive away from Asheville, Henderson offers a lot of the same great charm and culture. Think Asheville on a smaller scale. Try spending an afternoon here exploring the historic downtown, breweries, cute shops, and restaurants. Hendersonville’s beer and bites tour is a great option.
21. Charlotte, North Carolina
With just a two hours’ drive, you can be in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a fun day trip or even a side trip, after or before you visit Asheville. The Queen City offers a range of activities for every traveler, whether you’re interested in the arts, history, culture, sports, dining, or more of that amazing North Carolina craft beer scene.
22. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is a destination built on tourism. Everywhere you look, there’s something new to see and do. You can take to the rides at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood. Or, ride the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, a 200-foot high ferris wheel located at The Island in Pigeon Forge. Another option is to check out a replica of the Titanic at Pigeon Forge’s Titanic Museum. Pigeon Forge is pretty compact, too, and walkable.
There’s no bad time to visit Asheville. The city offers great weather all year round, thanks to its geography. However, for mild temperatures in the 50s and 60s, visit during the spring or fall. Asheville is particularly popular during the fall months, September through November, thanks to the amazing fall foliage that can be glimpsed from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Asheville does offer an airport, but it’s only a small, regional one. If you’re traveling from outside driving distance of the city, your best bet is to fly into nearby Charlotte (which offers service to just about every mid-size to major city in the country, as well as quite a few international destinations). From there, rent a vehicle and drive the two hours to Asheville.
Yes, you probably do want to rent a vehicle while you’re in Asheville. While this might seem like a hassle, you’ll be glad to have the rental car once you arrive in the city. You can visit the sites outside Asheville’s downtown, as well as travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
However, do note that parking can be a bit of a headache while in downtown Asheville. For this reason, you may want to leave your car at your hotel if you’re staying downtown and only drive when you’re heading out of the busier parts of the city. If you’re not keen on walking, you can count on reliable rideshare service.
Editorial Disclosure: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.
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