3 mindful ways to experience Asheville, NC

Text by Molly Harris | Photo by Visit Asheville

It’s undeniable that Asheville, North Carolina, has made a name for itself — as a hippie haven for the outdoors, a colorful town set within the Blue Ridge Mountains, brimming with eclectic restaurants and award-winning breweries, mountainside trails and world-class rivers, plentiful Art Deco architecture and vibrant storefronts. (And one French Renaissance castle, of course.)

The roll call of attractions delivered by this city of fewer than 100,000 is unparalleled. Such that, it pays to be mindful of how you spend your time when you visit. Mindful travel — isn’t that what so many of us are yearning for in 2021? When you come to Asheville, focus on supporting local, minority-owned businesses; explore wild trails in the area where it’s easy to Leave No Trace; and seek out the genuine mom-and-pop shops that deserve your patronage. When you make the journey to Asheville, here’s how to make it count.

This post is proudly produced in partnership with Explore Asheville.
Supporting minority-owned businesses in Asheville won’t constrain you. If anything, it’ll provide a richer, more inspiring look at the city — after all, creativity happens in the margins. From outrageous sneakers to out-of-this-world ciders, here’s what you can expect when you dive into the fare of Asheville’s most innovative residents.

Black-owned shops

Check out the historic Black business district known as “The Block” and you’ll see how Asheville fuses art with style. Noir Collective AVL, a Black-owned boutique, features artwork by Black artists as well as books, jewelry, and other thoughtful, curated gifts made by Black artisans, authors, and entrepreneurs. Sole82, a downtown boutique managed by Black women, showcases walls of rare sneakers framed by work from local artists, and they even do direct-to-garment printing.

Beyond talking with your wallet, make time to step inside the YMI Cultural Center and check out their featured exhibits on local African American history and African culture. It also hosts the annual Goombay Festival, where everything African-Caribbean takes over the senses for one free weekend each fall.

Liquid creations

Instead of hopping on a brewery tour covering Asheville’s most-visited stops, create your own itinerary of minority-owned establishments:

  • Black Mountain Ciderworks + Meadery is something of a specialty brewery and taproom — the Black brewmasters use local fruits and honey to make their dry ciders and session meads. There’s apple, of course, but you’ll also taste strawberry, peach, and pomegranate, and even notes of coffee, watermelon, mint, and sage.
  • Ginger’s Revenge is another hotspot of creativity, this time with ginger beer. The majority woman-owned brewery makes a mean classic recipe, but definitely try the cranberry with rosemary, sage and thyme, and hibiscus-lavender varieties.
  • The Getaway River Bar, LGBTQ+ owned, is an ultra-popular watering hole. It’s set right on the French Broad River, and the bar holds all kinds of fun events, like Turntable Tuesdays and Sunday drag shows.

Getting your eat on

If enjoying a sweet treat with an afternoon cup of coffee is more your speed, drop in at GRIND AVL. The fire-engine-red storefront leads to a bright coworking space that doubles as an incubator for Asheville’s Black Wall Street. Pair a cuppa with any decadent treat from the Black- and female-owned AVL Cake Lady. Expect the city’s best cake by the slice, cupcakes, cookies, and more — like their signature Strawberry Crunch Cake (three layers with cheesecake in the center).

For lunch and dinner options, scope out the work of James Beard-nominated chef and Indian immigrant Meherwan Irani. He’s one of the driving forces behind popular Buxton Hall Barbecue and the co-founder and owner of Chai Pani, along with his wife, Molly. Chai Pani serves up Indian street snacks, or chaat, which make for a wonderful light lunch, as well as platters known as thalis. And, just for the record, he hasn’t been nominated once — he’s been nominated four times.

Photo credits: Matthew Westmoreland/Ginger’s Revenge, Kai Lendzion/Noir Collective AVL, Lauren Van Epps/Chai Pani, Sole82, Matthew Westmoreland/Ginger’s Revenge, and Jack Sorokin/Chai Pani.

This city, cradled in a valley surrounded by national forests, ancient rivers, state parks, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, calls to all lovers of nature. But with such stunning landscapes comes responsibility — it’s the job of mindful visitors to leave no trace so that future travelers find these special places in the same state (if not better!) as we do. With your pack-in / pack-out gear in tow, here’s where a day in Asheville’s great outdoors might lead.

Hiking the trails

Start your experience at a local visitor center, like the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center or the WNC Nature Center. That way, before your boots hit the ground, you’ll learn a little bit about how this is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, as well as what you can do to help protect it.

From there, hundreds of trail miles snake through the area, though those that wend off the Blue Ridge Parkway offer a two-fer on the bucket list. For something quick and ultra accessible, check out the Craggy Gardens Trail. Easy-to-moderate and just under two miles long, its high elevation leads to a stunning forested landscape of wildflowers and rock-studded terrain. Peak baggers, meanwhile, will want to tackle Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi River — it’s roughly two miles to the top (from the state park office). And anyone looking for a signature North Carolina waterfall should visit Catawba Falls, south of Mount Mitchell. This moderately difficult hike is three miles round-trip, but the cascading falls make the journey seem all too short and sweet.

Spinning those wheels

Asheville is arguably the best cycling city in the South. Here’s why:

  • Road cyclists can take to the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, a massive linear park managed by the US National Park Service that’s one of the most scenic stretches of pavement in the country. Expect breathtaking views, and not because of the grade. The moderate climbs fall right in the pocket — challenging, yes, but nothing that isn’t too forgiving.
  • The magnificent Biltmore Estate offers 20 miles of trails, giving riders a less-common avenue for exploring America’s largest home.
  • Mountain biking doesn’t get much better than right here. Kolo Bike Park specializes in beginner-friendly singletrack with jump lines and solid challenge elements; the pros, though, head to Bent Creek.

Getting on the water

Surrounded by river systems that are some of the oldest on Earth, Asheville hits the water lottery. From Class V whitewater to quiet brook streams, let these ancient waterways show you a good time.

Photo credits: Blue Ridge Hiking Company, James Aloysius Mahan V/Shutterstock, TierneyMJ/Shutterstock, Visit Asheville, and Kyle Ellison/Wai Mauna SUP Tours
Asheville wasn’t always topping every best-of list there is. Forty years ago, downtown was a bust. That 1920s architecture that’s so prized today? The city didn’t have enough money to tear it down. But then, something happened: Locals got together and created something special. Today, Asheville’s locally owned businesses are still highly supportive of one another — and they deserve our support when we visit. Here’s where and how.

Where to stay

Tucked away in Claxton Community, the 1889 WhiteGate Inn dates back to that year — though it wasn’t always LGBTQ-owned. Luxurious rooms, suites, and private cottages make up the lodging options, and the grounds come with waterfalls, a koi pond, and breakfast served in the garden.

Reynolds Mansion rakes in similar accolades: Built in 1847 and LGBTQ-owned as well, this red-brick masterpiece offers spectacular views from its expansive porches, where guests can slowly sip coffee or enjoy a leisurely, Southern-style breakfast.

If you’re looking for something with a distinctly 21st-century flavor, check out the brand new Element Downtown Asheville. A Marriott property, it’s owned by local hotel-management firm Virtelle Hospitality, founded by Indian immigrant and Asheville local Bhangwanji “Bob” Patel.

Where to shop

Start in the River Arts District, a bright neighborhood where many of the city’s creatives live and work. And that’s not just a generic claim — renovated mills now serve as studios and galleries for more than 200 working artists. Stroll through and you may even get a chance to meet the artists themselves.

In addition to Noir Collective AVL mentioned above, check out Lost Objects, Found Treasures, more affectionately known as L.O.F.T. You might call it a gift shop — it’s owned by Katie Skinner, a local with an eclectic taste for all kinds of items, from stickers and self-care products to chandeliers and clothing. Then there’s Asheville Bee Charmer, a downtown boutique selling small-batch honey, though you’ll probably wind up at the tasting bar (50+ varieties of the sweet stuff!). Similarly, Spice & Tea Merchants, a Black-owned shop, has a wonderful collection of teas, spices, and other gourmet items. The passionate staff can help you dream up custom mixes, too.

Where to dine

White Duck Taco Shop and John Fleer’s Rhubarb are legendary, but let’s talk a few lesser-known spots that still feel totally Asheville:

  • Located in The Block, Benne on Eagle is another John Fleer brainchild, a sleek and modern Southern restaurant with Cleophus “Ophus” Hethington at the helm as the chef de cuisine.
  • Vivian, in the River Arts District, creates stunning modern plates in an industrial-chic setting, serving up everything from roasted bone marrow to the classic chicken dinner. Josiah and Shannon McGaughey are the husband-and-wife team behind the scenes.
  • Foothills Butcher Bar in Black Mountain — just east of Asheville — is a boutique butcher shop with a “whole animal philosophy.” Locally supplied and of the highest quality, the straightforward menu focuses on excellent deli sandwiches, juicy burgers, and next-level hot dogs. Bonus: Spot their food truck at Hi-Wire Brewing.

Tours

“Tours” can conjure up images of too-hot bus rides and microphone feedback. Not so in Asheville — hop on a tour and you’ll get a local’s perspective and a short-and-sweet dive into a topic bound to pique your curiosity.

  • Sherry Masters, a former gallery manager and buyer, now runs Art Connections. She takes visitors inside the studios of metal, glass, clay, and wood artists, among others, for a behind-the-scenes look.
  • No Taste Like Home Foraging Tours will teach you how to identify and harvest delicious wild foods from Asheville’s outdoors. You’ll then enjoy a cooking lesson plus tasting based on your harvest!
  • A woman-owned business, Blue Ridge Hiking Company leads both day hikes and multi-day tours into the surrounding wilderness. This is a great option for solo travelers looking for like-minded company and serious time on the trail.
  • Hood Huggers offers tours of Asheville’s Black history with an eye toward the city’s art scene. Nowhere else will you get this intimate of a portrait of “Affrilachia.”
Photo credits: Catherine Campbell/Hood Huggers, Matt Burkhartt/Vivian, Barry Harley Photography/Element Asheville Downtown, Ellie Schreiner/L.O.F.T., Johnny Autry/Benne on Eagle, and Steve Mann/Hood Huggers
This post is proudly produced in partnership with Explore Asheville.