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.
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.
Instead of hopping on a brewery tour covering Asheville’s most-visited stops, create your own itinerary of minority-owned establishments:
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.
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.
Asheville is arguably the best cycling city in the South. Here’s why:
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.