16 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Asheville
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Asheville, in the far west of North Carolina, has a different pace from the state's bigger urban centers of Charlotte and Raleigh. Thanks to its proximity to the mountains, it is an ideal base for excursions on the Blue Ridge Parkway and into the Great Smoky Mountains. The city has become well known for its vibrant culinary scene and continuously thriving artistic community.
You won't be at a loss for things to do when visiting Asheville. The city is full of interesting attractions, the premier one being the Biltmore Estate, home of the Vanderbilts. Many points around the city have magnificent views of the mountains, including southeast of Asheville at Chimney Rock.
Find the best places to visit with our list of the top attractions in and around Asheville.
See also: Where to Stay in Asheville
1. Explore the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches 469 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. October, when the leaves are colorful and picturesque, is peak season for the parkway and one of the best times of year to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. But if you prefer smaller crowds, plan a trip in early to mid-summer to view the blooming rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and flaming azaleas.
You can enjoy the scenic vistas from the road and its many pull-offs, or consider taking a closer look by exploring the hiking trails that wander through the surrounding countryside and the Southern Appalachian mountains. The mountains around Asheville are also home to some of North Carolina's most beautiful waterfalls. If you are visiting in the heat of the summer, be sure to bring your bathing suit and water shoes to take a refreshing dip in the cool waters.
Those who aren't driving or simply want to get a more enriching experience will enjoy the 5-hour guided hiking tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls. Led by an expert local guide, this tour includes transportation to and from Asheville, refreshments, and the opportunity to see several waterfalls while learning about the area's history, flora, and fauna.
Official site: https://www.nps.gov/blri/index.htm
2. Tour Biltmore Estate
At the center of this 8,000-acre estate is Vanderbilt Mansion, the largest private home in the United States. The mansion alone encompasses four acres and features 250 rooms – 199 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. In addition to admiring the artwork, antiques, and impressive architecture in the home, also leave time to stroll through the gardens and River Bend Farm.
Be sure to set aside plenty of time to fully explore the estate. For an additional charge, you can get a guided tour, which shows parts of the estate that are not open to the public, as well as a tour that highlights the estate's extensive sustainability efforts.
If you want to make this the focus of your trip, consider a stay at the Inn on Biltmore Estate, one of the top resorts in Asheville.
Address: 1 Lodge Street, Asheville, North Carolina
Official site: www.biltmore.com
3. Wander through Downtown Asheville
The funky, artsy, and eclectic downtown area of Asheville has a friendly, Bohemian vibe. Locally owned shops and boutiques line the streets, along with a tasty selection of restaurants and cafés. Street performers of all kinds, from mimes to musicians, frequently make appearances.
Feel free to join in the regular drum circles that take place at Pritchard Park every Friday night and spontaneously on other nights throughout the summer. If you don't want to participate, just stand around and enjoy the entertainment.
After dark, guests can catch an Asheville Community Theatre, Asheville Lyric Opera, or Asheville Symphony show. You can also explore the historic Urban Trail, a 1.7-mile walking-tour route, which is marked by a series of 30 stations that feature informational plaques and sculptures at various significant sites.
If you are looking for that special souvenir that captures the spirit of Asheville and the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains, be sure to stop in at The Grove Arcade. This wonderfully restored building dates from 1929 and is full of unique shops. In the evening, try and snag a spot on the patio of one of the many fine restaurants lining a full city block, and engage in some serious people watching.
Downtown Asheville is a good place to stay if you want to enjoy the city. You can park the car and walk everywhere if you base yourself in the city center.
Official site: www.ashevilledowntown.org
4. Visit the Western North Carolina (WNC) Nature Center
The Western North Carolina Nature Center is a 42-acre facility dedicated to educating the public about the area's varied animal life and natural habitats. Indoor exhibits include resident reptiles and amphibians; small mammals; and the World Underground exhibit, which explores what lies beneath.
The Nature Center is a fun family destination with a focus on natural play. Outdoor play areas offer all kinds of interesting and engaging natural things to do that will appeal to kids of all ages. Kids can also try their luck at finding that special rock at the gem and mining sluice for an additional fee. After exploring, take a rest and catch one of the many animal programs that let you get up close with snakes, turtles, and even otters.
Outdoor exhibits include a variety of habitats, which are home to native species like otter, turtles, endangered farm animals, raccoons, and foxes. The Appalachian Predators habitat is the park's largest, housing a bobcat, coyotes, grey wolves, and the critically endangered red wolf. The nature center also has a hiking trail suitable for all ages, and offers special programs and events throughout the year.
Address: 75 Gashes Creek Road, Asheville, North Carolina
Official site: https://wildwnc.org
5. Shop and Dine in the River Arts District
An up-and-coming district in Asheville is the River Arts District, known by its acronym "RAD." This eclectic area consists of 23 former industrial buildings by the French Broad River bounded by the railroad tracks. Inside the buildings are a treasure trove of artist studios, restaurants, and cafés. Walking around, touring studios, and grabbing a bite to eat are three of the best things to do in the RAD.
If you need a signature piece of art, this is the place to come. Innovative artisans from around the country descended on this area and have made it a hotbed of craftsmanship. Over 200 artists work in various mediums including, but not limited to, metal, pottery, paint, glass, and paper.
The area hosts Studio Stroll Weekends, and a free trolley runs on certain Saturdays. Something is usually going on, so check their website for the latest news.
Official site: https://www.riverartsdistrict.com/
6. North Carolina Arboretum
The North Carolina Arboretum features over 65 acres of cultivated gardens, which are home to a diverse range of plants. Highlights include the National Native Azalea Collection; the G-scale Rocky Cove Railroad model train; and the Bonsai Exhibition Garden, which houses up to 50 of these unique and fragile plants.
The Heritage Garden will be interesting to those who want to learn more about traditional uses for plants, including medicinal and functional applications, and the Quilt Garden is maintained in homage to Appalachian quilting traditions. This 434-acre natural escape offers outdoor activities and 10 miles of hiking trails, and the center offers guided trail walks, self-guided mobile device tours, and geocaching. The arboretum also hosts traveling exhibits and special events.
Address: 100 Frederick Law Olmsted Way, Asheville, North Carolina
Official site: www.ncarboretum.org
7. Botanical Gardens of Asheville
For another escape in the natural world, the Botanical Gardens of Asheville are a series of immaculately tended gardens bursting with color and scent. The horticultural displays focus on local flowering plants and trees, many of which are unique to the state.
The gardens are open year-round, but peak bloom seasons are generally during mid-April and mid-August. Families will want to stop at the visitor center to pick up Investigation Passports for the kids, a fun way to engage younger ones in learning about the plants they will see.
There are also classes and topic-focused walks put on throughout the year for varied ages. This non-profit organization is free and open to the public, so be sure to stop by the on-site gift shop for a memento.
Address: 151 W T Weaver Blvd, Asheville, North Carolina
Official site: www.ashevillebotanicalgardens.org
8. Pisgah National Forest
The Pisgah National Forest covers more than 500,000 acres and is one of the first designated national forests in the country. Within the park, there are multiple day-use areas that offer a variety of amenities and activities, including swimming, trails, and boat ramps.
Multiple camping areas are also found throughout the park. Visitors will find numerous geological landmarks including Table Rock, the Chimneys, and Linville Gorge, as well as the Forest Discovery Center located near the town of Brevard. Other highlights include guided nature hikes and seasonal interpretive programs and activities like horseback riding, fishing, hiking, bicycling, and rock climbing.
9. Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
Expanding on the scenery of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the National Heritage Area includes the communities and scenic byways, which add to the area's cultural richness. In addition to scenic drives, hiking, bicycling, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor activities, the area has a myriad of things to do.
Within driving distance of Asheville, you'll find farmers markets, local festivals and events, theaters, and gemstone quarries. There are also several opportunities to learn more about the history and culture of the Cherokee and other natives who first occupied the land.
During peak tourist season, there is a Cherokee Bonfire series and Cherokee Artisan shows, and in the town of Cherokee, you can find a museum dedicated to the culture, as well as the Oconaluftee Indian Village.
Official site: www.blueridgeheritage.com
10. Smith-McDowell House Museum
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the beautiful Smith-McDowell House Museum is Asheville's oldest surviving dwelling. The antebellum mansion currently functions as a history museum, restored with period furniture from the 19th century and decorative arts. The elegant brick building was once also the home for local mayors and a Civil War major.
Another point of interest in Asheville is the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site on North Market Street. The childhood home of the famous American author, this Victorian house is the former Old Kentucky Boarding House, once operated by Wolfe's mother. The house is featured in several of Wolfe's works, most notably the largely autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel.
Address: 283 Victoria Road, Asheville, North Carolina
Official site: www.wnchistory.org
11. Pack Place
Pack Place Education and Arts Center in Asheville is home to a number of cultural institutions, namely the Asheville Museum of Art, the Colburn Earth Science Museum, Diana Wortham Theatre, and YMI Cultural Center. It is a center for Asheville's flourishing artistic and musical pursuits.
Among these attractions, you will have your pick of art, science, and performing arts. The Asheville Museum of Art focuses on American pieces from the 20th century onwards. At the Colburn Earth Science Museum, topical and science-focused exhibits are often hands-on (making them ideal and engaging for kids). And the Diana Wortham Theatre holds regular performances, spanning dance, theater, and music.
Address: 2 North Pack Sq, Asheville, North Carolina
12. Craggy Gardens
Being home to some 20 endangered or threatened varieties of flowers, Craggy Gardens is the perfect stop for anyone interested in rare plants. Check out (and photograph) the whimsical, wind-bent trees that grow on the mountain, and during June and July you will find purple rhododendrons in full bloom.
Because of the high winds, trees rarely grow very tall here and only produce vegetation on the sheltered side of the tree. Amenities include free parking, a picnic area, restrooms, and dog-friendly grounds.
Address: 195 Hemphill Knob Road, Asheville, North Carolina
13. Ziplines and Hot Air Balloon Rides
For a different perspective on the North Carolina landscape, why not get a bird's-eye view from the sky or the treetops? Quiet and serene, hot air balloon rides offer a unique way to see Asheville and the surrounding countryside from above.
There are multiple tour operators to choose from, and there are also several options for thrill-seekers who want to experience a zipline canopy tour. Autumn is a particularly popular time of year for both activities, when the forest canopy is ablaze with vibrant foliage. Make sure to take (and hold tightly onto) your camera.
14. Chimney Rock State Park
Twenty-five miles southeast of Asheville, Chimney Rock State Park features its landmark namesake: a 315-foot solid granite spire that rises over 2,280 feet. Don't worry, you don't need to climb to the top, visitors of all physical abilities can reach the top thanks to a 26-story elevator built inside the mountain.
Families will enjoy a variety of kid-friendly activities, including the educational Great Woodland Adventure Trail, the Animal Discovery Den, a kids' climbing tower, and scavenger hunts.
Another popular sightseeing spot in the park is reached via the Hickory Nut Falls Trail. The moderate, mostly level trail leads to the base of the 404-foot Hickory Nut Falls. For boaters, Lake Lure is the destination of choice.
Address: 431 Main Street, Chimney Rock, North Carolina
Official site: www.chimneyrockpark.com
15. Asheville Pinball Museum
Located in downtown Asheville, the Pinball Museum allows you to not only see their 45 vintage pinball machines, but play them as well. This nostalgic museum allows free play on its machines, with a flat admission fee, and is a great way to regain your inner teenager.
The Pinball Museum can become very busy, and the facility limits capacity. To make it easier, the museum has a waiting list service, which allows you to explore and shop in downtown Asheville until your turn comes up. You can also pass your time across the street at the Grove Arcade while waiting.
Address: 1 Battle Square, Suite 1B, Asheville, North Carolina
Official site: http://ashevillepinball.com
16. Biltmore Village
Biltmore Village was one of the country's first "company towns" – an entire community planned for the purpose of housing Biltmore Estate workers and their families. Designed to resemble an English village, it has become a top tourist destination for both its historic charm, European ambience, and shopping. You'll find everything from independent boutiques to major labels, as well as a wide variety of some of Asheville's best restaurants.
Another Biltmore-related spot is Grovewood Village, once the center of Biltmore's woodworking and weaving branches. Here, you will find the Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum, as well as an antique car museum, an art gallery, and a sculpture garden.
Official site: www.historicbiltmorevillage.com
Where to Stay in Asheville for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels in Asheville, near downtown shops, restaurants, and attractions:
- The Windsor Boutique Hotel is a luxury boutique hotel in a great central location. Rooms have exposed brick walls, the apartments have full kitchens and the bedding is luxe linens.
- Hilton Garden Inn Asheville Downtown is a mid-range priced spot in an excellent location that is easily walkable to the sights of downtown. A highlight here is the sunny rooftop terrace that is ideal for catching the sunset. The hotel also has a complimentary downtown shuttle and well equipped fitness center.
- A good mid-range option is the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Asheville Westgate, NC. This 3-star hotel has bright rooms, an indoor pool and gym, and a free downtown shuttle.
- A couple of miles farther out from downtown is the Quality Inn Asheville Downtown Tunnel Road. This is a budget hotel with clean rooms, free breakfast and parking, in-room fridges and microwaves. The hotel also has a free downtown shuttle.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Asheville
- Believers and skeptics alike will enjoy this evening tour of Asheville's most haunted spots, including the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the Omni Grove Park Inn. A local guide shares stories and interesting historic facts during the two-hour Ghost Walking Tour and visit to Asheville's Mystery Museum.
Blue Ridge by Horseback:
- The Flame Azalea and Fern Forest Combo Horseback Trail Ride gives you the opportunity to see some of the area's most beautiful plant life and scenery from the unique perspective of horseback. Lessons are available for beginners at no extra charge, and ride time is not shortened, making this a great family outing for those who want to try out something new.
Paddle through Downtown:
- You'll be able to see the city from a new angle on the Guided Stand-Up Paddleboard Tour on the French Broad River. Starting in the River Arts District, you are provided with all necessary equipment and will get a paddleboard lesson before embarking on a peaceful small-group tour.
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Nearby Places to Visit: This area of North Carolina is a treasure trove of quaint mountains towns and scenic drives. Other highlights in this region are the beautiful waterfalls. These are easily visited on day trips from Asheville. You can also work in some hiking if you have enough time. If you're visiting in winter, some of North Carolina's best ski resorts are not that far away and can make a nice side trip.