Updated: Aug 15, 2021
View from the Mount Pisgah platform.
Written By: Jon Shumaker
The city of Asheville is a city with several faces that are very distinctive when looking at a political map of the area. There is the city proper that is very blue in the sea of red that makes up most of the less densely populated parts of the state. This is reflected in where the coffee shops and breweries are located, along with the types of folks that frequent them. If you want some lower cost home cooking, one must generally leave the city proper, but if you want a $9 salad that is the special the blue area (city proper) is better. There were two conversations that I overheard that make the difference clear. While in line at a popular eatery in the River Art’s District, two artists were talking about relaxing covid restrictions. They did not want to freak out their customer base by easing and had in place systems that enabled people to indicate the contact level and emotional sensitivity. Then I went to an amazing small café in the outskirts of town, the mostly tradesmen and the Hispanic staff did not care one bit about covid, shouting out to each other by name often. This showcases the difference in the culture, but that adds some contrasting character to this wonderful little city. That being said, there is a unique charm throughout the area, with many options to stay well fed, caffeinated, intoxicated, entertained, and active.
One person I met described the journey many new residents of Asheville experience, they move from the north-east to escape the cold and the get to the Florida heat. Then Florida is too hot, so they move to Asheville. Something that can be said about the folks here is they know how to enjoy life.
An intimate art bar in the River Arts District
Asheville is a foodie town from your cheap hometown cooking, fancy overpriced salad, to some of the best fried chicken you will ever taste. To start with some of my favorite cheap hometown cooking there are a couple of places that offer some of the tastiest grub for breakfast or lunch. The first is in West Asheville called The Hungry Bear Café. It is a tradesman café that has a Super Bear Bowel (a breakfast bowel that will fill you up). This is a place that you can get away with under $6 dollars tab. The other place is Wynn’s Diner. This place is a bit more expensive, but it is a local breakfast and lunch classic. Both places are remarkably busy. The other local institution of food is The Med in the downtown area. The cooks are good for chat if they are not too busy, and the food is solid for a good price. This is one of the best local restaurants in the downtown area.
If you are looking for a cheap place to eat in the fast-food chain area, go to Cook Out for a meal and a shake for under $6. This is the spot to go to if you want some cheap barbeque that has no vinegar in the barbeque sauce, this is the place to go!
For those of you who enjoy some of the fried chicken, go to Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in West Asheville. You can customize the chicken from the traditional honey glazed to hot enough to melt your mouth. Do not overestimate your spice tolerance, because this place is serious about their heat.
If you are looking for probably the most popular restaurant in town, go to the White Duck Taco Shop by the river. It was recommended as better that their downtown location. The building is a Quonset type hut that looks like it could have been on a pacific airfield with a unique interior. You can get a basic taco, but my recommendation is to get something that sounds like it might be a horrible combination. Those will probably be the most flavorful and tasty. You may as well go for a unique culinary experience if you are eating at the White Duck.
Stocking the kegs in the River Arts District
This a beer and coffee town, so I will not wade to deep on this topic but give a few of my favorites. One of the crowd favorites is Wicked Weed Brewery (even if it gets points off by most for who owns it). The New Belgium rooftop bar is a highly recommended spot also. Other highly recommended breweries are the Wedge Brewing Company and Zillicoah Beer Co. My personal favorite brewery is The Cellar Project. This a true microbrew with an excellent Orange Sour that does not carry the heavy vinegar taste. It is located on the river side of Haywood Street. The other favorite for the intimacy of setting is in the River Arts District called Great Wild Nowhere. This place has art, a few couches with a small bar, and some quality local beer. The bathroom is unique here. The big brewery spot is the South Slope Brewing District by downtown. This is a tourist district if you are into that scene so expect mostly no locals and overpriced beer.
Now the coffee question. This is a coffee town with a shop or two on every block, but I found a few of the local and my own favorites. The locals recommended these spots: Home Ground Coffee Bar & Deli (along the river), PennyCup Coffee Co. (downtown), Izzy’s Coffee Den (downtown), High Five Coffee, and BattleCat Coffee Bar. Of these my personal favorite is Home Ground Coffee Bar & Deli. This is a nice spot to get a drink with a bite to eat and a unique coffee drink. On Saturday afternoon, they have a band play for a few hours in the back. The open air design of this shop is refreshing.
The independent theater in the River Arts District.
There are two tea shops in town that have a unique flavor and several amazing places with hot chocolate that will be worth the trip. Debra’s Tea (downtown location is my favorite but there is one on Haywood) has a tea selection has a tea expert and lover at the next place it will discuss falling in love. This is quality full leaf tea made right (not with a prepackaged tea bag like most places). The ambiance is perfect for a conversation or to get some work done. They even have traditional tea sitting areas where you take you shoes off. This place also has some of the most unique hot chocolate anywhere. They have different flavors such as Lavender and Sea Salt. I recommend stirring it regularly to prevent the film from developing on top. The other tea place is High Altitude Tea that is named for where the owner sources the tea in China. This is the place to go if you are looking for a tea experience! First one must understand that the owner and operator is a younger man who spent many years in China learning about tea. He personally curates the tea selection to have only the finest quality tea and his preparation of the tea is unparalleled. His exuberance will make you embrace the love of tea. My recommendation is to get the tea flight if you are less familiar with it. They also have a dinning area that serves some unique and healthy dishes that often involve tea. This is a place you bring some friends to for a one-of-a-kind experience! For another amazing hot chocolate, try the French Broad Chocolate. They have a Mexican hot chocolate that is extraordinarily rich and smooth, with peppers in it.
Now to the ice cream and frozen custard recommendations. The ice cream is competitive for what the locals consider the best, but the clear favorite is The Hop on Haywood. It is creamy, smooth, and has texture. Along with the key factor of how much time you have before it melts, especially if you have a cone. This ice cream will give you time to enjoy it with a slow melt rate. The signature blend is Kahlua Blast, and it is deserving of the title. The local frozen custard favorite is Whit’s Frozen Custard. The location is a bit out of the way, but this custard is worth the trip! For the most flavor variety, you will need to get a larger container, but they do keep a few available for small amounts. This is a smooth and flavorful custard. If you are looking for an authentic gelato, your out of luck, but Asheville Chocolate has something they call gelato (the consistency is off, but the flavor is bold). This is worth getting a scoop if you are downtown.
Smoke rising up at a local coffee shop.
One of the most important questions to ask food wise after coffee of course, is the best chocolate in town. For the category of pure chocolate bars and baking chocolate, the clear victor is French Broad Chocolate. They have high grade bars and hot cholate mixes. If you are looking for a pure cup of amazing hot chocolate, Mexican hot chocolate, cold sipping chocolate, or bars this is the place to go for the purists. If you want chocolate with more texture and unique flavoring, a local gal makes small batches and currently sells them at local farmers markets and online. She is planning on opening a storefront soon. The place is called Conjure Craft Chocolate. It is not quite as smooth as French Broad, but this is my preferred place. The owners personal favorite and mine is Vietnam Dak Nong with Fig & Molasses 70% coco content. If you are looking for a selection of chocolates outside of bars, Asheville Chocolate has a much better selection and has a high-quality product (try the gelato also).
Locals Recommended Restaurants
First for the barbeque joints. I was recommended this place by a cook, and it gets high marks on google reviews called Buxton Hall Barbeque (in the South Slope District). Personally, I am not a fan of North Carolina vinegar based barbeque sauces, so it is for people that enjoy vinegar. My review of Buxton Hall is that it is overpriced (a $20 bill for pulled pork, with a mandatory gratuity for the only option, carryout) and excessive use of vinegar on everything. The pulled pork was dry, and it needed the vinegar to get some moisture. The sides of greens and green beans were both covered in vinegar (the greens should have vinegar), and small portions. This place was recommended to me as the best BBQ place in town. If you want to eat as the locals like, this is the place. For lower priced and highly rated BBQ, here is a list of recommended places: Bonfire BBQ & Catering (good food for the price with large portions), Hawg Wild Barbeque, Luella’s Bar-b-que (local chain), and 12 Bones Smoke House. Smoky Park Supper Club in the River Arts District comes highly recommended by everyone. They are known for interesting lunch specials and good food.
Chairs at the Pisgah Inn view.
If you want to get away from the tourists and get a drink with the locals, there are several spots to go. In the downtown area, Rankin Vault Cocktail Lounge and Foggy Mountain Brew Pub are local watering holes. The most recommended spot for a drink, play pool, and amazing pizza go to Barley’s Taproom and Pizzeria (located in the downtown area). If you are by the river, go to Getaway River Bar to chill with some locals and local beers around a fire.
For recommendations from a good chef (he is not a part of any of the restaurants suggested) for some of the best dinning in town from fine dining to family dining. For the best fine dining in town go to Cucina24 located in the downtown area on Wall St. This is the best of Italian fine dining in the area. For good food with a bit of a price in the downtown area, go to Limones Restaurant and Zambra. For the best in family dining go to Sawhorse in the Haywood area.
View of the Blue Mountains at sunset.
This is a general list of recommended restaurants by the area. At the edge of the South Slope and the downtown area, there is a small Ethiopian restaurant called Addissae Ethiopian Restaurant. The food is authentic and with a hole in the wall status, reasonably priced for the area. For the River Arts District, RosaBees is an original and pricey take on food. For some highly recommended Mexican in the River Arts District and Haywood, go to Zia Food Truck or restaurant (Haywood). Several options in the Haywood area that are particularly good in their own rite. First, the Early Girl Eatery has knowledgeable staff of their extensive local inspired menu. The second for a hometown small diner is Tastee Diner. This place has old school cooking with plenty of cheese. Make sure you try the all meat chili. For old school ice cream hut, go to The Freeze of Asheville. Everything you expect of a local, hometown experience.
Skate park in the River Arts District.
This area covers everyone’s taste in activities from hiking, singing, to boating. One of the gems of the area is the Greenway along the French Broad River. This is a beautiful greenspace for walking, running, biking, picnicking, or kayaking. The area has several options to rent bikes and kayaks. The river current is strong, so you will need to stage a car, setup a pickup, or rent a yak from a company. There are options for kayaks, paddle boards, and tubing options for river fun. Along the greenway there is a Climbingmax Climbing at the River where you can climb and rent bikes. Make sure you grab some food and coffee at Home Ground Coffee Bar & Deli just down the street. Along the river are two interesting activities you can observe or even participate in at all levels. The Asheville Lawn Bowling Club and the Asheville Rugby Football Club (check website for schedule). My personal favorite for professional sports is the minor league professional teams. The quality of play is generally lower so they often makeup quality with entertainment factor. The Asheville Grizzlies is a professional minor league football team and the Asheville Tourists minor league baseball team.
Art Stairs at Wall Street.
For the low hanging fruit of tourist activities, I will mention Biltmore Estate. This house is still owned by the Vanderbilt’s, and you have paid a lot just to see the grounds or go to the winery, not even counting if you want to visit the house. If you pay the entry fee and do everything to the max, it will cost you hundreds of dollars to line a wealthy families pocket. The town around it is built to support Biltmore.
For one of the most unique stays in the Asheville area (outside of some of the free camping spots in the Pisgah National Forest) is The Omni Grove Park Inn. This place is a luxury stay with a full spa, a top resort golf course, restaurants, bars, activities, and shopping. The nightly rate starts at $350 for the basic room to a 2,500 square foot suite. This is the premier lodging in the city. Near the hotel, is the Biltmore Industries Homespun Museum and Grovewood Village.
My personal favorite place to visit is Asheville Botanical Gardens that is free to visit (donation optional). This place has beauty and serenity that permeates this garden. Another option is the North Carolina Arboretum that is popular. The Pisgah National Forest has it all: hiking, mountain biking trails, views of the blue mountains, and waterfalls. For the best views drive Blue Ridge Parkway. The best view of the area is from the viewing platform at the top of Mount Pisgah Trail. The Pisgah Inn has the second-best view. Walk along left side the main lodge and you will see chairs. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are pull offs for viewing the area.
Local Street Musicians.
Asheville is known as a bit of an artsy town. So, one of the places you go to see the measure of the place is the art museum. This is a city that going to the art museum is less of a valid measure. If you are looking for a more traditional art display, this is a great option, but going into the community art would be my recommendation if you are wanting less traditional. The River Arts District is perfect for an adventure into many art forms (I will include food in this category). This area has every type of art that if you want, you can actually bring home a piece with you, unlike the art museum. As an amateur furniture maker, myself, and a collector of jewelry, my most recommended should not come as a surprise, but this is one of the only shops that are dedicated to creations made of wood. Foundation Woodworks displays the work of around 35 artists and has an active workshop that you can observe the creative process. If you are looking for reasonably priced and unique jewelry, there is on artist here that makes beautiful pieces from merging resin and wood. You can get pieces for under $40. In the River Arts District, the food recommendations are 12 Bones Smokehouse River, RosaBees, and Smoky Park Supper Club. For a drink, my recommendation is a small place by Cotton Studios called Great Wild Nowhere. This area has a farmers market every Wednesday from 3-6 pm that is a fun addition to any trip. Most of the photography you will find in the local stores is photos of the Blue Mountains or waterfalls. There are plenty options available if your interested in the standard Blue Mountains shots, including from my online store. If you are looking for non-local shots, my personal favorite photographer is Fine Art Photography by Walter Arnold. The collection I like is called The Art of Abandonment. He captures the spirit of abandoned buildings and other objects at its finest.
Fishing at North Miller River Recreation Area
If you are looking for good fudge, this is an option that I did not have an opportunity to try, and it is a franchise (so normally they do not make recommendations). Some of the local folks recommended Kilwin’s Chocolates Fudge and Ice cream for the quality fudge near the Grove Arcade.
The area has a few unique museum options. The first recommendation is Wheels of Time Museum if you want to see motorcycles from the beginning. The second allows you to play with the museum pieces called the Pinball Museum near the Grove Arcade. The Grove Arcade is one of the last building of its type built and is an old-time mall. There are several similar structures to this building in London England that are popular shopping centers. In the Grove Arcade there is a coffee shop and new book store that is a must visit called Bebettes: A New Orleans Coffeehouse. This place has wood lined walls, overstuffed leather chairs, premium desserts, and quality coffee.
Looking glass waterfall in Pisgah National Forest.
Another highly recommended activity is farmers markets. There are 5 in Asheville and 2 outliers in the area. They are during the week, as well as Friday and Saturdays. The quality of these markets is good, and they tend to have niche products. There are around 150 vendors that participate in the local farmers markets, so you might see some familiar vendors if you go to several.
View at Pisgah Inn.
For hiking, camping (both free and paid) and viewing waterfalls, the Pisgah National Forest is the prime spot. This area has many miles of marked and unmarked trails. An amazing, unmarked trail is located along the National Park Road by Blue Ridge Parkway access. Take a right under the bridge and go maybe a half a mile to a mile. It is located on the left; at the first trailhead you will see. This gravel road is less utilized by most visitors and the trails along here are some of the bests in the area. If you are looking for a fun drive and this is where most of the large free camping spots are located, the gravel National Park Road winds its way for many miles and ends at North Mills River Recreation Area. If you are looking for some of the best paid camping in the area with dispersed spots (with power and basic options), this is the place. On site is a river for fishing, shower/bathrooms, nice walkways, and the campsites are more private. They even offer group sites. This place will need to be booked in advance. Along the National Park Road there are around 9 larger free campsites that are extremely competitive. If you have built out van or truck, there are a few options that you can pull off a few miles in from the Blue Ridge Parkway side. The main entrance is a good distance from Asheville and has several highly rated food options and an outdoors store with bike rental options. Hawg Wild Barbeque is a highly recommended BBQ joint. For a local ice cream shop, go to Dolly’s Dairy Bar & Gift Shop. They have unique flavor options. For a local and a bit offbeat option, checkout Riverside Bar that is known for a limited menu of quality food. For a bike rental and quality outdoor store option called The Hub. There are several options for camping along the main entrance road 276. Along Asheville Highway (going towards town), you will find a couple of farm stands with produce and boiled peanuts.
For those who enjoy belting out a tune, there are many open mic nights in the city on various days of the week. There are lists online for open night mic options. One that an opera singer recommended to me as the best in town, that is not on the lists is Catawba Brewing Company on the South Slope. They have an open mic night every Monday 8-10 pm. One advantage of covid restrictions on music events, is that many artists are partaking in open mics. I was told that it is not uncommon to find a bigger named artist at the Catawba Brewing open mic night, along with other open mics.
For a unique activities River Art District dominates. There are several skateparks in the area and a small movie theater that is only open on the weekends called Grail Moviehouse. The Grail shows independent films and art films. In the downtown area the Grove Arcade, New Orleans Coffeehouse, Pinball Museum, and Wall St are all in the same area. Wall Street sometimes has music or other events, along with unique shops. Checkout the staircase art. For rock wall climbing with some huge walls, Climbmax Climbing at the River is the spot.
There are numerous lodging options in the area, but if you are looking for something off the beaten track, there are several hostels in town. Perfectly located in the downtown area, the Sweet Peas Hostel has both private rooms and bunks. The Bon Paul & Sharky’s Hostel is great if you are looking for conversation and a chill scene. For camping, North Mill River Recreation Area has dispersed and private camping in a good location to park an RV. Perfect if you want privacy and there is a fishing opportunity on site. Group campsites available. If you are looking for a view, both the Mt Pisgah Campground and the Mt Pisgah Inn is where to stay depending on the budget. Both places offer the same views. There are free camping options in the area that are largely located within the Pisgah National Forest use www.freecampsites.net. This is a crowd sourced free camping website and an app link. East of the Mississippi the options decline, but in western United States this is particularly useful due to much of the land being controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
The shopping scene is good in the Asheville downtown area. There are quirky local shops and a more traditional experience. I will make note of a few that stood out in the Haywood area. The independent used bookstore Bagatelle Books has a broad selection of used books at fair prices. This place has a hometown vibe and an amazing selection. For the unusual, go to Fleetwood’s. This is a retro shopping experience. If you are looking for outdoor gear at a fair price, go to Second Gear. They carry both used and new gear for the budget traveler. In the downtown area go to Bebettes: A New Orleans Coffeehouse for new books, coffee, and overstuffed leather chairs. If you are looking for the best tea in town, go to High Altitude Tea, the owner personally curates only the finest tea and he will give you a tea experience. This is a great place for lunch or a group outing also.