Over the last 15 years, Asheville, North Carolina, has been having a sort of coming-out-party. Like Portland, San Francisco or Brooklyn before it, the “Land of the Sky” has become a haven for artists, foodies and breweries—giving the South another funky, not-completely-normal (but still undeniably cool) gem to call its own. And unlike the rest of these cities, Asheville is surrounded by the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, allowing visitors a place to hike and presenting spectacular views around nearly every street corner.
Asheville’s mix of city treats, scenery and distinct Southern appeal make western North Carolina’s largest city the best place to visit this fall. Here are five reasons to convince you further:
1. The foliage
Besides pumpkin-spiced, oh, anything, foliage is one of the most popular features of autumn, and Asheville might do it better than any destination in the world. The Southern Appalachia forests change at different times depending on elevation—the highest points change first, all the way down to the lowest—forming a pleasant color-changing slide along highways and roads. This also makes for a much longer foliage season, usually early October through mid-November. And while New England predominantly offers hues of orange, red and yellow, North Carolina’s varied tree types (ash, beech, sassafras) and mountain micro-climates allow for glowing shades of chocolate brown and burgundy, as well.
You can see Asheville’s months-long show in various ways. Among them: a drive along the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, waterfall hikes and, for the adventurous, zip-line canopy tours.
2. The beer
With nearly 40 breweries and just 90,000 people, Asheville has more breweries per capita than any city in America. It all started with Highland Brewing in a basement back in 1994, and the frothy, refreshing beverages have since infiltrated every aspect of society. There’s beer shampoo, beer ice cream and beer cake. Fall beer festivals include the German-inspired Asheville Oktoberfest and a hard cider fest, and if you don’t end up visiting until the end of the year, there’s a party that rivals New York City’s New Year’s ball drop. But instead of a ball, Thirsty Monk Brewery uses a keg. Yes, a New Year’s Eve keg drop.
Tip: Do the LaZoom Band and Beer Bus Tour. The open-air bus, accompanied by a live band and fantastically eccentric tour guide, takes you to two breweries in three hours. The atmosphere, particularly when driving past all the people dancing along to the bus’s music on main street Asheville, will fill you with a happiness you’ll never forget.
3. The food
Known as Foodtopia, the thriving culinary scene in Asheville only gets better in the fall. Apple and pear trees sprout along mountainsides, while wild onions and pumpkins begin appearing in farms throughout the region. Visitors can find this fresh produce at any of the city’s 17 farmers markets, or by doing a farm-to-table tour (I recommend the Farmers & Flavors of Appalachia Tour, during which you visit three sustainable farms and eat a locally harvested lunch under the sky).
Restaurant-wise, there’s something for just about every palate. Table Asheville is a locally-sourced Southern-style spot in downtown Asheville. Go for brunch and get the buttermilk fried chicken with cornbread. It’s how any good Ashevillian might start a day. Drop by The Rhu for a light lunch—with fresh local ingredients—or pick up one of its delectable picnic baskets to go. For dinner, try Cucina 24, an Italian restaurant that sources its recipes from forages through the Appalachian Mountains. Share some apps with a big group (the rigatoni al’amatriciana with bacon is mouthwatering) and go with the flat-iron steak as an entrée. Cooked ever so slightly, it’ll melt in your mouth.
4. The arts
Not even 15 years ago, the area along the French Broad River (the fifth-oldest river in the world) was rampant with drugs and crime. Today, it’s a budding creative workshop known as the River Arts District. Old warehouses have been transformed into studios for more than 200 artists. There are giant coffee house workspaces and dual juice bar/wellness clinics. There are also, of course, craft breweries for you (and the artists). I suggest signing up for an Asheville Art Studio Tour, a two-hour walk and fascinating talk with the glass-blowers, pottery-makers and abstract artists who make up the riverside scene. It may inspire you to take up painting. It may also inspire you to move to Asheville.
5. The Biltmore(s)
There are some extravagant resorts in and around Asheville—including the Inn at Biltmore Estate, a AAA Four Diamond Award-winner housed on George and Edith Vanderbilt’s property. But if you prefer not paying an arm and a leg for a place to sleep and need a quiet haven just outside proper Asheville, check into the Holiday Inn Biltmore East. Along with featuring aspects of the brand’s new H4 Design program like moveable work desks, mudrooms and kid-themed bunk beds, the property has a two-acre walking trail through the woods—perfect for a brisk fall hike with your morning coffee.
For more on travel to Asheville, visit exploreasheville.com.