Overview

Nestled firmly between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has many great qualities that attract a truly diverse population, hence the city's moniker: "Asheville: Any Way You Like It."

Although Asheville is nationally known for the Biltmore Estate, George W. Vanderbilt's palatial home built in the 1890s, it represents just one of the attractions the western North Carolina city has to offer.

Since the railroads created easier access to western North Carolina in the late 19th century, swarms of people have been drawn to Asheville's magnificent beauty and hospitable climate. People-watching from one of the city's many outdoor cafes reveals its character more than any tour could: Among the constant flow of tourists, you'll see plenty of young professionals and hippies, retired couples, street performers and mountain folk.

The number of attractions in Asheville is astounding for such a modest city. In addition to the Biltmore Estate, you'll find seemingly countless restaurants of almost every variety, museums, art galleries, theaters, cozy pubs, breweries, eclectic shops and pristine natural attractions. Nearby Pisgah National Forest is a favorite place for locals to squeeze in a weekend hike or simply relax in the woods.

If you're strolling through downtown on a Friday night, you might happen upon an odd sight. In Pritchard Park, hundreds of people of every description, both young and old, gather to dance to the rhythms of a local drum circle. Strange as it might seem at first, it's sights like these that may just entice you to stay in Asheville for good.

Geography

Asheville is the leading urban center of western North Carolina. Adjacent to the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers, the city is seated in a large river basin flanked by the rounded peaks of the Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Downtown Asheville is roughly split into four areas: Lexington Park, Battery Park, Thomas Wolfe Plaza and Pack Square.

History

The site of present-day Asheville was originally an intersection of Cherokee Indian paths. When the land beyond the eastern slopes of the Appalachians began to open up to European migration, a town planner named John Burton purchased the deed to a small crossroads settlement and founded Morristown in 1794. In 1797, the town was incorporated and became known as Asheville in honor of North Carolina Gov. Samuel Ashe.

Growth was slow during much of the next century until the railroad made access to the mountains easier in the 1880s. Asheville's population boomed as summer people from the east migrated to its cooler, less oppressive climate. One of these people was 27-year-old George W. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the incredibly wealthy shipping and railroad tycoon. George loved the area surrounding Asheville so much that he purchased 125,000 acres/50,600 hectares of it and began to build the Biltmore House, which would become the largest private residence in the U.S. The completion of this mansion marked the beginning of a period of great expansion for the city of Asheville.

The peak of this expansion occurred in the 1920s as much of the architecture seen in downtown today, including art-deco, Gothic and neoclassical styles, was added to the city's skyline. However, as in the rest of the country, the Great Depression devastated Asheville's economy. But Asheville took a different route than many other U.S. cities: Property owners decided to pay their loans rather than sell off their mortgages. Though it took them until 1977 to climb out of debt, the end result was that the city's remarkable architecture survived the demolition ball. More than 80 buildings in Buncombe County are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Outsiders still flock to this resort city in the mountains. In the past three decades, it has undergone yet another revitalization, with more than US$200 million devoted to creating one of the most attractive downtowns in the Southeast.

Sightseeing

There is no doubt that the 8,000-acre/3,200-hectare Biltmore Estate, with its extravagant French chateau, is Asheville's top sightseeing attraction. But there are plenty of other historic sites to see elsewhere in the city. You can visit the boyhood home of author Thomas Wolfe, see Asheville's oldest home (Smith-McDowell House), watch the sun set and take a walking tour at the legendary Grove Park Inn, or take a guided tour of the magnificent Basilica of St. Lawrence.

The Pack Place complex in the city center houses several fine museums, including the Asheville Art Museum. Or take a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway for a look at the region's splendid natural sights.

Nightlife

In addition to Bele Chere, the largest street festival in the Southeast, and the Downtown After Five concert series held throughout the summer on North Lexington Avenue, there are always events going on in downtown Asheville. Friday and Saturday nights, the streets are bustling with after-dinner crowds, students and clubgoers. Even on weekdays you'll find a wide assortment of live music offered by the area's numerous bars and clubs. Venues range from laid-back neighborhood pubs to psychedelic dance clubs.

Dining

Finding a place to eat in Asheville is only a problem if you have trouble making decisions. Dozens of restaurants of all varieties line the streets of downtown and its outskirts. There are a large number of ethnic choices: Those who appreciate Asian cuisine won't be disappointed, and creative fusion restaurants, such as the landmark Bistro 1896 or Table, abound. Vegetarians and vegans will also find plenty of options—even if they venture out beyond stalwarts such as the nationally acclaimed Laughing Seed Cafe—as most menus will easily accommodate them.

If you're looking to sample the local cuisine, you may have a harder time finding a place. The ever-popular Tupelo Honey Cafe champions new Southern cuisine, but like the city's inhabitants, the food options in town are a diverse mix. However, most eateries boast that they only use local, organic ingredients, so chances are you'll be sampling the area's fresh produce no matter where you go.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.

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