At first glance, Asheville seems like a classic mountain town -— but take a closer look. Although it's home to America's largest house, its true character is found in the fusion of high and low downtown. On its narrow cobblestone streets you'll encounter a range of artists, old-world craftsmen and street musicians abutting modern bistros and a coffee shop in an old trolly. There's even a street selling just pottery. Here's a five-point plan for your visit.
Start with a self-guided tour through the Biltmore, an American castle completed in 1895 as a 250-room bachelor pad for George Vanderbilt until he brought home his Parisian wife in 1898 ($40-$50 one-day pass; tours $8 audio, $15 guided). Take note of its French influences — the Renoir paintings hung in the Chippendale Room and the gilt bronze Louis Jouard cartel clock in the Louis XVI Room. And don't miss the fresco relocated from an Italian palace to the Vanderbilts' library ceiling, creating a dreamy cap over George's 23,000-volume book collection.
If you visit in spring, be sure to allow a daylight hour or two to stroll through the 8,000-acre estate. The Biltmore's Festival of Flowers (April 4-May 17) features special events and hybrid tulips, poppies, azaleas and more at their peak in the Walled and Azalea gardens.
SHOP Spend an afternoon with the arts, beginning in the three-story Grove Arcade, a historic cultural center since 1929. Grab a cup of joe and chocolate-espresso shortbread at True Confection, then wander the galleries for handmade crafts, such as the knit hats and woven baskets at Asheville Home Crafts, and home items like the hand-poured candles and Ojai Lounge Chair at Four Corners Home.
Head down the street to Woolworth Walk, a two-story sanctuary of more than 150 local artists. Don't miss Virginia-raised painter, Sarah Faulkner, who combines acrylic and wax to create contemporary nature scenes, and her husband, John Faulkner, with his line of retro lamps, furniture and whimsical candelabras.
Head back to the Biltmore Estate for sunset views and a first-class dining experience at The Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. Try the Biltmore Zinfandel Blanc De Noir (a sweet blush wine) and order the three-course pairing ($48 per person) with fresh seasonal selections. This winter the local red trout and squash ratatouille were exceptional.
TASTE Before ending your estate experience, make sure to get a bottle of Biltmore vino made on site. Free with estate admission, a 15-minute tour of the winery is followed by a complimentary tasting. Make sure to try the Chenin Blanc (a sweet white) and the Sangiovese (a light, semi-dry red).
As you head out of town, swing by the historic Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa for a traditional al fresco lunch of sweet tea and salad wedge on the Sunset Terrace overlooking the Blue Ridge.
SLEEP Homewood Suites (starting at $99 per night) is only minutes from downtown Asheville and the Biltmore and has suites with kitchens, plus a full hot breakfast offered in the Lodge. Or stay where F. Scott Fitzgerald spent two summers, at the 512-room Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa (starting at $199 per night). To get to your 1913-section room, guests take an elevator that runs along the shaft of a great fireplace chimney. INFO
- The Biltmore Estate 1 Approach Road, 1-877-BILTMORE, biltmore.com
- Grove Arcade 1 Page Ave., (828) 252-7799, grovearcade.com
- True Confections Located in the Grove Arcade, (828) 350-9480
- Woolworth Walk 25 Haywood St., (828) 254-9234, woolworthwalk.com
- The Dining Room at the Inn on Biltmore Estate 1 Antler Hill Road, (828) 225-1699
- The Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa 290 Macon Ave., (800) 438-5800, groveparkinn.com
- Homewood Suites by Hilton 88 Tunnel Road, (828) 252-5400, ashevillehomewoodsuites.com