While lots of U.S. cities boast proximity to nature, few possess such a seamless integration of both urban and rural life as Asheville, North Carolina. Here, in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the shores of the French Broad River, two lifestyles blend harmoniously. As restaurants, breweries and music venues perform at the kind of high-caliber you’d find in a much larger metropolis, this city of about 90,000 also maintains its rustic roots with an easily accessible abundance of nature and world-class outdoor activities. The best part is that not only do these two facets co-exist, they thrive off one another, forming a cohesive landscape like no other place in the U.S.
Big On Beer
Although cities like Denver and San Diego have long dominated the craft beer conversation, Asheville lays claim to the most breweries per capita of any city in the country. With upwards of 30 within city limits, spanning a wide array of styles and techniques, the local beer boom has raised the bar for burgeoning breweries across the U.S. Far beyond your standard brews, the city fosters creativity and innovation with places like Ginger’s Revenge, a ginger beer brewery that debuted early 2017, Ben’s Tune-Up, an unassuming beer joint that just so happens to be one of the few places in the country brewing its own sake, or the sour-centric Wicked Weed Funkatorium. Ever since Highland Brewing Company, the city’s first brewery, emerged in 1994, Asheville’s beer scene has been on a steady buildup; so much so that the region has become just as renowned for its brews as it is for its Appalachian hikes.
One of the best ways to drink it all in is simply by meandering around the South Slope district, an area clustered with nearly a dozen breweries. Here you’ll find Green Man, Hi-Wire, Ben’s Tune-Up, Burial Beer, Twin Leaf and others, making for a convenient and leisurely beer crawl spanning a wide variety of styles and flavors. An exciting newcomer to the lineup is White Lab, a company specializing in brewing yeast, which opened an Asheville location earlier in 2017. The pristine facility also added a restaurant and tasting room, highlighting fermented foods and beer-infused cookery. Unique standouts include pizza made with pure liquid yeast and fermented sauces.
Right on the heels of Asheville’s booming beer scene, local restaurants have risen to the occasion as well. Considering the city’s proximity to copious farmland and its fruitful year round growing seasons, chefs have plenty to work with. From low-key to high-brow, the restaurant landscape is as diverse as ones found in much larger cities, which only adds to the individuality of a town like this.
Rhubarb 81 is a pioneer in Asheville’s restaurant community, featuring award-winning seasonal fare by acclaimed chef John Fleer. Any night of the week, the restaurant bustles with convivial diners clamoring over shared plates of heritage pork meatballs with sour corn grits, wood-roasted trout with preserved lemon remoulade and rhubarb-glazed duck confit with sweet potato cakes and rhubarb salsa. Around the corner in the rear of the building, you’ll find The Rhu (http://www.the-rhu.com/), the casual bakery and cafe component, where habit-forming almond butter-glazed donuts and cream of wheat (made with local Carolina wheat, no less) with maple cream cheese are the order of the day.
Down the street from Rhubarb, Cúrate 92 reigns as one of Asheville’s most popular stalwarts, and rightfully so. Chef Katie Button works wonders applying a Spanish accent to locally grown ingredients and meticulously sourced provisions, dishing up tapas like fried eggplant drizzled in mountain honey, salt-cured sardines with pickled raspberries and charcoal-grilled turnips with turnip greens, sherry, almonds and leeks.
For something a little more casual and quick, the restaurant features a nice charcuterie bar menu, focused on snacky bites like jamón Iberico, cheeses and fried almonds, all of which pair nicely with vermouth by the glass, cider or a cucumber-infused gin & tonic.
Venture away from downtown to park yourself at Gan Shan Station, a gas station turned East Asian restaurant whose effortless cool would feel right at home in any hip urban neighborhood. You can sit in front of the garage on the restaurant’s patio, or opt for a bar stool for one of the best seats in the house. As the open kitchen and bar whirs in front of you, tuck into sticky-spicy Korean chicken wings spiced with gochujang and shoyu, crispy salt and pepper tofu and green curried confit chicken thighs with pineapple, eggplant and cilantro.
Even Asheville’s most casual, accessible newcomers aim high, like Bone & Broth. A recent addition to the Chestnut Hill area, this English pub-inspired haunt exceeds adventurous expectations with rabbit wings, scallops with dehydrated salmon roe and ricotta gnocchi with braised wild boar belly. Don’t miss the bread either, served warm and crusty with whipped smoke tallow and butter. The pub of course also features its namesake bone broth, steeped for 48 hours before being ladled into steaming, fragrant bowls as a savorous starter.
Music City in the Making
Like other Southern cities, Asheville’s musical roots run deep, paving the way for a new era that’s helping to spotlight the city from a new angle.
The best aspect of Asheville’s thriving music scene is how integrated it is with its famed surroundings, making for venues and experiences that are wholly original.
From concerts at Sierra Nevada’s outdoor amphitheater to the Biltmore Concert Series at the iconic Biltmore Estate’s South Terrace, there’s hardly an arena or hall that doesn’t feel distinctly Asheville. It’s these kinds of immersive settings that increasingly attract musical acts, coupled with the city’s longstanding relationship with music at an organic level.
Surprises and performances await around nearly ever corner, like White Horse Black Mountain, a car dealership-turned-music venue. Or the Woodrow, an Asheville-born stringed instrument that you can learn about at the Woodrow Instrument Company. Or the weekly Friday night drum circles that has locals and visitors dancing along in the streets.
From the old (the nation’s longest running folk festival, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival has been active since 1928) to the new (Explore Asheville Radio is a new station focused on local artists), Asheville’s best musical asset is its ability to celebrate its historic past while pushing towards the future.
All that eating, drinking and dancing is a surefire way to boost energy for hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding and bellyaking, an Asheville novelty that entails face-first kayaking on your belly. Fortunately, with its one million acres of forest surrounding the skyline, getting out into nature is a natural way of life around here.
Hiking is Asheville’s crown jewel, with 40 nearby mountains that exceed 6,000 feet for the diehard, along with lower and more reasonable day hikes that are an easy jaunt from downtown. The Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian Trail and Great Smoky Mountains National Park are all a stone’s throw, each affording striking sights from various vantage points. Blue Ridge Hiking Company is a great company to connect with, thanks to their diverse portfolio of routes and durations. Hoof it into the Blue Ridge Mountains where sun-soaked trails provide glimpses of wildlife, waterfalls, granite domes and plant species found almost nowhere else. If you’re looking to capture that awe-inspiring vista in an afternoon, try Summit Sam Knob. A 2.2-mile round trip hike with easy access off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the trail ascends to 6,050-feet, with sweeping views of the mystical, blue-tinged mountains.
Just as prominent as hiking in Asheville is the popularity of water activities. Between the Nantahala and the French Broad Rivers, options run the gamut from whitewater to beer tubing. For something adrenaline-pumping, head to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the country’s largest whitewater outfitter. They’ll equip you and guide you through some of the region’s more action-packed waves.
Meanwhile, the French Broad, one of the oldest rivers in the world, ambles northward at a pace more befitting stand-up paddle boarding, tubing, swimming and that aforementioned bellyaking. Wai Mauna is one of the city’s premiere companies for paddle boarding in particular, and they’ve even added a six-person giant paddle board option for well-balanced groups.
One particular activity that epitomizes Asheville is beer tubing. Floating lazily down a river via inner tube with coolers of beer in tow is something found throughout the country, but here in Asheville, at companies like Zen Tubing, the activity perfectly captures everything the city is best known for in one blissful afternoon. Especially if you’re swigging a can of New Belgium beer as you drift by the riverside brewery.