Travel Tips for Asheville, North Carolina

Since I started an Instagram account almost a year ago (follow Red Dot Blue Dot at @reddotbluedot1 and me at @amy.m.gardner), I’ve posted images from about 10 different countries and several states.  Never have I had as many requests for travel tips, though, as when I posted an iPhone photo from Asheville, North Carolina.  

We were in Asheville in April for the LHSA International Leica Society spring shoot, where photographers get together to talk photography, some history of Lecia, and then get out and take photos.  While much of our time was taken up by the event schedule (and work), we did have the chance to experience many great Asheville restaurants and some of the sights of Asheville.  Below are some tips for your own Asheville visit. 

Builtmore following the Facebook Live!

Builtmore following the Facebook Live!

Getting around:  Ubers are pretty plentiful in Asheville, but you’ll almost definitely need a rental car, particularly if you plan to visit the Biltmore.  As you make your plans, keep in mind that parking is not necessarily easy or inexpensive, so you’ll probably be walking a lot and Asheville is relatively hilly.

Reality check:  If you’re walking a lot and don’t live in San Francisco or another hilly city, your calves will notice.  As in you will check the hotel gym for a foam roller.

Favorite experiences: The Biltmore “America’s Largest Home ®”) is interesting and worth the time if you’re interested in history, architecture, and/or gardening.  Definitely allow enough time; our group had three hours and could’ve spent many more hours there to see the greenhouses, grounds, and go through the house.

Reality check: I can never decide whether it’s weirder for historic places to have mannequins with faces or mannequins without.  But the faceless mannequins at the Biltmore are certainly memorable.  Know also that once you start going through the house, there are very limited early escapes.  Commit to the whole house but definitely allow yourself enough time.

The River Arts District is a great area where you can visit local artists at work.  Just be aware that most of the galleries don’t open until 10 or 11.  You could easily spend a day checking out the galleries, especially on a Saturday when more of the galleries would be open than the weekday when we visited.  If you’re early or need some caffeine, stop by PennyCup Coffee Co..

Coffee and a couple sweet p’s.  M10-P’s that is.

Coffee and a couple sweet p’s. M10-P’s that is.

Reality check: One of our travel companions had a very tense interaction with a police officer in the River Arts District.  His offense was that a car stopped because it thought he was going to cross the street, and he was not.  As a result, the officer threatened to give him a $200 ticket and/or arrest him for impeding traffic.  (There was no traffic.)  The artists in the River Arts District are wonderful, but that police officer left an impression contrary to the rest of the friendly people we met in Asheville.

There are so many bookshops in Asheville that you can easily spend hours visiting them.  My favorite, though, was Bookends, the used bookshop in the public library.  Books were incredibly cheap and more well-organized than some of the commercial used bookshops in the area.  For new books, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café just down the street has an extensive schedule of events and a great selection.

One of the more unique experiences in Asheville is the Friday night drum circle in Triangle Park .  It is probably not within everyone’s comfort zone, but whether for photography or just for a unique experience, it’s worth stopping by on your way to dinner.

Meals:  Because we generally needed to stay close to the Cambria and the popular downtown area, the restaurant choices were plentiful, but not necessarily inexpensive.  We had great southern cooking (and huge portions) at Tupelo Honey, where every meal begins with a biscuit and blueberry compote.  (The fried okra came highly recommended, and a friend comparing fried green tomatoes at various restaurants declared theirs the best.)  Make a reservation on Open Table in advance to avoid a long wait, but doublecheck the location to be sure you have the right one.

We also enjoyed good higher-end Italian at Modesto. While the servers were just as friendly as those at the many restaurants in Asheville (you’ll be called “love” or “honey” about 10,000 times during a visit to Asheville), at Modesto the servers are also intimately familiar with the wine list and make great recommendations.

Reality check: Modesto is the restaurant I referred to on our Facebook Live, where the couple next to us was saying some of the nastiest and most alarming things imaginable in very quiet tones.  For example: Her – “If they had bothered to bring me the ice I requested, I would take my ice water and throw it in your face.”  Him – “ I should take this steak knife and stab you in the arm.” After this went on for easily 10 minutes, their check arrived (mercifully) and without skipping a beat she said, “It’s $77. How much should I tip?” as though they’d been discussing the weather.

Buxton Hall BBQ is a well-known and huge BBQ restaurant founded by two James Beard nominees.  It’s famous for “whole hog” BBQ cooked over hardwood coals for 18 hours.  The restaurant is deservedly proud of the purveyors of their pork (who provide them with “happy pigs” and other ingredients). The food is, in a word, delicious. One of our dining companions pronounced it in the top 5 of all of the BBQ he’d ever eaten, and the rest of us agreed or rated it even higher.  (Especially popular in our group were the items cooked under the pig so they are seasoned by the pig grease droppings.  I’m completely serious.)   Be sure to leave room for dessert from the in-house bakery, and to get there about an hour before you want to eat.

A nocti at Catawba and Buxton Hall BBQ.

A nocti at Catawba and Buxton Hall BBQ.

Reality check: Seriously?  Food where the key selling point is that it has “drippings” in it? Baked goods made with pork lard?  Now I’m remembering why, after just 5 days in Asheville, I was worried my clothes wouldn’t fit when I got home. . . .

Put your name on the list at Buxton Hall, and while you await a text that your table is ready, head to one of the many breweries within a block or two.  We selected Catawba Brewing Company next door, after photographing the murals on the remaining walls of the former building across the street.  The staff is very knowledgeable about their beer and was happy to make recommendations.

Reality check: Asheville has some unique liquor regulations, including that bars not offering food sell memberships.  Because Catawba sells food, you don’t need to also purchase a membership, but each person can only buy one beer at a time from the bar. This caused considerable frustration and consternation for some of the other patrons (despite the clear signage about these policies), which the staff handled much more kindly than you would expect to see in other cities. . . . 

Ron Swanson gives some advice at Biscuit Head.

Ron Swanson gives some advice at Biscuit Head.

My favorite breakfast was at Biscuit Head, which has three locations around Asheville.  We ate at the Biltmore Avenue location, and were lucky to arrive when the wait was only a few minutes.  The specialty is, unsurprisingly, biscuits so large they’re compared to the size of a cat’s head.  Beyond the biscuits themselves, a highlight is the butter and jam bar.  It has so many types of jams and butters that I was glad my meal came with a plain biscuit rather than a biscuit sandwich so I could try more of them.  While the space is tiny and waits can be very long, especially on weekends, I would’ve gone back to Biscuit Head every day if not for our conference and work obligations.

Reality check:  When we arrived at Biscuit Head, we were sure we were in the wrong area – the Biltmore Avenue location is essentially in an office complex where you expect to find dentist’s offices rather than delicious restaurants.  It’s also tiny and you may find yourself dining at a communal table with strangers.  It’s worth it.

Because direct flight options to Asheville are limited, many of the other attendees flew into Greenville, South Carolina (anywhere from just over an hour to 1.5 hours from Asheville), but we chose to fly into Charlotte (a 2.5 hour drive) to visit with friends who live there.  They recommended a wonderful BBQ restaurant along the way: Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge.  If you were designing a BBQ restaurant that’s the opposite of Buxton Hall, it would be Bridges BBQ.  While Buxton Hall opened four years ago, Bridges BBQ is over 70 years old.  While Buxton Hall is owned by James Beard nominees with restaurant experience, Bridges BBQ is a family-owned restaurant run by the grandchildren of the original founders.  Both have delicious BBQ (Bridges’ is cooked over hickory overnight), but while Buxton is a huge, bustling restaurant where you receive a text when your table is ready, Bridges tapes up a sign on the window each day when they run out of BBQ.  While Buxton has a huge and visible kitchen staff, at Bridges we learned the meat starts cooking a little later on Wednesday nights because the pitmaster has church choir practice.

We were fortunate to arrive at Bridges just in time to get the last servings of BBQ that night, and despite the fact we were the last people in the restaurant, Chase Webb (grandson of the original founders – he didn’t tell us who he was but we figured it out) and the rest of the staff could not have been kinder or more concerned with making sure we loved our meal.  (We did.) My only regret was that I was too full for dessert.  Next time I won’t make that mistake.  If you’re headed from Charlotte to Asheville, be sure to stop along the way at Bridges BBQ.

Lodging:  We stayed at the Cambria Downtown Asheville Hotel, which was the hotel for the conference.  (My usual approach of checking for nearby properties that belong to our preferred hotel alliances failed because the only other hotel within walking distance was a Hyatt Place, and the price difference wasn’t enough to justify foregoing the convenience of the conference hotel.  So Cambria it was.)  The Cambria was great – from the initial greeting with complimentary champagne to gifts of small jars of local honey upon departure, the hotel was excellent.  Most importantly, the room was really clean and quiet and had great views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Reality check: The fourth floor hotel restaurant is Cuban-themed, but while the food is fine, other than the convenience of breakfast or a late night drink on the outdoor patio, we preferred the many restaurants within walking distance.  The grab and go pantry is, of course, not inexpensive, and there are virtually no options nearby to buy a bottles of water or soda at night.  Stop at a grocery store or convenience store on your way to the hotel and take advantage of the in-room refrigerators and microwaves. There are some complaints online about the $17/day valet parking, but it seemed to be the best option and the valets were incredibly nice and speedy.  (You text to have your car pulled around, so you don’t have to waste time waiting for a phone to be answered.)

After the stay, though, was when the Cambria fell apart in pretty remarkable fashion.  (Keep in mind that I stayed in hotels/Airbnbs close to half of the last 18 months and asked for a new room exactly once in that time, so for me to note it, you know it’s extreme. . . .)  

 The Cambria is part of Choice Hotels, so customer service afterwards is provided by Choice Hotels’ customer service, which results in some choice words.  In fact, you could create an entire Saturday Night Live skit out of having people read my emails with customer service out loud.  Picture it: a brick wall reading the “customer service” responses in a bored and officious voice.  He would be paired with an initially earnest traveler asking about a straightforward issue (more or less “I didn’t get points for the restaurant bills I charged to my room.”) As the first response from customer service comes, she wonders “did they not read my 27 word email?  Oh well, let’s try again.”  

By the second response from the wall, she doesn’t understand why it can’t understand and answer her questions without pasting superfluous messages.  (When someone asks why their restaurant charges didn’t earn points, any paragraph that includes “Did you know?” and random trivia about the loyalty program seems calculated by a robot to lead to temporary insanity on the part of the recipient.)  

By the third message, our heroine starts beating her head into the wall.  It’s then that she realizes the truth: Choice’s “customer service” was clearly designed by an evil genius to drive the American traveling public insane. 

I even looked at the bottom of the messages from “customer service” to see if it said something like “you’re part of an experimental program where we trained a computer to drive you insane and see if you’d notice.”  Needless to say, I didn’t get the points.

When picking (other) lodging in Asheville, be cognizant of where you want to spend your time; other hotels and Airbnbs are plentiful, but they can be spread out.

In short, while we weren’t in Asheville solely to explore, we enjoyed our time there, and if you enjoy hiking, art galleries, breweries, or just want a laid-back trip punctuated by good food, Asheville is definitely worth a look.  

Do you have additional recommendations for Asheville? Please leave a comment below!