This gem of a city tucked in the Blue Ridge foothills of western North Carolina attracts artists, musicians, foodies, outdoor enthusiasts and a fair share of modern-day hippies, all lured by the beautiful setting and open-minded vibe. Its gorgeous historic buildings downtown, free music venues, Appalachian art center and lofty nearby peaks are all perfect for travelers looking to please their senses without spending a dime.
The compact town center, filled with boutiques, galleries, cafes and cultural attractions, is walkable and perfect for sightseeing. Especially in warm weather, downtown sidewalks are themselves an attraction, filled with street musicians, performance artists and gawkers.
Asheville was once dubbed the “Paris of the South” in part because of the stylish flair of its historic city center. You can’t miss the towering eight-story City Hall; its ornate art deco style is a highlight of the city skyline.
Other gems include the 13-story Jackson building, with its neo-gothic castle-like tower, and the Asheville Art Museum, housing an impressive collection of 20th century American art, including works from regional artists. Admission to all the museum’s galleries and exhibits is free from 3 p.m.-5 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. For two galleries adjacent to the museum’s Atrium entrance, admission is free during regular hours.
Music is a mainstay of the Asheville scene and not to miss is the Friday night drum circle in Pritchard Park, at Patton Avenue and College Street. Starting around 5 p.m., the triangular-shaped park fills with all manner of musicians, from kids on toy drums to grandpas on bongos. Everyone’s welcome to play and watch, and the scene is exhilaratingly communal.
Asheville’s most famous free music event is the annual Shindig on the Green, on Saturday evenings from late June through Aug. 30 in Pack Square Park. It draws top-notch bluegrass bands, string bands, Appalachian cloggers and storytellers from around the region. The family-friendly event attracts huge crowds; fans spread out on blankets and lawn chairs to enjoy the sights and sounds.
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 7 miles east of downtown, is a showcase for the rich cultural traditions and contemporary crafting of southern Appalachia. The Folk Art Center houses wares from the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a nine-state group of artisans. Their works are displayed year-round but from March to December, you’re liable to catch live demonstrations of old-time broom-making, intricate wood-carving and quilting from felted wool.
The center features three galleries, a library, and a Blue Ridge Parkway information desk. Admission is free; a shop sells textiles, pottery, jewelry and other crafts made by guild members.
•Blue Ridge Parkway:
Some of the prettiest stretches of this National Park System roadway rim Asheville and are perfect for leisurely driving or hearty cycling. For hikers, plenty of trails are nearby. A good introduction starts at milepost 389, south of downtown, where the parkway meets Hendersonville Road-U.S. 25. That’s the business route from Asheville’s airport to downtown, but head onto the parkway and you’re instantly transported into a hilly forest of trees and tranquility. Drive about 15 minutes and you'll reach milepost 382 and the Folk Art Center, where you can descend back into civilization.
Or hike part of the Mountains to Sea trail; look for a marker in the center’s lower parking lot. A moderately difficult hike takes you to Lunch Rock, a little over 2 miles each way — about three hours total. For more of the parkway, keep driving as the road steepens and you'll be treated to breathtaking views of surrounding Blue Ridge peaks.
Save part of a day for a trip to Max Patch, a lofty bald meadow along the Appalachian Trail. From this 4,600-foot summit, you'll see an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge mountains, layers of crests unfolding in every direction. It’s 40 miles from Asheville, the last stretch up a gravel road, but worth the drive.
From the Max Patch parking area it’s a fairly easy hike, a little over a mile, to the summit. The Appalachian Trail crosses through the Patch, so hikers can set off in either direction. Those content to feast their eyes will not be disappointed. From Asheville, head west on I-40 to exit 7 (Harmon’s Den). Go right on Cold Springs Road to state Route 1182 (Max Patch Road). Turn left for the parking area.