In the past year, this small city tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina has been a regular on “best of” lists ranging from “Friendliest Cities” to “Foodie Destinations” to “Best Beer Cities” from the likes of Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Fortune, Thrillist and US News & World Report.
And to kick off this year, Asheville earned the top spot on Lonely Planet’s “Best in the U.S.” list for 2017.
Asheville has long been a destination for those seeking room to breathe — whether it’s to take in the fresh mountain air, to enjoy the creative freedom of the bohemian artistic community or to stretch their legs on the hundreds of miles of trails that crisscross the area.
Hippies and hipsters, retirees and millennials, foodies and foragers, artists and entrepreneurs — Asheville has them all. It’s a town with a cool factor that draws transplants and travelers alike.
So with that in mind, here are 10 reasons why you should be visiting Asheville this winter.
1. Asheville is a serious foodie destination — with a playful side.
Christened “Foodtopia”, Asheville is home to nearly 250 independent restaurants and 13 regional markets, as well as a number of James Beard semifinalists and finalists.
The city’s food culture encourages creativity and has given rise to celebrated chefs like Katie Button of Cúrate, Meherwan Irwani of Chai Pani and John Fleer of Rhubarb. While you’re visiting, don’t miss out on favorites like the blueberry chipotle ribs at 12 Bones Smokehouse, maple bacon doughnuts at Vortex Doughnuts or foraged chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms at The Market Place.
The best part about visiting in the winter? It’s easier to get a reservation at popular restaurants like Local Provisions, Buxton Hall BBQ, Limones or The Admiral.
2. “Beer City, USA” lives up to its nickname.
The same creative spirit that fuels the food scene can be found in what NPR called “The Napa Valley of Beer”. Hundreds of local craft beers are on tap in Asheville — including a parade of IPAs, saisons fermented with tea and other small-batch brews. Many are brewed in the South Slope, an up-and-coming area south of downtown where converted warehouses now are home to breweries, restaurants, boutiques and lofts.
You could do a tasting tour solely within the confines of the South Slope (aka the “Brewery District”) — highlights include the Wicked Weed Funkatorium for barrel-aged sour beers, experimental brews like Skillet Donut Stout at Burial Beer Co. and English-style ales at Green Man Brewing (one of North Carolina’s oldest breweries). Need a break from beer? Ben’s Tune-up is an American sake brewery in the South Slope.
3. Asheville has its own soundtrack.
Asheville’s live music scene has earned national attention. The city offers more than a few stages for traveling bands and local acts, which range from intimate venues like the Mothlight, Odditorium and the Grey Eagle to larger music halls like the Orange Peel — which earned a Rolling Stone nod as one of the top five rock clubs in the U.S.
Winter is an especially good time to catch North Carolina musicians like Steep Canyon Rangers or the John Stickley Trio performing in front of their hometown fans.
Often, Asheville’s streets are the stage for musicians of all types. Even in the winter, buskers fill the mountain air with blues, jazz, bluegrass and folk, while playing anything from guitars to musical saws to spoons. The Flat Iron statue on Battery Park Avenue is an especially good spot for these impromptu performances.
For something more organized, check out one of Asheville’s many music festivals. This winter, you can check out the 22nd annual Bluegrass First Class (Feb. 17-19) at the Crowne Plaza Resort. The Asheville Amadeus Festival (March 10-19) celebrates the music and life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This year’s headliner and artist-in-residence is acclaimed violinist Midori.
Even if you don’t know what a Moog synthesizer is, you’ve probably heard one. (Think Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, for example.) Bob Moog, creator of the instrument, lived and died in Asheville. Today, people can visit the Moog Music Factory, where workers build Moog Music synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments by hand. Tours are offered free of charge Monday through Friday, but by appointment only.
4. Creativity flows by the river.
A one-mile stretch along the banks of the French Broad River might be one of the most creative places in the U.S. More than 200 artists can be found working in their studios inside one-time textile mills and historic buildings in the River Arts District (RAD). The public is invited inside to explore, take classes and have an intimate look at the creative process of artists such as Mark Bettis and Jonas Gerard, who treats visitors to a live painting performance on the second Saturday of each month.
With free parking, plus restaurants and breweries nearby, you might be tempted to make a day of it.
There is a strong performing arts scene in Asheville this winter. Catch off-Broadway style productions at the North Carolina Stage Company and original works at The Magnetic Theatre. The Diana Wortham Theatre plays host to the Asheville Lyric Opera events. The Altamont Theater hosts comedians, improve troupes and dance performances.
5. Mild winters mean you’ll want to get outdoors.
No matter the season, you’re going to want to pack your hiking shoes — and a camera.
In the winter, the leaves are off the trees, which means you’ll discover some only-in-winter views and vistas that peek out from their summer blankets during hikes in the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests near Asheville. And with fewer hikers on the trail, you might have these views all to yourself.
The John Rock Trail is a popular five-mile hike that includes views of Looking Glass Rock and surrounding valley at the summit.
6. Winter waterfalls create frozen masterpieces.
Picturesque waterfalls cascade through the forests surrounding Asheville, competing with the mountain views for real estate on your Instagram feed. You can walk behind the 50-foot Moore Cove Falls (just be careful for icy spots) or relive a “Last of the Mohicans” or “The Hunger Games” moment at Bridal Veil Falls in DuPont State Park.
In the winter months, you might be lucky enough to see a different side of the area’s many waterfalls. While downtown Asheville normally sees daytime winter temperatures range from mid-40s to high-50s, it gets colder in the higher elevations, and the spray from the waterfalls creates one-of-a-kind natural ice sculptures you’ll have to see to believe.
Looking Glass Falls is easy to visit (it’s along Highway 276 in the Pisgah National Forest) and is a local favorite for unique ice formations in the winter.
7. A trip here is good for you.
In the 1800s, doctors prescribed Asheville’s fresh mountain air for its restorative properties. It’s still a holistic and alternative health haven — whether it’s yoga or a day at one of the local spas. Many experiences come with the city’s creative touch.
Salt, water and wood — that’s what you’ll find at the downtown Asheville Salt Cave, which offers 45-minute sessions in a specially designed microclimate that aids respiratory health. Focus on your feet after all that hiking and walking through town with a foot soak in the hand-hammered copper bowls at the Wake Foot Sanctuary. Slightly outside of town, the Shoji Spa offers private outdoor Japanese hot tubs and a moment of Zen with views of the surrounding forest.
For sheer size and amenities, it’s tough to top the 40,000-square-foot underground spa at The Omni Grove Park Inn, with rock walls, arches and tunnels, mineral-based pools and two therapeutic waterfall pools. Day passes are available during the week; on weekends, the spa is only available to resort guests.
8. Asheville’s a great spot for a romantic getaway.
Asheville checks just about all the boxes for a romantic couples trip.
• Great places to stay: Luxury resorts, cozy mountain cabins or quaint B&Bs.
• Date night dining: Top-notch restaurants that cover just about every taste. Don’t miss dessert (any time of day) at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
• Things to do: Art galleries, live music, spa days and plenty of shopping. For a unique experience, peruse books and sip bubbly at the Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar.
• Beautiful scenery: The mountains surrounding the area, the French Broad River slicing through the heart of the city and the 1920s era Art Deco buildings downtown.
• Romantic walks (or hikes): Head into the mountains to find a waterfall or try downtown’s Urban Trailfor a walk through Asheville’s history and heritage.
• Easy escape: Asheville is a popular regional drive getaway, plus there’s nonstop flights from nine airports.
9. It’s one of the best times of the year to see Biltmore.
If there’s one must-see on your Asheville list, it’s Biltmore Estate. The crown jewel of Asheville architecture and an homage to America’s Gilded Age, George Vanderbilt’s 250-room French Renaissance chateau is considered America’s largest home. This 8,000-acre estate includes 75 acres of manicured gardens (with 2.5 miles of paths through said gardens), a winery, two luxury hotels and miles of mountain views.
If you want to see it all, you’ll want to block off the better part of a day. Self-guided tours of the Biltmore House run about two hours and there’s an audio tour available. You can explore the grounds and Antler Hill Village before or after the house tour. The tropical gardens in the Conservatory are definitely worth a stop as is the winery, which offers free tastings.
Along with looking at the architecture and artwork from the Gilded Age, starting Feb. 10, visitors can also see more than 40 award-winning costumes from films such as Finding Neverland, Sherlock Holmes and Pride and Prejudice through an exhibit called “Designed for Drama: Fashion from the Classics”.
Visits during the winter months offer up a few advantages — namely less visitors and lower admission prices. You’ll save $25 per ticket compared to summer prices if you visit on “Value” days, which are essentially any midweek day, plus several weekends in February and early March. Buy your tickets online seven days in advance or drop by the Asheville Visitor Center to save another $10 on admission.
10. Your winter stay comes with extra perks.
Visiting Asheville in the winter gets you some of the best hotel prices of the year — and peak perks like a $25 AMEX gift card or basket of local goodies. Choose from hotels in the heart of the lively downtown, budget-friendly stays, secluded cabin hideaways or get cozy by the fireplace at one of Asheville’s resorts.