If you’ve been keeping up with the country’s most buzzed-about hipster destinations of late, you’ve probably heard Asheville mentioned in the mix, perhaps alongside cities like Austin, Brooklyn, and Portland, Ore. This relatively small mountain metropolis in western North Carolina has long been a creative-spirited, relatively progressive island in one of the nation’s more socially conservative regions. LGBT-owned businesses, top-notch art galleries and furniture studios, along with inviting Victorian and Arts and Crafts-style inns – and independently owned shops, music clubs, theaters and cafes – have thrived here for decades, but more recently, the Asheville has cultivated an urbane, artisan-driven food and drink scene that’s particularly impressive for a city with just around 85,000 residents.
With a fairly reasonable cost of living and a moderate climate, Asheville (exploreasheville.com) is becoming a popular place to relocate among not just hipsters but all sorts of professionals of all ages, many from larger and more crowded cities. Additionally, young college grads are moving in at a steady pace – something that seldom happened in Asheville before the city began to undergo a renaissance a couple of decades ago. This leafy, hilly community just a 2-hour drive from Charlotte, a 3.5-hour drive from Atlanta and a 4.5-hour drive from Nashville has become a top weekend destination, too, with a sizable gay following.
Downtown Asheville rests like a saucer balanced precariously amid the slopes of forested hills and mountains. It’s an impressively preserved city, with dozens of fine old buildings, many of them striking Art Deco beauties. The surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains account for much of the region’s appeal – it’s an hour’s drive west to reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can also navigate a stretch of the winding, scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, which passes right through the center of Asheville on its way north toward Virginia. Many other state parks and forests are within a short drive, and right in the city you can appreciate nature with a hike through the 10-acre Asheville Botanical Gardens or the 434-acre North Carolina Arboretum.
The downtown area is great for strolling – it’s also quite hilly, though, so prepare to get some exercise. Be sure to stop by the Asheville Art Museum, which has a celebrated collection of contemporary American works, and if you’re a fan of modern American literature, don’t miss the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, which includes a visitor center and the boarding house in which the author of You Can’t Go Home Again grew up.
Almost every visitor to Asheville pays a visit to the Biltmore Estate (biltmore.com), one of America’s few true castles. The 250-room mansion and resplendent grounds were commissioned by the phenomenally wealthy railroad tycoon George Vanderbilt and executed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1895. Touring the mansion’s grandiose, if rather solemn, interior can feel a bit overwhelming, especially on a sunny day, but the 8,000-acre property’s outdoor features are arguably its greatest draw – you could easily spend the day sauntering along the 2.5 miles of paths through the gorgeous manicured gardens, or along the many more rugged trails through dense woods and open meadows. Other highlights include the Biltmore Winery, the working dairy farm at Antler Hill Village, and the Outdoor Adventure Center, where you can book a wide range of activities, from river float trips to bike excursions. Right on the property, the luxurious, 213-room Inn on Biltmore Estate offers swank accommodations, and nearby Biltmore Village abounds with upscale shops and restaurants.
With its rapidly emerging culinary scene, Asheville has become a favorite foodie hub. Highlights are many, but here are a handful of notables. Chef-owned by a team who trained with famed Spanish elBulli chef Ferran Adrià, Cúrate (curatetapasbar.com) is one of the hottest spots in town, turning out authentic tapas with creative twists – consider the Catalan sausage bocadillo (baguette sandwich), or the tender skewered lamb marinated in Moroccan spices. The owners also operate the trendy and eclectic restaurant and cocktail lounge, Nightbell (thenightbell.com), just around the corner. Another top table is Rhubarb (rhubarbasheville.com), a sleekly swish bistro helmed by chef John Fleer and situated across from the Asheville Art Museum. Favorites from the contemporary Mediterranean menu include rabbit-leek rillettes, octopus a la plancha, and charmoula-grilled flat-iron steak.
Other good bets around downtown include Limones (limonesrestaurant.com) for mod California-Mexican fare (the weekend brunch is particularly popular); Chai Pani (chaipaniasheville.com), a purveyor of cheap and delicious Indian street food, such as kale pakoras, spicy lamb hash, and bhel puri, a traditional puffed-rice snack; and Wicked Weed (wickedweedbrewing.com), a rambling brewpub on two levels producing outstanding craft beer and great bar food too.
In the hip River Arts District, stop by Wedge Brewing Company (wedgebrewing.com) not just to sample fine brews but also to nosh from the several excellent food carts – the rotation changes daily (El Kimchi, which appears Mondays and Saturdays, is a highlight, serving Korean-Mexican fusion fare). There’s also live music and, during the warmer months, an outdoor cinema. A bit south along bustling Depot Street, the Junction (thejunctionasheville.com) serves delectable Southern comfort fare (pan-seared peaches, sweet-tea-brined fried chicken), while airy and contemporary Blue Kudzu (bluekudzusake.com) is one of the nation’s premier sake breweries and also a source of outstanding Pan-Asian fare, such as crisped-pork-belly ramen and kimchi Rueben sandwiches.
A neighborhood very much on the rise and becoming increasingly popular with the LGBT set, West Asheville is a short hop from downtown and is home to a handful of inviting, laid-back eateries, including Biscuit Head (biscuitheads.com), where you can tuck into a plate of fluffy biscuits prepared in a variety of ways (sweet potato-coconut gravy, with fried green tomatoes and poached eggs); and Oyster House Brewing (oysterhousebeers.com), a fun little neighborhood spot that specializes in Southern pub fare.
Good spots for casual snacking include City Bakery Café (citybakery.net), an airy space with a few tables on the sidewalk and superb sandwiches; Dobrá Tea (dobrateanc.com), a Czech-inspired tearoom with tasty Middle Eastern food; and funky Izzy’s Coffee Den (izzyscoffeeden.com), which fits the bill for high-octane java, craft beer and simply hanging out and people-watching. French Broad Chocolate Lounge (frenchbroadchocolates.com) handcrafts exquisite truffles, caramels and bars of chocolate – you can also sip wine, beer and coffee in a cozy lounge space. One of the most venerable indie bookstores in the South, Malaprops Bookstore and Café (malaprops.com) has a large LGBT section and a nice little coffeehouse inside. And also very popular with the gay crowd, Edna’s of Asheville (ednasofasheville.com) is on the north side of the city and serves terrific coffee drinks, breakfast fare and sandwiches.
Virtually all of Asheville’s nightspots, including many of the drink-centric restaurants described above, have a strong following with the LGBT crowd. There are also a few predominantly gay hangouts, the largest being the Grove House Entertainment Complex (thegrovehouse.com), a rambling building that contains Scandals dance club, the Boiler Room live-music venue, and Club Eleven on Grove for events and parties. Nearby Club Hairspray (clubhairspray.com) is beloved for its kitschy interior, entertaining drag (queen and king) shows and friendly vibe. Drawing a mostly male crowd, O’Henry’s (ohenrysofasheville.com) is a fun neighborhood hangout that’s particularly popular with bearish types and fans of leather – the bar has been going strong for more than 35 years and adjoins neighboring dance bar, the Underground. Downtown bar-hoppers might want to stop by Smokey’s After Dark (facebook.com/smokys.afterdark), a laid-back, no-attitude neighborhood spot that’s fun for shooting pool and meeting locals. And women-owned Tressa’s (tressas.com) – with live jazz and blues, comedy, and dancing – has a loyal following in the LGBT community.
Asheville has several inviting, gay-friendly inns, from upscale historic mansions to cozy Arts and Crafts cottages. The city’s most renowned accommodation is the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa (groveparkinn.com), one of the nation’s foremost historic hotels, which has been fully restored to its original 1913 Arts and Crafts design. You’ll find one of the South’s most impressive spas on the lower level, and restaurants and bars affording panoramic views of the city skyline and surrounding mountains. Among the dining options, don’t miss Edison, which serves tasty small-plates fare (goat-cheese flatbread, an awesome burger with bacon jam and American cheese) and terrific craft beers. Even if you don’t stay here, sitting in the grand lobby before the enormous fireplace, and looking out over the countryside from the terrace is a real treat.