Green City Guide: Asheville
When we finally decided to book the trip, I’d been hearing Asheville’s siren call for a while. It was something about the misty mountain peaks, far-reaching ranges in fractional tints of blue. Something about the sunny skies and the promise of craggy green hikes culminating with locally crafted beer. I’d heard about the collaborative artist community, the teachers and farmers and makers that built the city’s flourishing independent small business economy. And of course I’d heard so much about the food scene: flavorful, adventurous, and amazingly vegetarian-friendly.
For years the city stayed on my mind. And now that I’ve been there, I’m still thinking about it. Asheville is an amazing place. The inspirational shopkeepers, the generous craftspeople, the gleaming rhododendron leaves and white spring dogwoods, the incredible meals we ate, the profound emphasis on self sufficiency and living with consideration for the land and each other. There’s something effortlessly charming about Asheville, and something that only years of living there could come close to uncovering. We spent a good chunk of time there, but I know there’s still so much to see and so many more stories to unearth. If Asheville isn’t already on your list, I hope browsing the offerings below will help make it a top candidate.
Public Green Spaces
North Carolina & Tennessee
As we drove toward the park entrance, winding through the captivating Blue Ridge Parkway, we couldn’t help but marvel at the perfect, wild beauty of the area, as well as remember the tragic and forceful removal of its indigenous people. The history of our National Park Service is a challenging one, and it should be studied and acknowledged as part of the full park-going experience. Our trip to the Smokies gave us the opportunity to learn about the land, its people and its legacy, as well as enjoy its natural beauty. The current Cherokee Reservation hugs the park’s southern border, and a drive through its main streets invites passers-through to purchase handmade crafts and learn more about Cherokee history. Be sure to stop by on your way to the Deep Creek trailhead where the calming Tom Branch and Juney Whank Falls flow.
Southwest of the city
Asheville was built smack dab in the middle of two branches of the Pisgah. The southern forest is easily accessible from the city via another section of the Blue Ridge Parkway and stretches all the way to the northern border of Georgia. We entered near Bent Creek, parked for free at the Hardtimes Trailhead, and hiked down to lovely Lake Powhatan. We weren’t alone — this trailhead is frequented by mountain bike enthusiasts and fishers — but there was plenty of space to walk and wander and relax. The forest also shares space with the North Carolina Arboretum, which is free to enter but charges a small parking fee.
The size of this garden will surprise you. At first glance, it looks petite and easily manageable, but winding trails that lead up into the hills and around the entire circumference of the park will give your legs a solid workout. The flora here ranges from wild and unkempt to tailored and carefully cultivated. It’s a beautiful example of a manmade garden nestled and seamlessly integrated into the larger, untouched, natural context.
This park straddles two separate areas of the French Broad River. The space to the north has a dedicated dog park, and both areas feature trails for running and places for sitting and enjoying a lovely sunset off this slow moving river.
We found this spot completely by accident, and though it wasn’t the most spectacular park we visited, its humble and simple beauty charmed us completely. The Seven Springs trail is notched into the side of a residential hill and curves around a low-traffic street and parallel creek. The vegetation is lush and green. Across the street, the long and narrow Meadow Park is a wonderful place to relax, read a book, or bring a packed lunch, as we saw a few locals doing on their midday break.
Where to Shop
I wanted to go to Asheville for many reasons, one of the top being a visit to this store (for real). And it was even better than I anticipated. Villagers is an urban homestead supplier that sells just about everything you need to create and maintain a self-sufficient life. Gardening tools, herbs and tinctures, kitchen wares, hand-formed ceramics, glass jars in infinite shapes/sizes/tints, seeds and seedlings, and a gorgeously curated book selection that ranges from how-tos to eco-criticism and philosophy. They also offer an expanding calendar of workshops taught by local artisans, herbalists, and farmers. This is the kind of place that doesn’t just want to sell you things — this is a place that presents you with endless possibility as well as the tools to bring it to life. A must-visit.
Another multi-purpose business that serves as the studio of a handful of local artisans, a beautifully-stocked classroom for craft workshops, and a storefront to sell local wares, most of which were handmade in the very same room. Imagine a gorgeous space full of texture: smooth linen, reclaimed wood, waxed cotton, leather, brass, and so many lush, thriving plants. I love it!
The small, independently owned craft store you’ve been dreaming about. Paints, dyes, threads, yarns and wool, looms for weaving, reeds and straw for basket-making, and every how-to book you need to teach yourself all the crafts you never knew you wished you could do. Add in the huge, sunny windows and tons of plants and you’ll feel like you stepped back in time to the 70s.
I usually base my opinion of a bookstore on the depth and breadth of their nature book selection. Well, Malaprop’s had entire bookcases dedicated to nature, gardening, urban farming and self sufficiency, canning, cooking, preserving, fermenting, herbalism, etc. It was my book paradise. They also have regular readings from lauded authors, and a well-stocked cafe.
A giant used bookstore (also owned by Malaprop’s) with the best independent new magazine and literary journal selection I’ve ever seen. I read the entire current issue of Orion, but ran out of time before I could get to all the other nature-based periodicals I’d never even heard of before!
These guys have a fantastic selection of CDs and vinyl AND music-related books. Flip through stacks for hours, listen before you buy, and then sit on the couch for a spell while you consider your purchases. We had planned to just browse, but we found some amazing vintage Latin American records that we couldn’t not buy.
We fell in love with a grocery store. Every fair trade / organic / sustainably grown foodstuff that you could ever want. They had the trailmix of my dreams, so I bought a bunch of it, and then came back on the way to the airport and bought a bunch more. Go here! Bonus points if you go to the Green Sage Cafe nextdoor for their amazing fresh pressed Goddess Green juice.
Where to Eat
The best meal we had in Asheville. Their huevos rancheros (with tempeh from Smiling Hara) changed my life. I wish I was exaggerating. This spot is small and casual and if you’re there on a weekend you will probably have to wait for a table. But it’s so, so worth it.
Delicious Caribbean-inspired dishes with ample tofu options. Extremely flavorful, spicy and tasty, plus a full bar with local brews on tap.
Indian street food, much of it vegetarian, that will make you wish your stomach had unlimited capacity. Our waiter was delightful and even gave us tips on other places to eat/things to see in the city. The mango lassis are fantastic, but they’ll fill you up! Stick with water if the food is where your head is at.
Crispy, crunchy crust on perfectly hot, fluffy biscuits. We waited in line for this one, and I have no regrets. Lots of veggie options, and a fully stocked jam and butter bar. Yum!
Big slices and whole pies made to order. Great, chewy crust and they’re liberal with the garlic (ideal pizza strategy in my book). Their music selection is also very strong. They were playing a lot of Cameo when we were in there.
Y’all! These donuts are perfect. I eat a lot of donuts (I am not ashamed) and these were very unique. The yeast donuts were subtly sweet with light and fluffy dough, much closer to the consistency of a fresh beignet. Their flavor offerings were varied (get the coconut guava!) and they offer multiple VEGAN options. Get a piccolo coffee (similar to a cortado) and you’ll be buzzing in no time.
With offerings inspired by cuisines from around the world, a meal here is guaranteed to be both vegetarian and full of flavor. The Laughing Seed folks are also passionate about supporting other local businesses and cooking mainly with ingredients grown and made nearby in western North Carolina.
The queen of fine vegan dining in Asheville. A short walk from central downtown puts you in front of a menu full of delicious dishes cooked with care, most of which can also be made gluten-free. Their dessert menu is also mouthwatering and features multiple homemade vegan ice cream flavors.
Where to Drink
A brewery fully dedicated to sour and funky beers is essentially beer heaven for me. Everything we tried was tart and amazing, plus the bar kind of feels like a cooler version of Medieval Times. Note: If sour beers aren’t your thing, this spot is owned by nearby Wicked Weed, which serves fantastic brews that just about everyone can enjoy. ALSO, the South Slope neighborhood is home to so many breweries. So just wander around and you’ll definitely find something to quench your thirst.
River Arts District
A lone wolf, separated by distance from the breweries of South Slope, but unique and magical in its own right. A giant gravel-covered patio with outdoor tables, string lights, locals playing cornhole, and some truly delicious and incredibly inexpensive beer. This place felt like the bustling, low-key hangout of Asheville’s coolest and most down to earth people. The El Kimchi food truck is often parked here, so you can get a tofu and bean burrito to enjoy with your saison.
Excellent espresso drinks just down the street from the Moog Factory. A great place to refuel after pounding away at all the shiny synth keys in their gift shop.
I enjoyed a great cappuccino in this open and airy space located in the historic Young Men’s Institute building, a historic center of the Black community in Asheville. PennyCup has another location in the River Arts District, but this one can’t be beat for proximity to downtown and the beautiful large scale mural that references African American art and heritage.
Excellent drinks (get the Thai iced coffee!) and friendly staff. Their sprawling front porch and yard are a popular spot for freelancers, local students, and stay-at-home dads. On a hot southern day, give in to the craving and go cool off with the rest of West Asheville.
Where to See a Show
Self-described as Asheville’s first eco-vegan, social justice, solidarity bar, The Block serves coffee and drinks, vegan food prepared by a rotating roster of local chefs, and offers a full calendar of concerts, conversations, and events. The founders stand for community-oriented organization, local economic prosperity, fair-trade processes and sustainability, and celebrating and supporting ethnically diverse and justice-minded business. Pretty beautiful and very inspiring.
The big names roll through this venue, which explains the giant tour buses hanging around nearby. But folks love this spot and it’s so close to all the breweries in South Slope. There’s literally no excuse not to have a great time here.
River Arts District
A pretty bare bones room, but with excellent sound and a fun lineup. Their taqueria also had some truly delicious platanos maduros and arepas. Grab some grub and enjoy it out in the back patio before your show starts.
You can get in this place if you’re a member (or know a member, or just pay for a membership) and you can get in this place if you literally float there on the French Broad River. This spot is deeply relaxed, very casual, and the perfect place to see live music from local bands. You can also bring food or something to grill! BYO grill veggies is the way all music venues should be!
A sake brewery (you read that right) and a funky tiki bar that offers live music. They’ve got a constantly rotating lineup of bands and genres, so it’s a great place to pop in if you’re feeling adventurous. The dudes at Heyday put in a strong recommendation for this spot, and I generally trust music store guys. They know what they’re talking about.
Where to Sleep
This is where we stayed, and it was a dream come true. The hosts were welcoming and attentive and supplied us with absolutely everything we needed for a week in the trees. We woke up every morning to the sound of wind in the leaves and birds on the branch. It’s a lovely 20 minute walk to Haywood Road, the main drag in West Asheville, and a 10 minute drive to downtown. A+ across the board.
We passed this hostel during our many wanderings downtown. Though we didn’t stay there, it looks like a great option for the traveler on a budget. If traditional hostels with shared rooms aren’t your thing, they also have a few private rooms for a slightly higher rate. You really can’t beat being right in the middle of everything, especially at these prices.