If you weren’t tempted by our recent kid-friendly road trip guides to the Hudson Valley or Marfa, Texas, perhaps a magical mountain town could tempt your family’s fancy? Because tucked away in the mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway is the hidden retreat of the east: Asheville, North Carolina. The little city is a haven full of unique experiences for all ages, with an eclectic assortment of things to see and do — from the truly elegant to the kitschy (hi, double-decker bus with quaint coffeeshop housed inside). And if you’re traveling to Asheville with kids in tow, you’re certainly in luck.
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For families who love the outdoors, culture, arts, and/or sampling sweet treats, Asheville is not to be missed. You can float the day away on the French Broad River, explore the fabulous Biltmore Estate, and much more. Here’s how this small mountain city delivers big family-travel memories.
What to do
You’ll find a bit of everything at Grove Arcade; this cozy shopping location is filled with local brands. There are specialty shops, restaurants, and a bookstore all located in a beautiful historic building — the perfect escape when the weather isn’t cooperating; just make sure to wear your mask inside. Located in the downtown area, Grove Arcade makes for a great place to wander and grab a cup of coffee or an ice cream treat.
Asheville Pinball Museum
The pinball museum is temporarily closed through the end of January 2021 due to COVID-19 precautions, but when it reopens this spring be sure to hit up this favorite of kids and parents alike (particularly teens). You pay one entry fee to play over 80 pinball and classic video games — token- and quarter-free. Thankfully, the museum limits the number of people at any one time, so you’ll have a chance to play all the games you want. The museum is located just across the street from the Grove Arcade.
The Vanderbilts built the Biltmore Estate — a sprawling country estate plus 250-room château — in 1895. It’s the largest privately owned home in the United States, and an easy drive from downtown Asheville. The Biltmore gardens and grounds overflow with flowers and special events year-round. The estate has adapted its experiences and has increased already-major disinfection protocols for 2021 travelers’ safety.
There are over 40 craft beer breweries in Asheville, and a local (and national) favorite is Fat Tire by New Belgium Brewing. At the New Belgium brewery and tasting room, all are welcome to take the free tour; kids just can’t enjoy the free beer samples of course. There are, however, outdoor activities for the kids — and in the Liquidation Center, they can play games while you sample a few more brews. The brewery also boasts a picture-perfect (and pandemic-friendly) patio and viewing deck just alongside the French Broad River and its walking paths.
Where to explore
Blue Ridge Parkway/Mount Mitchell
Mount Mitchell is the highest peak (elevation: 6,683 feet) of the Appalachian Mountains — and the highest peak in eastern North America, conveniently located about an hour northeast of Asheville. The drive to Mount Mitchell State Park is along the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, where you can appreciate miles of dramatic landscapes.
And if you love the mountains, Asheville is home to countless kid-friendly hikes, gorgeous waterfalls, and plenty of mountain biking opportunities throughout the surrounding temperate forest.
Looking Glass Falls
Looking Glass Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in North Carolina. With easy accessibility, it’s a favorite spot for travelers of all ages along U.S. 276 near Brevard. The falls drop 60 feet, and there’s parking just along the road — with steps that lead you down to the bottom of the falls. Bring a picnic and savor an afternoon playing on the rocks or splashing in the water — just under an hour west of downtown Asheville.
Where to eat
Early Girl Eatery
Don’t miss Early Girl for fantastic, farm-to-table, Southern comfort food that will please picky kids and foodie parents alike. Even toddlers will go ham on pancakes and grilled cheese, while adults need to try the veggie breakfast bowl and the cornbread made with heirloom corn and a molasses glaze. YUM.
Biscuit Head is excellent for breakfast or lunch — and famous for its large, mouthwatering biscuits, naturally. They’re a southern tradition, after all, and Biscuit Head does them right.
Burgerworx at the Grove Arcade
This is a great meal stop for kids; each person gets a small clipboard to mark up and detail their unique order. At Burgerworx, you select your patty (beef, chicken, veggie or cheese), choose your bun (old-fashioned or whole wheat), add your favorite cheese (from Classic American to Pimento) and finish it all off with as many of their 30-plus toppings as you like. Get weird; you’re in Asheville, after all.
Asheville is one of the sweetest locations you will ever visit. The city is known for its gourmet donuts, popcorn, chocolate factories, a chocolate lounge, and more. The kids will love experiencing a fully operational old-fashioned soda fountain at the old Woolworth’s building.
Where to stay
The AC Hotel
Book a balcony room and have your morning coffee alongside sweeping mountain views. The AC Hotel has rolled out enhanced cleaning protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the available outdoor seating at its 9th-floor tapas bar Capella on 9 will get you your apps-and-cocktails fix in a safer setting than indoors — or you can always stick to takeout for your room, too. Plus, the AC is walkable to much of what downtown Asheville has to offer, including Grove Arcade and the brewery district.
And speaking of the brewery district, you simply can’t do better than this swanky set of lofts smack-dab in the middle of it (next to a superb cidery, no less). Wanderlust Lofts is the passion project of the family who owns it (as well as the downstairs coffeeshop/wine bar, Farewell) and you can tell just how much love and artistry went into rehabbing this space from a ramshackle gas station (seriously!) to a marvel of high-end — but still totally family-friendly — design. Book it on VRBO and get ready for a treat; you’ll even get a complimentary bottle of bubbly and a daily carafe of coffee from Farewell.
The Foundry is a luxury boutique hotel that encompasses several buildings, including the restoration of the foundry buildings that forged the steel originally used to build the Biltmore Estate. Part of the luxury Curio Collection by Hilton, the Foundry is located in downtown Asheville within an easy walk to historical points of interest across the city.
The hotel has a concierge desk, 24-hour pavilion pantry market, grand lounge, and a beautiful courtyard and butterfly garden. The hotel has also preserved the original historical elevator pulley system, hardwood floors, and exposed brick, which add to the ambiance.
The Omni Grove Park Inn
The Omni Grove Park Inn is one of the country’s most celebrated resorts. Noted for its understated elegance and southern charm, the Omni offers sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a Donald Ross-designed golf course, an expansive tennis and fitness center, and an award-winning spa.
There’s even an Omni Kids Crew program; kids get a backpack filled with goodies, milk and cookies delivered to their guest room (#winning), and more.
Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Asheville Downtown Tunnel Road
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly place to stay, the Radisson Country Inn & Suites could be just the thing. The hotel is located three miles from the Biltmore Estate and about the same distance to downtown Asheville.
Asheville Cabins of Willow Winds
For a more rustic retreat, look no further than one of Asheville’s hidden gems: the Willow Winds forest cabins. The whole family will love the treehouse vibes, cooking breakfast together in the in-cabin kitchen, and snuggling up by the fire as a brook babbles outside.
As you wander Asheville, be sure to notice all the amazing sculptures and art displays; you’ll find pigs, cats climbing streetlights, a big flat-iron, and many other fun pieces. Asheville may be a small city, but its variety — and its weirdness — can’t be beat.
A version of this story was originally published in June 2019.
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