I’ve had the pleasure of doing a bit of traveling recently, and after frolicking through some of the foremost cities of the lower forty-eighty, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart: cities are confusing.
Sure, we’ve all got satellite maps stuck in our pockets these days, but as the old adage goes, “a map without context is just a bunch of squiggly lines.” So, what if there’s ten four-star restaurants in my vicinity? That doesn’t help me choose one. Should I take Broadway or Main Street; which is the better walk?
Luckily, Asheville comes pre-packaged with a tourist-tested and academic-approved means to navigate the city, while at the same time inspiring an appreciation for the history of our fair town. I speak of course of the downtown Asheville's Urban Trail, a 1.7 mile loop through some of the city's most iconic destinations.
The only thing that could improve such a journey would be a sprinkle—just a dash—of real local lore. Places that may or may not be marked on your map yet are well worth your time while hiking the Asheville Urban Trail.
The Asheville Urban Trail starts off in the center of downtown, inviting you to partake in the glory of a gaggle of bronze-cast hogs and turkeys, in remembrance of Asheville’s heyday as a pitstop on the old livestock path. From there, the Urban Trail is ready to whisk you away west down Patton Avenue, to even greater sights and sounds.
“Hold on there, buckaroo,” is what I say. If you’re standing in Pack Square, that means you’re just across the street from Café Bomba, one of my favorite places for downtown brunch. Sure, there may be limited seating, but this little café sits in prime people-watching territory. Add on hot coffee and plates piled high with house made chorizo, and you’ve got the perfect place to energize before setting off on the trail, just like the hog-drovers of old.
Detours: Head south on Biltmore Avenue to find Itto Ramen and Dilbar, two more of my favorite downtown restaurants, albeit less breakfast oriented.
Follow the Urban Trail West on Patton—past the re-opened historic S&W Food Hall—then turn north up Haywood to the intersection with Battery Park Avenue, and here you’ll find the first unmarked stop on your map. Woolworth Walk, marked “F. W. Woolworth Co.” on its façade, sports two full floors of gallery space, featuring artists in every medium from fiber to glassblowing.
It’s like a little slice of the River Arts District, conveniently located smack-dab on the Urban Trail. And if you’re looking for a touch more history on your trip, stop in for a refreshment at their retro soda fountain—newly renovated, but furnished in the original style—and you’ll be sipping egg-creams at the site of Asheville’s very own Civil Rights sit-ins.
Detours: Before heading past Pritchard Park to Woolworth’s take a jaunt down College Street to find Ten Thousand Villages, a gift shop specializing in handmade, fair-trade crafts from across the world. It's my longstanding go-to for gift shopping.
Now this stop is marked on your map of the Urban Trail. In fact, it's kind of hard to miss. We’re talking several blocks worth of indoor shopping and dining, enclosed in two stories of Late Gothic Revival architecture, complete with skylights and carved lions.
In the summer, it’s a great respite from the heat. In the winter, it’s a great break from the cold. When it's raining, the Arcade stays dry. I guess that’s why we invented buildings in the first place.
Suffice it to say you’re well advised to take a break from your street-trekking and check this monument out. Some of my favorite shops include the Battery Park Book Exchange—your one-stop for books and champagne—and Enter the Earth gems and jewelry. If you want to have lunch here, I suggest Huli Sue’s BBQ and Grill. Mac, rice, and meat; need I say more? For coffee, I recommend Bebettes New Orleans Coffee House, featuring bag-fulls of mouth-watering beignets.
Detours: Cross O’Henry Avenue to the west to do some record-shopping at Citizen Vinyl, or head north across Battle Square for the Asheville Pinball Museum.
Continue down the Urban Trial past the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the Asheville Library, and soon you’ll find yourself at the corner of Haywood and West Walnut Street. Or, as the locals call it, Malaprop’s Bookstore.
I can’t imagine how this landmark didn’t make it onto your maps. Technically, I guess, it isn’t exactly “historic.” Nobody famous was born here, so far as I know. But for my two cents, every good city worth its salt had better sport a dynamite local bookstore, and in downtown Asheville, that means Malaprop’s.
They’ve got classics. They’ve got books you’ve never heard of. They got books you never thought anybody in their right mind would want to write. They got staff picks, blind-date books, and even a few signed copies.
In short: just another great stop on the Asheville Urban Trial.
Detours: Follow the trail down Walnut Street, and you’ll pass by the Zambra tapas bar. Ambience and Morrocco-Iberian cuisine par-excellence.
Finally, after a couple more loops around downtown’s northeast, past ten or so plaques, memorials, and historic sites, you’ll find yourself right back where you started, in Pack Square. Look to your left (or to your right, I don’t know what direction you’re facing) and you’ll find your reward: the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
These local chocolatiers boast sustainably sourced sweets made at their factory just fifteen minutes away (tours available). It's delectable, it's convenient, and it's right there at the end of the Urban Trail—do I really need to sell you on chocolate?
Well, if so, check out their ice-cream shop, right next door. The end to your trip on the Asheville Urban Trail couldn’t be any sweeter.
Detours: If you're still buzzing with energy, finish your trip on the trail with a visit to the Asheville Art Museum, again, right next door.
#1 SW, N Pack Square, Asheville, NC 28801
25 Haywood St, Asheville, NC 28801
1 Page Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
55 Haywood St, Asheville, NC 28801
French Broad Chocolate Lounge
10 S Pack Square, Asheville, NC 28801