A city’s downtown is the jewel of its character; a condensation of everything that city has to offer. Now, I’ve always believed Asheville is a city like none other. Okay, maybe there’s a few others—Grand Rapids, perhaps, those beer-city pilferers—but no urban rivals that I know of sit in such a resplendent section of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Where else can you go hiking through a temperate rainforest in the morning, then sortie downtown for such eclectic entertainments at night? And I do mean eclectic. A single journey to Asheville’s beating heart should be enough to convince you of that. But aside from gawking at the local color, what does one actually do in downtown Asheville? Indeed, what are the very best things to do? Read on and find out.
Maybe it’s the present grumbling in my stomach, urging me to leave the keyboard and prepare something halfway edible, but gosh darn it, if I’m going downtown, I’m putting something in my mouth. And rest assured, it will be all the way edible.
That’s a long way of saying Asheville’s got some downright delectable restaurants, no matter whether you’re a-hankering for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Or even something in between. Brunch. Or Linner. Amuse-bouche.
You can read about some of my newfound favorites right here. As for the old tried-and-trues: Huli Sue’s in the Grove Arcade for mouth-watering Hawaiian barbecue; Zambra for cultured Iberian tapas with a romantic atmosphere; Chai Pani for award-winning Indian street food; and finally, saunter on over to Patton Avenue for a sheer smorgasbord of excellent options, ranging from dimsum to fried chicken.
Local Lore: Many restaurants in downtown Asheville sport patio dining. If the weather permits, there’s no better way to take in the fresh mountain air.
As I’ve said, downtown Asheville brings in the best amusements my hometown has to offer. And within this condensation of Ashevillean culture, there is a place which in turn—like a set of Matryoshka dolls—fits in a whole lot of local flavor under just one roof.
I speak of course of the Grove Arcade, downtown Asheville’s premier indoor shopping plaza, bedecked with the ornaments of Late Gothic Revival. You feel fancier just walking in the place.
Downtown Asheville’s known for its restaurants. The Grove Arcade has some of the best (see above). And downtown Asheville’s known too for its shopping. The Grove Arcade has shopping in spades. In particular, I’d like to direct you to Enter the Earth gems and jewelry, a place which piques even my interest, who would rather be wrestling a pack of wild hyenas than be subjected to a day of shopping.
Anyway, you see the pattern here. If downtown Asheville’s got it, then the Grove Arcade’s got it in spades. It makes for a convenient one-stop-ship if you only have a short time to visit my hometown’s heart, and a providential proposition for escaping Asheville’s all-too frequent rains.
Local Lore: On the north side of the structure, you’ll notice two statues of winged lions, lacking their claws, a symbol of Venice, Italy. This is a nod to our city’s longstanding alliance with the Venetians, dating back to the War of the League of Cambrai in 1508.
We’re back on food again. Seriously, I should stop doing this and go make lunch or something. Not to say I wouldn’t include this subject if I were fully satiated. I for one could always go for some tea (or coffee), and especially the delicacies which accompany them in the downtown of our Paris of the South.
Now if it’s tea you want, look no further than Dobra, on downtown’s northern end. It is, in short, an institution, and a must see stop for anyone who fancies themselves savvy to the places where locals love to hang out.
For coffee, you’ve got quite a few contenders. Bebettes New Orleans Coffeehouse in the Grove Arcade serves up chicory and freshly fried beignets. Double D’s specializes in espresso sensations, in every flavor under the rainbow. Plus, they operate out of a converted double-decker bus, which is pretty cool.
But for the best pastries to go with that cup o’ joe—and let's face it, that’s why we’re all here—I like to go to Old Europe, recently transported to a new, larger location, so that one and all may enjoy their sugary delights.
Local Lore: I’ve heard from my chai-latte enthusiasts that Asheville’s chai has a certain leg up.
Outside of the River Arts District, there’s no better place to peruse galleries and workshops than downtown Asheville. As a starter, I suggest visiting Lexington Glassworks in the South Slope brewing district for live glassblowing demonstrations. From there, cut on east to Biltmore Avenue and head north to Blue Spiral 1, three sprawling stories of fascinating sculpture work and paintings. All for sale, I might add.
Finalize your immersion into the finer things in life with a tour of the Asheville Art Museum, just a couple more blocks further on north. Their standing exhibits are just as absorbing and varied as Asheville itself, whereas their rotating spaces host pieces of national and even international acclaim.
This summer, for instance, I saw a Buckminster Fuller exhibit there. What a nutty guy. What you may see on your own journey into downtown Asheville’s high culture, I cannot say, but I’m sure it will be both exciting and enriching.
Local Lore: Black Mountain College, which once sat about a half hour to the east of Asheville in a town of the same name, was one of the foremost arts colleges of the 20th century, producing such pioneers as John Cage, de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg. There’s something in the air out here, I’m telling you.
With plentiful live music and some of the best breweries in the state, a night of libations and good cheer in downtown Asheville is one of best ways to enjoy your time in the Paris of the South. Start off in the aforementioned South Slope Brewing District, and drift northwards towards the city’s center for such iconic music venues as the Orange Peel and Rabbit Rabbit, plus rooftop bars, overseeing the skyline from Asheville’s greatest hotels.
If, with all these fun and games, you develop a need for real sustenance, check out the Med on College Street for gyros and gravy fries served through their takeout window until 2:30 in the morning.
Local Lore: If you’re a fan of weird beers (and I'm not judging), make a stop at the Funkatorium for some of the sourest, hoppiest concoctions downtown Asheville has to offer.
Huli Sue's BBQ and Grill
1 Page Ave Suite 150, Asheville, NC 28801
Enter the Earth
1 Page Ave #125, Asheville, NC 28801
18 Broadway St, Asheville, NC 28801
81 S Lexington Ave, Asheville, NC 28801
57 College St, Asheville, NC 28801
147 Coxe Ave, Asheville, NC 28801