December may be over but here in Asheville, winter is just getting started. You know, people have asked me if my hometown is worth visiting in the colder months. After all, hiking is a major allure in the mountains, and that’s something best done when you can feel your fingers and toes. Or so you may think.
I say winter is the perfect time to visit Asheville. Heck, it’s the perfect time to go on a hike, fingers and toes be damned. Once the blood starts pumping, you’ll hardly have time to feel the cold, believe me.
All that aside, the secret is no matter the season, and no matter the weather, it’s always the perfect time to visit Asheville NC. The city’s fine dining establishments and South Slope breweries don’t close down just because peak tourist-season is over, and even in the depths of winter, I say the climate here is downright temperate.
So yes, winter is an excellent time to visit Asheville. In fact, I think a number of activities are best enjoyed in these chilliest of months. Read on and you too will discover some of the top things to do in Asheville NC this winter.
1: Sample Local Chocolate
Winter and hot chocolate go together like chicken on waffles. Or syrup on waffles. Bacon and waffles. Lots of things go well with waffles, but I’m getting off track. Hot chocolate and waffles? That’s some new territory. Worth investigation, if you ask me.
Anyways: hot chocolate. One of the top things to do in Asheville NC this winter, and frankly any time of the year, is to take a trip downtown to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, to sample their top-of-the-line hot chocolate.
There’s their classic hot chocolate, of course. Milk or dark, or enhanced with Mexican spices, with your choice of syrups, and perhaps a whipped cream garnish. But then there’s the “liquid truffle,” a proper “drinking chocolate” (as the chocolatiers say), thick, hot, and smooth, like a cup full of lava. Except, you can drink it, and not only survive, but flourish, and come back for another.
To be honest I’m not sure what the technical distinction is between “hot chocolate” and “drinking chocolate,” but you can taste a difference, and the latter makes me feel more cultured. Perhaps that’s something they reveal in French Broad Chocolate’s factory tours, at their production facility near the historic Montford neighborhoods. Tickets are available for 11am and 1pm slots every day but Sunday, with extra 3pm slots Wednesday through Saturday.
Embrace the Winter: Acquire one of French Broad’s jars of drinking chocolate for at-home preparation. If you’re staying at Asheville Cottages, with their fully furnished kitchens, you won’t even have to wait to get back home to make a cup. Just a thought. Plus, the cottages have heated bathroom floors, which are incidentally the perfect temperature for brewing a cup of cocoa while you sit in the bath. Like cooking an egg on the sidewalk, but with more class.
2: Visit the Asheville Art Museum
While you’re downtown, luxuriating in the excellency of winter chocolate, you might as well make the trip next-door to the Asheville Art Museum. The way I see it, if you visit Asheville this winter, you’re going to be in one of two situations. One: you're with your family. And there's nothing more enriching for young minds than fine art. So, that’s a win.
Situation number two: you’re on some kind of romantic getaway, mono y mono. Well, what’s more romantic than hot chocolate and an art museum, especially in winter’s depths? Absolutely nothing. That’s a second win.
I suppose there’s a third situation where you’re visiting Asheville solo, or with friends. I say go to the Asheville Art Museum anyways. I’ve seen a number of art museums in my time, and in my professional opinion (I am, technically, a “bachelor of fine arts”) Asheville’s is an especially good one. There’s always a broad variety of exhibits, set up to emphasize each other’s best qualities, and keep things fresh. Plus, it’s indoors, so if the weather takes a turn for the worse, there’s few better places to spend a couple of carefree hours.
This winter’s exhibitions include intaglio prints from the turn of the century, and a pop-up display of unorthodox basket weaving, with the WNC Scholastic Arts Award winners coming later this January. It’s that kind of surprising mix of subjects and disciplines that makes this museum not only one of my favorites of its kind, but one of the top things to do in Asheville NC this winter.
Embrace the Winter: I’ve been badgering the museum to let me put on my exhibit of snow-sculptures. I call it: “Frosty, Hero or Madman?” All I need is a small donation to purchase the proper refrigeration equipment, and they say they’ll think about it. Any help would be appreciated.
3: 500 Years of Genius
Speaking of art, for the past year or so the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest privately-owned mansion, has been hosting a series of immersive visuo-audial experiences, showing off some of history’s best-known artwork in ephemeral projector-displays. That may seem like a mouthful, but trust me, it’s far simpler to go and see it than to try and explain.
This winter’s display is “Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius;” tickets available until February 20th. The experience lasts for about an hour. After that, you’re free to explore the many other amusements, from wine-tastings, to walks through the sprawling grounds, to tours of the mansion itself.
The Biltmore Estate is always one of my top suggestions for visitors to Asheville. It is, in a word, a monument. The fact that they’re hosting this immersive art display is simply icing on the cake, so even if you’re not enticed by the finest mind of the Renaissance, a visit to the Estate is still one of the best things to do in Asheville NC this winter.
Embrace the Winter: If you’re hankering to stretch your legs after all that fine art, but find the weather a bit too cold for your liking, then drive on down to the Estate’s sparkling conservatory. It’s warm in there no matter the season—coats off people, you’ll thank me later—and flourishes with plants of every description. You’ll think you’ve gone on down to the Amazon. Finish up your trip with the aforementioned wine tasting, and you may find winter has become your favorite season.
4: Soak in a Spa
After a long day of taking in Asheville’s finest winter amusements, you may find yourself with an insatiable desire for a deep tissue massage, or to rub shea butter all over your weary bones, and maybe even soak in a hot tub. I know I would.
Luckily, Asheville has no shortage of spas. Indeed, there’s one right on the Biltmore Estate, although it’s only available to overnight guests and annual passholders. So, let me break down the city’s other excellent spas, in rapid-fire fashion.
The Asheville Salt Cave, on the way north out of downtown, features a meditation room furnished with thirty tons of Himalayan pink salt, designed to replicate the respiratory-enhancing properties of far-flung salt mines. On top of that, they have a newly furnished hammam, inspired by Turkish and Moroccan bathhouses.
Then you’ve got the Sauna House, a Nordic-style steam room right on the edge of the South Slope brewing district. Perfect to partake in the ancient tradition of “sauna-and-beer,” or as the Norwegians call it, “bli full i dusjen.”
Next up is the Shoji Spa & Retreat. It may be a little off the beaten path, so to speak, but where else can you find a Japanese-style spa, complete with private outdoor salt tubs? Other than in Japan, of course.
And finally, the mammoth of hot-water remedies: the spa at the Grove Park Inn. If you took a waterpark and converted it into a semi-subterranean health and relaxation getaway, you’d get this spa right here. Which may sound a little strange, but more than anything, I’d call it impressive.
More information, including pricing and links, can be found right here.
Embrace the Winter: My reasoning for including spas as one of the top things to do in Asheville NC this winter is the following principle: if the weather is cold, it feels better to be hot. So, to extend this idea further, it’ll feel the best to visit the spa after doing something extremely cold. Ipsi facto: Skinny Dip Falls. Sometimes my genius scares me.
5: Go Skiing
Many families here in the mountains make a tradition of going on winter day trips to ski lodges. So, if you want to experience winter in Asheville like a local this year, hike up your long-johns and slap on some mufflers, because things are going to get icy.
The Blue Ridge may not be any Rocky Mountains when it comes to winter sports, but with the power of snow-machines, the slopes can be wicked even when it's relatively warm in the valleys, giving you some flexibility on when you choose to venture up to the heights.
The two closest ski-spots to Asheville are Cataloochee and Wolf Ridge, both with real-time updates on the snow-conditions on their websites.
You can find slopes for a variety of experience levels at either location, and they’re both about forty-five minutes from downtown, so your choice will probably come down to where you can find the better deal, and what the precise conditions are on the day you decide to go.
No matter which you choose, skiing is one of the top things to do in Asheville in the winter but be warned: there can be a run on the rental equipment on holiday weekends. Best to arrive early.
Embrace the Winter: Invest in a snow machine, so that you may make this winter last forever. I found one on Ebay for as cheap as one thousand dollars, and they’ve guaranteed me it’s in excellent condition. Turn your back yard into a tubing course. Rain ice upon your enemies. A snow machine is a must-have for any true lover of the winter.