Asheville’s Cultural Scene for Locals and Tourists

| By Dari Mullins |

As a native who grew up in South Asheville during the 1970s and ‘80s, I have seen major changes. The boarded-up buildings on Biltmore Avenue have transformed into art museums, award-winning restaurants and music venues.

Iconic Asheville Image near City-County Plaza. Part of the “Urban Trail”

Iconic Asheville Image near City-County Plaza. Part of the “Urban Trail”

I left Asheville for college during the late 1980s and returned in the late 90s with my young family. We decided that Asheville was where we wanted to raise our children. Coming back was one of my best choices! I’ve witnessed the renaissance and love seeing the booming economy of my beloved mountain town. Many natives resist this growth, yet I want to point out the wonderful cultural benefits that the popularity of Asheville has brought us.

One of the biggest drivers of this evolution has been the rapid rise in tourism. Tourism spending and the need for better infrastructure to support the influx of visitors has been in the news a lot lately. Some of the sensational places that appeal to residents and tourists alike would not exist without visitors spurring the growth and transformation over the last decade. The notoriety of Asheville drives many cultural tourists to our area for a plethora of reasons.

Cultural tourism is not new, but it is a growing trend. Cultural tourism is defined by the World Tourism Organization as: “trips with the main or concomitant goal of visiting sites and events with cultural and historical value.” It includes the means or opportunity to enjoy past human accomplishments. The outcome of “visiting such places creates admiration, national pride and the rediscovery of the achievements of our ancestors.” Cultural tourism evolves as appreciation for the heritage of a region increases. Take Asheville’s food scene: When I was a teenager, there were only a handful of independent restaurants, but there were farms everywhere, and agriculture was a major part of the economy. From Arcadia Dairy to Searcy’s Produce stand, fresh, local food was widely available. With the rise of the farm-to-table movement, many wonderful chefs have taken advantage of the availability of fresh meats, vegetables and fruits in our area and opened world-renowned restaurants. So the food culture of Asheville has evolved and grown, but its foundation goes back hundreds of years.

Here are some of my favorite attractions, venues, and activities, broken into affinity group categories that attract cultural tourists.

Cultural/Heritage Attractions: Vance Birthplace in Weaverville – the old, re-created homestead takes you back to a different era, with events and activities that appeal to a variety of ages. The website is http://www.nchistoricsites.org/vance/vance.htm. Other popular sites include the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Biltmore Estate, and Smith-McDowell House Museum. A list of National Historic Places in Asheville can be found here: www.nps.gov/nr/travel/asheville/sitelist.htm.

Food/Wine/Beer: Wow – an entire magazine could be written about restaurants, breweries, and wineries in the region. Curate downtown is my absolute favorite restaurant, a true culinary experience. Reservations go fast, so call a few days or even weeks ahead to reserve your spot. I also enjoy Wasabi, Farm Burger, Blackbird, Ben’s Tune-up, Green Sage, Blue Mountain Pizza, Well-Bred Bakery and Café, Stackhouse Restaurant, White Duck Taco, and Haywood Smokehouse. Other favorite savory spots are French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Vortex Doughnuts, and The Gourmet Chip Company.

My favorite breweries (and I am not a beer girl, but do get a flight every time we go to a brewery and always find one or two I like) include Sierra Nevada, Wicked Weed, Highland Brewing, and Hi-Wire Brewing. For wine, of course, there is the Biltmore Estate Winery, but I just went to a tasting at Burntshirt Vineyards and loved it! A relaxing place to unwind with a few friends and a glass of bubbly is the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar.

Music: From headliners at The Orange Peel to our own ‘American Idol’ (Caleb Johnson) to a famous Brevard resident with a show on Broadway (Steve Martin) to the laid-back drum circle, Asheville has a rich, vibrant musical heritage with an evolving culture. I recently attended the launch of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau’s ‘microsite’ for music at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall. It will have live streams into some of the venues so you can hear the music before going in person, and also its own radio station featuring local musicians. It is a true collaboration to expose visitors and residents to the variety and multitude of choices in an easy-to-use format. You will find the site at ExploreAsheville.com/music.

Ecotourism: Asheville is known for its environmentally focused residents. Companies such as New Belgium are striving to lessen their impact on the environment. Ecotourism is a growing sector that involves traveling to natural areas that conserve the environment. It involves education and interpretation. One of the absolutely neatest ecotourism places I have visited recently is The Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, with art studios powered by renewable energy. The park uses methane gas from the nearby landfill to fuel a glass studio! The kiln is fired using wood and waste vegetable oil as fuel. The park rents studio space to local artists and offers classes for budding ones – such innovation and creativity here in our mountains! The Park sponsors several events and offers tours, with a gallery of beautiful creations from the artists for sale. It is worth the short drive to see the efforts to lead us to a more sustainable future. The website is www.jcgep.org.

Adventure: Our mountains are overflowing with outdoor adventure opportunities. From biking and hiking to zip lining and rafting, there are enough outdoor options here to keep you busy for years! My favorites are the hikes to waterfalls and water skiing. Growing up, I spent every summer on Lake James and learned to water ski at age 5 and slalom at 8, joining the Smoky Mountain Water Ski Club and competing in tournaments. Asheville hosted water ski tournaments on Lake Julian for several years, and though the ski club no longer exists, Lake James remains one of the prettiest lakes in the region. Asheville is surrounded with many other beautiful lakes, rivers and streams to enjoy outdoor adventures.

Dark Tourism: While at a symposium in Savannah, I learned the term “dark tourism” and wrote a blog posted at thegossagency.com/2016/02/25/what-is-dark-tourism. Asheville has several such attractions: the Haunted Tours of the Mystery Museum; places you can rent ghost-hunting equipment; Helen’s Bridge where supernatural things happen. Asheville is full of tragic stories that fascinate and entertain. There are also the more somber attractions such as Historic Riverside Cemetery, established in 1885 and containing gravesites of historical figures such as Thomas Wolfe, O. Henry (the author of The Gift of the Magi), Richard Smith (supervising architect of The Biltmore House), Zebulon Vance (twice the governor of North Carolina), James Posey (bodyguard to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War) and Thomas Patton, who served as a captain in the Confederate Army and as Asheville mayor for two terms.

There are so many intriguing and captivating things to do in Asheville that you can’t find anywhere else. Asheville is world renowned for its unique culture and tourism trends today show that more people, especially younger travelers, are seeking authentic and rich cultural experiences. That is one reason why visitation continues to increase in and around our home town and our local economy continues to grow. I have barely scratched the surface, but hopefully have sparked the interest of residents and perhaps a few visitors to take time to explore the unique features of Western North Carolina. If you would like to read more about Cultural Tourism, check out culturaltourism.thegossagency.com/.


Dari Mullins, a native, attended Salem College in Winston-Salem. She worked from home for 14 years while raising three children, co-authored two books and spoke to numerous groups nationally on children’s education. She was a Project Manager for a publishing company and a business consultant for Social Media and Marketing. Dari reinvented herself at 40 and hosted her own radio show, worked as Marketing Director for a home health care company, and currently holds her dream job as Senior Account Manager for The Goss Agency in Asheville. Dari loves lake life, football and basketball. Her greatest joy is spending time with her three grown children and her fiancé.

This entry was posted in May 2016 and tagged culture, tourism. Bookmark the permalink.

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