[Updated July 31, 2021]
Over the last decade, Asheville has emerged as a progressive haven of arts and culture in the middle of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
The town is known for its fiercely independent spirit, with myriad “green” restaurants, brewpubs, and countless Asheville art galleries and artists’ studios popping up over time.
It’s been a remarkable transformation. The city was essentially a ghost town in the ‘80s, with many of its historic downtown buildings boarded up and more than 10% of its population moving away.
But where locals saw a city in serious decline, outsiders drawn by the area’s immense natural beauty saw opportunity.
Former Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission chair Pattiy Torno, a New York-bred clothing designer and rock-climbing enthusiast, is a perfect example.
Torno scored a 3,000-square foot loft for $300 a month when she moved here in 1984, ultimately becoming part of a tight-knit group of transplants known as “the Asheville 1000.”
By 1990 she’d opened CURVE Studios, one of the first art studios in what eventually became known as the Asheville River Arts District. Now, 26 years later, the RAD area is the creative home to hundreds of Asheville artists working in a broad variety of mediums.
“We’re starting to have a much more vibrant arts scene,” Torno says. “In the arts district of Asheville, you’ll see UNC students, transplants coming here to launch a second career, and 40-somethings who’ve been members of the Highland Guild for 20 years. There’s a whole range of what’s possible due to our creative independent commerce.”
Visitors looking for a weekend getaway immersed in Asheville arts and culture will find excellent shopping opportunities in the River Arts District– 23 former industrial buildings along a one-mile stretch of the tranquil French Broad River.
Here’s our guide to a few of the eclectic area’s key studios and galleries, as well as a brief list of River Arts District Restaurants…
READ MORE: The Best Things to Do in Asheville, NC
BEST PLACES TO STAY IN ASHEVILLE NC
Black Walnut B&B Inn -Romantic 1899 B&B in Montford, 2 pet-friendly rooms.
GLō Best Western Asheville Tunnel Road -Affordable new chic hotel.
Hampton Inn & Suites-Biltmore Village -Affordable pet-friendly.
Cambria Hotel Downtown Asheville -Mountain View, great location.
The Windsor – Asheville – Boutique hotel w/ full kitchen & washer/dryer.
ASHEVILLE RIVER ARTS DISTRICT MAP
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RAD ASHEVILLE ART GALLERIES
122 Riverside Drive
This Asheville art gallery is housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, the Historic Cotton Mill. It was built in 1887, employed around 300 people, and manufactured denim and flannel.
The Asheville Cotton Mill ceased operation back in 1953, and in 1995 a fire consumed about 65% of the original building, leaving only one wing and a square smokestack.
That wing is now home to the Asheville Cotton Mill Studios, where natural light from huge windows gorgeously illuminates the original brick and wooden beams of the factory.
ACMS features 8 studio spaces, each 800-900 square feet, as well as the Asheville Guitar Bar music venue and Caidala Ciders.
Current Asheville artists here include painter/printmaker Andy Herod, Erin Adams Photography, graphic designer Jenny Fares’ Sound Mind Creative, Luxe House Photographic, the Red Rabbit Tattoo Company, and more.
6, 9, & 12 Riverside Drive
One of the oldest art galleries in Asheville NC, CURVE’s three buildings are home to nine different artists as well as a garden filled with colorful flowers and dramatic sculptures.
Founder Torno’s work takes center stage here: From fashionable clothing and intricately designed quilts to fleece throws and quilt-style “Photopiecings,” her intensely colorful textiles are as vibrant as the Asheville art scene itself.
Other impressive artists with studios on the premises include Kyle Carpenter, who specializes in nature-themed ceramics. Mary McCall Timmer, is a metalsmith whose sterling silver, gold and precious stone jewelry offers an artistic twist on classic elegance.
If you get a chance to visit, don’t miss the Silver River Center for Chair Caning, where Brandy Clements and Dave Klingler share four generations of knowledge by teaching others their craft.
CURVE occasionally hosts seasonal open houses, parties and other community-focused events.
17 Foundy Street, Suite 10
If you love beautiful works of art made from natural wood as much as we do, this is the Asheville art gallery for you!
The gallery is packed with an exceptional array of woodcrafts, from luxurious custom furniture and sculptures to smaller gifts such as jewelry and kitchen ware.
Woodworking artists currently in the Foundation collective include Mark Joseph Oliver, who has an MFA in Sculpture. He focuses primarily on custom and large-scale projects that incorporate his background in wood, metalwork, and museum installation.
For smaller pieces, there’s the turned wood work of Anne Henschel, who crafts beautiful bowls, baskets, and other functional household items.
We also love the gorgeous work of veteran woodcrafter Chris Kamm/Glarner Design, whose stunning jewelry boxes and cases makes him one of our favorite Asheville NC artists.
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140-C Roberts St
Fine art can sometimes feel exclusively reserved for people of privilege. But this non-profit, public access glass studio and gallery is one of the most accessible and welcoming places in the Asheville art district.
The North Carolina Glass Center offers affordable educational programming and demos, as well as low-cost shared studios that are intended to help emerging artists launch their careers.
They have great outreach programs for the local community, helping veterans, low-income youth, and others to gain self-confidence by expressing themselves creatively through glass-focused artwork.
The NCGC also features one of the most egalitarian Asheville galleries, showcasing vividly colorful creations by established Western North Carolina artists and up & comers alike.
236–238 Clingman Avenue
Asheville’s premier ceramics studio, gallery, and pottery school, the Odyssey Center was founded on the idea that everyone has creative potential that can be enhanced by a strong community and challenging instruction.
Their ClayWorks Gallery is among the largest Asheville NC art galleries, featuring pottery and ceramic sculptures by instructors, resident artists, studio assistants, and students alike.
Resident artists include Anne Jerman, whose wheel-thrown and hand-built Raku pottery pieces combine the whimsical, functional, and decorative wonderfully, with a strong nature influence.
Tyrone and Julie Larson, a married pottery team for 50+ years, create stunning pieces influenced by Old World European techniques. By applying paint directly on the raw base glaze, their nature-themed pots and ceramic paintings achieve a unique 3D effect.
Other intriguing artists in residence include Beth Bond, Bluefire MacMahon, Chiwa Clark, Libba Tracy, Nick LaFone, and more. Check out their website for info on Friday night workshops, which are open to students of all experience levels.
342-348 Depot Street
One of the newer studios in the River Arts District, this former textile manufacturing and warehouse building has been transformed by founders Randy Shull and Hedy Fischer into an intensely colorful space featuring around 28 different artists.
Shull (who serves as Creative Director) has a diverse background that includes architecture, landscape design, furniture design and painting. His dynamic work appears in national museum collections including the High Museum and New York’s Museum of Art and Design.
He’s curated an eclectic array of artists, including ethereal landscape painter Karen Keil Brown and mosaic tile master Leene Hermann.
We also adored handcrafted jewelry artist Christie Calaycay and jack-of-all-trades Andrea Kulish (whose work ranges from handmade lamps and Ukrainian pysanky eggs to silkscreens and woodblock prints).
The building is also home to Fresh West Pizza and VIVIAN Restaurant.
191 Lyman Street
Constructed in 1902 to house the Hans Rees Tannery, this historic Asheville building had fallen into disrepair by the time sisters Helaine Greene and Trudy Gould moved the manufacturing side of their Candle Station business here in 1990.
Windows were boarded up, there was barbed wire fence around the lot, and the red brick building was mostly vacant.
In 2004 they sold their candle company, renovated the facility and renamed it Riverview Station in honor of its picturesque location overlooking the French Broad River.
Today the 110,000 sq foot space is home to a thriving community of more than 60 artists and crafters. You’ll find an extensive array of painters, potters, photographers, jewelry designers, textile artists, woodworkers and mixed media artists here, as well as three art galleries.
Visitors can also witness live art demonstrations and take part in classes offered by more than a half-dozen artists in various mediums.
RIVER ARTS DISTRICT RESTAURANTS
All Souls Pizza- One of our favorite Asheville restaurants, All Souls uses excellent crust and toppings like garlic sausage & smoked NC shrimp to create the city’s best pizza.
Bottle Riot- This swanky wine bar also offers an array of snazzy snacks and small plates. Menu includes gourmet nuts, Spanish-style clams and scallops, “adult lunchables,” etc.
Cafe Yuzu- This quaint shop in Gallery Mugen offers a taste of European bakeries. Many of its pastries are enhanced by Asian ingredients such as ginger, matcha, and yuzu.
New Belgium Brewery- Though primarily focused on brewery tours and the beer garden, they also feature food trucks such as Bun Intended and Cecilia’s Kitchen 7 days a week.
Nourish and Flourish- An “Alternative & Holistic Health Service,” this serenity-focused spot also offers a smoothie & juice bar and tea room to enhance your inner Zen.
Pleb Urban Winery- Offering an urban chic twist on the Blue Ridge winery, their trendy taproom is a great place to sample the best of Asheville’s budding wine scene.
Summit Coffee- Built on the former site of the world’s largest leather tannery, this gorgeous 2-story coffee bar offers some of the world’s best coffee, all roasted locally in North Carolina.
12 Bones Smokehouse- Another top-notch restaurant in the River Arts District, this laid-back BBQ joint was made famous by the Obamas, who dine there every time they visit Asheville. Try it once and you’ll know why!
VIVIAN Restaurant- If you’re looking for a swanky River Arts District restaurant, this critically acclaimed Depot St eatery taps into the European roots of the Blue Ridge Mountains. –Bret Love