For a relatively small Blue Ridge mountain town with a population of under 100,000, there is a surprising wealth of unique things to do in Asheville, NC.
Thanks to an infusion of wealth brought in by the Biltmore Estate in the early 20th century, there’s historic art deco-influenced architecture.
There is also a critically-acclaimed restaurant scene, with lots of craft Asheville breweries and farm-to-table fare. There’s a vibrant cultural community, particularly in the River Arts District.
Thanks to sound city planning, many of the best Asheville hotels are within walking distance of its major attractions.
But our favorite aspect of Asheville is the fact that it’s surrounded by wilderness, including nearby ecotourism attractions such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Linville Gorge, and Pisgah National Forest.
So here’s a look at some of the best things to do in Asheville, NC for kids and outdoor enthusiasts, from Biltmore Estate tours and foraging for food to rafting the French Broad River and seeing endangered Red Wolves.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN ASHEVILLE NC
- Tour The Biltmore Estate
- Find Foraged Foods
- See North Carolina’ Red Wolves
- Explore Downtown Asheville’s Restaurant Scene
- Rafting The French Broad River
- Explore The River Arts District
- Rappel In Green River Gorge
- Slip Down Sliding Rock
- Take A Free Highland Brewing Tour
- Watch For Cataloochee Elk
- Ziplining In Asheville
- People Watching In Pack Square Park
- Fishing Linville Gorge
- Mountain Biking Pisgah
- Rock Climbing At Chimney Rock
1. TOUR THE BILTMORE ESTATE
Named after former North Carolina governor Samuel Ashe, Asheville was born in 1797. But it wasn’t until George Washington Vanderbilt II finished building his Biltmore Estate in 1895 that the city began to attract national attention.
The family’s 125,000-acre estate became a popular retreat among early 20th century icons such as automaker Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, and Presidents William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
With 250 rooms encompassing over 135,000 square feet, the historic landmark’s Châteauesque-style architecture, lushly landscaped gardens, and forestry initiatives have made it the most popular Asheville attraction.
There are numerous Biltmore tour options, included self-guided and audio tours of the house, gardens, winery, and rooftop, as well as tours just for kids.
There are also endless outdoor activities on the 8,000-acre estate, ranging from biking, hiking, and kayaking to falconry, fly-fishing, horseback riding, and sporting clays.
2. FIND FORAGED FOODS
Did your know that nearly 20% of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association‘s members are certified by the Green Restaurant Association?
Perhaps it’s no surprise when you consider the fact that this nature-lover’s paradise boasts over 300 wild edibles!
Founded in 1995, eco-tour operator No Taste Like Home offers “Wild Food Adventures” that teach travelers how to safely harvest edible wild plants for themselves.
Exploring local fields and forests with an expert, you’ll find a broad variety of edible berries, greens, flowers, nuts, seeds and North Carolina mushrooms.
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Asheville with kids, check out their 90-minute Wild Food Stroll at the Omni Grove Park Inn.
Afterwards, you can either take your foraged foods home or visit one of six local restaurants whose chefs will whip up an appetizer with the ingredients you’ve foraged. It’s a great way to give kids a taste of what founder Alan Muskat calls, “find dining.”
3. SEE NORTH CAROLINA RED WOLVES
The Red Wolf is one of the most critically endangered canid species in the world. But thanks to captive breeding programs at various zoos and wildlife refuges, they’ve slowly begun to recover. There are now around 130 in the wild, and 250 others in captivity.
One of our favorite things to do in Asheville is visit the 42-acre Western North Carolina Nature Center, which connects people with the native plants and animals of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Their animal exhibits include Black Bears, Cougars, Coyotes, Red and Gray Foxes, Raccoons, River Otters, and many more. But the WNC Nature Center’s most unique offering is the chance to see around a dozen Red Wolves in North Carolina.
The Nature Center’s breeding program is helping to save this beautiful species, which is endemic to North Carolina. Their beloved wolves have been known to howl in unison when the mood strikes.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Asheville, NC for kids, check out their “Junior Wild Walk: A Behind the Scenes” tour, or consider hosting a birthday party at the center.
READ MORE: Red Wolf Endangered Species Spotlight
4. EXPLORE DOWNTOWN ASHEVILLE’S RESTAURANT SCENE
Downtown Asheville has an astounding array of critically acclaimed restaurants for a 45-square-mile mountain town with a population of less than 100,000 people.
Those seeking vegetarian, vegan, or just plain healthy food will have a wealth of options to choose from, from the Green Sage and Laughing Tree Cafes to Plant and Rosetta’s Kitchen & The Buchi Bar.
Looking for more exotic fare? Check out award-winning Indian fare at Chai Pani, the French fare of Bouchon, Korean restaurant Stone Bowl, and new-ish Ramen joint Futo Buta.
If you’re looking for chef-driven gourmet dining, foodies fawn over hotspots such as Katie Button’s Cúrate (tapas), Peter Pollay’s Posana (farm-to-table), Linton Hopkins’ H&F Burger, John Fleer’s Rhubarb, and Elliott Moss’ Buxton Hall.
But for good old-fashioned Southern comfort food, check out rising star Ashleigh Shanti’s Benne on Eagle, 12 Bones Smokehouse (the Obamas’ favorite), and the Tupelo Honey Cafe, one of the oldest restaurants in Asheville.
READ MORE: The Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants
5. RAFTING THE FRENCH BROAD RIVER
The French Broad River winds its way right through the heart of Asheville. The river is lined with lush, verdant parks perfect for picnics and recreation.
Rafting the French Broad River is one of the most fun things to do in Asheville with kids, or a group of friends.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center has been offering guided rafting trips here longer than anyone else. They have half-day tours that are aimed at beginners (ages 8 and up). There are also full-day, 8-mile, intermediate tours that tackle more challenging Class IV rapids.
Hardy kayakers will especially love hitting the river in the off-season, when the water is high and tourist traffic on the French Broad River is relatively low.
READ MORE: Rafting the New River Gorge, West Virginia
6. EXPLORE THE RIVER ARTS DISTRICT
Asheville has emerged over the past 10 to 15 years as a progressive cultural haven in the heart of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge region.
NYC-bred clothing designer Pattiy Torno (former chair of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission) was one of the area’s artistic pioneers.
She set up her CURVE Studios in what became known as the River Arts District in 1984, when Downtown Asheville was teetering on the brink of economic collapse. Now the picturesque area is the creative home to more than 200 artists working in a broad variety of mediums.
Visitors looking for a weekend getaway immersed in culture will find excellent shopping opportunities in countless galleries occupying 22 former industrial buildings along a one-mile stretch of the tranquil French Broad River.
7. Rapple in Green River Gorge
A tributary of the Broad River, the Green River begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains and flows into the Piedmont region.
Located just southeast of Asheville, the area surrounding the Green River Gorge boasts some of the most biodiverse forests in the eastern United States.
Green River tubing is always popular here due to the river’s controlled water flow. But for a change of pace, try canyoneering, one of the most adrenaline-pumping things to do in Asheville.
Green River Adventures offers two options for rappelling. At 70 feet tall, the Little Bradley Waterfall is perfect for youngsters (aged 12 and up) and first-timers.
Big Bradley Falls, at 200 feet, is more challenging, and recommended for thrill-seekers ages 15 and up. Both tours include expert instruction and plenty of practice time.
8. Slip Down Sliding Rock
It may be a mountain town in Blue Ridge NC, but Asheville can still get extremely hot during the dog days of summer.
There’s nothing better at the end of a long day of outdoor adventures than cooling off in one of the area’s countless waterfalls.
If you’re still hungry for more action, head to Sliding Rock in Pisgah National Forest. This is considered “the king of swimming holes,” offering a 60-foot natural rock water slide that feeds into an 8-foot deep pool.
While this may be one of the most fun things to do in asheville for kids, be aware that the Blue Ridge mountain waters can be chilly– usually around 55-60º!
But there are observation areas for folks who find those temps too “refreshing.” Just get there early, because this local hotspot is a popular place for families in the summertime.
READ MORE: The 20 Best NC Waterfalls for Hiking
9. TAKE A FREE HIGHLAND BREWING TOUR
Arguably the best Beer City in America, the extensive Asheville breweries list ranges from nationally recognized companies such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium to locally grown brands like Wicked Weed and Hi-Wire.
But the very first Asheville brewery, Highland Brewing Company, was founded back in 1994 and remains one of the best breweries in Asheville.
Their guided walking tours of the facilities– one of the best free things to do in Asheville– are available every day of the week.
The original Asheville beer tour if offered twice a day on Monday and Tuesday, and on four different occasions each afternoon for the rest of the week. Each lasts around 45 minutes, and include a beer tasting to celebrate the occasion.
Note that these tours have been temporarily suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. To find out when they’ll resume, visit the brewery’s web page here.
10. WATCH FOR CATALOOCHEE ELK
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited of America’s National Parks, boasts a bevy of wildlife species.
It’s home to 200 species of birds, 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, 43 species of amphibians, and mammals such as Black Bears, Raccoons, Bobcats, River Otters, Beavers, and two species of Fox.
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best free things to do near Asheville, especially if you’re going to see the ever-expanding Cataloochee Elk herd.
Elk once roamed these North Carolina hills by the thousands, but they were all killed off by hunters in the 1700s.
Thanks to a 2001 reintroduction program, there are now over 150 Cataloochee Elk in the park. The Cataloochee Valley (which is surrounded by picturesque 6000-foot peaks) is easily the best place to see them.
These massive megafauna can often be found grazing along the road into the park. But park volunteers can typically tell you where the herd was spotted last.
11. ZIPLINING IN ASHEVILLE
Putting an eco-friendly pin on typical zipline tours, Navitat Canopy Adventures speaks for the trees and encourages their guests to respect the beauty of nature.
The company’s Treetop Tour is perfect for first-timers, combining 6 ziplines (one 1250 feet), two bridges, two rappels and two hikes. Treetop Tour participants must weigh between 90 and 250 pounds.
The Mountaintop Tour is bigger, higher and faster. It boasts one zip measuring 3,600 feet long and 350 feet high, going at speeds up to 65 mph. Mountaintop Tour participants must weight between 70 and 250 pounds.
Adrenaline junkies will love The Ultimate Adventure Tour, which combines both packages for six hours of invigorating action and incredible Blue Ridge mountain views.
12. PEOPLE WATCHING IN PACK SQUARE PARK
When it comes to free things to do in Asheville, NC, just sitting and watching the wonderfully eclectic array of people milling about in Pack Square Park was easily our favorite.
Located in the heart of downtown Asheville, the park was created in 1900 and named for lumber tycoon George Willis Pack (who died just six years later).
Known as Asheville’s greatest philanthropist, he donated the land on which Pack Square was built, which is now surrounded by the historic art deco buildings for which the downtown area is known.
It’s a great place to get a feel for the mountain town’s remarkable diversity, where city slickers, grungy backpackers, young hipsters and aging hippies, tattooed cowboys, and young moms pushing their babies in strollers all commingle.
If shopping is more your speed, you’ll also find Asheville’s best-known shops here along Biltmore Avenue. You can see everything from indie book and record stores to trendy clothing boutiques, an old-timey general store, lively brewpubs and more in a span of just a few blocks.
READ MORE: Exploring Asheville’s Sierra Nevada Brewery
13. FISHING LINVILLE GORGE
Known as “the Grand Canyon of North Carolina,” the 11,876-acre Linville Gorge wilderness area is one of only two gorges in the Southern United States that was never clear-cut for logging.
The Linville River is situated approximately 1,400 feet below the ridge, so hiking Linville Gorge is most enjoyable for those who like a somewhat strenuous challenge.
In addition to bears, foxes, raccoons, hawks, and other wildlife, the area is also a haven for fly fishing in North Carolina. Anglers come here from all over the US, hoping to hook their limit of well-stocked brown, brook, and rainbow trout.
Hiking down into Linville Gorge is an intense, all-day affair. But there’s much easier access near the 45-foot drop of Linville Falls (located about 70 minutes outside Asheville), where the Linville River intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway.
14. MOUNTAIN BIKING PISGAH
One of the first national forests in the eastern United States, Pisgah National Forest encompasses more than 510,000 acres of the southern Appalachian Mountains.
This gorgeous haven offer lots of things to do near Asheville, NC for hiking, camping and mountain biking enthusiasts.
Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventures offers half-day, full-day, multi-day, and even nighttime tours guided by locals who know the area like the back of their hand.
Best of all, they can customize your Pisgah mountain bike adventure to match your style and ability, whether you prefer climbing, downhill, or single-track riding!
READ MORE: Exploring Pisgah National Forest
15. ROCK CLIMBING AT CHIMNEY ROCK
Made famous by the 1992 Daniel Day Lewis film, The Last of the Mohicans, Chimney Rock State Park is located 25 miles outside Asheville.
It’s become increasingly popular amongst rock climbers in recent years thanks to its challenging array of cliffs, rock walls, and boulders.
Fox Mountain Guides & Climbing School (the only school in the Southeast certified by the American Mountain Guide Association) offers 1-on-1 rock climbing instruction and guided trips for skill levels ranging from beginners to experts.
Check out Rumbling Bald Mountain, which features 1,100 acres of world class technical rock climbing and around 1,500 boulders to conquer. All are easily accessible by car. –by Bret Love; lead image by Michael Tracey via Public Domain/Flickr