Do you love rich history, beautiful design, and gorgeous gardens? Is a trip to the mountains for fall leaf peeping in your plans? Do you miss the Sunday sagas of “Downton Abby”? If you answered yes to any of these questions, Garden Geek Traveling Mom Julie Thompson-Adolf shares why it’s time to head to Asheville, North Carolina to discover the Biltmore House and Gardens.
Exploring the Biltmore Estate—the Home of America’s ‘Royalty’
Like most travel and garden writers, I love playing tourist and exploring new places. But I also enjoy tour guide duties when friends and family come to visit. So, when a garden writer friend arranged to stay with me for a few days before we headed to a conference together in Atlanta, I knew we needed to hop in the car and head to Asheville, NC, to explore the Biltmore House and Gardens.
Biltmore is one of my favorite places to share with out of town guests. While I’ve visited the estate at least a dozen times over the years, many people only dream about touring the house and property. With Asheville just an hour from our home, Biltmore is a perfect outing for our family.
My friend and I bond not only over our love of gardens, but we’re both sad at the loss of our favorite show, “Downton Abby.” I knew she’d love our American “castle,” with its rich heritage and opulent architecture.
In fact, Biltmore House is known as America’s largest home. Completed in 1895, the 250-room chateau built for George Vanderbilt and his family is an amazing example of early innovation. Whenever we tour the house, our kids marvel at the technology used in the 19th century. Not only does Biltmore House drip elegance at every turn, but with features like a bowling alley and indoor swimming pool, as well as more practical innovations like indoor plumbing and electricity in the late 1800s, the Vanderbilt residence proved a technological and architectural marvel for its time.
First Impressions: Arriving at the Biltmore Estate.
The drive approaching the house is as beautifully designed as the formal gardens. In fact, one of the most renowned landscape architects of the time, Frederick Law Olmsted, envisioned the park-like setting. Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape architecture, also designed Central Park in New York City, as well as the U.S. Capitol grounds, among many other projects. He considered Biltmore Estate his last, great project.
As you pass the gatehouse and begin your journey on the tree-lined roads to the house, it’s easy to imagine how guests of the Vanderbilts must have felt, as their carriages and later, automobiles, made the approach to their hosts’ home. Even now, as a paying guest, there’s a feeling of anticipation and excitement to visit the extraordinary Biltmore Estate. The first sight of the house doesn’t disappoint.
Admiring the Grandeur of Biltmore Estates.
In fact, most visitors spend several minutes taking in the grandeur of the home. You can hear gasps as visitors see the home for the first time. The view is like a picture perfect postcard, with the magnificent mansion looming in the distance. (Our biggest challenge was trying to take the ideal photo without people and cars in it. It was tricky!)
Once we realized that we’d never get a people-free shot, we decided to move along and begin our visit…
…at the Stable Café. (You thought we’d head straight inside for the historical goodies, didn’t you? Nope. We were too hungry!)
The Biltmore Estate’s Stable Café: Casual Dining, Delicious Food—in a Former Horse Barn.
Our daughter, the equestrian, always loves eating at the Stable Café. Of course, she’d also be perfectly happy eating lunch in the stall with her horse. Fortunately, for those of us who aren’t as horse-obsessed, the Stable Café offers the historical bones of the Vanderbilt stables—with a lovely, modern interior free from hay and horse manure. (Thank goodness!)
Along with the family-friendly atmosphere, the staff offered great recommendations for dining options. From house-smoked meats, burgers, chicken, and Carolina barbeque to healthy salads and decadent desserts, I’m always a little overwhelmed with the choices. (Try the chicken salad—it was very tasty.) The menu is filled with reasonably priced options, ranging from about $5-$25. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and offers children’s meals, as well as vegetarian and gluten-free selections.
During lunch, an unexpected storm arrived at Biltmore. How rude! Doesn’t the weather understand that we had plans?! We waited under an overhang for a bit, hoping for a break in the rain, then finally decided to sprint to the entrance.
There’s nothing like arriving at America’s castle with soggy sandals.
Welcome to Biltmore House, America’s Largest Home.
Entering the Biltmore House, even sporting drippy hair and squishy shoes, does make a girl feel a bit princess-like. From the Grand Hall used to welcome guests to the estate to the indoor Winter Garden, a lush, tropical plant-filled conservatory, the first views of the interior include sweeping spaces filled with history.
You can select how you’d like to tour the home. For an additional charge, an audio guide to Biltmore House is available, as is a kids’ audio guide. There’s also a 90-minute staff guided tour of the house, as well as a “Legacy of the Land” motor coach tour. We chose the self-guided tour, where we wandered the house and property on our own, using the printed informational brochure about Biltmore as our guide. (Honestly? My friend and I talk so much that an audio guide would be a waste. Plus, docents stationed throughout the house share great stories. Ask questions—they’ll tell you many interesting, fun facts about the family and estate.)
Biltmore House: Family Owned.
George Vanderbilt first opened the home to family and friends on Christmas Eve, 1895. Since that time, the Biltmore Estate remained in the hands of his family.
Typically, foundations own estates like Biltmore, as the maintenance and taxes can make a wealthy family poor. However, Biltmore remains a privately owned home. Vanderbilt’s vision of creating a self-sustaining estate continues today, with a working farm, vineyards, and, of course, tourism supporting the estate. (In fact, the Stable Café takes part in a farm-to-table initiative, using produce and eggs raised on the estate.)
Exploring the Past in the Biltmore House.
There’s a fabulous children’s novel that offers a child’s eye perspective of Biltmore—and what it may have been like for the servants working on the estate. Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty, is a great story for kids to read before visiting Biltmore Estate, as the mysterious protagonist is a servant’s child living secretly in the basement of Biltmore House. As we toured the house, I found myself wondering about where the girl and her father might have lived. My kids have fun identifying the rooms mentioned in the book as they tour the house.
Because the Vanderbilts’ guests typically stayed several days or weeks when visiting, Biltmore Estate offered many amenities to entertain them. For instance, as you begin the tour through the house, you’ll discover the Billiards Room, a perfect place for guests to enjoy a game of skill, as well as evening refreshments.
With more than 33 guest bedrooms in Biltmore House, many family members and friends could stay comfortably at the estate. They’d enjoy numerous activities, like riding, lawn tennis, croquet, hiking, hunting, and fishing. For those who preferred less adventurous activities, an indoor pool, bowling alley, music room, and library entertained guests for days.
My Favorite Place: The Library.
If there’s something I love even more than traveling and gardening, it’s reading. George Vanderbilt and I should have been friends, because he’d be the perfect person to spend a rainy afternoon with, chatting about books, in the fabulous library.
Oh, the library…
Really, if there’s one place that I could spend the rest of my life, it might be the Biltmore Library. The library contains half of Vanderbilt’s more than 23,000 books, ranging in subjects from American and English fiction to art, architecture, religion, philosophy, world history, and more. In fact, the collection contains many first editions and rare books, like a first edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The books aren’t the only rare pieces in the library, however. Napoleon Bonaparte owned the chess set and game table presented to George Vanderbilt on his 21st birthday. Look up, and you’ll find The Chariot of Aurora, painted in the 1720s by the Italian artist Giovanni Pellegrini, which originally resided in the Pisani Palace in Venice.
(I think the Biltmore Estate should hire me as its librarian. Wouldn’t that be a dream?!)
Living the Elite Life at Biltmore House: Banquet Halls, Breakfast Rooms, and Bedrooms Filled with Fresh Flowers.
Along with the library, I adore the fabulous fresh floral arrangements throughout the house. In fact, there’s an entire room dedicated to the floral staff, where they create their beautiful art, as well as an additional room where vases and containers reside, awaiting their chance to be filled. (Of course, that’s on the servants’ level.)
The design of the house speaks to the elegance and style of the time. The Banquet Hall, with its seven-story high ceiling, Flemish tapestries from the 1500s, and organ loft, served as the gathering place for dinner parties and celebrations. In fact, the Vanderbilts threw an annual Christmas party here for the Biltmore Estate workers and their families.
There’s also a smaller table near the fireplace, where the family enjoyed regular evening meals. While the table may be smaller, the meals were no less elegant, with seven to ten courses served each evening. (And I think it’s hard making dinner for my family every night! I’m glad I wasn’t the Biltmore House cook.)
‘Casual’ Dining at the Biltmore.
To confuse matters, the Breakfast Room is where the family ate lunch. Instead, the second floor Oak Sitting Room, which joined Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt’s separate bedrooms, served as a place for the couple to eat breakfast together, while planning the day with the head housekeeper.
Both bedrooms reflect complete attention to details and elegant appointments. The couple spent much time in the bedrooms, as the custom of the era dictated appropriate attire for every activity. They may have changed clothes as often as four to six times per day. (I wonder what they’d think of the yoga pants and sweatshirt I wear most days?)
In addition to the incredible design of the home by renown architect Richard Morris Hunt, you’ll find priceless art from the Masters, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent, tapestries dating from the 16th century, vintage clothing and furniture—all from Vanderbilt’s private collection.
Upstairs, Downstairs: Biltmore House Guests Occupy the Third Floor, Amusements and Servants Down Below.
We continued our tour to the third floor, where examples of lovely, comfortable guests rooms showed what life as a Vanderbilt friend or relation might be like. In addition to the 33 guest bedrooms, 43 bathrooms—at a time when most homes in America didn’t posses a single indoor bathroom—ensured guests’ comfort.
For more diversion, guests wandered downstairs to the basement area to enjoy the bowling alley, swimming pool, and gymnasium…and even a “Halloween Room.”
However, the basement served as the engine for the entire house.
Here, the servants worked preparing meals, arranging flowers, and ensuring that all aspects of the Biltmore House ran flawlessly. In fact, the basement housed not just one kitchen, but three: the Main Kitchen; the Rotisserie Kitchen; and the Pastry Kitchen, along with two pantries. Walk-in refrigerators also were ahead of their time at Biltmore House, as were the electric drying racks in the laundry room, helping to ease the work of the servants a bit.
Inside, Outside: Exploring the Garden Rooms and Grounds of Biltmore Estate.
While I’m always awestruck by the house, the gardens and grounds make me wish I lived the Vanderbilt lifestyle.
Designed by Olmsted, the acres of formal and informal gardens astound. From the richly elegant Italian Gardens to the more than 250 varieties in the rose garden to the ongoing conservation efforts in place today, the grounds offer a perfect way for kids to release their pent-up energy after their well-behaved tour inside. (However, please do make them stay on paths, and don’t allow them to climb 200-year-old Japanese maples like “someone’s” son did. (I turned my back for a second—and up he went. Mortifying.)
My friend and I explored the gardens, cameras in hand, trying to capture the beauty of the collections and the design. While the formal gardens often grab visitors’ attention, I particularly love the paths that wind through the property, giving a natural appearance that, in reality, is perfectly planned.
We realized suddenly that the time escaped us, and the house and Conservatory closed at 6 p.m. We raced down the path to the Conservatory, just as a staff member began to pull the door shut. Using my best persuasive abilities, I told her that my friend from Ohio needed to see the Conservatory, and I promised we’d only spend five minutes. She graciously agreed to let us in—and then she had to chase us out, because of course two garden writers could never spend only five minutes in the Conservatory, with its amazing collection of plants!
Biltmore Estate’s Farm and Winery: Fun for the Kids (and the Adults, Too).
While we didn’t have time to visit the farm on this outing, it is the favorite outdoor activity for our kids when visiting the Biltmore Estate. Chickens, Black Angus cattle, sheep, donkeys, and other animals contribute to maintaining Biltmore’s status as a working farm. The staff at Antler Hill Farm explains farm life to visitors and how the animals contributed to the estate.
Sadly, my friend and I also didn’t have time to take advantage of the winery and the wine tasting (which is included in the price of admission.) Since I needed to drive home after a full day of touring Biltmore House and Gardens, we thought it might be better that we didn’t sample 20 handcrafted wines. (Being a responsible adult is not fun.)
Antler Hill Village and Winery, a short drive from Biltmore House, offers casual and fine dining options, as well as shops. Additionally, if you’d like to spend several days on the property, the Inn on Biltmore Estate and Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate offer lovely accommodations. You can arrange several outdoor activities, like carriage rides, horseback trail rides, river rafting, and more through Guest Services or the Outdoor Adventure Center. (Fees vary per activity. Call 800.411.3812 for more information.)
As the sky began to darken, we realized that no other guests remained at Biltmore House. The grounds stay open to visitors until dusk, and my car was the last one in the parking lot. Exhausted, we decided to head home.
But not until we took one last photo—without people—of Biltmore House!
Admission to the Biltmore House and Gardens can be pricey for adults. Children 16 and under are free. Discounts are available with advance purchase. Rates change with the seasons. Admission price includes a self-guided tour of Biltmore House, access to the gardens, grounds, and Antler Hill Village, free wine tasting and guided winery tour, and sometimes special exhibits. Audio tours are an additional fee. Guided group house tours are available, also at an additional fee. Additionally, rooftop tours and behind-the-scenes guided “Upstairs/Downstairs” tours are available, as is “Legacy of the Land Tours,” a motor coach tour of the estate. Advanced registration is required for all guided tours. Call 800-411-3812 for more information.