With lazy summer days on the horizon, Asheville, North Carolina provides the perfect destination to escape the heat and entertain the troops. With cooler mountain air and beautiful scenery, Asheville’s quirky charm, intriguing history, and unique destinations make it a perfect day trip. It’s also ideal for a full-blown, weeklong family vacation.
Exploring Asheville, North Carolina with Kids
We’re lucky. In less than an hour, our family can escape the South Carolina heat and venture to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the temperatures typically dip ten degrees cooler than in Spartanburg. Often, we head out for a hiking adventure, but when we crave a diversion, Asheville, North Carolina is our favorite destination. After all, where can you tour America’s largest house, play pinball to your heart’s content, visit native wildlife, and join a jammin’ drum session—all in one day?
Asheville—with its artsy vibe, historical offerings, local food scene, and eclectic shops—provides the perfect destination for the entire family. Of course, if you're fortunate to find an overnight babysitter, Asheville is also perfect for a grown-up getaway. Because we live fairly close, though, we take the kids often to Asheville. Here are a few of our favorite destinations that our teen and tween, in particular, enjoy:
Biltmore Estate: Touring the Home of America’s “Royal” Family
Lovers of Downtown Abbey will relish the rich heritage and opulent architecture of America’s largest home. Completed in 1895, the 250-room chateau built for George Vanderbilt is an amazing testament to early innovation. Whenever we tour the house, our kids marvel at the technology used in the 19th century. Not only does the house drip elegance and opulence at every turn, but with features like a below-ground bowling ally and indoor pool, the Vanderbilt residence proved a technological and architectural marvel for its time.
In addition to the incredible design of the home, you’ll find priceless art from the Masters, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and John Singer Sargent, as well as a library filled with 10,000 volumes, tapestries dating from the 16th century, vintage clothing and furniture—all from the Vanderbilt’s private collection. Check out the chess set/game table owned by Napoleon, which George Vanderbilt received as a gift for his twenty-first birthday!
Typically, foundations own estates like Biltmore, as the maintenance and taxes can render a wealthy family destitute. 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.
While I’m always awestruck by the house, the gardens and grounds make me wish I lived the Vanderbilt lifestyle. Designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law 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. Eeek.)
The favorite outdoor activity for our kids includes a visit to the farm. Today, 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. (Presentations take place Saturday, March 26 through Saturday, December 31. Saturday and Sunday, sessions occur at 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, presentations take place at 11 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 3:30 p.m. The farm tour is included with the price of admission, which is $60 for adults and free for youth 16 and under during summer months. Discounts are available for advance purchase. Admission price also includes a self-guided tour of Biltmore House, access to the gardens and Antler Hill Village, free wine tasting and guided winery tour, and sometimes special exhibits. Call 800-411-3812 for more information.)
Western North Carolina Nature Center: Natural Science Experience with Local Wildlife
For the animal lovers in us all, the Western North Carolina Nature Center is the perfect adventure to see more than 60 species of animals native to the Southern Appalachians. Red wolves, black bears, cougars, deer and my personal favorite, river otters, entertain visitors in their native habitats. It’s a lovely environment. Boardwalks and trails meander throughout the Center, with animals in large, well-designed habitats. The mountains in the distance provide a beautiful backdrop, and the shady trails offer an easy stroll throughout site. There’s also a large playground for kids. A little advice: try to visit when it’s a bit cooler. The animals tend to be more active in cooler weather. When we visited in the summer, we saw lots of animal tushies in the distance, because the animals were napping in the shade. In the spring, the animals were much friskier!
Don’t miss the special educational sessions when they’re offered. We learned lots about owls. (This sweet one came to live at WNC Nature Center due to an injured wing.)
Open every day from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Adults: $10.95; Seniors 65 and over: $9.95; Youth 3-15: $6.95; Children 2 and younger: free.
Asheville Pinball Museum: Pac Man for the iPhone Generation
If you’re of a certain age (like me), you probably spent many hours at the arcade with your friends. Our children, however, never experienced the joy of stacks of quarters holding their turn at Pac Man or Centipede while crowding around machines, watching to see if a friend beat the high score. Instead, they typically play video games alone or with a friend or two at home or online. When I heard about the Asheville Pinball Museum, I knew it was time to introduce our kids to the world of arcade life.
What a blast from the past!
With more than 35 pinball machines dating from 1966 to 2016 and 25 classic video games, as well as some novelty games all set to “free” play, it will be tough to determine who will have more fun—you or the kids! The admission price is good for all day play.
True confession: our kids never played pinball prior to our visit to the museum. It took a few tries to get the hang of it, but after an introduction from the pro parents, the bells were dinging and the kids were cheering each other. Still, the biggest attraction seemed to be the old fashioned video games. They enjoyed the “old” games so much that our youngest son became a bit obsessed with Centipede…and found an online version to play at home.
These techie kids…
Asheville Pinball Museum is located at 1 Battle Square, Suite 1B, Asheville, NC 28801. Call 828-776-5671 for more information.
Admission prices: Adults $13, Children 10 and under $10. Open Monday 1 p.m.-6 p.m.; Closed Tuesday for repairs; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 2 p.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday: Noon-9 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Note: The museum can be very crowded on weekends. When we visited on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t crowded at all, thankfully.
Chocolate Gems: Perfect Mid-Afternoon Sweet Energy Boost
What happens when two sailors, both signed on as crew for the delivery of a catamaran from France to Texas, meet? They sail the world for five years, ultimately finding themselves landlocked in Asheville, where one begins making chocolates at home. After a bit, it seems inevitable that it’s time to venture into an entrepreneurial endeavor—creating the finest confections with the best ingredients and selling beautiful chocolatey works of art in Asheville.
I know my family. When we’re sightseeing and on the go, we hit the mid-afternoon slump. That’s when it’s time to sit a bit and find a sweet treat to perk us up for the rest of the day. Chocolate Gems provides the perfect, elegant pick-me-up.
Really, is there anything happier than the difficult decisions of which truffles to choose?
The kids chose easy to please milk chocolate truffles, while I ventured into more adventurous territory: lavender truffles. Oh my. I wish you could taste one right now.
Sue and Andrew, the owners of Chocolate Gems, create the chocolates by hand in the shop. Located at 25 Broadway in Asheville, it’s the perfect stop for an afternoon pick-me-up. Hours: Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday: Noon-5 p.m. Call 828-505-8596 for more information.
Asheville’s Urban Trail: Explore History through Art.
For art and history lovers, Asheville’s Urban Trail provides the ultimate scavenger hunt. The 1.7-mile walking tour through downtown Asheville provides a great, fun lesson about the city’s history, while kids can compete to be the first to spy each of the 30 sculptures along the trail.
The Urban Trail highlights five important time periods in the history of Asheville, with each period identified with pink granite markers in the sidewalk: the feather represents the Gilded Age; the horseshoe signifies the Frontier Period; an angel shows the Times of Thomas Wolfe; the courthouse denotes the Era of Civic Pride; and the eagle indicates the Age of Diversity.
Urban Trail maps can be found at Pack Place and the information center at Pack Square Road. The Urban Trail is free and available every day.
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café: Literature to Explore—and Mysteries to Uncover.
We love a good bookstore. Seriously. It’s one of our family’s favorite destinations, and Malaprop’s is one of the most fabulous independent bookstores you can find. Part land of literature, part community gathering place, part delicious literary-themed café with treats that actually feed both your body and soul, we could spend hours here. (Literally.)
While you’ll find best-sellers and a great children’s department, my daughter’s favorite part of Malaprop’s is the “mystery” section. Here, books wrapped in craft paper hide the authors and titles. Instead, enticing hand-written descriptions of what lies beneath the packaging tease potential readers, helping them discover something new and unexpected to read.
Who can resist a good mystery—or fantasy—or young adult—book?
Malaprop’s Bookstore is located at 55 Haywood Street, Asheville, NC 28801. Hours: Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Call 828.254.6734 for more information.
Asheville's Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar: Champagne and Books? Yes, please.
Remember how I mentioned that we love books? Now, when you combine a Champagne bar with a used bookstore, it’s like my family’s version of Nirvana.
We first discovered Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar when we scouted locations for a rehearsal dinner for our oldest son and his then bride-to-be. The store offers special events, and the location—with its eclectic décor, cozy seating in nooks, and literary ambiance seemed perfect, just a bit too small for the party. Instead, we spent ages looking through the amazing collection of more than 22,000 books, sipping Champagne, and unwinding in a great space. And—you can bring Fido. Yes, there’s an Espresso Dog Bar, “Where All Dogs Eat and Drink for Free!”
I might move in and never leave.
On our most recent visit, in fact, the biggest challenge involved getting the kids out the door.
Battery Park Book Exchange is located in the Grove Arcade: 1 Page Ave #101, Asheville, NC 28801. Hours: Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Call 828-252-0020 for more information.
Friday Night Drum Circle: No Experience Required to Play.
Do you have a persistent drummer in your life? A child that constantly beats on the table, taps out rhythms, and begs for bongos? Well, then you must take your percussionist to the Asheville Drum Circle, where everyone is welcome to drum to join in the fun!
The free event is an example of Asheville at its best. Drummers begin arriving around 6 p.m. on Fridays (during warm weather months), and crowds continue building throughout the evening, with people of every age, race, and background joining together to drum, dance, and delight in the party atmosphere. It’s a free-form rhythm fest, with drummers improvising together and entertaining the crowds.
(You do need to bring your own drum or percussion instrument, though.)
The Asheville Friday Night Drum Circle is located downtown at Pritchard Park on Patton Avenue at College Street. Hours: Fridays, 6 p.m.-10 p.m.
Whether your family craves adventure, wildlife, literature, art, or wants to dance to a different beat, Asheville offers a perfect destination to keep everyone entertained and happy.