I’m convinced that I could live a lifetime in Asheville, North Carolina and not have the time to try every amazing restaurant that the city has to offer. It would certainly take decades to hike every mountaintop and waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina or to delve fully into all the stories that the historic Biltmore Estate has hidden within its gates. Needless to say, two days was not nearly enough time to scratch the surface of Asheville’s food scene, Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails, and history. It was only enough time to give me a small taste of the fun things to do in Asheville with kids and convince me that I must come back for another visit — soon.
Fun Things to Do in Asheville, NC and along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway
Eat Well in Asheville, North Carolina – Even with Kids
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Foodie or not, I recommend eating well while in Asheville. There’s food for every budget and every time of day. I carefully picked restaurants for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. But, maybe we should have added brunch and snacks a few times a day too — just to find more excuses to enjoy Asheville’s amazing restaurant scene. Anything Southern-inspired is really your best bet – shrimp and grits tacos, anyone?
Start Your Day Right
I admit that when I’m traveling, I typically grab a bagel and yogurt at my hotel’s breakfast buffet and consider myself good to go for at least a few hours. But, this would be a very poor move in Asheville. Breakfast was my favorite meal every day we spent in Asheville. Every slice of bacon I tried was just perfect — enjoy!
While it’s a drive from downtown, I highly recommend Sunny Point Cafe. I admit that I do not often eat a tostada for breakfast, but if I lived anywhere near Asheville I’d be eating Sunny Point Cafe’s Grit Cake Tostadas (pictured) as often as possible, maybe once week – or more. My son and I also enjoyed the huge, amazingly fluffy pancakes at Over Easy Cafe (pictured above) and stopped for a quick sugary snack at Vortex Doughnuts one morning when we were in a hurry.
Stop and Grab a Quick Lunch
Finding time for lunch while visiting Asheville was no easy task; we didn’t even stop every day – so I’m short on personal recommendations. However, we did love White Duck Taco Shop, and with three locations in Asheville, it’s easy to find one that is close to your adventure of the day. I might need to take another seven hour road trip from DC to North Carolina just to satisfy my craving for their shrimp and grits taco (pictured).
Relax and Enjoy Dinner
As a mother, I loved how most Asheville restaurants welcome kids with a children’s menu — even restaurants with a sophisticated, seasonal local menu. After a day of adventure, I settled upon trying out Rhubarb, in part because of it’s menu, but mostly due to a recommendation and it’s location close to our hotel and the French Board Chocolate Lounge. While my son ordered chicken strips, I ordered a vegetarian dish featuring portobello mushrooms, white beans, greens and a pesto sauce; it was so fresh and flavorful. I also savored every bite of my tomato pie (pictured) at Edison’s during our stay at Omni Grove Park Inn up in the hills above the city.
Drink Your Chocolate – French Broad Chocolate Lounge
While I’m sure that many of the restaurants that we visited in Asheville have many fine dessert options, we could not pass up the opportunity to try the drinking chocolate at French Broad Chocolate Lounge — and you shouldn’t either. My salted caramel chocolate drink was so smooth and rich; to my disbelief, my son didn’t like it, which meant that I didn’t have to share.
Tour the Historic Biltmore Estate
The Biltmore Estate, the early 20th century home to George Vanderbilt and his family, has been a tourist and vacation destination for decades. From tours of the historic mansion for day trippers to luxury accommodations and a resort village, this historic property is a must visit for any family coming to the Asheville area. A visit to the Biltmore is not a quick add-on to your Asheville vacation; the estate and house are huge, and the audio tour of the house alone takes at least 90 minutes. Nor is a visit to the property cheap, so plan at least a half day — if not a full day — to tour the house, stroll through the gardens and soak in the atmosphere at one of the South’s most iconic estates.
If you want to make the most out of your visit to the Biltmore House with elementary school age children, be sure to purchase a ticket for the children’s audio guide. The guide is narrated by the Vanderbilt dog, Cedric, with guest appearances from the service staff and Vanderbilt children. The guide is not only cute, but informative; it paints a picture of everyday life in the historic home — both for the Vanderbilt family upstairs as well as the staff downstairs. If your children are a bit mature for an audio guide narrated by a family pet, be sure to watch a couple of seasons of Downton Abbey before touring the house; the theme of upstairs and downstairs is emphasized throughout the audio tour— with the tour path including an extensive look at the kitchens, maids quarters, and staff dining areas.
In order to reach the Biltmore House, you will by necessity be walking and driving around the extensive Biltmore Estate. Be sure to stop and smell the roses – literally, the rose garden was one of my favorite places on the estate. But, also, simply take your time to enjoy the journey around the estate. If you have extra time, consider a bike ride or a more extensive hike on the property.
Opt for Adventure at the Adventure Center of Asheville
There is plenty of adventure to be had in the mountains outside of Asheville, but just five minutes from downtown, the Adventure Center of Asheville also has plenty of the thrills for everyone in the family ages four and up. If flying through the sky is your thing, the Adventure Center of Asheville has two separate zip line options: a canopy tour for ages ten and up featuring eleven zip lines and a few sky bridges and Kid Zip, a pair of courses that combine zip lines and playground structures in an innovative and unique way. Kid Zip is the playground that my seven-year old son dreams of with climbing elements and a total of nine zip lines that kids can be done over and over again during their two-hour time allotment.
The Adventure Center of Asheville also features a Treetops aerial adventure course with obstacles high up in the trees – kayak through the air and slide from the tree tops to the ground. These obstacles are whimsical, colorful, fun, and most importantly safe.
At the same Adventure Center of Asheville location, the Kolo Bike Park provides thrills on the ground. Families can rent mountain bikes or bring their own to experience the parks’ two pump tracks and several miles of trails for various levels of cyclers. Our visit to Kolo Bike Park marked my son’s first experience riding on trails and a pump track; he’s been ready for years, but since my cycling experience is limited, I didn’t know where to begin. Kolo Bike Park took care of it all. Now, I just have to find somewhere close to home for him to practice his skills.
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Where to Stay
I recommend examining your priorities when choosing a place to stay in Asheville. If you want to fully enjoy Asheville’s food scene, I recommend choosing a place to stay downtown near a wide variety of the city’s best restaurants. Not that there aren’t fabulous restaurants that you’ll want to try outside the downtown neighborhood, but being able to walk to and from dinner at the end of the day (or breakfast at the beginning of your day) is a really nice perk when staying in the neighborhood. If you’re looking to spend most of your time hiking and enjoying Asheville’s top destinations, I recommend staying out by the Biltmore in one of the chain hotels that offer a complimentary breakfast; this area also offers good access to the Blue Ridge Parkway going south out of Asheville. Finally, if you’re looking for a no fuss resort vacation, consider the Omni Grove park up in the hills overlooking Asheville or the hotels on the Biltmore Estate property itself.
I chose to stay two nights at the Hilton Garden Inn Asheville Downtown during our visit to Asheville. The property is an easy ten minute walk from Asheville’s downtown restaurant scene. We simply left our car parked at the hotel and walked past the municipal buildings near the hotel to the restaurants. French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Rhubarb, White Duck Taco and Over Easy Cafe are all just a short walk from the Hilton Garden Inn. Inside the hotel, rooms are modern and quiet; reception is helpful, and there is a small store inside the lobby with food and incidentals. I recommend this hotel to families who want to focus their visit to Asheville around the downtown restaurant scene.
We also stayed one night at the Omni Grove Park Inn overlooking the city on this visit to Asheville. While the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown, is in a great position to get out and enjoy the town, the Grove Park Inn is exactly the opposite; you’ll want to park your car, sit back, relax and enjoy the resort’s amenities. There are pools, hiking trails, golf, outdoor adventure concessionaires, stores, and restaurants on property. I loved our spacious room with inviting brown leather chairs positioned right by the window, perfect for reading a book and enjoying a view of the mountains all around. The Omni Grove Park Inn is truly a retreat from the city, but you won’t miss out on Asheville’s legendary food scene; my meal at Edison’s on property was one of the most flavorful of my entire visit to Asheville, and the sunset view of the Blue Ridge Mountains was unparalleled.
Explore North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway Near Asheville
The Blue Ridge Parkway skirts around the perimeter of Asheville from the north, to the east, to the south. Downtown Asheville itself is only about five miles from this scenic drive, and many of Asheville’s top tourist destinations like the Folk Art Center, North Carolina Arboretum, and Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center are only accessible via the Parkway. In addition to the hiking trails along the Parkway, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking in the Pisgah National Forest.
South Towards Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The North Carolina Arboretum (Mile 393)
Driving South out of Asheville, the North Carolina Arboretum is located right at one of the entrances to the Blue Ridge Parkway making it the perfect place to explore before or after a day of driving the nation’s most popular scenic road. With short manageable trails, lovely manicured gardens, and educational children’s programs, the arboretum is the perfect place to let the little ones explore.
Mount Pisgah (Mile 408.6)
I will never forget hiking to the top of Mount Pisgah with my son near sunset, and finding our way back to the car as the sun set. Knowing that our minutes of daylight were short, we raced each other the .8 mile up 700 feet of elevation gain to the top of the mountain. Words cannot describe how proud I was that we made it in time to see the bright orange sky with the sun just about to fall over the ridge line. I have to imagine that view is one of the best around in any season or at any time of day.
Highway 276 -Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls (Mile 412)
I told my son about the Sliding Rock Waterfall before our trip; after that, he was not about to let me leave Asheville without sliding down a waterfall. Every time we saw a river, a stream or waterfall, he asked if this was the one that he could slide down. Once we finally arrived at Sliding Rock on our second evening in Asheville, the excitement did not wear off; he slid down over a dozen times until I saw him shivering a bit and told him that his time was finished. Did I go down? Yes, and my son even took a video to prove it! There are plenty of waterfalls to visit not far from Sliding Rock, including Looking Glass Falls just off the road and Moore Cove Falls – which we would have hiked to based on the name alone if we had another hour of daylight.
Graveyard Fields (Mile 418.8)
Out of all the dozens stops that we have made along the Parkway, Graveyard Fields, located about an hour outside of Asheville, is the place to which I would most like to return. Don’t make the same mistake that we did; allow at least a few hours to hike this trail! We simply didn’t have enough time to explore; we spent an hour hopping from rock to rock in the stream bed both above and below the Lower Falls; the waterfall glistened beautifully in the afternoon light. However, I’m still disappointed that we missed out on the Upper Falls about a mile upstream because we simply didn’t have enough time to visit before the sun would set.
North Towards Virginia
Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and Folk Art Center (Mile 384 and Mile 382)
Photo Courtesy of the Folk Art Center and Brian Mullins
Traveling north on the Parkway out of Asheville, you’ll find the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and Folk Art Center within a mile or so of each other. The Folk Art Center is a unique place where artisans from all over Southern Appalachia are able to sell their crafts, from ceramics to wooden toys to knitted garments. Most days a couple of artisans are on hand to give demonstrations. In addition to the extensive shop – perfect for finding that unique Christmas gift – there is a permanent collection and temporary galleries featuring the crafting history of Appalachia.
Craggy Gardens and Highway 128 to Mount Mitchell (Mile 364 and Mile 355)
Driving a bit further north, you’ll find the popular Craggy Gardens hiking area. Unfortunately, on during the time of our visit to Asheville the section of Parkway between the Folk Art Center and Mount Mitchell was closed due to road maintenance and the clearing of trees. We learned our lesson: always check the Blue Ridge Parkway webpage before setting out on a Parkway adventure or you might end up being disappointed (and wasting quite a bit of time.)
Linville Falls (Mile 316)
As we drove home to Washington DC from Asheville, we made a quick stop at Linville Falls along the Parkway. There are two trail options at Linville Falls: hiking into the gorge to see the falls from the bottom and hiking along the edge of the gorge and viewing the falls from the top. While I originally wanted to take on the more strenuous adventure of hiking into the gorge, a ranger advised me to enjoy the view from the top first. The view from the top frames the waterfalls quite nicely and there were even some rocks for my son to climb upon.
Looking to Take a Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip in Western North Carolina? Check out Trekaroo’s Guide to North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway.
Want more suggestion on family-friendly fun in Asheville? Check out these 7 amazing things to do with kids in Asheville
Photos by Melissa Moore unless otherwise credited.
Disclosure: Explore Asheville facilitated my family’s visit to Asheville by providing restaurant recommendations and connecting me with their local hotel partners and business. The Biltmore Estate, North Carolina Arboretum, Asheville Adventure Center, Omni Grove Park Inn, and Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Asheville provided complimentary or media rate experiences and lodging for my family. All opinions are my own.