ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- This gem of a city tucked in the Blue Ridge foothills of western North Carolina attracts artists, musicians, foodies, outdoor enthusiasts and a fair share of modern-day hippies, all lured by the beautiful setting and open-minded vibe. Its gorgeous historic buildings downtown, free music venues, Appalachian art center and lofty nearby peaks are all perfect for travelers looking to please their senses without spending a dime.
The vibrant, compact town center, filled with boutiques, galleries, cafes and cultural attractions, is walkable and perfect for sightseeing. Especially in warm weather, downtown sidewalks are themselves an attraction -- filled with street musicians, performance artists and gawkers.
Asheville was once dubbed the "Paris of the South" in part because of the stylish flair of its historic city center. You can't miss the towering eight-story City Hall. Facing the broad lawn of Pack Square Park, the reddish building and its ornate art deco style are a highlight of the city skyline. Other Pack Square Park gems include the 13-story Jackson building, with its neo-gothic castle-like tower, and the Asheville Art Museum, housing an impressive collection of 20th-century American art, including works from regional artists. Admission to all the museum's galleries and exhibits is free the first Wednesday of each month from 3 to 5 p.m. For two galleries adjacent to the museum's Atrium entrance, admission is free during regular hours, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Stroll a few blocks and you'll find yourself on North Market Street, in front of a handsome yellow Victorian house -- a former boardinghouse and boyhood home of author Thomas Wolfe, made famous in his 1929 novel, "Look Homeward, Angel."
Music is a mainstay of the Asheville scene and not to miss is the Friday night drum circle in Pritchard Park, at Patton Avenue and College Street. Starting around 5 p.m., the triangular-shaped park fills with all manner of musicians, from kids on toy drums to grandpas on bongos. Everyone's welcome to play and watch, and the scene is exhilaratingly communal.
For more free sounds, head down Patton to Jack of the Wood, a Celtic-style pub that features jam sessions several nights a week. At 5 p.m. Sundays local Irish musicians gather informally to play Celtic tunes; Thursday sessions feature bluegrass starting at around 6 p.m.; and there's an Old Time jam at 6 p.m. Wednesdays. Local craft brews are reasonably priced in case all that music makes you thirsty.
Asheville's most famous free music event is the annual Shindig on the Green, on Saturday evenings from late June through August in Pack Square Park. It draws top-notch bluegrass bands, string bands, Appalachian cloggers and storytellers from around the region. The family-friendly event attracts huge crowds; fans spread out on blankets and lawn chairs to enjoy the sights and sounds.
Folk Art Center
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, about 7 miles east of downtown, is a showcase for the rich cultural traditions and contemporary crafting of southern Appalachia. The Folk Art Center houses wares from the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a nine-state group of artisans. Their works are displayed year-round but from March to December, you're liable to catch live demonstrations of old-time broom-making, intricate woodcarving and quilting from felted wool. The center features three galleries, a library and a Blue Ridge Parkway information desk. Admission is free; an on-site shop sells textiles, pottery, jewelry and other crafts made by guild members.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Some of the prettiest stretches of this National Park System roadway rim Asheville and are perfect for leisurely driving or hearty cycling. For hikers, plenty of trails are nearby. A good introduction starts at milepost 389, south of downtown, where the parkway meets Hendersonville Road-U.S. 25. That's the business route from Asheville's airport to downtown, but head onto the parkway and you're instantly transported into a hilly forest of trees and tranquillity. Up here, you'd never know a bustling little metropolis was so close. Drive about 15 minutes and you'll reach milepost 382 and the Folk Art Center, where you can descend back into civilization.
Or hike part of the Mountains to Sea trail; look for a marker in the center's lower parking lot. A moderately difficult hike takes you to Lunch Rock, a little over 2 miles each way -- about three hours total. For more of the parkway, keep driving as the road steepens and you'll be treated to breathtaking views of surrounding Blue Ridge peaks. Craggy Gardens Visitors' Center is a winding 18-mile drive from the Folk Art Center.
Save part of a day for a trip to Max Patch, a lofty bald meadow along the Appalachian Trail. From this 4,600-foot summit, you'll see an awe-inspiring 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge mountains, layers of crests unfolding in every direction. It's 40 miles from Asheville, the last stretch up a gravel road, but worth the drive. From the Max Patch parking area it's a fairly easy hike, a little more than a mile, to the summit. The Appalachian Trail crosses through the Patch, so hikers can set off in either direction. Those content to feast their eyes will not be disappointed. From Asheville, head west on I-40 to exit 7 (Harmon's Den). Go right on Cold Springs Road to state Route 1182 (Max Patch Road). Turn left for the parking area.