Asheville, North Carolina surprises and delights at every turn. Nestled in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains and lush national forests and crisscrossed by rivers, Asheville is cooler and relatively more progressive than many other parts of the state. A blue island in a (pretty much) red state, its gene pool incorporates at least a few drops of hippie DNA, yielding a warm welcome of outsiders and weirdness that’s a point of pride.
Visitors are suffused in art: Gorgeous public pieces and murals catch your attention at every corner; quirky, avant-garde and even pricey art works tempt passersby at numerous galleries; live music (free and paid) and other public performances ring out from countless spots throughout the walkable, charming historic district. LGBTQ flags proudly flap at numerous businesses and homes throughout the city, and there are so many lesbian couples here, local queer women jokingly call it Sheville.
Stay: The Cambria Hotel Downtown Asheville, weds smart room design with local culinary and artistic partnerships producing a distinct sense of space and place. The Cambria is located smack dab in the middle of the historic district within walking distance (or a short drive) to most of the following recommendations. There’s a nicely equipped fitness center and an outdoor pool. During a recent stay we chatted with several other queer couples, and everyone agreed, Cambria warmly welcomes LGBTQ guests.
Eat/meet: Helmed by a young, unassuming chef, Cambria’s Hemingway Cuba delivers delicious Cuban cuisine paired with panoramic views of the misty mountains enveloping Asheville. (It’s gorgeous at sunset.) In the historic town center Cucina24 melds Italian traditions with fresh ingredients from the mountains of the American South. Sunny Point Café is a family-owned, independent restaurant serving from-scratch upscale comfort food all day. If you want to burn off a few of the calories we’ve just recommended, shake your grove thing at Scandals, a slick nightclub with dancing and drag performances.
Discover: Once part of the Cherokee nation, the area started booming along with the expansion of the railroad, explaining the presence of the Biltmore Estate, established and developed by the heirs of Cornelius Vanderbilt, rail magnet. Devote a at least half a day to the 250-room castle, America’s ‘largest home’ to get a sense of how an obscenely rich family and the rail industry shaped the region. Splurge for a guided tour and wine tasting.
Continue your outdoor exploration of the brilliant fall colors and waterfalls of the nearby Pisgah National Forest with the passionate, knowledgeable guides of Asheville Hiking Tours. Explore the beating heart of culture in Asheville via a walking tour led by actual practicing artists from Asheville Art Studio Tours, with stops at several galleries and the NC Glass Center to witness from alarmingly close up actual glass blowing and sculpting in ovens maintained at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Time to quaff your thirst with a visit to Highland Brewing Company, the largest independent, family-owned brewery native to the Southeast and the first legal brewery in Asheville since prohibition. Try flights of beer, bar food or even your hand at … volleyball! There are competition-level courts on the grounds along with picnic areas and other surprising features.
Best time to go: Blessed with a temperate climate, Asheville is a nearly year-round destination, but a fall trip rewards visitors with stunning colors creating a vibrant backdrop for your exploration (not to mention your enviable Instagrams!). Information: Explore Asheville.
LGBTQ Events: Scheduled for Saturday, September 25, the annual Blue Ridge Pride celebration is fast approaching. If you can get there in time, pack your most fabulous rainbow/glitter mask, and enjoy this year’s Southern flavored theme: Inclusion y’all! Not specifically gay but plenty queer with costumes and glitter galore, Asheville Mardi Gras takes place end of February and early March. Check the website for more information closer to the date.
LGBTQ Resources: The official Explore Asheville tourism website offers a regularly updated listing of LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly hotels, spas, other businesses, and events.
About the author
NYC-based Ed Salvato is a freelance travel writer, lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s NYC Center, adjunct instructor at NYU’s Tisch Center of Hospitality, and an LGBTQ tourism marketing specialist. He is the co-author of Handbook of LGBT Tourism and Hospitality: A Guide for Business Practice. Follow him on Instagram @ed.salvato