Normally, I find many things to love about every place I visit. Why? Because of an appreciation of the history, architecture, culture, restaurants, people, and so forth. Some places have much more to offer than others, depending on their size, the people you meet, and places you see.
Recently, I traveled to the western part of North Carolina. I spent time in the small towns of Mooresville, Cornelius, and Davidson, went fishing on Lake Norman, and swung by Charlotte. I continued my trip further west and visited Lake Lure and Chimney Rock, where I climbed every single step all the way up to the rock and beyond, all the way to the Exclamation Point. Not once was I disappointed in any of these places I visited.
The journey continued to Asheville where I stayed on the south west side of the city. THANK GOD! It was close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, not far from apple country to the south, and Biltmore Village. Not once was I disappointed. Until I drove a few miles up the road into downtown Asheville. (The last time I was there it was fun & hip, with lots of neat shops and restaurants and great architecture.) Once I emerged from the parking deck and walked a block to the nucleus of the city and had a moment to look around, I was crestfallen. What happened to the city I lovingly remembered?
My first impression was this place is dirty and in need of a good scrubbing, including some of the people standing around. The city’s tourism slogan is “Asheville: Discovery, Inside and Out.” I felt the downtown had an “anything goes” vibe, really. Hordes of people milling about in the parks in the middle of the day, some gathered up to play music, others to do an impromptu game or listening to music, while many were just sitting around smoking. I saw drug needles on the sidewalk. Panhandlers are plentiful and there is a lot of unaddressed homelessness. Now I get that this is a progressive, hippy city, full of artisans and musicians and people on the fringes of society and that’s cool. That unorthodox atmosphere is partly the reason it was so great the last time I was there. What is not cool is feeling unsafe, or as if you entered the Wild West or some over-the-top cliché hipster-ville. The hotels are vastly overpriced. The city as gone from cool to well beyond and is now completely overrated.
That said, there are a few positive qualities in Asheville. Many restaurants are committed to locally sourced, farm-to-table dishes, and serve up some great grub, like Tupelo Honey Cafe. There are several neat little shops featuring local artists and unusual goodies, and the French Broad Chocolate Lounge, which crafts the most decadent chocolates ever, is located downtown! The Basilica of Saint Lawrence is gorgeous, and the city has striking architecture! Asheville is surrounded by stunning mountain views and it’s easy to get on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a must. And there are friendly locals there, I didn’t cross paths with many of them, and I’m the kind of person who has never met a stranger. It was not what you would expect in a “tourist” town.
I’m still shocked that the shine is gone, replaced with the dull patina of a worn copper penny. All that said, I wouldn’t recommend Asheville as your destination when going to the southern North Carolina Mountains, but swinging into town for a day or an afternoon is worthwhile. Be sure to keep your head on a swivel and don’t be a clueless tourist. The city doesn’t feel safe and you should be aware of your surroundings. Take your camera! There is a lot to photograph in town, especially art and architecture. And be sure to visit the local restaurants, known for craft beer and farm-fresh food (I love Tupelo Honey for their great food and service) and the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for crazy good chocolates! (The friendliest people I met in town worked at those two locations.) It is worth spending a little bit of time in Asheville to savor these positives, however this should not be your journey’s end.