Asheville (www.exploreasheville.com) is a funky, cultured, gastronomically sublime alt-universe whose laid-back vibe filters through the mountains that ring it and infuses smaller arts-and-crafts havens nearby, like Black Mountain, Swannanoa and Weaverville.
Heres where to get a satisfying taste:
River Arts District: As downtown Asheville gentrified over the past 15 years, artists found themselves priced out of their loft studios and many relocated to this warehouse district a little to the west, above the French Broad River. Artists and artisans here work in media that range from painting to pottery, fiber to photography the works. More than 100 artists now have studios here. Studio strolls take place every June and November. (www.riverartsdistrict.com)
Downtown dining: Theres quite an array of fantastic restaurants, including locovore-oriented Tupelo Honey (www.tupelohoneycafe.com), Mela Indian Restaurant (www.melaasheville.com), French comfort food at Bouchon French Bistro (www.ashevillebouchon.com) and Zambra (www.zambratapas.com), a nifty Iberian tapas-and-wine place tucked away on Walnut Street.
Need a sampler? Asheville Food Tours take you to seven to 10 great downtown eateries for $39 per person. (www.ashevillefoodtours.com)
Get a clear handle on Ashevilles downtown elevation changes and compact nature at The Laughing Seed Café (www.laughingseed.com) on Wall Street. After enjoying the vegetarian cuisine, go down a hall and down the stairs to enter the back of Jack of the Wood (www.jackofthewood.com) same building, but a floor below and facing Patten Avenue for live evening music. You may hear anything from bluegrass to Celtic to Cajun.
The Thirsty Monk on Patton Avenue is well worth a stop: The specialty at the two-story pub is the 60-odd selections of imported Belgian beer fantastic suds, some with hair-curling kick and other fine brews on tap and in bottles. Cant decide what to order? Ask an easy-to-spot staffer: They wear medieval cassocks. (www.monkpub.com )
Sample suds at micro-breweries. And Asheville has more than 10. If youre up for a tasting, you cant beat Highland Brewing (www.highlandbrewing.com): Its tasting room is open 4-8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with live music starting at 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Highlands specialty is ales; theyre remarkable.
Or, just take a Brews Cruise walking or van tour of the citys craft breweries. ($45; www.brewscruise.com/asheville)
Lazoom Bus Tours will show you all the historic and otherwise noteworthy spots in town. In a purple bus. With the accent on comedy. With characters jumping on and off including a guy decked out as a nun and who does fire-eating tricks. ($23; www.lazoomtours.com)
The Asheville Urban Trail is a self-guided 1.7-mile walk that starts in front of Pack Square (get a map there) and takes you through both the beautiful downtown and the citys history.
Bele Chere (www.belecherefestival.com) is Ashevilles biggest street event July 27-29 this year and the downtown streets are studded with stages offering all-day music. Add to the mix booths selling arts and crafts, several outdoor food areas and amazing street performers.
A major hurdle is getting a room reasonably close to the fun, though shuttle buses run fest-goers to stops in suburban parking lots.