How a Little Town in the Blue Ridge Mountains Became a Popular Tourism Destination

When you visit Asheville, North Carolina, it just feels different from most cities. In a time when many cities have ripped out and built over historic buildings, Asheville is studded with architectural gems that still sparkle with Gilded Age and Art Deco charm. Instead of chain restaurants and big-box stores, Asheville’s downtown features locally owned eateries, art galleries, and shops.

And now, Asheville is dubbed a top tourism getaway in the Southeast, the No. 1 food destination in the U.S., and one of the 15 best U.S. cities. But our mountain town wasn’t always this way.

The Early Days of Asheville

Let’s run through a quick history of the city of Asheville.

  • In the 1880s, a young aristocrat from New York named George Vanderbilt visited Asheville with his mother to see what he described later as the most beautiful place in the world. He purchased 125,000 acres and eventually constructed what is now America’s largest private residence—the Biltmore estate.
  • As the 20th century approached, Asheville’s economic growth exploded. Architects Richard Sharpe Smith, Douglas Ellington, and Ronald Greene designed buildings that would, one day, augment Asheville’s diverse city center.
  • During the early 1920s, dignitaries and celebrities from throughout the world ventured to Asheville in search of sweet Appalachian air. This included famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who enjoyed the luxury of the Omni Grove Park Inn along with presidents and other statesmen, as well as Thomas Wolfe, who came home to visit.
  • But the depression in the mid-1930s brought financial devastation to the Asheville area from which it was slow to recover. Asheville city fathers decided to pay back every dime of the city’s debts, which meant the city had little to no money to invest in urban restoration until 1977 when their debt was paid in full.

This commitment to debt repayment saved dozens of Art Deco buildings erected during the city’s boom decades earlier. Asheville’s leaders inadvertently encouraged smaller, unique, locally owned businesses to locate in scores of half-empty buildings instead of chains, franchises, and malls. And with that, a new ambiance emerged in Asheville. Read more about the history of Asheville.

The Current Days of Asheville

Asheville has recently invested millions of dollars in new construction and renovation to bring the district back, all while continuing to save the many classic buildings that contribute to the architectural diversity of downtown Asheville.

And now that priority has been given to locally-owned small businesses, the eclectic options for food, drink, entertainment, recreation, and retailers continue to increase. Let’s go through some of the highlights that make Asheville a popular tourist destination.

  • Asheville refers to its culinary culture as Foodtopia, which it says is a “community of culinary collaborators crafting an experience to nurture your soul.” And it’s true. Chefs here use organic, locally grown food in dishes that foodies can’t experience anywhere else.
  • Asheville is also a four-time winner of the annual Beer City USA poll. Our beer scene even garnered the attention of Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing, both of which have established East Coast homes in the area. Now, Asheville is home to more than 50 craft breweries in the area.
  • With three mountain ranges and two rivers converging near our city, there seems to be an endless supply of the great outdoors to explore here. You can drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, float down the French Broad River, and hike to waterfalls in the Pisgah National Forest all on the same day.
  • Asheville is also a top destination for spas, massage, and holistic wellness. Considered by many as the New Age Mecca of the East, people have traveled to our western North Carolina mountains as a place of healing themselves for centuries.

The relaxed vibe and gorgeous scenery of Asheville make people keep coming back. And while the city’s history can take a lot of the credit, there’s still so much to learn about how Asheville continues to make the top lists.

Asheville is the ultimate tourism success story in the southeast, and we have hands-on experience growing our mountain town to where it is today. Learn more at the DIY Tourism and Local Marketing Workshop on November 14-15. Buy your ticket today.