Mini Travel Guide: Asheville, NC

Some of my best travel memories as a kid who grew up in the unrelenting summer heat of India, are of visiting the hill stations near my hometown of Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The trips were usually planned haphazardly with my parents’ sudden announcement during dinner that it was just too hot to be in the city. Phone calls would be made to their friends, bags would be packed in a rush, and come dawn, we would all pile up like sardines in our gray Ambassador and head towards the promising cool temps of the mountains.

Funny enough, with the recent heat wave plastering the East Coast, it almost felt like I was back in the motherland. So escape we did, as we channeled my parents’ wanderlust, and packed the mini-van for a one-night adventure to the beautiful hill station of Asheville, North Carolina. And given how much fun we had at the Conrad Hotel in Washington D.C., we decided to make THE FOUNDRY HOTEL – also part of Hilton’s Curio Collection – our Asheville HQ.

The Foundry Hotel at night.

Located in the historic Block neighborhood of Downtown Asheville, the FOUNDRY used to be a steel manufacturing facility in the late 1800s. Built around the same time as when Geogre Vanderbilt started construction on the Biltmore mansion, the Asheville Supply & Foundry Co, as it was called then, produced steel for the Vanderbilt estate as well as many other buildings in the area. In other words, the FOUNDRY is not fancy just for fancy’s sake, but because its history pops-up in hundreds of tiny detail right alongside the uber modern touches that make it such an inviting hotel. It’s the kinda stuff that really gets me excited! : )

One of the staircases inside the hotel.
The courtyard.
Workshop Lounge

I spent my 20s travelling and staying in hostels – an experience I wouldn’t trade for the fanciest of fancy hotels. These days however, one might say that I’ve gone a little soft. The allure of roughing it is not my first choice when we travel with kids. And of course, the definition of “roughing it” varies from experience to experience. For instance, I am thrilled to pitch a tent and go camping, or stay at a goat farm which we did not too long ago, or rent a home when we are traveling as a group, or sleep on an air mattress when we are visiting friends like we did during our roadtrip to Maine this past April. I guess what I am trying to say is that whenever our budget allows, I love to look beyond the basic (not that anything is wrong with that) and splurge on a fancy hotel that, you know, comes with a butler, and Champagne, and room service, and unlimited Nespressos in my room (all of which make the parent in me feel like a rested queen). Some people spend $500 on a dress or a bottle of wine or shoes, for me, I like to treat myself to a nice hotel every once in a while. ; )

Mid-air shot of Arjun flying from bed to bed.
As a general travel rule, whenever someone takes a mid-morning nap in the room, the rest of us go hang out in a fun public space nearby. At the FOUNDRY we didn’t even have to go that far. Arjun being the resident puzzle master in the family, put together a 100-piece puzzle in the courtyard, in between playing with Asha and Arjun, and tiny dinasoures and pretending the lawn was their jungle.
Artisanal Milk anyone?

The FOUNDRY pretty much nailed all my expectations, first and foremost of which was the location. We were in Asheville for just one night afterall, and it was important that we stay where we didn’t have to drive to get around. Being the coffee lovers that we are, we also discovered that one of Asheville’s best coffee shops, PennyCup Coffee is right adjacent to the FOUNDRY. It’s the shop with umbrellas when you look at the courtyard pictures above.

PennyCup’s downtown location on Market St. adjacent to the FOUNDRY.
Fun art work and board games made PennyCup a great spot to linger.
The cutest muffin thief.
My breakfast of cappuccino and a blueberry-granola parfait.
PennyCup Coffee

Even though it is just under 250 miles west of Raleigh, Asheville has a very distinct personality that makes one feel like they are far far away. I read somewhere that back in the day people often referred to Asheville as the “Paris of the Southeast”. Which is not at all surprising given that you can wander all day long going from art gallery to art gallery, to breweries and coffee shops, to mom and pop stores and restaurants, to public plazas with musicians, all with the backdrop of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains (which I suppose Paris can’t claim in return).

The sheer variety of architectural styles makes walking around downtown Asheville a lot of fun. From the Grove Arcade Public Market which resembles one of Paris’ historic passages like Passage des Panoramas, to the Art Deco city hall, to the Spanish Borque towers on St. Lawrence Cathedral, there is a lot to see and admire. One of the reasons why all of this has survived for this long is because the Great Depression of the 1930s left Asheville too poor to afford the urban renewal of the 50s and 60s experienced by most other cities in the U.S. So the old stayed. And the fact that all of it is located within a compact downtown, (just steps from our hotel), made it easily accessible. I would go as far as saying that there is really no need for a stroller.

Back Yard of the St. Lawrence Cathedral
Downtown views from Pack Square Park
Roger McGuire Green
The Flat Iron sculptor by Reed Todd, right off Wall Street’s hustle and bustle.

One of our favorite public spaces in Asheville, especially if you are with kids, is the Pack Square Park and the Roger McGuire Green right behind it near the Biltmore Ave and College St. intersection. We loved the animal sculptures in Pack Square; Ajay made friends with the piglet and was happy to stay put for as long as we’d let him. Buskers are a common sight here too. The Roger McGuire Green a few steps away has a performance stage, an expansive lawn to people watch and run around, and best of all, a splash pad to keep things cool in the summer. We forgot to pack an extra set of clothes but it was nice to just pop into our hotel a couple of blocks away and get changed before heading back out.

Pack Square Park
Pack Square Park
The piglet and Ajay in Pack Square Park
Splash pad at Roger McGuire Green
Roger McGuire Green
Playing around outside Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
The very colorful building for Hi-Wire Brewing
One of the entrances to the Grove Park Arcade Public Market
The Battery Park bookstore on the left there in the Grove Park Arcade is a used bookstore + Champagne bar worth checking out if not with wiggly kids.
Grove Park Arcade

One needs to grow another stomach while visiting Asheville because there are so many great restaurants serving really amazing food (and beer too). Our personal favorites from this trip included a delicious lunch at the colorful and quirky White Duck Taco Shop and four-time James Beard Nominated Chef Meherwan Irani’s Chai Pani (took me right back to my childhood favorites!), and an A++ dinner at Rhubarb. Making reservations at Rhubard ahead of time is highly recommended but we got lucky and snagged an early-for-others-but-just-right-for-kids dinner time.

White Duck Taco Shop
White Duck Taco Shop
Posing for Asha outside Rhubarb
Asha talking to one of the chefs in the open kitchen.
In the 5-minutes they chatted, she filled her in on every detail about her life, from best friends, to favorite colors, to summer plans. I love the effortless ramblings of a 6-year-old.
Meanwhile, Ajay basically tried to climb over to the other side.
I was fascinated by the old layers of plaster on the back wall of Rhubarb!
The nightly fish special.
Daddy playing booster seat.
Lunch at Chai Pani
Every single thing we ordered at Chai Pani was basically a blast from my childhood past
The Kid’s menu is very approachable even for the pickiest eaters.

One of the things I tend to do when we travel is look up public library locations and events for that specific city. The Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville is a good place to make a pitstop should you need some rest with the littles. There is a very nice children’s section in the lower level with a small play area and crafts. But what caught my attention this time around was their Hollering: Farm Calls from Rural North Carolina event which, from the discription, seemed like a really cool thing to do with kids. I imagined a room full of children hollering and making animal noises. How fun I thought! Until of course when we showed up and it was a HUGE room filled with mostly all adults, hollering and learning about the oldest form of human communication. It was my only-in-Asheville moment for sure!

Hollering at the Pack Memorial Public Library
Old Europe Pastries
Old Europe Pastries
Strawberry Mousse Cake
Black Forest Cake

What’s a vacation without a proper dessert stop and for our final activity before bedtime, we picked Old Europe Coffee and Pastries on Broadway St. It’s a small shop but we snagged a table outside to eat our cakes and people watch. When we finally got back to our room, content with all we had seen, done, and eaten, we found a thermus of herbal tea laid out on the bed. Devang and I aren’t tea people but it tasted so good and considering that we all slept well, it worked it’s chamomile-peppermint-lavendar-rose-petals magic too. aaaahh…fancy hotels I love your surprises.

Playing around in Pack Square

Once everyone was bathed and asleep, I slipped away to catch up on some work in the FOUNDRY’s Workshop lounge which had so many cozy nooks to get lost in. One of my travel wishes would be for hotels like this one to invent really long-ranged baby monitors so that once the kids are asleep, the parents can slip away for a night cap in the lounge. How fun would that be?

After a restful night, the one thing left on our agenda for the next day was to explore the River Arts District, or RAD for short. Located along the French Broad River, about 1.5 miles south of the downtown area, RAD is Asheville’s creative hub where former industrial warehouses and buildings now host an array of artist studios, workshops, galleries, and restaurants (Don’t miss it!). We bummed a ride in the FOUNDRY’s Tesla Model X (a nice perk I must say) and walked around, going in and out of different studios. Watching a live class in glass blowing at the North Carolina Glass Center and watching a potter play around with clay on the potter’s wheel were two of our favorite surprises. We brought the stroller this time since we had planned to walk back to our hotel once we finished our walk around RAD. In hindsight, the road back was not scenic enough to make pushing a stroller uphill worth it in the heat. Call an uber instead.

FOUNDRY’s Tesla Model X and our very kind chauffeur
Glass blowing at North Carolina Glass Center in RAD
Artist studios in RAD
One of the pottery studios in RAD
More gallery strolling

And with that, our 24-hours in Asheville were up! We bid farewell to the wonderful hotel staff and started our drive back home to Raleigh. We had come with a simple goal: to hang out, have fun, and recharge our batteries. I think we more than succeeded in our mission. I love how Asheville is one of those towns where you can just show up without any plans and still have a blast. Our pre-planning was limited to booking a room at The FOUNDRY Hotel and leaving the rest for when we arrived.

Which brings me to my final thoughts: Parents, if traveling with your young kids without going crazy is your life goal, start by booking a nice hotel. It takes the edge off the early mornings and tantrums which don’t necessarily go away during vacations. You will always be in a spot-on location. And I bet, you will appreciate every little pampering surprise that comes your way!

Thank you for indulging me and following along our travels. I’d love to hear about your Asheville favorites too so that I can add them to my list for next time. This post from 4-years ago mentions my other favorites in Asheville that didn’t make it on the list this time. So much to see, so little time! Happy Travels.

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