Twenty years ago, my husband and I went to a wedding in Asheville and just had time to explore the inside of the Biltmore House. This spring break, we decided to give our daughters, 10 and 14, a chance to see the Biltmore, explore its beautiful grounds, and discover the other attractions in Asheville. At www.exploreasheville.com, you can request a free guide to the area.
Asheville is an eight hour drive from Washington, D.C. We broke up the trip with a barbecue dinner at Firehouse Restaurant in Johnson City, Tennessee. Note: Make sure to bring some gum for the drive, as the high altitude might make your ears pop.
The crown jewel of Asheville is the Biltmore Estate, built for George Washington Vanderbilt. It was completed in 1895 by architect Richard Morris Hunt. With its 250 rooms, this French chateau-style mansion is the largest private residence in the country. You can save money by ordering tickets at least a week in advance online or calling 800-411-3812. Rates seem to vary with the season and some days there are special prices. Many area hotels will also sell you tickets in advance and give you a second consecutive day for $1 extra rather than $10 extra you can get on site at the Biltmore. Our tickets were $60 per adult and $30 each for the kids. Children 9 and under are free. You can also buy your tickets on-site. Admission includes a self-guided tour of the mansion, access to the grounds, an exhibition on The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad in Antler Hill Village (and access to the village), the farm, and a tour of the winery with a free wine tasting.
The estate is so huge that you take a shuttle bus to it from the parking lot. Note: Take a restroom break at the Stables or Conservatory or a snack break before entering the mansion. It takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours to see the entire mansion and there are no restrooms inside. You follow a strict circuit so it may be difficult to get outside quickly if you have a young child. Because of the high price of admission, we chose to take a self-guided tour using the free booklet available with brief descriptions of the rooms and vignettes about the family. The self-guided tour allows you to see 40 rooms including all the public rooms on the first floor, the Edith and George’s quarters, some guest rooms and the basement. Docents stationed in some of the rooms are happy to answer any questions.
Audio tours are $10 each. A kid’s version is narrated by the Vanderbilt’s St. Bernard Cedric. Special tours are available for $17-19 per person. These tours give you access to a few additional rooms.
The first room you enter is the Winter Conservatory with a central fountain and beautiful flowers. Next, you move on to the Billiard Hall with stuffed animal heads. The impressive Banquet Hall has a seven-story ceiling and 15th century Flemish tapestries. The more intimate Breakfast Room boasts two Renoir paintings. The library has 23,000 volumes and a ceiling mural of the “The Chariot of Aurora” which was once in the Pisani Palace of Venice.
On the second floor, you will see the private living quarters of the George and his wife Edith. George’s bedroom features a Portuguese 17th century walnut bed. The third floor has a number of guest rooms. My older daughter’s favorite room was the Tyrolean Chimney Room with its 18th century Swiss porcelain rose tiles. My younger daughter loved the Louis XV bedroom, where Edith gave birth to their daughter Cornelia.
The cavernous basement features a 70 thousand gallon indoor pool, a bowling alley, a gymnasium, and dressing room. The basement also includes the servants’ domain — three separate kitchens (main, rotisserie, and pastry), pantries, a laundry and drying room, and servants’ quarters.
There is always a special exhibition. Through May 25, you can view the costumes of Downton Abbey scattered throughout the mansion.
For lunch, you have a choice of the Courtyard Market (sandwiches, salads, and a hot dog kids meal), Bake Shop (slightly more expensive sandwiches and salads), ice cream, or a more upscale dining experience at the Stable Cafe. The Stables has two upscale souvenir shops, a confectionary, and a toy store. There are more restaurants at Antler Hill Village.
The Gardens and Grounds
Next we explored the vast gardens and grounds, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted was the landscape architect responsible for our National Zoo, Central Park, and the U.S. Capitol grounds. The Italian Garden right outside the mansion has statues and three water gardens with koi.
The walled garden (pictured to the right) was spectacular with a seasonal display of tulips, pansies, and daffodils. My younger daughter had a field day taking photos. The conservatory, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, contains gorgeous displays of orchids, ferns, and palms. Live harp music lent to the magical atmosphere. We skipped the rose and azalea gardens because they were not yet in bloom and the Bass Pond, which has a few trails.
Note: Bring a water bottle with you. Water fountains are not turned on until the spring and were not working while we were there.
Antler Hill Village
We took the shuttle bus back to our car and drove to the Antler Hill Village. Go to the farthest end of the parking lot if you just want to go to the farm. On the way to the farm, we noted the Pisgah playground with a slide and sandbox. The 1900 Barn is open daily from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. Farm equipment dating from the 1890s to 1900s is on display. Our kids took a photo opportunity on a tractor. An inviting lawn has games such as cup and ball, bean bag toss, jump rope, and graces. Graces is one of my older daughter’s favorite games. You can create your own with the wood-only part of an embroidery hoop and two sticks. If the weather is bad, younger kids can play games inside in a large playroom with a play barn, dolls, and a cradle. This area has a snack bar and a general store.
The highlight of our entire day was a blacksmith demonstration by Doc William Cudd, Jr. Instead of a plain nail, Mr. Cudd created a beautiful, veined, and curved leaf out of iron before our eyes. His knowledge and love of the craft were infectious. Woodworking is also demonstrated daily. You might also see demonstrations of spinning, rug hooking, or other crafts.
We then walked down to the farmyard where we were lucky enough to see seven kids (as in baby goats). The girls were thrilled to hold a baby rooster.
Antler Hill Village is a very attractive shopping and dining area. A sculpture of Cornelia and her dog Cedric makes a good photo opportunity. My younger daughter desperately wanted to take a Segway tour through the Outdoor Adventure Center but was too young by three years and too light. The center also offers raft and kayaking trips, sporting clays, wagon rides, carriage rides, and horseback riding at an additional fee. We ran through the exhibition The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad, which had some interesting background about George, Edith, and Cornelia and a short introductory film. Noteworthy artifacts included a 1926 Harley Davidson, Napoleon’s chess set and games table, and stained glass by John La Farge.
We then rushed through the self-guided winery tour. The kids were welcomed and treated to a large glass of grape juice while my husband and I sampled some surprisingly good and affordable wine. The girls enjoyed the free samples of pretzels and lemonade at the wine shop.
We were at the Biltmore Estate from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It was a long but satisfying day. You may wish to pay the additional $1 at your hotel or $10 on site for a second consecutive day so you can be more leisurely. In addition, you would not want to miss the grounds in case of inclement weather. Sometimes our daughters are bored touring historic homes, but the Biltmore’s rooms were so varied and lavish that they held the girls’ interest. Children of any age will love the grounds.
Other Places to Visit
The following day held a chance of thundershowers so we explored the sights of funky downtown Asheville – mainly shopping and eating. We visited the Grove Arcade, a shopping center built in 1929, which had a gem and mineral shop, a craft shop, and a very inviting secondhand bookstore. A couple of blocks away, Woolworth Walk, an old Woolworth building, exhibits the work of 160 local artists. It also has an old fashioned soda fountain.
On the opposite side of town, we visited the small Colburn Earth Science Museum, which had scavenger hunts for all ages. We concluded our day with a visit to the Omini Grove Park Inn, which has the largest collection of Arts and Crafts furniture in the world, as well as a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We arrived too late to visit the Inn’s museums of crafts and antique cars.
As usual, we visited every chocolate shop possible. Chocolate Fetish had delicious, classic truffles and molded chocolates shaped like boots and high heels. We took a break at Kilwin’s, which specializes in fudge, caramel apples, and ice cream. Mast General Store boasts 500 kinds of old fashioned candy. French Broad Chocolate has three parts. The chocolate store has an artisan chocolate bar library, where you can ask for samples of any bars before purchasing. The girls had some gelato there and my husband and I sampled their exotic truffles based on world flavors. Next door is the Chocolate Lounge, a very popular dessert spot with hot chocolate and chocolate desserts. The French Broad Chocolate Factory is a hike away. We chose to take a self-guided tour and sampled their chocolates afterwards.
We stayed at the Brookstone Lodge, which was 10 minutes from the Biltmore. A double room was $104 a night including taxes. It has a small exercise room, an indoor pool, and hot tub. The rate includes a complimentary breakfast each morning. One side note: Visitors traveling with their dogs will find Asheville especially friendly and accommodating. Some restaurants invite dogs into their outdoor cafes and many have water dishes.
The dining scene is a big part of Asheville and we have a few recommendations.
- Biscuithead – a great place for breakfast with a bar of 15 kinds of butters and jams.
- Tupelo Honey (a branch soon to open in Arlington, Virginia) – Southern-style cooking, great kids menu, long wait times, very popular.
- Mayfel’s – New Orleans style cuisine, great desserts. Right next door to Tupelo Honey.
- Modesto Wood Fired Pizza in the Grove Arcade.
Had we had more time, there was lots more to see and do. On our wish list were the Botanical Garden of Asheville, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, the North Carolina Arboretum, the Pinball Museum, Sliding Rock, a natural water slide, and the Folk Art Center — maybe another time.
Photos courtesy of the Meyer Family.