With a cooler full of pimento cheese sandwiches and juice boxes, I backed our minivan out of the driveway and began our summer road trip. This year’s destination: Asheville. We take a road trip or 2 every year, but this is one of the longer ones we’ve done.
In order to drive from Milwaukee to North Carolina, the destination had better be worth it. And let me tell you, Asheville, NC doesn’t disappoint. With plenty of kids activities, Asheville, NC is the perfect destination for a fun-filled family vacation. With a higher elevation than most Southern cities, Asheville has cooler summer temperatures and gorgeous views everywhere you look. Its mountain setting combined with sophisticated restaurants, a thriving art scene, picturesque buildings, parks and hiking trails is what makes this city so special.
Here’s how I suggest you spend a week in Asheville, North Carolina with kids:
Morning: Head to Biltmore Estate. Tour the inside of the mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt II in the late 19th century. Depending on your child’s attention span, you could spend up to 2 hours inside. After that, snap some family pictures on the south terrace overlooking the mountains. This is also a good spot for you or your partner to entertain restless little ones who need a tour break. Next, head to the expansive gardens and stroll to your heart’s content, or until you hear “I’m hungry.”
Tip: You can download a Treasure Hunt map from Biltmore Estate’s website to make the tour a bit more interesting for kids.
Lunch: Eat a casual outdoor meal at The Courtyard Market, just around the corner from the main entrance of the Biltmore House, and wander around the shops. Be forewarned, the colorful Confectionery draws kids like bees to a honeypot.
Afternoon to evening: Antler Hill Village, part of Biltmore Estate and a short drive from the mansion, has family activities aplenty. My 2-year-old never passes up a chance to pet goats, so heading to the petting zoo was a no-brainer. And who can resist watching piglets being bottle-fed? Next, we made our way to the Creamery where my 9-year-old raved about the Biltmore Sundae while live music played in the village center. If you’ve made it to dinner time, you’ll have a choice of 2 restaurants. The Biltmore winery and shops are also located here.
Morning: The beautiful North Carolina Arboretum has a little something for the whole family. We were lucky to visit during the “Making Scents” traveling exhibit (through September 3, 2018). I had to wrestle my kids for a turn at a machine that spat out scratch-and-sniff perfume cards made with our choice of top, middle, and base notes.
Tip: Kids can pick up a “Discovery Backpack” at the information desk at Baker Exhibit Center to help them explore their outdoor surroundings.
Afternoon: Spend the rest of the day at Lake Powhatan, a short drive from the Arboretum. This is a great place for a picnic and short hike. There’s also a swimming beach.
Morning: For me, no trip to Asheville is complete without a stop at Tops for Shoes, a shop my grandmother took me to every summer. It’s also a good starting point to explore landmark buildings. From Neoclassical (Flatiron Building, Kress Building) to Art Deco (The S & W Cafeteria) to Spanish Baroque (Basilica of Saint Lawrence), downtown Asheville has an elegant mix of architecture, and, yes, some kids activities, too!
Lunch: Laughing Seed Café, with outdoor seating, is a laid-back, vegetarian spot we like.
Afternoon: Get your caffeine fix at Double D’s. Housed in a double-decker bus, this coffee shop delighted my 2-year-old who immediately climbed to the funky seating area up top and hunkered down with his snack. Walk over to Pack Square Park. Kids will enjoy running through the fountains, so bring swimsuits if you’re up for that. Check in advance to find out if any free events are taking place in the park. On a rainy day, visit Asheville Pinball Museum, but keep in mind that they get busy. Unless you line up before they open, you may end up on a waiting list to get in.
Tip: We found plenty of parking at good rates at Aloft Hotel, 51 Biltmore Ave.
Take a day trip. While Chimney Rock and Cherokee are fun options, if you’re willing to drive a little further, you can explore the quaint mountain town of Highlands. The drive from Asheville takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Morning: Hike Sunset Rock. This popular and easy hike is just under a mile and offers wonderful views of the town. Next, head to nearby Highlands Nature Center where you can amble through the botanical gardens and observe native wildlife exhibits.
Afternoon: Park on Main Street in Highlands. Check out the shops and enjoy lunch at one of the several restaurants in the area. After that, if you’re up for a short, kid-friendly hike, head to Dry Falls. On your way there, be sure to drive under Bridal Veil Falls.
Morning: Spend an hour or two strolling the shady streets of Biltmore Village. My husband pushed the stroller along the bumpy brick sidewalks while my older kids and I checked out some not very toddler-friendly shops like Origami Ink and Southern Highland Craft Guild. Well Bread Café has pleasant, outdoor seating and yummy pastries.
Tip: Find abundant, free parking in the structure underneath the cluster of shops including Talbots and Williams-Sonoma on Brook Street.
Afternoon: Explore the galleries in the River Arts District. Yuzu Café (located inside a ceramics gallery) serves delicious old-fashioned Japanese shaved ice. Usher your kiddos right past the pottery and out towards the back where you’ll find picnic benches. Then, after everyone’s cooled off, take Instagram-worthy shots of the family in front of the billowing gardens out front.
Evening: Enjoy the open lawn and river views with a beer at New Belgium Brewing. We played cornhole with the kids while waiting for our food truck order. Then, after chowing down on gourmet burgers and delicious sweet potato chip nachos, we relaxed on the riverfront deck. Ah, what a pleasant end to the day.
Morning: Spend a couple of hours admiring the cougars, black bear, wolves, otters, reptiles, and other native critters at WNC Nature Center.
Tip: Ask if you qualify for free entry with your zoo or science center membership cards.
Afternoon: Go for a drive on the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, stop at the numerous lookouts, have a picnic and hike a trail.
Tip: Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, Milepost 384 (near the Nature Center), is staffed with rangers, has a large interactive, digital map, and a 1.4-mile loop trail.
Dinner: We loved White Duck Taco. The Arden location is a feast for the eyes and bellies. Home to dozens of ducks of the plastic variety, this quirky indoor/outdoor eatery has space for kids who like to move around. By now, you might have noticed our preference for eating al fresco. I find outdoor acoustics perfect for muffling the sound of dropping silverware and the occasional screech.
Morning: Drive to Black Mountain (a 20-minute drive from downtown) and poke around cute shops like Sassafras on Sutton for books and Town Hardware for retro toys. Take pictures at the rail car outside Old Depot Arts and Crafts.
Afternoon: My Father’s Pizza has pleasant outdoor seating. After lunch, we grabbed coffee around the corner at Dripolator. Complete your excursion with a walk along Lake Tomahawk Park where you’ll find beautiful views and a playground.
Have you been to Asheville? Comment below on your favorites.
Vanessa Tsumura is a mom to 3 seasoned travelers ages 9, 8 and 2. From camping trips in their home state of Wisconsin to adventures in China, Vanessa and her family are always looking forward to their next adventure.