By Rachel Hoeing

When was the last time you visited Asheville, NC? In the past 10 years, Asheville has been named the Happiest City in America (Self Magazine), Best Mountain Destination (Southern Living), and Best Southern Town (Outside Magazine). It was also noted among the Most Beautiful Places in America by Good Morning America. The Hunger Games were filmed near Asheville, and both President Obama and Anthony Bourdain are occasional visitors there, sampling the local restaurants. And this time of year can be an absolutely gorgeous time to visit!

Just hop on I-40 and head west. That’s it! You’ll take I-240W to get into town, wherever your chosen destination may be. There are actually five areas of Asheville and although it’s not a huge place, there is a ton to do in each area. One of the most popular areas is Historic Biltmore Village, just outside the entrance to Biltmore. Biltmore was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895, and Biltmore Village reflects that period. Pebbled streets, English-style cottages, art galleries, and fantastic shops and restaurants are all at your fingertips, along with multiple places to stay. We could spend an entire weekend just at the Biltmore Estate, so visit the website to get the skinny on the holiday happenings at the estate!

In town, Asheville is noted by compass points: north, south, east and west. North Asheville is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, and is the home of the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Beaver Lake is nearby and is gorgeous! There are some super local restaurants in this area. South Asheville is more residential and a bit more modern. East Asheville is probably the most family-friendly area from a neighborhood standpoint, and is also the front door to the artistic and creative communities of Black Mountain and Swannanoa. West Asheville is more eclectic, filled with River District artists and creative entrepreneurs.

Finally, there’s Downtown Asheville, which is where I’ll focus today. Asheville Independent Retaurants summarizes it perfectly: “Downtown Asheville is a vibrant, happening city center filled with shops, galleries, performance spaces, live music, and terrific people-watching.” (And, of course, fabulous restaurants.) Downtown is nestled at the meeting of two rivers, and features 50+ restaurants and 9 brewing companies. In fact, for those who are interested, Asheville was named Beer City for 3 years in a row, with eleven craft breweries in the area. We’ll save this topic, plus the Brews Cruise, for our grown-up getaways post down the road.

Back to Downtown: there are always tons of events near Pack Square Park, including local music and craft fairs. The Four Points Sheraton is a family friendly location near downtown, and there is a new, ultra-modern hotel called Aloft that opened in September. If you want to do a unique boutique, Hotel Indigo is the perfect choice. For stays longer than a day or two, there are many cabins and cottages available to rent in the area. Explore Asheville.com has a comprehensive list of lodging options here.

Even without festivals and special events, Downtown hosts many local galleries and unique shops. This is a perfect place to get up in the morning, hit one of the many local coffee houses, and sip while the kids play in the park. City Bakery is the perfect stop for beverages, plus breakfast breads or a home-baked pastry. Once you’re done snacking, take a walk along the downtown Urban Trail, which features 1.7 miles of historic architecture and local heritage. This trail has been called Asheville’s museum without walls, and you can download a trail map here to guide you along the way. Remember to pack for the season and dress in layers.

Another option is the River Arts District. Artists are abundant here and you can find unique items for yourself or gift ideas! You will find ceramics, painting, photography, fiber arts, metal and woodworking. You will find over 100 galleries and artist studios in this area. There are plenty of additional places for holiday shopping, which you can view here and here.

This time of year you will also find the Holiday Bazaar at UNC-A campus on weekends in December.

When you are ready for lunch or dinner, there are many casual dining spots around, but we love the outdoor terrace at  Creperie Bouchon. You may also want to check out Mamacitas on Biltmore Ave – they focus on local and sustainable ingredients, and the menu is an interesting mix of mexican and southern US styles. Other notables: Tupelo Honey Cafe (southern influenced cuisine) and Strada (italian). If you’ve spent the morning outdoors, perhaps hiking one of the many area trails or exploring Chimney Rock State Park, you will enjoy a pick me up at  the French Broad Chocolate lounge. Do not miss a liquid truffle hot sipping chocolate…I can’t even explain it. Go. Now.

I could go on and on, but I’d rather just go. You should too! There are so many great online resources to help you plan the perfect trip, whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a festival seeker, or just a prowl-arounder. The official city website iswww.Asheville.com, and www.ExploreAsheville.com is another wonderful resource.

Enjoy your trip and share your favorite Asheville spots with us by commenting below!