A travel essay about Asheville, North Carolina by James Bonner

Discover Asheville, NC: A Hidden Gem of Creative Communities, Vibrant Arts, and Natural Beauty

When I was young, I never thought about how a place might have communities within communities; I recognized the music and art scenes and I saw the same faces at most of the performances and markets because I was a part of these communities. It never occurred to me there might be other such communities of interest and people walking these same streets. I discovered this fairly quickly after moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

And beyond that, I learned that some of these communities weren’t limited to city limits but extended beyond state lines and time zones. There are hints of such communities in books like The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951) and On the Road (Kerouac, 1957). Hobos drawn to a life of “freedom,” often camp in the same towns between riding the rails. These communities include medical professionals who travel between hospitals on short-term assignments, migrant workers, motorcycle clubs, food trucks, sailing enthusiasts, and buskers (street performers).

Living in Santa Fe, I started talking to and making friends with a number of the buskers who sold their art from blankets spread over the grass in the plaza, musicians playing the saxophone, violin, and guitar on street corners, jugglers, living statues, flow artists and mimes, and I learned about these cities and towns that buskers visit and return to year after year. Places like Santa Fe, New Mexico, Sedona, Arizona, Boulder, Colorado, New Orleans, Louisiana, Eugene, Oregon, and Asheville, North Carolina.

Asheville, North Carolina is an amazing community. Nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains, with a surprisingly rich history, vibrant music, and art scenes, great little coffee shops, and the opportunity for remarkable experiences, it remains a hidden treasure in an otherwise restless East Coast state.

Settled in the mid-1780s, Asheville’s history echoes through its architecture and culture. From the Biltmore Estate to the gorgeous Montford neighborhood, nearly every corner of Asheville whispers tales of a bygone era. Asheville remained relatively untouched, although split by the Civil War contributing to both the Northern and Southern armies. When the railroad arrived in 1880 the population of Asheville began to increase steadily; today the population is just over 90,000.

Although a relatively small community, you could spend weeks in Asheville and barely scratch the surface. The River Arts District alone holds tremendous intrigue. A former industrial area turned art hub, with over 200 studios, galleries, and restaurants in converted warehouses and factories, and visiting the River Arts District during the First Fridays Art Walks you’ll experience a monthly festival of street food, open studios, exhibitions, and live music.

Asheville is a mecca for artists and musicians, drawing creative souls from all over the world, together with buskers that make Asheville their temporary home usually in the late summers. Asheville has a strong music community which is only elevated by music festivals such as LEAF Festival, Asheville Jazz Festival, AVL Fest, Riverfest, and River Music. The city’s music scene is lively and spontaneous, with roots in bluegrass, jazz, rock, indie, punk, soul, garage, R&B, metal, and surf genres. The notable point here is that for you to visit Asheville and not completely immerse yourself in the arts and music scene would be an accomplishment—a pointless and stupid one, but an accomplishment all the same.  

I’m a practical foodie, which is to say that I appreciate good food when I find it, but I’m not snobbish and overly particular. With that said, a great missed opportunity would be to visit Asheville, North Carolina, and eat any meal anywhere but the independent, locally owned, often farm-to-table, restaurants, and food trucks. There is no reason to eat anywhere but a local, independently-owned restaurant (unless it’s your kitchen), but Asheville makes this more true and very easy.

The food is outstanding! While in Asheville The Market Place, Isa’s Bistro, and the Blackbird are must-tries. And if you’ve been reading me, you know how I feel about a place and its coffee. There’s a relationship between inspiring art, good music, a great view, and a well-balanced cup of coffee (or tea); if there’s meaning in life beyond this I have yet to discover it. You’ll want to visit: Green Sage, PennyCup, Vortex, Ultra Coffee Bar, Rite Rite, and Old Europe coffee shops throughout Asheville.

Grab a cup and stroll through Asheville City Market, one of the farmer’s markets, and then get out and explore the unspeakable beauty of the surrounding natural environment, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Pisgah National Forest, DuPont State Forest, Chimney Rock State Park, Gorges State Park, and Grandfather Mountain, the limitless hikes, bike rides, waterfalls, and wildlife, genuinely will leave you breathless. My favorite short hike is Rainbow Falls at Gorges State Park.

Asheville, North Carolina, is a tapestry of communities within communities, each thread weaving together to create a rich and eclectic fabric. Everyone from the buskers and musicians to the foodies and artists, everyone contributes to the flavor of the city’s cultural gumbo. And yet, despite its many attractions, Asheville remains a hidden gem for those willing to venture off the beaten path. Come and experience it for yourself—immerse yourself in the arts and music, savor the local flavors, and breathe in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. In Asheville, you’ll find a community that leaves you feeling inspired, energized, and forever changed.

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