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The Pop Traveler: Ten reasons to visit Asheville, N.C.!

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3/21/2012 - The Pop Traveler: Ten reasons to visit Asheville, N.C.!
by Jeremy Brett Carter for USA Today

Note: In the Pop Traveler, readers name their city's favorite pop-culture hot spots/events. Wanna write about your town? Holler at popcandy@usatoday.com.

By Jeremy Brett Carter, Special Correspondent for Pop Candy

Asheville, N.C., consistently receives accolades for its quality of life. In the past 10 years alone, it has been named the "Happiest City in America" by Self magazine, "Best Mountain Destination" in Southern Living, "Best Southern Town" in Outside magazine and among the "Most Beautiful Places in America" by Good Morning America. If you find yourself heading this way, here are a a few pop-culture-themed ways to check out our city:

1. Live music. Asheville's music scene has gained a national reputation. For starters, The Orange Peel Social Aid & Pleasure Club was named one of the best rock venues in the nation by Rolling Stone. Smashing Pumpkins did a nine-day residency there, and other acts have included Bob Dylan, Beastie Boys, Blondie, Ice Cube and Cyndi Lauper. The Avett Brothers recorded Emotionalism at Echo Mountain Recording Studio, which also has hosted Dierks Bentley, Band of Horses and other acclaimed musicians.

Beyond that, Asheville has loads of local musicians who not only play regularly at venues throughout town, but also tour the USA and abroad. You'll discover everything from gypsy punk (Sirius.B) to noir pop (stephaniesid) and garage pop (The Mad Tea) to psycho-cabaret (Hellblinki).

2. ...And even more live music. Electronic music pioneer and Moog synthesizer inventor Bob Moog lived in Asheville for many years until his death in 2005. Last year Moog Music, which he founded, moved into a newly renovated building downtown. In addition, the Moogfest electronic music festival draws the genre's top names to town. In its first two years, it hosted acts such as Moby, Brian Eno, The Flaming Lips, St. Vincent, Girl Talk and Massive Attack.

3. Hollywood in the mountains. Hollywood has visited the area area several times, most recently to film a little movie called The Hunger Games. The massive 250-room French château-inspired home at Biltmore Estate has served as a filming location for many movies, including Hannibal, Richie Rich and -- my favorite -- 1980's Private Eyes, starring Tim Conway and Don Knotts. The climax of Last of the Mohicans was filmed at Chimney Rock Park, while Dirty Dancing was filmed at Lake Lure.

 

Downtown Asheville.

 

4. Celebrity spotting. Speaking of Hollywood, celebrity sightings are such a regular occurrence that #ashevilleTMZ is a popular, tongue-in-cheek hashtag among local Twitterers. Andie MacDowell is a resident and active with several local charities, and it's not uncommon to bump into her at the grocery store or a restaurant. Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov't Mule spent his childhood here, and each year his Christmas Jam sees an amazing array of musicians playing together at the civic center in a benefit for Habitat for Humanity.

Other celebrities spotted on occasion include residents Gladys Knight and Harry Anderson; native Paul Schneider; Zach Galifianakis, who was born in Wilkesboro; and James Franco, who's in a Master's program at Warren Wilson College. There also are regular reports of celebrities in town either for work or pleasure, with recent examples including Colin Farrell, Sandra Oh and Dave Chappelle.

5. Beer City, USA. Asheville has been named Beer City, USA three years in a row. The area is home to 11 craft breweries, and Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada recently announced plans to open a brewery just south of Asheville. One of the best ways to try the local brews is via the Brews Cruise, which takes guests on a bus to area breweries for behind-the-scenes tours and tastings. If you're in the Southeast, you can likely find our beers in restaurants and stores. Keep an eye out for brews by Highland, French Broad and Pisgah brewing companies.

 

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
By Jeremy Brett Carter

6. Literary Asheville. Thomas Wolfe's childhood home is now a museum in downtown Asheville, Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire in a hospital here, and O. Henry is buried in Riverside Cemetery. Contemporary authors with Asheville ties include Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen, who lives here; Special Topics in Calamity Physics author Marisha Pessl, who grew up in Asheville; and Ron Rash, a professor at Western Carolina University whose novel Serena is being adapted for the big screen, with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence attached to star.

 

 

The LaZoom Comedy Tour.

7. Downtown. Downtown Asheville is the epicenter of all that makes this such an amazing place to be. In warmer months, Pritchard Park is home to a Friday-night drum circle that draws hundreds of people for hours of dancing to improvised beats. On any day you're likely to see a street-corner musician playing an accordion, stand-up bass, fiddle or virtually any other instrument, and keep your eye out for a living statue or street musician. One of the best ways to experience downtown Asheville is on the LaZoom Comedy Tour, which rolls around town in a swanky purple schoolbus populated with characters such as "Sister Bad Habit" and "Augusta Wind."

 

 

A street mural in downtown Asheville, N.C.

8. On the wall. Asheville is consistently named among the Top 25 Small Towns for Art by AmericanStyle, and last year it took home top honors. The city has dozens of art galleries and hosts bi-monthly art crawls from April through December. Be sure to check out ZaPow!, which is billed as the only gallery in the Southeast specializing in illustration and pop-culture art. The newly revived River Arts District is where you'll find warehouses that have been converted into studios, and studio strolls are held on a regular basis here. Back downtown, the city has commissioned many pieces of public art, and are artists also have created elaborate murals on the sides of buildings and even on the Interstate underpass.

 

9. On the stage. Asheville has a vibrant theater scene, with several amateur and professional companies lighting their footlights on a regular basis. North Carolina Stage Company's 2011-2012 season has included Hedwig and the Angry Inch and sci-fi tribute Fight Girl Battle World. Asheville Community Theater produces top-notch shows that include classics and world premieres. Down in the River Arts District, The Magnetic Field is a combination restaurant, bar and performance space that only produces original works, including plays, musical, stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, music and more.

10. Food. Asheville has a remarkable culinary scene, with talented chefs from all over the world settling here to open restaurants, and many of them are committed to using local ingredients whenever possible. President Obama has visited 12 Bones Barbecue on two of his three visits to the city, while Anthony Bourdain held a private reception at Cúrate Tapas Bar on a recent visit. If you like chocolate, you can't go wrong with French Broad Chocolate Lounge, which offers handmade truffles, liquid truffles, caramels, chocolate bars and more. For more info on local independent restaurants, check out Asheville Independent Restaurants.

Over the past few years, the food-truck craze has caught on, with mobile kitchens serving up Korean barbecue tacos (El Kimchi), crepes and empanadas (Ceci's Culinary Tour), Lebanese street food (Gypsy Queen Cuisine) and more. You'll find these food trucks all over town, at several of the breweries, and at the new food truck lot downtown.

Of course, this is just the beginning of what there is to do here. Whether you're here for a few days or a week or more, you're guaranteed to fall under the spell of a city that's often called called "The Paris of the South."

Asheville-based writer and actor Jeremy Brett Carter blogs at www.revengeofthewordnerd.com.

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