Only a weekend? My first recommendation would be to tack on a couple of vacation days, so you can take fuller advantage of the outdoor bounty of western North Carolina's biggest city. But if you absolutely have to stick to your limited timeline, here’s what I’d do.
Weekend Getaway in Asheville: Friday
There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re too weird for Asheville, you’re too weird.” Find out if you're too weird at Asheville's drum circle, which is held every Friday evening downtown in Prichard Park where Patton and College avenues meet. It starts at 6 p.m. and goes for three or four hours. Bring your drum, or dance along, or just people watch.
Put your name on the (long) waitlist for a table at Tupelo Honey Café on College Street. One of Asheville’s culinary mainstays, Tupelo Honey turns down-home Southern cooking into high cuisine, with offerings like fried green tomatoes over goat cheese grits and Southern fried chicken saltimbocca with country ham and mushroom marsala.
After hitting the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert and visiting a few bars, crash at the newly restored Princess Anne Hotel, which was built in the 1920s and is a short walk from downtown. Rates start at $150 per night.
Weekend Getaway in Asheville: Saturday
Time is of the essence, so start your outdoor adventuring by barreling down the Class III rapids on the French Broad River, the put-in for which is only about 30 minutes from downtown. Nantahala Outdoor Center does trips for $58 per adult.
Time for a little trail action. After returning to town and grabbing a quick bite at the Indian street food restaurant Chai Pani on Battery Park Ave downtown, take a 10-minute drive on I-240 East until it turns into 74A East and then turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance. Park in the dirt beside the road, and run west toward town on the Mountains to Sea Trail. You won’t get any mountain or city views here, but you’ll get a taste for the beauty of the region's rhododendron-jeweled, brook-filled woods.
Get dinner at the traditional Spanish tapas bar Curate, where the atmosphere is a mixture of Manhattan and Birkenstock-wearing Appalachia.
Weekend Getaway in Asheville: Sunday
Indulge your inner locavore with breakfast at the Early Girl Eatery, an Asheville comfort food institution on cobblestone Wall Street downtown. Everything's made fresh and from scratch, and nearly everything on your plate barely traveled less than 20 miles to get there.
Before heading home, take an hour or two to sample the area's high-end mountain biking. The easy choice is Bent Creek Experimental Forest, about 15 minutes down I-26 East next to the North Carolina Arboretum. For a lesser-known, and wilder ride, try the Big Ivy Area near Barnardsville. The 30 miles of hilly, narrow, multi-use trails through Bear Pen and Laurel Gap here take you through the heart of the Blue Ridge, leading you past views of the Craggy Mountains and remote Douglas Falls. If you didn’t bring your own bike, borrow one from the folks at BioWheels; while their selection is slim in winter, their rates are lower too.