No trip to Asheville, NC is complete without seeing the Biltmore Estates. While Asheville has plenty to draw visitors, the Biltmore is a must-see. It was opened to the public in 1930 upon the request of the City of Asheville to boost tourism after the Great Depression. Built in late 1800s, the Biltmore remains the largest private home in the United States and is still operated by the family. George Vanderbilt built the mansion as a country retreat after bringing his mother to the mountains for her health. He envisioned a self-sustaining estate suitable for entertaining and displaying his large collections of art.
George purchased more than 125,000 acres, much of it overworked farmland and forest. Thousands of artisans and craftspeople, led by architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, created the grand house over six years. When it opened Christmas Eve 1895 with a large celebration, the large estate included a forest, dairy, farm, gardens and a railroad extension which had been built to bring needed materials to the house. Single when he built it, George married a few years later and brought his wife home to this estate. Can you imagine her reaction upon seeing it for the first time?! Luckily, she did not have to worry about keeping the 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms clean.
The cost of admission to the Biltmore is high (about $70), so plan to spend the day. Starting with your drive into the property, the beauty and vastness of the estate will astound you. Olmstead wanted to create an impression when a guest first arrived on the property. The three mile approach to the house is a meandering forest road meant to add mystery and give no hints to the approaching house. Designed to have blooms throughout the year, it includes a variety of plants including a large bamboo grove to add some subtropical character as well as many varieties of trees and shrubs.
Your first view of the house is grand with its beautiful architecture, sweeping lawn and interesting angles. Built in part to showcase the many collections George Vanderbilt amassed during his travels, the rooms are filled with art and beautiful furnishings including a chess set once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte. I was surprised by how comfortable the house seemed considering it size. Rooms include personal touches like photographs or cozy corners to read a book. It is easy to picture a family living here, unlike so many grand houses that seem just for show.
Of course, it is also a very grand home with lots of incredible rooms, grand touches like a three story chandelier and a welcoming atrium that is as big as some houses. Plants and flowers are found throughout the house as well.
The large dining room was grand with two large walk-in fireplaces, multiple tapestries and artwork and of course, beautiful place settings.
My favorite room was the library which was two stories and included some impressive artwork, including a beautiful painting by Giovanni Pellegrini called The Chariot of Aurora. This piece was purchased from a palace in Venice where it originally hung and is one of the only remaining pieces by this artist, after the destruction of many buildings in Italy during the world wars. A voracious reader, George collected more than 23,000 books over many topics and genres, including works by his famous guests Henry James and Edith Wharton.
Other fascinating rooms included the indoor swimming pool with its vaulted ceilings and tilework by Rafael Guastavino. This is one of the first pools with underwater lights and heated water. Guests also enjoyed indoor bowling with one of the many servants to reset the pins and a gymnasium.
Another innovation was in the laundry room where the many sheets and towels used in the 33 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms were washed and dried. With the unpredictable weather, Vanderbilt wanted a way to dry laundry indoors so created a wooden rack system that was pulled in and out from the wall where electric coils running along the floor heated the cabinet.
After your tour, enjoy the amazing grounds. The gardens were designed by Olmstead who designed New York’s Central Park. His desire to make this a tropical paradise for visitors was a stretch for Western N. Carolina, but he achieved an amazing beauty and serenity, cultivating many of the plants in the nearby Conservatory. From the Italian formal garden right off the house where guests played croquet to the “wild” acres of azaleas that teh estate horticulturist, Chauncey Beadle, collected, there is a favorite spot for everyone.
My favorite garden was the “walled garden” which greets you with the perfumed scents the moment you step near. More than 2,000 roses in 250 varieties join hydrangeas, and flowering plants are a visual and olfactory feast. It was fascinating to go around and see the many varieties of plants and flowers. It was also clear that they have planted to ensure various blooms throughout the year so it is always beautiful. Sadly, we missed the azaleas in bloom as they bloom in this area in late April to early May.
Inside the Conservatory, you can thrill at orchids, palms, and tropical plants that you never knew existed. The Conservatory still produces many of the flowers and plants for the House and surrounding beds.
After a day walking the house and grounds, it was time to sit down and enjoy a beverage. Antler Village is about five miles down the road on the Biltmore grounds. Built for the many employees of Biltmore, it is now a key area for visitors with a popular area for the kids, two inns, restaurants, shops and the winery. There is also a museum on the Vanderbilts that it really worth a visit, covering their life and showcasing a family tree that shows you how Anderson Cooper is related to the family.
The winery is in the former dairy which produced ice cream, milk and other products sold throughout Asheville and nearby towns during the early 1900s. The buildings were transformed into the winery in 1985 including the barn housing 80 cows which now stands as the most visited wine tasting room in the country. Since the tasting is included in your admission to Biltmore, it seems a bit of a cheat to advertise as the most visited, but is likely very true. Longing to sit down and have a snack, we went next door to the Wine Bar where we had a flight of wines not offered in the tasting room and a cheese board. The staff in there was incredibly friendly and helpful. The bar itself is a light filled, minimalist relief to all the excess of the day.
We highly recommend a visit to the Biltmore and understand that they do special decorations at the holidays so would love to return one day. In the meantime, here are some helpful hints for your visit to the Biltmore:
- Buy a one day ticket online for a day early in your trip to the area. Plan ahead and reserve at least a week in advance so you can receive $10 off . You might also find an upcoming promotional offer to use. For instance, they offer discounted days like Mother’s or Father’s Day when the cost is reduced to $25 for the honored parent.
- Buying the ticket online can save you money and it allows you to print out your ticket thus bypassing the ticket lines. Do print it out at home!
- If you are planning to be in the area for more than a week or return to the area within 12 months, you can upgrade to an annual pass once you arrive at the Estate for essentially the cost of a second day. Plus, a pass gives you discounts on any shopping or dining you do, including in the winery. The pass includes discounts on Biltmore hotels and other attractions. Since you have to have an admission to revisit the grounds for a more leisurely day or go back into Antler Village, it might be worth purchasing.
- Choose an early morning entry time to the house (you can always enter later or go in and out through the day). I suggest touring the house first so you can take your time and avoid the afternoon crowds. Asheville is a fairly temperate climate and there is a lot of shade around the grounds; but if the weather is going to be warm, still reserve an early tour time to give yourself the flexibility of entering the house whenever you like.
- One the self-guided tour, you return to the main floor (near the three story chandelier) after touring the upstairs bedrooms, before visiting the downstairs servant’s area and kitchen. When you return to the ground level, you will be near the front door. Take a break and go outside to get a bite to eat or enjoy the nearby Italian Garden. Then you can re-enter and finish the downstairs tour.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes as you will want to walk the many garden areas, many of which are gravel or dirt.
- Purchase the audio tour ($12) or if you want to splurge, invest in a private tour. From what we overheard, they offer great stories and information on the house. While the audio tour adds interesting commentary, I was disappointed that it didn’t give more detail on the furnishings and spectacular artwork. After visiting, I found A Guide to Biltmore by Rachel Carley (on Amazon), which gives a lot more detail and includes pictures as the estate was built. Carry it with you to enhance your tour.
- Parking is easy. I actually think parking in C is nicer as the shuttle picks you up and drops you at the entrance to the house. If you park in the two closer lots, you have a 5 – 10 minute walk up to the house.
- Food and Beverage:
- They check for water bottles and beverages on entry into the house, asking you to empty out any liquid. We had our reusable bottles with us and filled them in the food court after our tour.
- Since you are staying for a full day, plan for at least one meal. They recommend reservations, but we found the Stable Cafe to be empty at 11:30 a.m. It is an indoor, sit-down restaurant close to the house. If you know you are there on a high-volume day, it might be smart to make a reservation, but the same basic food is offered in the courtyard cafe where you go through a line. Restaurants are also located at Deerpark and Antler Hill Village, but you will have to drive to those.
- For dinner, you have several options in Antler Village or can grab a filling cheese board at the Wine Bar after your tasting. We did this and sat at the bar area where the staff was very friendly and chatted with us.
- You are also welcome to pack a picnic and eat somewhere on the beautiful grounds around the house if you would like.
- Definitely plan to visit Antler’s Village and do the wine tasting since it is free with your admission. Touted as the most visited winery in America, Antler Hill Winery offers a wide list of options. This was the only line we had all day and it went quickly.
- While they recommend tasting only 6-7 of the wines, they will not stop you from trying them all. Most of the wines come from grapes not grown in North Carolina, but a few are grown and cultivated into wine onsite.
- There is a wide variety of choices in wines and the store next door offers lots of souvenirs and gift options.
- Before visiting:
- If time allows before your trip, read Lady on the Hill (highly recommended by the staff) which is an authorized account of the building and preservation of the house by William Cecil, a descendant who created the Biltmore business. Or The Last Castle, an historical account of the times and building of the house (I am currently reading it so review to come). Both books might be found in your local library.
- They are several lovely shops at the Estate including one down at the Conservancy. The shops at the Estate include a bookstore, Christmas store, and larger store with variety of gift items.
- The store at the winery seemed to have greater selection of souvenir type items for me, at least the kind I like to get plus the option of buying wine.
The Vanderbilts (and I) are ready to receive you at the Biltmore. Please come by!
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