Asheville is the hippest city in the South. At least that's the claim of its fans, who are legion. Visitors flock to Asheville for its arts and culture, which rivals that of Charleston, South Carolina, or Santa Fe, New Mexico, and to experience its downtown, with myriad restaurants, coffeehouses, microbreweries, museums, galleries, bookstores, antiques shops, and boutiques.
Named "the best place to live" by many books and magazines, Asheville is also a destination for retirees escaping the cold North, or of "halfbacks," those who moved to Florida but who are now coming half the way back North. Old downtown buildings have been converted to upmarket condos for these affluent retirees, and new residential developments seem to be constantly springing up around town.
As a result of this influx, Asheville has a much more cosmopolitan population than most cities of its size (89,000 people in the city; 445,000 in the metro area). Asheville has a diversity you won't find in many cities in the South. There's a thriving gay community, many self-described hippies and hipsters, young-at-heart retirees, and alternative-lifestyle seekers. Rolling Stone once called Asheville the "U.S. capital of weird" (sorry, Austin), but with more than 50 microbreweries and brewpubs in the area, and two large national craft breweries, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada, with their East Coast operations here, Asheville prefers the title of Beer City USA. That said, you may be surprised to know that due to state law, bars are illegal in North Carolina. Public establishments that sell mostly alcohol and little food have to operate as private membership clubs. This just means you have to sign up and perhaps pay a nominal onetime membership fee (like a cover charge). You can do this at the door or in advance.
The city really comes alive at night, with restaurants, sidewalk cafés, and coffeehouses; so visit after dark to see the city at its best. Especially on summer and fall weekends, Pack Square, Biltmore Avenue, the "South Slope" area between Biltmore Avenue and Asheland Avenue south of Patton Avenue, Broadway Street, Haywood Street, Wall Street, the Grove Arcade, Pritchard Park (site of a popular drum circle on Friday night), and Battery Park Avenue are busy until late.