Are you nosy? Do you enjoy shows like HGTV’s My Lottery Dream Home, or the throwback MTV’s Cribs? Did you love the show Downton Abbey? Then a visit to the Biltmore Estate is a must-do activity when visiting Asheville, NC!
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This luxurious estate is a rare window into a bygone era. The first few generations of Vanderbilts showed off their wealth with very expensive building projects. Most of us are a little voyeuristic and curious about how the 1% live, and this destination delivers.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the Vanderbilts are or you’re not into history. This is unlike any other house you’ve ever seen in the US!
Why visit the Biltmore Estate?
The United States is a relatively young country and doesn’t have centuries-old, opulent structures like castles or palaces. But the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age of the 1800’s and early 1900’s produced America’s first millionaires, and they all scrambled to out-do each other by flaunting their wealth, usually via impressive mansions.
Ironically, the Biltmore Estate is not your typical fancy house built to impress others. Most millionaires built fancy homes in New York City and even larger mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. Those locations were better for fellow rich people to see your house and be jealous, of course.
On the other hand, Asheville was a small town hidden in the mountains, best known as a destination for those with tuberculosis to come and ‘take the cure.’
The Biltmore Estate was completed in 1895, included the most advanced technology of the time, and encompassed an area so large that just a portion of the estate is now Pisgah National Forest.
Admission can be pricey for those on a budget, which is why this didn’t get crossed off my bucket list until 2018, but it’s worth the splurge to take a peek inside another way of life and imagine living like a Vanderbilt.
Here are 6 reasons why you need to visit the Biltmore Estate on your next trip to Asheville, NC.
1. Indulge your inner voyeur.
See how the fabulously wealthy lived in the Gilded Age. The Biltmore House is, of course, the crown jewel of the estate. This stunning 250-room mansion was modeled after French Loire Valley chateaux and was originally intended to be one bachelor’s respite away from New York City.
As the youngest son in the 3rd generation of Vanderbilts, George W. Vanderbilt wasn’t a main heir of the vast family fortune, receiving much less than his older brothers. But he had enough to funnel $6 million into construction. That’s just over $1 billion in today’s dollars! And all the while continuing to travel the world in the 5 years it took to build the estate.
G.W. bought 125,000 acres of land in the North Carolina mountains, hired architect Richard Morris Hunt, and built himself a mansion.
He named it Biltmore, and the home was designed to include every modern convenience for the 1890’s, including electricity, indoor plumbing, a walk-in refrigerator, and central heat. Even the servants’ quarters were considered spacious for their time.
The grand staircase is just as gorgeous on the outside as it is inside. Can’t walk up three flights of stairs? No worries. Take the Otis elevator, original to the house! In the basement you’ll find a bowling alley and heated indoor swimming pool, and the back porch has unrivaled views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Best Room in the House
All the rooms are wonderfully appointed and detailed in decoration, but the library is by far my favorite! A visit to Biltmore is worth it for this room alone! G.W. shipped in the ceiling mural from somewhere in Europe, so sure, it’s stunning.
But there are 23,000 volumes on display with wrought iron spiral staircases for the second level and a hidden hallway behind the fireplace, connecting to the 2nd story family quarters. #librarygoals
2. Soak in the mountain scenery.
The Biltmore Estate is surrounded by the gorgeous southern Appalachians. Most of what you see from the house’s back porch was once Vanderbilt land. In fact, Pisgah National Forest was part of the Biltmore Estate until Edith Vanderbilt sold that land to the US government following her husband’s death.
Near Pisgah National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this is one of the best locations for mountain scenery no matter what time of year you visit.
Start your visit at Biltmore in the morning to better appreciate why these mountains are called the Smoky Mountains. Or watch the sun sink beneath the Blue Ridge, setting each mountaintop on fire before finally disappearing.
G.W. Vanderbilt was very interested in forestry, making the estate the first professionally managed forest in the US. North America’s first school of forestry was also founded on the Biltmore Estate by Carl Schenck.
What once were bare mountains and overharvested timberland is now a thriving forest, and we owe that rebirth to Vanderbilt and Schenck’s vision.
3. Enjoy a free wine tasting.
You read that right, folks. Free wine. Admission to the Biltmore Estate includes free wine tastings at the Antler Hill Winery, the estate’s on-site winery.
The Biltmore Estate was always meant to be self-sustaining and has supported various agricultural endeavors over the years. The estate restaurants use local ingredients raised on the estate’s farms, and the dairy produces delicious ice cream.
The House and eventually grounds opened for tours thanks to G.W.’s daughter Cornelia in the 1930’s, both to attempt to stimulate Asheville’s economy during the Depression but also as another source of income to preserve the Estate.
George Vanderbilt’s great-grandchildren now own and live on the estate, and they have been particularly focused on making the estate sustainable. No federal or state aid here. This is a privately owned estate and the family aims to privately maintain the property as long as they can.
4. Stroll through the Biltmore gardens and forests.
Every estate needs its well-tended gardens to compliment the house. Even better, Frederick Law Olmsted planned these gardens. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the guy that designed Central Park in NYC. Yep, that guy. He and G.W.V. were good friends.
Olmsted designed all the landscaping for the entire estate. That winding entrance road with the ponds and babbling brooks? Olmsted’s handiwork. The rolling hills behind the house? The lake, dam, waterfall combo? The lagoon that perfectly reflects the house between all the trees?
All purposefully built to be picturesque and perfect.
Talk about ambiance.
Designing a Forest
Thousands of cubic yards of earth were moved to provide a level area for the house and lawn and to make the hills part just right for that lagoon view. On the face of it, you’d think that was terrible for the environment.
But in reality, this area of forest had been destroyed by logging for years before Vanderbilt and Olmsted showed up. The planning and care that went into this massive estate are a significant reason why we still have the beautiful forest here today.
Olmsted was an incredibly meticulous planner. He had diagrams and lists of every single plant to be used, where it belonged on the estate, and how to change them out for each season. Purple Chinese wisteria drapes the pergola in the Shrub Garden in spring. The Walled Garden flowers are constantly changing with the seasons, showcasing beautiful roses, tulips, and dahlias to name a few.
Pro tip: Don’t miss the azalea garden’s brief but beautiful explosion of color every spring!
Olmsted’s original plans are still used by the estate’s gardeners, and if a plant or tree dies, it’s replaced with the exact same species originally specified. Keeping his vision alive, so you see the same thing when you visit the Biltmore today that Vanderbilt would have seen at the turn of the 20th century. #plannergoals
5. Be an equestrian for a day.
Horses and horseback riding were essential for transportation in the pre-automobile days. In fact, the Stable Courtyard shops and eateries adjacent to the Main House were once the stables for the Vanderbilt family’s horses.
Pro Tip: Eat lunch at the Stable Café or grab some ice cream from the Dairy and Creamery Shop in the Stable Courtyard.
Today the estate still maintains stables (away from the main house) both for guests and for estate use. Take advantage of the miles of horse trails that crisscross the estate. Bring your own favorite horse or let the professionals teach you how to ride. Either way, exploring the estate via horseback is a great addition to any visit to Biltmore.
6. Stand in awe of Christmas again.
The estate goes all out for Christmas! Individually decorated trees in every room on the house tour, and not to mention the thousands of lights and the giant tree that adorns the front lawn. Just a stunningly fantastic job of decorating for the season. Don’t miss a Christmas visit to Biltmore!
Pro tip: Pick up your own Christmas decorations in the Christmas shop (open year round) in the Stable Shops by the main house!
Supposedly the estate has been scaling back a bit (but I didn’t notice a difference). Reportedly taking 4 weeks to get the house ready, the mansion had only 55 Christmas trees last year. Only 55…
I highly recommend the Candlelight Christmas evenings tour, where you take a house tour in the evening. A bit of a misnomer, since the house has had electricity since it was built, Candlelight Christmas evenings are wondrous to behold.
The house is magical, all lit up and decorated for the holidays, and live music hosted in the Winter Garden is heard throughout the first floor. Every Asheville choir student can tell you about the time they sang at the Biltmore for Christmas.
Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, the house still sparkles with the added decorations.