Asheville, North Carolina, is a city that has a lot to offer. It’s so close to nature that 35 miles northeast of downtown, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, is the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains east of the Mississippi River. That peak is Mount Mitchell. The nearest access point to Pisgah National Forest is less than 10 minutes from the center of town. Every season, the Biltmore Estate draws visitors to explore George Vanderbilt’s stunning château. He opened it on Christmas Eve, 1895, as an escape from city living. The culinary and craft beer scene is reason alone to visit, and there is still so much more. Asheville has a cultural and artistic side too.
Throughout downtown, there is a self-guided Urban Trail that explains the city’s history with specific stops as markers. There are world-class museums to discover art, science, folk art, music, and history. And when you have finished exploring all of that, you can check out these five quirky museums. Why are they quirky? They are small, have a specific focus, and are in the city or a short drive away. I visited each one and found them all interesting. You don’t have to spend hours looking through floors and halls of critical material; you might spend an hour at most, it depends on your interest level. But each stop holds something fascinating and worth seeing. Here are five museums to visit in any order. If you are driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway south (toward Asheville), visit The Museum of North Carolina Minerals first. You will drive right past it on your way.
1. Museum Of North Carolina Minerals
The Museum of North Carolina Minerals is located north of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway at Gillespie Gap. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a gorgeous drive, and a stop at Milepost 331 is worth a visit.
Here visitors discover how the Blue Ridge Mountains have formed hundreds of millions of years ago and later learn about the area’s rich mining history. The exhibit begins with a hands-on demonstration of tectonic plates and the formation of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then the exhibits move through a series of displays about the gems and minerals found in the Spruce Pine Mining District mines. After that, you can step outside to view rocks that are millions of years old. These rocks, discovered in the region, are made up of minerals used today, such as quartz. Quartz is a precious mineral found in the local mines that we rely on to create computer chips.
For history buffs, this area is also famous for the Overmountain Men, who crossed the Blue Ridge at this point on their way to the Battle at Kings Mountain, South Carolina. You can learn more about that here.
2. Asheville Pinball Museum
The Asheville Pinball Museum started 8 years ago with three pinball machines. Today there are two locations, Asheville, and Hendersonville, where you can play 75 vintage or classic video arcade games for one price. Two specific games require payment onsite. The oldest machines date back to the 1940s, and while you can’t play on those, the favorites from the 1960s and later are up for the challenge, no quarters needed. The museum is in the old Battery Park Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s an arcade and a trip back in time, mind-blowing for pinball enthusiasts. I played pinball and video games when I was a teenager and loved seeing them on the floor. I was told to check out the bathrooms. Fun vintage posters decorate the walls and stalls and pinball games are in there, too. I asked owner TC DiBella what the most popular game is, and he said, “It depends on the player’s age. Everyone geeks out over the games though, they can’t believe all the variety from pinball to video.” He walked me over to a jukebox that played MTV videos from the 1980s. While it wasn’t a game, it was memorabilia. I grew up on MTV and stood there amazed. This is a fun experience.
What is the Moogseum? Bob Moog was an American engineer and pioneer who invented the first Moog synthesizer in the 1960s. This invention revolutionized electronic music because it recreates the sounds of instruments.
The museum packs a lot into 1,400 square feet of space. When you enter the foyer, you’re greeted by the knowledgeable staff and a full-sized poster of the inventor where you can take a photo. No other photographs are allowed. Visitors can purchase books and T-shirts here as well. The tour is self-guided, but an overview of the eight interactive exhibits at the ticket counter is helpful. The tour starts with a timeline of Bob Moog’s life and work. Using touchscreen kiosks, you’ll view 700 archival items. These documents explain his life and how he created the Moog Synthesizer. Stations include hands-on instruction for playing the theremin, an instrument that uses electric currents to create sound without physical contact, and several synthesizers. There’s an immersive visualization dome that invites you into a circuit board to trace electricity as it becomes sound.
The displays are dynamic, educational, and fun. If you love music and history, this is a great museum to visit.
4. Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum
The Estes-Winn Antique Car Museum is a showroom of stunning vintage and antique automobiles, and admission is free. Collector Harry Blomberg put his prized collection of automobiles on display in 1966 in the old Biltmore Industries Building in Grovewood Village adjacent to the Omni Grove Park Inn. Harry Blomberg always loved cars. He quit high school and opened the first gas station in Asheville and then the first “motor inn” for vehicles with ragtops. Then Harry opened a second. He went on to own Asheville’s Cadillac-Pontiac dealer for over half a century. He founded Harry’s On the Hill, a dealership operated by family members today.
In 1953 Harry purchased Biltmore Industries, an arts and crafts enterprise originally started by Edith Vanderbilt to help give her staff at Biltmore House a trade. After Edith, the Seely family purchased the business and relocated the operation to a building adjacent to Grove Park Inn. The Seely’s made it one of the world’s largest producers of handwoven wool. After Fred Seely’s death, the family wanted to dismantle the business. Harry wanted to preserve the industry and the historic part of Asheville, so he bought it and hired back some of the employees. It continued operations until it closed in 1981.
In the building that once housed the looms sits a rare 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham (only 400 made) and Asheville’s own 1922 American LaFrance fire truck plus many more. All the vehicles are in running condition and look brand new.
Pro Tip: The museum is housed in a historic building with no air-conditioning (fan-cooled). Light clothing in summer is recommended. The museum is wheelchair accessible.
5. The Aluminum Tree And Ornament Museum (ATOM)
The ATOM, located in Brevard at the Transylvania Heritage Museum, is 34 miles south of downtown Asheville. This seasonal pop-up display opens in early November (closed on Thanksgiving and the day after) and is sure to make you smile. You’ll see examples of sustainable Christmas trees prevalent in the 1950s and a unique collection of “aesthetically challenged” ornaments. The ornaments are grouped in themes such as “Elvis” or “Marilyn Monroe.” The trees were manufactured by over 40 companies in the U.S., Canada, and Australia from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Vintage trees had individual branches that you inserted into a center pole or “trunk.”
The idea for a museum started in 1991 when a friend gave local home designer Steven Jackson a worn aluminum tree snatched from the dump. Jackson embraced the gift. He threw a party and requested tacky ornaments to adorn his tree. The collection grew so big that he had to find a space to hold all the trees and decorations. He found it at the Transylvania Heritage Museum. ATOM features over two dozen specimens and is the only museum dedicated to aluminum trees. On a serious note, it’s a fantastic way to highlight conservation as Brevard is next to the Pisgah National Forest.
Pro Tip: Brevard is an adorable small town and has cute shops and galleries to explore. If you like craft beer, visit Oskar Blues Brewery for a tour and a flight of beer.
When you visit Asheville, combine stops at these museums on a day when you have a gap between things to do. They don’t take a long time to experience. If you’ve hiked in Pisgah, visit ATOM, and stop in nearby Brevard for lunch, shopping, or a brewery tour. After a hike and lunch, we went to the Estes-Winn Car Museum in Asheville and loved the collection. After that, we took a stroll next door to the Grovewood Gallery, nationally recognized for its dedication to fine American art. There we saw the work of over 400 American artists spread out over two floors. Furniture, glass, jewelry, ceramics, and more were on display and for sale.
Asheville offers visitors opportunities for a variety of diversions. Consider: