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With a laid-back attitude and eclectic nightlife, Asheville, N.C., knows it’s hip

a hand holding a glass of wine
The Blue Ridge Mountains rise behind the skyline of Asheville, N.C., a compact town with a big-city vibe.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Despite its Southern latitude, Asheville always has been cool, because it has mountain altitude, which means it’s always a shade less sultry in the summer than most of Dixie.

But now Asheville is cool for its attitude as well, a laid-back mecca for dredlock-wearing hippies that Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the “freak capital” of the country a few years ago.

As a tourist, you should check out the straight-and-narrow stuff — the enormous Biltmore Estate (1 Antler Hill Road, 1-800-411-3812), the elegant Grove Park Inn(290 Macon Ave., 1-800-438-5800), and the surrounding Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains.

But save plenty of time, especially at night, for the young, urban, sophisticated and sometimes even literary attractions in this town of 70,000 that acts a lot bigger (and feels a whole lot cooler) than its size.

Here are some suggestions (all of them in the downtown area, unless otherwise noted) to launch your exploration of the newer and cooler Asheville:

1. Places to hang out.

Something weird almost always is going on at Pritchard Park (67 Patton Ave.), a small, triangular pocket, whether it’s a rally for some cause by day or drum circles or fire dancing by night.

The Pack Square-Biltmore Avenue area is home to galleries, restaurants, the Fine Arts Theatre (36 Biltmore Ave., 828-232-1536) and Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria (42 Biltmore Ave., 828-255-0504), about which, more later.

By day, the Biltmore Village gallery and retail area, south of downtown, is worth a look for local arts and crafts, especially at the flagship New Morning Gallery (7 Boston Way, 828-274-2831).

New Morning is owned, by the way, by John Cram, the leader of downtown’s revival and also the owner of the Fine Arts Theatre and two other galleries in town.

2. Places to hang out and eat.

Breakfast (or brunch, since we’re being cool): Try Tupelo Honey Cafe (12 College St., 828-255-4863), which specializes in haute Southern cuisine and has a view of whatever is happening in Pritchard Park at any given moment.

Lunch: Even before then-candidate Barack Obama ate barbecued ribs here on the campaign trail, 12 Bones Smokehouse (5 Riverside Drive, 828-253-4499) was huge. Now it’s one of the hottest pig-out spots anywhere. Expect a line out the door, bring a Tide to Go pen and consider traipsing through the surrounding River Arts District.

Dinner: Upscale but not off-the-charts expensive, any of the eateries around downtown run by chef Hector Diaz Salsas (Mexican-Caribbean, 6 Patton Ave., 828-252-9805) Modesto (Italian trattoria, 1 Page Ave., 828-225-4133) and Chorizo (Latino, 1 Page Ave., 828-350-1332) — should satisfy.

Modesto and Chorizo are in the Grove Arcade, built in 1929 as an indoor marketplace and renovated and reopened as an upscale urban shopping, eating and crafts mall in 2002.

Pizza: The Mellow Mushroom (50 Broadway Ave., 828-236-9800), in a former Pure gas station, has whole-wheat crusts, a large outdoor eating area with a weird concrete-encased-bowling-ball decor and staff members who all look as if they just left a reggae concert.

Even before then-candidate Barack Obama ate barbecued ribs here on the campaign trail, 12 Bones Smokehouse was huge. Now it’s one of the hottest pig-out spots anywhere.Asheville, N.C.

More information: or 828-258-6101.

3. Places to hang out, drink and maybe listen to some tunes.

The seven existing breweries and the two now under construction in Buncombe County completely justify Asheville’s standing as the micro-brew capital of the South.

East Asheville’s Highland Brewing Co. (12 Old Charlotte Highway, 828-299-3370) launched the local beer scene with its Gaelic Ale, a deep amber American ale with a nice malt-to-hops balance.

Pisgah Brewing Co. in nearby Black Mountain (150 Eastside Drive, 828-669-2491) makes only organic products, including a tasty pale ale sold in 22-ounce bottles so you can always say you only had one. Maybe two.

An outfit called Brews Cruise offers tours of Asheville’s suds-makers, so you don’t drink and drive.

Cool bars with live music downtown include the aforementioned Barley’s (with up to 100 beers on the menu) and the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave., 828-232-5800), a longtime folky type place.

But the king of Asheville music venues is the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave., 828-225-5851). In its first seven years of existence, the Rolling Stone magazine-endorsed venue has played host to the likes of Bob Dylan, Ween, Wilco, Ziggy Marley and a sold-out, nine-show comeback engagement by the Smashing Pumpkins.

If you want to chat up the locals, especially late at night after they get off work elsewhere, the downstairs pub at the Charlotte Street Grill & Pub (157 Charlotte St., 828-252-2948) is the dimly lighted, easygoing place to be.

4. Things to do.

The whole thing about being cool is not doing anything. But here’s one thing so laid back, you can do it while appearing to be doing nothing: A stroll in memory of novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose work at first embarrassed Asheville but who is now embraced by his hometown.

Start at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (52 N. Market St., 828-253-8304), the writer’s childhood home and the inspiration for the Dixieland boardinghouse in “Look Homeward, Angel.”

Head north and east to Riverside Cemetery (53 Birch St., 828-350-2066), where Wolfe and his family (the Gant clan in “Angel”) are buried.

The 1.3-mile stroll (best done in Wolfe’s favorite month, October, and with a hip flask in pocket) takes you through Montford, a leafy, 1890s residential neighborhood rich in history, architecture and bed-and-breakfast places.

And while you’re in the cemetery, also look for the final resting place of O. Henry, the short-story writer. The tombstone bears his real name, William Sydney Porter.

5. Things to plan a visit around.

Bele Chere, Asheville’s annual music, food and street festival, has taken over downtown for three summer days for the past 30 years. This year’s 31st Bele Chere (pronounced bell share) features entertainment on four stages and is spread over the last weekend in July, Friday through Sunday, July 24-26.

And at the winter holidays, zone out at the annual Christmas Jam, which enters its 21st year come December.

It’s a Habitat for Humanity fund-raiser started by Asheville native son Warren Haynes, the Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule master guitarist who started his career back in the late 1970s and early ’80s at the late, great Brass Tap bar.

He returns every year for a two-day all-star reunion concert with his famous music-industry buddies at the Asheville Civic Center (87 Haywood St., 828-259-5544).