During our three days in Asheville, North Carolina, last week, Caroline and I made it a priority to visit the Biltmore Estate, which is unquestionably the top attraction in Asheville. We’d finished looking at apartments, exploring downtown and driving a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, so the Biltmore Estate was the only major thing left on our to-do list. After a great night’s sleep at the Four Points by Sheraton in downtown Asheville, we got up and headed straight to the Biltmore Estate.
Although we’ve visited a few impressive and immense buildings before, including both hotels and private residences, one of which, by the way, was another Vanderbilt residence in Newport, Rhode Island, I have to say that the Biltmore House was the greatest.
Biltmore Estate, a Brief History
Biltmore, as Biltmore Estate is also known, was created by George W. Vanderbilt in 1895 as a place where he, his family and his friends could escape their hectic and busy everyday lives. After six years of construction, the Biltmore House, the main building on the domain, was opened on Christmas Eve, 1895. From then on, it served as a family home for the Vanderbilt family—George, his wife Edith and their daughter Cornelia. After Cornelia married John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924, that family, too, lived at Biltmore.
A quick side step here; of Dutch origin, the Vanderbilts were one of the most prominent entrepreneurial families during the Gilded Age. It all started with Cornelius Vanderbilt, who became a railroad and shipping tycoon. Later, his descendants dedicated much of their time to philanthropy and erecting extravagant mansions—most notably on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in Newport in Rhode Island, and here in Asheville, North Carolina.
The Cecil family decided to open Biltmore to the general public in 1930 as a response to the increasing requests to improve tourism in the greater Asheville area—it was the Great Depression and any income was welcome.
Nowadays, Biltmore is still in the hands of the Cecil-Vanderbilt family and remains the largest privately owned residence in the United States.
America’s Largest Private Residence
Biltmore Estate comprises an incredible 8,000 acres (3,240 hectares), including expansive landscaped gardens, an entire village, a farm, a winery, many miles of roads and trails, and the magnificent Biltmore House & Gardens.
The Biltmore House was designed by the renowned architect Richard Morris Hunt in the style of a French château or English manor—he even traveled to Europe with George W. Vanderbilt for inspiration. It’s an enormous building, featuring more than 250 rooms, a library housing more than 10,000 books, an extraordinary 70-foot-(21-meter-)high banquet hall, 65 fireplaces, an indoor pool, a gymnasium and even a bowling alley, which was very rare at the time.
The self-guided tour of the Biltmore House takes in many of those rooms, spread out over three floors. It takes about two hours to see everything, but even then, you can’t help but realize that there are more than 200 rooms that you didn’t see.
The Biltmore Gardens lie right next to the Biltmore House and were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, arguably the greatest American landscape architect in history—he also designed New York City’s Central Park and the landscape around the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. These expansive gardens include terraces, a walled garden, a conservatory, a pond and boat house, a rose garden with more than 250 varieties of roses, and an azalea garden.
Antler Hill Village & Winery
Antler Hill Village, also known simply as Biltmore Village, was designed by both Hunt and Olmsted as a place where the estate’s employees, servants and their families could live. It included cottages, a school, a doctor’s office, a church and even a post office. George W. Vanderbilt envisioned his estate as a self-sufficient community and, therefore, a dairy, cattle and poultry farms, and a forestry program were created.
Nowadays, the Biltmore Village is home to shops, a hotel and an inn, and a world-class winery. The entry ticket to Biltmore Estate includes a free wine tasting, so it’s strongly recommended that you take advantage of that!
Visiting Biltmore Estate
Biltmore Estate is open year-round, but daily hours may vary. Prices also vary according to the time of year—we visited in January and paid $60 each. While that might seem outrageously expensive, I can assure you that it’s absolutely worth every penny.