North Carolina Historic Sites
The Biltmore Experience
George Washington Vanderbilt was not your typical wealthy 19th-century industrialist. He was a bookworm and an adventurer, caring more about learning and travel than about commerce and fashionable society. In fact, it was on one of his travels, an 1888 trip to western North Carolina, when he first glimpsed the site that would become his future country home and estate.
Construction on the property began in 1889, but it wasn’t just a grand mansion that was being built. Vanderbilt hired Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who designed New York’s Central Park, to create massive gardens and give guidance to maintaining America’s first managed forest. More than a century later, Vanderbilt’s vision and Olmstead’s genius have captured the imaginations of millions of visitors to Biltmore.
Of course, most first-time guests will start with The House; opulent beyond imagination, this French Renaissance chateau remains the largest private residence in America. The Biltmore House covers four acres by itself, totaling 175,000 square feet. It has 250 rooms, contains priceless antiques and art from masters such as Renoir, 65 fireplaces, an indoor pool, and a bowling alley. Visitors will see massive, magnificent 16th-century tapestries, a library with ten thousand volumes, and even Napoleon’s chess set.
The surprises begin when guests step out of America’s Biggest Home and into America’s Most Visited Winery. That’s right, more than 600,000 people visit the Biltmore Winery every year, outpacing all the wineries of California. Visitors can tour the cellars, fermentation room, and corking area, then taste several samples of Biltmore wine. Afterwards, they can watch one of Biltmore’s chefs share some of their culinary secrets, or participate in a seminar discussing the delicious pairing of red wine with chocolate.
Antler Hill Village, which opened in May 2010, is situated next to the winery. The pedestrian-friendly area is a bustling center of activity, with live entertainment on the village green, food, shopping and a new outdoor adventure center.
All of the village venues depict aspects of the estate’s history. The Biltmore Legacy exhibition features interactive displays, historic furnishings and current products from Biltmore For Your Home’s estate-inspired designs. Named after one of the Vanderbilt family dogs, Cedric’s Tavern offers classic fare in a relaxed pub atmosphere. You can top that off with ice cream and gourmet coffee at the old-fashioned Creamery.
The Outdoor Adventure Center provides the perfect jumping-off point for an exploration of the estate’s 8,000 acres (the Estate used to be 125,000 acres, but Vanderbilt’s widow deeded much of it to the federal government to help form what is now the Pisgah National Forest). Visitors will likely want to begin in the gardens, which are actually a collection of individually themed displays. From the Italian Garden with its three symmetrical pools and classic statuary, to the glass-roofed Conservatory that grows tropical plants and orchids year-round, to the 15-acre Azalea Garden, Biltmore’s gardens can provide inspiration to even the most accomplished green thumb.
Back in 1888, when George Vanderbilt first envisioned his Asheville retreat, he saw not just a home, but a self-sufficient place where the study of art, architecture, horticulture, agriculture, forestry, and land management could be explored. Today, a visit to Biltmore is a visit to his vision and legacy of learning and adventure. Part museum, part vineyard, part botanical garden and part outdoor wonderland, Biltmore is much more than a house. It’s a vacation experience for all five senses.
added: December 9, 2008
updated: August 16, 2010