A magnificent monument to the Gilded Age wows travelers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina
Like something out of a fairy tale, Biltmore Estate is a fantasy come to life. Neither the setting nor the home itself could be grander. You need a good part of a day to take it all in.
In checking off an item that long had been on my travel bucket-list, I spent hours reveling in the history, architecture and artistry of the nation’s largest private residence and its grounds, a tourist magnet just south of downtown Asheville, North Carolina.
Built in 1895, the 250-room chateau was the country retreat of George Washington Vanderbilt, who was drawn to Asheville by the mountain air and glories of nature. The grandson of New York railroad/shipping/real estate tycoon Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt (founder of the family fortune), spared no expense in furnishing the palatial abode, which once sat on 125,000 acres. Today’s Biltmore Estate, owned and managed by descendants, comprises 8,000 pastoral acres consisting of farmland, forest preserves, gardens and visitor facilities. It is a National Historic Landmark.
Biltmore House is a French Renaissance edifice designed by Richard Morris Hunt, one of the Gilded Age’s most famous architects. He and George Vanderbilt traveled around Europe collecting art and antiques and gathering inspiration from great country houses. Rich paneling, ornately carved wood, and priceless tapestries and paintings dazzle visitors as they tour four floors via audio guide.
Boasting 175,000 square feet (four acres) of floor space and a 780-foot-long facade, the four-story mansion, billed as America’s Largest Home®, has 65 fireplaces, 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. It contains 11 million bricks. The limestone exterior, noted for its steeply pitched roof, is adorned with gargoyles, statues and other stone embellishments. Construction required six years and around 1,000 workers, from local laborers to internationally known artists.
Highlights of Biltmore House
The biggest and most impressive room is the medieval-style Banquet Hall, with its seven-story ceiling, massive triple fireplace, pipe organ and 16th century Flemish tapestries. Here George and Edith Vanderbilt entertained guests at lavish dinners featuring musical and dance performances. There were up to 10 courses and as many as five wine pairings. Dining tables sparkled with hand-blown crystal, gleaming silver, lustrous hand-painted china and artfully arranged flowers. An army of servants ensured that linens were crisp and white.
Guests of the Vanderbilts enjoyed breakfast and luncheon in the Breakfast Room, which has two paintings by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Young Algerian Girl and Child with an Orange) and two large family portraits by John Singer Sargent, the most acclaimed society portraitist of the era.
The magnificent two-story library, with its black marble fireplace and carved walnut mantle, is a testament to George Vanderbilt’s lifelong passion for books and contains nearly half of his 22,000-volume collection. Look up at the ceiling to admire The Chariot of Aurora, a colossal 1720s painting originally located in a palace in Venice, Italy.
The 90-foot-long Tapestry Gallery, another guest favorite, features three Flemish tapestries from a 1530s set known as The Triumph of the Seven Virtues, plus family portraits, including one of George Vanderbilt by Sargent and one of Edith by James McNeil Whistler. From the loggia, an extension of the Tapestry Gallery, stop and drink in views of Biltmore’s Deer Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond. You might see horseback riders in the distance, as the Equestrian Center offers guided trail rides. Carriage rides provide another way to see Biltmore’s scenic backyard.
The basement, not as glamorous as the upper floors, is intriguing nonetheless. Guests see the kitchens, female servants’ bedrooms, the swimming pool, gymnasium and bowling alley. Wall scenes in the Halloween Room were painted in 1925 by Cornelia Vanderbilt, the only child of George and Edith, and her husband, British diplomat John Cecil. (The Cecils’ grandchildren, William A.V. Cecil, Jr., and Diana Cecil Pickering, run Biltmore Estate and other Biltmore Company enterprises.)
Shop and Dine in the Former Stables
Adjacent to Biltmore House, the original horse stables and carriage barn hold shops and eateries. The Stable Cafe specializes in Appalachian comfort food. Farm-to-table fare at the cafe and other Biltmore restaurants relies on estate-grown and -raised provisions—berries, salad greens, herbs, eggs, and prime cuts of hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and lamb from Angus cattle and White Dorper sheep—and ingredients supplied by local farmers and producers. The Stable Cafe’s Biltmore Estate Southern Meatloaf, made with the farm’s Black Angus beef, comes with garlic mashed potatoes, bacon-braised collard greens, house barbecue sauce and a topping of crispy onions. Or try the Bison Short Rib Grilled Cheese on sourdough, Carolina barbecue specialties or rotisserie-roasted chicken or turkey.
In the cobbled courtyard between the house and stables, the Courtyard Market Cafe serves premium hot dogs and sausages, pulled pork sandwiches, chili, tomato bisque and other items in a casual outdoor setting. The courtyard’s Bake Shop and Biltmore Dairy Bar offer sweet treats. Shops inside the stables purvey books, toys, plants and gardening accessories, chocolates and other confections, and Christmas decorations and collectibles.
Gardens and Grounds
Biltmore’s grounds and gardens deserve as much attention as the house. There is something in bloom all year. The 15-acre Azalea Garden, one of the country’s largest, captivates springtime visitors.
Vanderbilt commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, to come up with a master plan for the entire estate, both its forestlands and gardens. Guests will see evidence of Olmsted’s magic in the formal gardens and naturalistic areas.
The four-acre Walled Garden showcases the changing seasons, from spring bulbs to autumn mums. In the lower half of the garden, the Rose Garden includes some of the same varieties purchased for the estate in 1895. At one end of the Walled Garden, the historic Conservatory, a glass-roofed building designed by Hunt, is home to exotic and tropical plants, including palms, poinsettias, orchids, hibiscus, bamboo, ferns and dwarf banana trees. As it did long ago, the greenhouses still supply the house with flowers. On the back patio, the Conservatory Cafe serves light snacks and wines from the Biltmore Winery. From the Conservatory, the Azalea Garden Path leads to the Bass Pond and its picturesque Boat House.
The Olmsted-designed Deer Park, a 250-acre area on the south and west sides of the house, was meant to be a place for strolling or riding through the groves of trees. Guests can walk or bike the 1.2-mile Deer Park Trail to the Lagoon by the French Broad River.
Additional Options at Biltmore Estate
Visitors to Biltmore Estate can extend their experience at Antler Hill Village & Winery, where they can shop, dine, taste wines, view a revealing exhibition, and mingle with animals at the historic barn and farmyard. Demonstrations of crafts like blacksmithing and woodworking showcase turn-of-the-20th-century farm life. The Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate, in the heart of Antler Hill Village, provides overnight accommodations. Nearby is The Inn on Biltmore Estate, an upscale property offering elegant dining and sweeping views.
The winery, opened in 1985, is housed in Biltmore’s former dairy barn, where guests at one time could view the milking rooms, sample the milk and buy ice cream. The wines are crafted from grapes grown on the estate and partner vineyards in the region and West Coast.
Visitors to Antler Hill Village (five miles from Biltmore House) should not miss The Biltmore Legacy building. Exhibits explore the lives of the Vanderbilts, their travels abroad and the family’s history. One video features comments by Diana (“Dini”) Cecil Pickering.
Antler Hill’s Outdoor Adventure Center arranges bike rentals, river float trips and other activities.
Amherst at Deerpark event center, across the road from the carriage and trail ride barns, features immersive, multi-sensory, multi-screen experiences using digital technology and surround sound. As part of the Legends of Art and Innovation series, “Monet & Friends – Life, Light & Color” spotlights the works of Claude Monet and other Impressionists through July 10, 2022. “Leonardo da Vinci – 500 Years of Genius” runs from July 14, 2022 to February 20, 2023. “Van Gogh Alive” was on display in late 2021 and early 2022.
Just across from the entrance to Biltmore Estate is Biltmore Village, a commercial/residential neighborhood with some 70 shops, cafes and restaurants. Designed as an English-style community by architects Hunt, Olmsted and Richard Sharp Smith, the community of stucco cottages and stores with half-timbered facades dates from the 1890s. The development was created to house the craftsmen, gardeners, foresters and other staff hired to maintain the estate.
Find Biltmore Estate visitor information here.
Information on other Asheville attractions is available from Explore Asheville.
By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Lead photo courtesy of Biltmore Estate