Get a glimpse into life as the Vanderbilts this holiday season
The sprawling Biltmore mansion in Asheville, North Carolina, built by George Vanderbilt in the 1890s, is as close to a castle as we have in the United States. It is mind-bogglingly huge: 250 rooms over more than 178,000 square feet — that’s over four acres of floor space in the house alone.
With 101 bedrooms and 45 bathrooms, the French Renaissance chateau-style mansion took six years to build. It boasts an indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, massive library with more than 10,000 volumes, and many riches in antiques and artwork. It’s also part of a much larger estate that sprawls across 8,000 acres and includes a village with shops, restaurants, and a winery.
Tis the Season
While Biltmore makes for an incredible visit at any time, it’s especially enchanting during the Christmas holiday season. After winding down two miles of a drive from the estate’s main entrance, the first glimpse that you get of the three-story manse is jaw-dropping always — and between early November and early January, it’s pure magic, with the soft glow of luminaries along the drive, twinkling lights on the huge Norway spruce tree on the front lawn, and dozens of Christmas trees throughout the home.
My daytime tour through Biltmore House in November gave me not only the stories behind its creation, and the look inside such an incredible home (the largest in America), but it also felt even more special with flickering candles and crackling fires in the hearth in almost every room. In the massive banquet hall, one of the first rooms that you encounter on a self-guided tour, a docent with a group of schoolchildren explained the process, and excitement, that staff members have decorated the home for the holidays.
The towering Christmas tree at one end of the dining room is laden with wrapped gift boxes not only under its boughs but placed on its branches throughout the tree. The guide explained that this is exactly the way the tree would have been done during George Vanderbilt’s residence here with his family. In that Gilded Age of the late 1800s and early 1900s, presents were placed throughout the tree.
Christmas Visit Itinerary
It’s only fitting that Christmas be highly celebrated at Biltmore — George Vanderbilt opened the home to family and friends on Christmas Day in 1895. As decked out as the house and grounds were during the daytime, a Candlelight Christmas Evening package is the optimal way to visit Biltmore during the season.
Those tickets include a special evening reservation to tour the home, as well as daytime admission to the gardens, Antler Hill Village & Winery, and the rest of the estate. The best plan of action is to come out early to drive the estate, stopping along the way to walk the gardens and other trails and pathways. The daytime admission is good for the day after your Christmas Evening reservation, as well, so you can visit the rest of the estate either the day of or the day after.
Don’t miss the Conservatory in the gardens — it’s decked out with hundreds of red, pink, and white poinsettia plants, along with its usual amazing array of hothouse flowers such as exotic orchids. One room also has a fun toy train that makes its way along the tracks, delighting children and adults alike. The Conservatory is a great place to snap some gorgeous holiday family photos.
After the gardens and grounds, make your way to Antler Village for lunch, stroll the village lit with glittering cascades of light and a flowing fountain, and check out some of the shops there.
Later in the afternoon, take a tour of the winery and enjoy a free tasting in the tasting room (it’s the most-visited winery in the U.S.). Then, Biltmore House awaits in all its nighttime glory for your evening tour reservation. During these special evenings, choirs and soloists provide live music inside the house, lending a real holiday spirit to the visit.
Interesting Facts about Biltmore
There are many fascinating and surprising things to learn in a visit to Biltmore Estate. Before my visit, I was mostly thinking about the vast wealth, over the top opulence, and to be honest, perhaps a sense of waste and arrogance that must have gone into the undertaking of such a place for personal pleasure. But I was surprised by many aspects of the home’s history, and the Vanderbilt family itself.
- First, the home is still privately owned by the descendants of George Vanderbilt. The current family members to own the estate and oversee the Biltmore Company are siblings Dini Pickering and Bill Cecil, great-grandchildren of George and Edith Vanderbilt. While I was touring the home, another guide was telling guests how Pickering and Cecil still live on the property and often come to the house to check things out, dressed in blue jeans and mingling with day visitors who have no idea that the family members are in their midst.
On the website, Bill Cecil says, “Since 1895, Biltmore has had the natural beauty of the mountains and the majestic house and gardens to beguile us, inspire us, and allow us to escape from the everyday. Biltmore is still family-owned, and we are still passionate about our mission of preservation through self-sufficiency – a philosophy embraced before the first stone was ever placed. We remain self-sustaining through innovation, creative thinking, and listening to guests who continue to tell us they want more ways to connect with Biltmore.”
- Biltmore has also been recognized in many ways for environmental stewardship. In 2012, the Asheville GreenWorks Hall of Fame Award was presented to Biltmore for its sustainability initiatives, including a new solar array and a tree protection project. It has been a century-old model for forest conservation, and it has a model precedent for that: the gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind New York City’s Central Park.
- The Music Room at Biltmore House was a secret storage place for some of the country’s most valuable art during World War II. For their safekeeping, priceless works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. were kept hidden there; Edith Vanderbilt never charged a penny for it, saying it was her civil and patriotic duty.
- You can stay overnight at Biltmore Estate. Two options are available: The Inn on Biltmore Estate, a four-star hotel; Village Hotel for more casual three-star accommodations; and the Cottage on Biltmore Estate, a historic two-bedroom/two-bathroom home offering personalized service for a truly unique experience.
Other Upcoming Special Events
After the winter holiday season, Biltmore offers several other upcoming experiences:
A Vanderbilt House Party — The Gilded Age
Experience America’s Largest Home® in an entirely new way: by imagining yourself a Vanderbilt houseguest at a turn-of-the-century house party. This new exhibition brings this festive celebration to life through vivid audio storytelling and displays of elegant clothing recreated from archival Vanderbilt photos and portraits. An integral part of this experience, a new premium Audio Guide (free with online ticket purchase) immerses you in another place and time. Innovative 360° sound techniques combine with stories told by characters based on people who lived and worked at Biltmore in the early 1900s.
Winter at Biltmore (January 7-March 31) offers the lowest admission rates of the year, during the slowest time. Biltmore Blooms (April 1-May 23) is the period when the estate comes alive, and you can marvel at acres of ever-changing blossoms in the historic gardens. Summer at Biltmore (May 24-September 2) offers such fun family-friendly outdoor activities as hiking, biking, river float trips, and fly-fishing.
Regular Ongoing Activities
Year-round, a host of tours and activities are available at Biltmore. These include equestrian rides, primitive camping, bicycle, and electric trike tours, guided hikes, falconry, sporting clay lessons, rafting, Segway tours, Land Rover tours, and more. There is also a calendar of regular live music at the hotels and Antler Hill Village.