If you’ve never been to the Biltmore Estate, you should consider adding it to your bucket list. Located in Asheville, North Carolina, the Biltmore is the nation’s largest home. Grandson of industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt and heir to the family’s vast fortune, George Vanderbilt built the estate as his summer retreat in the late 19th Century.

The French Renaissance chateau-styled house has 250 rooms, ¬†including thirty-five bedrooms and forty-three bathrooms. The grand house took six years to construct and opened on Christmas Eve 1895. George was 33 years old and a bachelor when his palatial home was completed. Only grander than Biltmore House is the land on which it sits. The Biltmore is situated on 8,000 acres, and its name derives from the word “Bildt,” the Vanderbilt’s place of origin in Holland, and the Anglo-Saxon word “more” meaning open, rolling land.

Three years after opening his home, George married New Yorker Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris. After an extended honeymoon, he brought his new bride to Biltmore House. They had one daughter, Cornelia, who was born there in 1900 in the opulent Louis XV room. Sadly, George didn’t live very long to enjoy his home; he died in 1914 at the age of 51 from a ruptured appendix.

Edith and Cornelia remained in the house, and when Cornelia married British diplomat John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924, they made Biltmore House their home and raised two sons there.

When the Depression hit, the Cecils opened the Biltmore to the public in 1930 to increase tourism to the area and to generate income to preserve the estate.

Today, the fourth and fifth generations of George Vanderbilt’s descendants still own and oversee the operation of Biltmore. Under their supervision, they have expanded the estate, adding a winery; The Inn on Biltmore Estate; Antler Hill Village, a dining, shopping, and outdoor activity area; and the Village Hotel.

Located a little more than 450 miles from Pittsburgh, the Biltmore is a great place to spend a long weekend. Tours vary from self-guided to audio and from guided house tours to specials such as the rooftop tour and candlelight Christmas tour. Located minutes from trendy downtown Asheville, you can spend time exploring the past at Biltmore and then enjoying some of the hippest dining and art spots in the Appalachians in Asheville.

We were scheduled to be near Asheville on the weekend after Thanksgiving, and when we looked at the Biltmore’s website in mid-October, the Candlelight Christmas Evening tour was already booked. We were a bit disappointed that we would not be able to enjoy that tour, but nonetheless, when we arrived at the Biltmore for our 3:30 p.m. tour on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we were quite pleased to find that the estate was already decked out in its Christmas finery.

After exploring the shops and eateries at the Carriage House adjacent to the main house, we entered Biltmore House by way of the grand Entrance Hall just as the Vanderbilts and many of their guest had done more than a century ago.

Once inside, we purchased the audio guides, small phone-like receivers that supplied narration for each stop on the tour, at the kiosk in the main entry hall for $10 each, and they were well worth the expense. Nearly 40 different locations are on display in the house for the public to enjoy, everything from the indoor basement swimming pool and bowling alley to the servants’ quarters to the private bedrooms of both George and Edith Biltmore. The tour begins with The Winter Garden, which was illuminated with sun beams shining in through the glass roof. It was like a mini Phipps Conservatory. The audio guides pointed out noteworthy art work in each room and recounted details about the Vanderbilts and their lives that we would not have learned without them.

Adjacent to the Winter Garden is the Banquet Hall with its triple stone fireplaces and oak table capable of seating 38 guests. It looked like a hall where King Arthur would hold court. The enormous Library, Smoking Room, Billiard Room, Gun Room, and Music Room harkened back to the days when entertaining visitors was an elaborate undertaking and an art.

The personal quarters of George and Edith gave insight into their personalities and how the wealthy lived during the Gilded Age. For those who are fans of shows such as Downton Abbey, the tour of the kitchen left you feeling as if you had walked onto the set and would soon see Mr. Carson admonishing the wait staff.

Initially disappointed that we would not be able to take the Candlelight tour, we consoled ourselves by taking advantage of the daylight before our tour and exploring the numerous gardens that a tour after dark would have made futile.

The beauty of Biltmore is found not only in the palatial house but also in its grounds. George and his architect and landscape architect paid as much attention to the land as to the building they were constructing. November is not the best time for any garden, but the house sits atop a mountain plateau and provides a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge Mountains that is glorious any time of the year. No matter whether you are inside the house in the Loggia or in the family’s personal rooms, the house was designed to accentuate that exceptional vista.

Ticket prices depend on the day of your visit and range from $40 to $75, the higher being for peak times. The Biltmore is open 365 days a year and hours of operation vary. The admission also affords you a free wine tasting at the Biltmore’s Winery at Antler Hill Village.

Recreation abounds at the Biltmore, and there are special programs held throughout the year. Visiting Biltmore House and the gardens is just scratching the surface of all that there is to see and do there.