DC Excursion: Charlottesville and Monticello

Part of a series for DC residents and visitors on getting out of the city and into the world.

Virginia. When you think of Virginia, what comes to mind? Rolling hills. Stately plantations. Red brick and white colonnades. You picture farm markets and rustic antiques, coffee shops and genteel universities, used book stores and museums. You imagine the slow life, time for food and time for friends, time for books (Jefferson said he couldn’t live without them) and letters (Jefferson wrote nearly a dozen a day).

In other words, you imagine Charlottesville, VA, College Town USA, lifelong home to one of our nation’s greatest men–and consummate weekend destination. History buffs, antique hunters, shoppers, hikers, and diners alike flock to this quaint moutain town by the millions each year, and even a brief weekend visit is enough to learn why. Charlottesville combines the best of every big city and every small town: vibrant culture, deep history, friendly atmosphere, and beautiful surroundings. And at a less-than-three-hour drive from downtown Washington, DC, Charlottesville lets you get away from it all without going too far.

The Estates

The main attractions of Charlottesville are historical, and rightfully so, as the Charlottesville area was home to three of the nation’s founding fathers and early Presidents: Thomas Jefferson (3rd President and author of the Declaration of Independence), James Madison (4th President and author of the Constitution), and James Monroe (5th President and author of the Monroe Doctrine). What’s more, the homes of each of these titans of American history have been preserved for posterity in meticulous detail. James Madison’s Montpelier, located off of scenic State Route 20 between Fredericksburg and Charlottesville, offers stunning views of the distant Blue Ridge Mountains in addition to the standard education tours. All-inclusive admission to this famously elegant equestrian estate is $11 for adults, $6 for children, and discounts are available through AAA and the National Trust.

Monroe’s estate at Ash Lawn-Highland, located just outside of Charlottesvile and minutes from Monticelo, offers a stark contrast to the grandeur of Montpelier and the architectural and technological wonder of Jefferson’s adjacent plantation. Established at Jefferson’s urging, Monroe’s mountain retreat was originally known simply as “Highland,” and today operates as a working farm and museum operated through the College of William and Mary, the shared alma mater of Jefferson and Monroe. Admission ranges from $5-9.

Of the three Charlottesville-area estates, however, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is the undisputed gem. The only house in America to make it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, Monticello is a neo-classical architectural wonder, a testament to the voracious curiosity of one of American history’s greatest men. Monticello merits an entire afternoon, if not a day, to allow for enough time to hike the trail to the top of the mountain, explore the grounds, and read every last word of Monticello’s enormously entertaining and well-researched exhibits. All-inclusive admission ranges from $6-14. Visit in late October or early November for spectacular fall foliage and a respite from the summer season crowds.

Thirsty visitors to Ash Lawn and Monticello might also stop by historical Michie Tavern, an authentic recreated tavern and general store offering a traditional full-service menu of traditional Southern fare. If you plan on touring the tavern, be sure to look up the President’s Pass, which offers discounted admission to Ash Lawn-Highland, Monticello, and the Michie Tavern Museum.

The Town

Downtown Charlottesville is not without history itself, featuring a quaint Old Town area and the world-renowned University of Virginia, which was founded by Jefferson and is the Charlottesville area’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site (visitors’ information here.)

The jewel of Charlottesville, however, is its historic Downtown Mall, a pedestrian-only shopping zone that’s home to scores of independent, locally-owned restaurants, businesses, and boutiques. The Mall, as it’s known, is well worth a day: browse the half-dozen used and rare bookstores, eat in the iconic Hardware Store Restaurant, and engage in the favorite local pastime of hunting for antiques. After dark, the Mall turns into a nightlife hotspot, featuring numerous bars, brewpubs, and clubs, as well as concerts, movies, and plays. For more information, as well as a complete listing of restaurants, attractions, and events, visit the Charlottesville/Albemarle County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Verdict

Not only have the ladyfriend and I passed a wonderful weekend in Charlottesville and its environs, we’re already looking forward to going back in the Spring–Charlottesville also makes a great base camp for exploring Shenandoah National Park. Bonus: Charlottesville and Monticello are gleefully dog-friendly, which made Kipper a very happy pup.

10/10. An Absolute Must.

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