There’s something epic about walking in the footsteps of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia captured his heart from an early age. Jefferson moved to Monticello in November of 1770, his “sweet little mountain,” enjoying sweeping views of forests east of town to the impressive Blue Ridge Mountains west of town.
Down from the mountain
Modern day visitors can still feel Jefferson’s presence and see the charms of the area. Monticello was his home for decades, even as public office held him from this mountain-top refuge. Without a doubt, Monticello is the number one attraction in Charlottesville for good reason. The mansion is well-preserved, open to the public 364 days per year, has excellent tours of the home and gardens, and a good place to visit rain or shine. The surrounding forest purifies the air near Monticello making it a pleasure to breathe deeply as you stroll the expansive grounds.
Check Monticello’s website for special events to make the most of your trip. Choose from events like archeology tours, cooking classes, tasting summer fruits from the orchard and garden, and a September full-day harvest festival to name a few. Plan ahead and your trip will be the best possible for your special interests. It would be easy to spend the whole day at Monticello and with a decent onsite restaurant called Café at Monticello, explore offerings like cold sandwiches, gourmet grilled cheese, BBQ pork sandwich, soup, and a large snack section to stifle your hunger. Some of the fruits and vegetables at the café are grown onsite.
Thomas Jefferson would occasionally head down the mountain for quality in-town time and so shall you. Charlottesville possesses one of the best pedestrian malls in the U.S.A. known as the Downtown Mall. Check out the variety of shops, restaurants, and events. Parking at one of two multi-level garages is a breeze and puts you close to the action.
Not enough visitors are aware of the burgeoning music and arts scene in Charlottesville. Many musical events take place at the Sprint Pavilion on the east end of the Downtown Mall. Most of these concerts feature well known music stars and cost around 50 USD to 90 USD. The historic Paramount Theater is another downtown venue for musical performances. The Paramount was recently named Outstanding Historic Theater by the League of Historic American Theaters.
Brantley Ussery of Visit Charlottesville told me “There’s also the relatively new IX Art Park located a few blocks south of the Downtown Mall which offers up concerts and music performances periodically throughout the year.” He also said “On the grounds at the University of Virginia is the John Paul Jones Arena, which has hosted mega-performers such as Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Lady Gaga, and more.” Check the website, Visit Charlottesville, for up-to-date events, both musical and other types so you don’t miss out.
If you love great bakeries
Restaurants and bakery choices near the Downtown Mall will please most tastes. You will find the more than 100 independent cafes, restaurants, bistros, grills, and pubs providing a world-class food scene. Try the Downtown Grille on the mall for steaks and seafood for a fine-dining favorite of locals. Brazos Tacos serves affordable Mexican food that is also vegetarian and vegan friendly. In the Belmont area close to downtown Charlottesville is a collection of excellent restaurants with outdoor dining areas. Try one of a dozen popular eateries like Tavola for authentic Italian food, Mas Tapas for Spanish inspired food and wine, or Mexican food at La Taza for their all-day brunch menu.
For those that love a good bakery, Charlottesville has three delicious bakeries just a muffin toss apart near the Downtown Mall. Check out the Pie Chest for hot savory pies, fruit pies, and one of the best renditions of a bourbon pecan pie ever. Three blocks off the mall on 418 West Main Street find Albemarle Baking Company. Here you will find decadent cakes, single serving size pies, authentic French baguettes, and buttery-sweet Danish rolls that are some of the best anywhere.
The third entry for over-the-top baked goods is Paradox Pastry. At Paradox, try what many say is the best quiche in town. Grab a slice of spinach, onion, and bleu cheese or asparagus, goat cheese, and leek quiche for a mouth-watering breakfast. Since you are on vacation, for a bit more decadence add an almond croissant to your splurge. They also serve frittatas, oatmeal, good morning muffins, and tea breads at breakfast time. Paradox has great soups, sandwiches, and salads at lunch time. Don’t miss their impressive cake menu with names like Billy Idol, Guinness Stout Chocolate, Beyond Carrot Cake, or the Wicked Torte to name a few.
Brews and vines
A world-class wine country is emerging around the central Virginia landscape and Charlottesville is well positioned for visitors to take part in wine touring. The Monticello American Viticultural Area would make Thomas Jefferson proud. You will find wines that are drawing praise from magazines like Wine Spectator saying this is one of the best emerging wine regions in the world!
At Barboursville Vineyards, plan on having lunch at Palladio before visiting their tasting room next door. Famous food writer John Mariani said about Palladio “Unquestionably, one of the finest and most authentic Italian restaurants in the United States.” After lunch, try either the main tasting room, or the top-shelf selections in Library 1821 where special flights of wines are offered on weekends only. The Octagon series is a premium red wine blend paying homage to Thomas Jefferson and is served by the glass at Barboursville’s Library 1821.
Craft beer is also making a mark on the area. Beer lovers will find around a dozen craft breweries in and around Charlottesville to quench their thirst. Try Three Notch’d Brewing Company in Charlottesville in the historic dairy building on Grady Avenue. Free tours are given every Saturday at 2 p.m. or come on a Thursday for new beer releases. South Street Brewery is another good choice and has a local-artisan inspired menu of starters, sandwiches, and entrees. Happy Hour at South Street Brewery runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. with 2 USD brews.
Outdoor activities and lodging
Golfers have six choices for a day outdoors chasing the little white balls to and fro. Choose from public course like Lake Monticello, Boar’s Head Inn, or Meadow Creek. Other courses include private country club courses like Farmington, or resort course like Keswick Hall. Other popular outdoor activities include hiking Shenandoah National Park, Ragged Mountain, and Ivy Creek natural areas. The Charlottesville area is also good for bicycling, canoeing, kayaking, and skydiving.
Lodging choices include B&Bs, hotels, resorts, and inns. If you avoid peak travel periods and University of Virginia events, the rates tend to be quite reasonable. For a hotel in the middle of downtown, try the Omni Charlottesville Hotel. The Omni puts you in walking distance to dozens of restaurants and shops. A good choice close to the University of Virginia is the new Country Inn and Suites by Carlson. Throughout the area you will find excellent historic B&B properties to immerse you in the Virginia culture.
Once is not enough
Unless you spend a month or more exploring Charlottesville, I believe you will need to come back again and again as I have done. One taste of this historic city is not enough.