The sophisticated but down-to-earth university town of Charlottesville, Virginia - located in the eastern foothills of Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, just a two-hour drive from Fairfax - draws people in with its Southern charm and makes it hard to let go. Whether you’re a history buff, a wine connoisseur, an arts lover, or are just in the mood for some R&R, Charlottesville is well worth repeat visits to its many museums, galleries, wineries, breweries, shops, and parks.
Formed by charter in 1762 and named for Princess Charlotte, wife of England’s King George III, Charlottesville claims two U.S. Presidents (Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe) as native sons. (A third, James Madison, hailed from nearby Orange County). Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello, lures approximately half a million visitors every year, and along with the University of Virginia, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Besides its historical and academic significance, Charlottesville offers numerous cultural (high- and not-so-high-brow) attractions, proximity to Shenandoah National Park, and various events and festivals throughout the year (coming up soon: Fridays After Five, a weekly summer concert series on the Downtown Pedestrian Mall).
Thomas Jefferson died at home on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after Congress adopted his Declaration of Independence. “All my wishes end where I hope my days will end,” he wrote, “at Monticello.” The third president’s presence is still felt so much in Charlottesville that locals call the town “Mr. Jefferson’s Country.”
Not to miss:
931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy
Jefferson began clearing the land for Monticello and leveling the mountaintop in 1768, when he was just 25 years old. The building of the house began in 1769. For more than 40 years, Jefferson was constantly involved with the construction and enlargement of the home. He sketched the drawings for the first house himself, based on what he had learned from architecture books published in England. Because Jefferson was away so often, his changes were not completed until 1809. Letters show that even in 1825, just the year before he died, Jefferson was still making alterations to Monticello, calling it his “essay in architecture.” From April 7 - October 31, don’t miss the Gardens and Grounds Walking Tours of Monticello’s restored flower and vegetable gardens, grove, and orchards, all of which highlight Jefferson’s long-standing passion for horticulture.
University of Virginia
The original grounds of the university were designed by Thomas Jefferson as an “Academical Village.” Founded in 1819, the University was the first nonsectarian university in the country. The Rotunda, a signature landmark of the University, is one-third the scale of the Pantheon in Rome. A plaque over the door of No. 31 marks the room of Woodrow Wilson. You can take a free guided tour of the Rotunda and Lawn during the regular academic year, or you can wander on your own and soak up the collegiate atmosphere.
Downtown Pedestrian Mall
Across the Main Street from the University of Virginia campus, in an area known as The Corner, are the customary eateries and shops catering to students, but keep walking (or better yet, take the trolley) until you get to the Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall, a brick-lined walkway boasting quirky shops, gelato and cappuccino cafes, casual dining spots, street performers and more. You’ll see a mix of students, faculty, locals, and visitors alike, all enjoying the small-town “village” feel.
2050 James Monroe Parkway
The restored home of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and close friend of Thomas Jefferson, this 550-acre estate is a recreation of a working farm, complete with spinning and weaving demonstrations, open-hearth cooking demonstrations, and tours of the house and gardens. Don’t miss a stroll through the 200-year old boxwood gardens.
Monticello Artisan Trail
Started in 2011, The Monticello Artisan Trail is a connected network of talented artisans who live and work throughout the Charlottesville area. Use the Artisan Trail Network to plan your trip to include the region’s back roads, craft artisan studios, agri-artisan gardens and farms, wineries and breweries, galleries and craft-related venues, local businesses and eclectic shops, and historical and cultural points of interest.
Virginia Wine Tour
Though Thomas Jefferson started the local wine industry, only recently has Virginia developed a reputation as a superb wine-growing region. The Central Virginia region has 10 wine trails to explore and 76 wineries to sip your way through. (If you’d rather hoist a brew instead, check out www.brewridgetrail.com.)