Best Things To Do in Charlottesville
Charlottesville is the perfect place to explore our nation's past (at Monticello or Ash Lawn-Highland, homes of some of the first presidents of the United States) or our nation's future (at the University of Virginia, where some of the country's brightest students matriculate). Or you could just relish in the here and now. To do so, we'd recommend taking a scenic trip through Skyline Drive, about 40 miles north in the Shenandoah National Park, or taking a boozy tour of one of the vineyards on the Monticello Wine Trail.
Updated January 27, 2017
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Charlottesville's popular shops, restaurants and ambiance converge in one main area, known as the Historic Downtown Mall. Located, as you would imagine, on Main Street, this thoroughfare is home to more than 120 shops, 30 restaurants (many with outdoor seating), 10 art galleries, multiple performance venues, an ice skating rink and a Saturday farmers market. Stretching for eight blocks, this pedestrian-only area is popular with both visitors and locals, who say it's the perfect spot to shop, eat or simply people-watch.
In the spring, summer and fall, the mall's Charlottesville Pavilion hosts musical acts like Modest Mouse, Wiz Khalifa and Alabama Shakes. You can also catch free concerts at the pavilion every Friday from mid-April to mid-September as part of its Fridays After Five concert series. The mall's historical Paramount Theater is a great space to catch fine art performances like the Ash Lawn Opera. The only gripe among recent visitors? Parking. There is limited street parking (which is free), but there are plenty of spots in the Water Street Parking Garage, which charges $2 per hour.
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A little trivia for you: Did you know the University of Virginia is the only university in the United States to be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO? And it's not hard to see why — it's a bastion of U.S. education, and it holds an unofficial reputation for containing the country's most magnificent campus grounds. It's also historically significant, as it was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 as the first nonsectarian (or nonreligious) university in the country. Charlottesville visitors don't just tour UVA as prospective students, they also come just to relish in its spectacle.
Recent visitors gushed about the gorgeous grounds and highly recommended taking a tour. Historical tours begin in the Small Special Collections Library and are offered daily (except on football game days at the university); hourlong tours start at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The university also offers "specialty tours," which expand on singular aspects of the university's past, such as the history of African Americans. These tours are offered at 4 p.m. every Friday. You can also request different specialty tours.
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Monticello is more than just Thomas Jefferson's former living quarters; it's also an architectural masterpiece. First-time visitors are amazed by the majesty of the mansion and the grounds and frequent guests like to return for in-depth history lessons on the American Revolutionary period, plantation life and more. Over the course of some 40 years, Jefferson incorporated touches of Italian and Parisian architectural styles into the building of his home. He also employed a few custom-made designs to facilitate house operations. Most recommend giving yourself plenty of time to explore all that's in store. But prepare to pay handsomely — day passes cost $25 for adults from March to October and $20 from November to February. Admission for children 5 and younger is always $8.
In addition to the guided tour of the first floor of the house (you'll have to pay extra to see the upper floors), day passes also include tours of the gardens and grounds and a guided outdoor tour detailing the experiences of the slaves who lived and worked on the plantation. Previous visitors highly recommended attending both supplemental tours and said the slavery tour addresses the topic in an informative, unbiased manner. And when you're not marveling at the grounds and house, make the most of your visit by spending some time exploring the exhibits in the visitors center (where you'll start your visit and pick up your ticket). Instead of taking the provided shuttle from the center to the house, take a leisurely walk on the Saunders-Monticello Trail — a must, according to recent travelers.
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Just ask any recent, frequent or past visitor, and they'll tell you the same: Taking the leisurely Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains is nothing short of divine. Stretching for 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive is the only public road through the 200,000-acre park. When you're not gazing at the Shenandoah Valley, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife: deer, black bears, wild turkeys and a bevy of other woodland animals are known to cross Skyline Drive, which is why the speed limit is only 35 mph.
Reviewers gushed about simply rolling down the windows and taking in the breathtaking scenery, but they also recommended pulling off the road to admire the view from one of the drive's 75 overlooks. The scores of fans do offer words of caution, however. For one, you'll have a more relaxing trip if you visit on a weekday. Fill your tank before you enter the park, because gas stations are few and far between. And if you want to hike some of the Shenandoah trails, they suggest you visit in fall when the air is crisp and less muggy. Lastly, there is food in the park, but it's park food in every sense. You'll save your taste buds (and your spare change) if you pack your own goodies.
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According to recent visitors, fall is the best time to visit Carter Mountain Orchard, and it's not just because it's prime apple-picking season. The sweeping views of Charlottesville's autumn colors as seen from the orchard's overlook are not to be missed. In fact, some recent visitors said the views alone are worth the trip to Carter Mountain Orchard.
When you're not ogling the panoramic views, browse the country store for freshly picked fruit (from mid-August until mid-December, you can also pick your own) or other goodies like homemade apple cider doughnuts, apple pies and apple caramel cookies. Depending on the season, you can also pick your own pumpkins and hop on a hayride.
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Did you know that James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson were neighbors? It's true – and while many travelers delight in learning about Thomas Jefferson and his home life at Monticello, few realize that less than 2 miles south is Highland, the home of our fifth president. Recent travelers assure you that both houses are worth your notice; Monticello for its grandeur and Highland for its quaintness. Another bonus: this little-heard-of farmhouse rarely contains the stifling crowds of TJ's home and features some of the Monroe family's original furnishings. Plus, the admission fee is considerably more reasonable. Though its size makes it more manageable to tour, Highland doesn't offer as much to see as Monticello, according to recent visitors. Travelers said the quality of your experience depends on your guide. Luckily, according to reviewers, many of the guides are incredibly knowledgeable.
Monroe's abode is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April to October. From November to March, Highland is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided house tours, which last 35 minutes, are included in the entrance fee. Admission costs $14 for adults and $8 for children ages 6 to 11. If you plan to visit Highland, Monticello and the Michie Tavern museum in the same day (which is doable, according to travelers), consider purchasing the Monticello Neighborhood Pass, which includes admission to all three and offers a savings of $6 for adults. For more information, visit the home's official website.
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Jefferson Vineyards is one of Charlottesville's favorite wineries for several reasons. One, its heritage (commissioned by Thomas Jefferson who donated this part of his land to a viticulturist for the purpose of producing wine); two, its size (22 acres of vines that produce between 6,000 and 8,000 cases annually) and three, its low tasting fee (only $12, and you get to take your tasting glass home). Its convenient location, a little more than a mile southeast of Monticello, isn't too shabby either.
It's for these reasons that travelers highly recommend stopping at the vineyard. When you're not sampling the vino in the tasting room, grab a bottle and park yourself on the outdoor lawn space or indoor seating area for some truly spectacular views. You're welcome to bring your own picnic or stop next door to Salt, an artisan market, to pick up some local eats. Aside from the quality of the wine, recent travelers were also impressed with the knowledgeable staff, who visitors said provided a wealth of information about the wine and the vineyard's far-reaching history. The only gripe among reviewers was that there was no discount on wine bottles for visitors to the tasting room.
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In 2000, Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews Band) and his family purchased some Piedmont region farmland. His original purpose was to preserve its historic significance (it was once the home of Secretary of Virginia Colony John Carter and housed a Revolutionary War prisoner, British Gen. William Phillips). But Matthews later decided to also plant some grape vines, and thus, a popular Charlottesville vineyard was born. Almost 20 years later, travelers still make a point to stop at Blenheim Vineyards for its history, its picturesque surroundings and its novelty.
Though Dave Matthews fans are united in their love of Blenheim, they're not the only ones offering praise for this vineyard. Recent travelers highly recommended adding Blenheim to your itinerary, especially if you're partial to reds. Though reviewers do note that it's smaller than the area's other vineyards, they rave about the views from the tasting room and the outdoor terrace.
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Michie Tavern certainly has nostalgia in its favor. Originally erected in the late 1700s in Earlysville, Virginia, this historic landmark was once the hub for that town's passersby, providing food, drink and a cozy bed if necessary. In present day — and relocated about 13 miles south in Charlottesville — the tavern still serves up southern comfort for its guests, with a staff donning colonial garb. But Michie is more of a novel historic house than a foodie sensation. In fact, there are several recent visitors who say the cuisine isn't very good, particularly given how much it costs. (On the plus side, if you do decide to dine here, you'll score a discount on your tour ticket.) But according to some travelers, the grounds' general store, gift shop and metal smith shop are worth your notice and make the trip here worthwhile.
Others say that the self-guided tours of the property, though no more than $6 for adults, aren't worth the price when compared to the grandeur of Monticello or Ash Lawn-Highland. However, you can save on entrance fees to all three if you purchase the Monticello Neighborhood Pass, which offers a savings of $6 for adults. If you're interested in judging for yourself, you'll find the tavern open every day except for Christmas and New Year's Day. The Dining Room and shops have varying hours of operation by day and season. Continuous tours are generally run from 9 a.m. to 4:20 p.m. each day. Visit the official website for further details.
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