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Best Things To Do in Charlottesville
Charlottesville is the perfect place to explore our nation's past (at Monticello or 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 Shenandoah National Park (another must-visit destination in Virginia), or taking a boozy tour of one of the vineyards on the Monticello Wine Trail.
Updated September 23, 2020
- #1View all PhotosfreeDowntown Mall#1 in Charlottesville1.5 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/Area, ShoppingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND1.5 miles to city centerFree, Neighborhood/Area, ShoppingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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), art galleries, multiple performance venues 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 Sprint 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 from ballets to operas to musicals to films.
- #2View all Photos#2 in Charlottesville2.3 miles to city centerFree, Parks and Gardens, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerFree, Parks and Gardens, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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 Lower East Oval Room of the Rotunda and are offered daily during the academic school year (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 run at various times (guides are all students and therefore the schedule changes to accommodate class schedules). You can request different specialty tours using a form on the school's website.
- #3View all Photos#3 in Charlottesville0.7 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/Mansions, ToursTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND0.7 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/Mansions, ToursTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPEND
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 5,000-acre grounds and frequent guests like to return for in-depth history lessons on the American Revolutionary period, the role of slavery in the prosperity of the United States 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 (a minimum of three hours is recommended). But prepare to pay handsomely – day passes cost $29 for adults online and $33 at the ticket office. Admission for children 12 to 18 is $10 and free for those younger than 12.
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 400 enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation. Visitors interested in a complete picture of life at Monticello will also want to make time for the two-hour Hemings Family Tour, offered daily at 1:35 p.m. The tour aims to tell the story of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who bore at least six of Jefferson's children. There is also a digital exhibit within the house, "The Life of Sally Hemings," that relies on the son of Hemings and Jefferson, Madison, to tell his mother's story and provide a broader context about the legacy of race and slavery in the U.S.
- #4View all Photos#4 in Charlottesville1.2 miles to city centerFree, Recreation, ShoppingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND1.2 miles to city centerFree, Recreation, ShoppingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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 goodies like homemade apple cider doughnuts, apple pies and apple butter. It also sells decorative baskets, ornaments and other home goods.
- #5View all Photos#5 in Charlottesville20.1 miles to city centerNatural Wonders, Neighborhood/Area, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND20.1 miles to city centerNatural Wonders, Neighborhood/Area, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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.
- #6View all Photos#6 in Charlottesville2.3 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/MansionsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND2.3 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/MansionsTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Did you know that James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson were neighbors? It's true – and while many travelers delight in learning about Jefferson and his life at Monticello, few realize that 3 miles south is Highland, the home of our fifth president. The original residence was built in 1793, but was destroyed in a fire in the mid-1800s. Though the structure visitors see today is not the original, it still manages to offer a glimpse into the life of Monroe, his family and the enslaved people that resided on his property and maintained the plantation's crops.
Historians say that Monroe enslaved as many as 250 people in his lifetime, despite supporting abolition. During the property's guided tour, you'll learn about some of the individuals forced to work at Highland. The slave quarters on display today are reproductions of the originals, which remained on the site until the 1920s. Travelers can see the recreated quarters and view demonstrations of chores that were part of the daily lives of enslaved people at Highland. As part of an initiative by William & Mary – Monroe's alma mater and the institution charged with maintaining the property – the biographies of the men, women and children enslaved at Highland will soon be presented, along with oral histories of the descendants.
- #7View all Photos
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 (it boasts 22 acres of vines); and three, its low tasting fee (only $12 to taste eight wines, 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 wine 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 also welcome to bring your own picnic. 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. Reviewers do recommend visiting early, however, as the winery closes its doors early.
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Blenheim Vineyards is yet another Charlottesville site where Thomas Jefferson left his mark: TJ and his wife, Martha, regularly sojourned here. In more recent history, Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews band) purchased the land in 2000 and later decided to plant vines and thus a popular Charlottesville vineyard was born. Now, travelers 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. 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.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Charlottesville0.2 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/Mansions, ToursTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND0.2 miles to city centerHistoric Homes/Mansions, ToursTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
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 17 miles south in Charlottesville — the tavern still serves up southern comfort for its guests in its dining room, with a staff donning colonial garb. It also has a separate pub that serves snacks and locally made wine, beer and cider.
Michie is more of a novel historic house than a foodie sensation. In fact, there are several recent visitors who left unimpressed with their meals, particularly given how much it costs. But according to some travelers, the grounds' general store, gift shop and metalsmith shop are worth your notice and make the trip here worthwhile.
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