Imagine a gracious historic small town set against a serene backdrop of rolling hills and vineyards in Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, home to a thriving artists’ community and a vibrant cultural life, all within a two-and-a-half hour’s drive from Washington D.C. Welcome to Charlottesville!
The Mark of Jefferson
The city bears to this day the mark imparted upon it two centuries ago by its most illustrious citizen, Thomas Jefferson, one of the leading figures of the American Revolution and the man who penned the Declaration of Independence. In addition to his Monticello “Little Mountain” home, he founded and designed the University of Virginia. Both of these neoclassical (or Jeffersonian style) masterpieces are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, Monticello attracts half a million visitors annually and the University of Virginia, with its yearly enrollment of over 23,000 students, contributes significantly to the cultural vitality of the area.
The once Main Street is now Downtown Mall, an eight-block pedestrian walkway lined with restored historic buildings. Café terraces, restaurants and pubs mingle with antique shops, art galleries, fashion boutiques and several movie and live performance theatres. This favorite spot for tourists and locals alike includes a Freedom of Expression Wall where passersby can pen (in chalk) what’s on their mind. The wall is erased each night to give others an opportunity to express themselves.
Among the vineyards
Jefferson also made a significant, albeit posthumous, impact on the landscape of the area when he attempted to establish vineyards on land adjoining Monticello in 1774, only to have his efforts thwarted by the Revolutionary War. Fast-forward two centuries and a handful of determined growers inspired by his vision developed the Central Virginia Vineyard. Today Virginia has over 2,000 acres of vineyards, half of it around Charlottesville. Over 25 of these mainly boutique wineries form the Monticello Wine Trail and welcome visitors in their tasting rooms. The well-mapped itinerary meanders along some of the loveliest back roads of the greater Charlottesville area. One of the oldest, Jefferson Vineyard, is within a stone throw of Monticello, on the very land where Jefferson made his own winegrowing attempt.
The Artisan Trail
Central Virginia has been home to artisans and artists since early settlers brought their traditions of craftsmanship to these parts. Over time, they have developed into a thriving artistic community of potters, weavers, painters, woodcarvers and other artists of varying medias. Their creations can be admired and purchased in individual studios scattered along the scenic back roads of well as in downtown galleries.
All the Presidents Homes
In addition to Thomas Jefferson, the Charlottesville area was also home to two more of America’s Founding Fathers, James Monroe and James Madison, who were to become President of the United States. Their respective homes Monticello, Ash-Lawn Highland and Montpelier are now open to visitors.
Monticello. In its manicured hilltop setting, Jefferson’s palatial “essay in architecture” feels more like a museum than a home. The extensive guided visit through carefully curated exhibits expresses the importance of the residence as the core of Jefferson’s world and focuses on the renaissance man as well the political giant.
Ash-Lawn Highland. Nearby Ash-Lawn Highland, the estate of James Monroe has retained the unassuming atmosphere of a working plantation. The refurbished house, filled with the Monroes’ American and French furnishings (acquired when Monroe was Ambassador to France), is representative of the family’s private life.
Montpelier. A 40-minute drive from Charlottesville, in a 2,750 acre (1,113 hectare) estate of serene farmland, meadows and paddocks, James Madison’s Montpelier has been recently restored to its original neoclassical grace. The newly reconstituted interiors offer an insight into the lives and accomplishments of James and Dolley Madison. Especially telling for me is the second floor library where Madison is said to have spend several months studying past forms of governments, and pondering the guiding principles for a representative democracy that was to become the American Constitution.
Good to Know
- Charlottesville is located in Central Virginia, 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Richmond, and 115 miles (185 kilometers) southwest of Washington, D.C. With its wealth of attraction within a 20-mile (32 kilometer) radius of the city, a car is necessary to get around.
- Monticello is at 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia. monticello.org. It is open for guided visits seven days a week year-round excluding Christmas Day. Tours are every hour. The number of visitors per tour is limited. Advanced purchase of tickets is recommended.
- Ash-Lawn Highland is adjacent to Monticello at 2050 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia. ashlawnhighland.org. It is open seven days a week year-round excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Days.
- Montpelier is on Route 20 at 11350 Constitution Highway, in Orange, Virginia, 25 minutes north of Charlottesville. montpelier.org. It is opened seven days a week year-round excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas Days and the first two weeks in January.