The region immediately around Charlottesville was home to three American Presidents – Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison (the 3rd, 4th and 5th Presidents of the United States) – an impressive record for any city but especially surprising from one with such a small population (currently just over 100,000).
We've discussed Thomas Jefferson and a visit to Monticello before on this website and the interested reader is referred to this link if interested. This blog focuses on other sites of interest in charming Charlottesville, besides iconic Monticello.
Further uphill, past Monticello, lies Ash Lawn-Highland, the 500+ acre home of President James Monroe, one of Jefferson’s friends. Monroe was a dedicated public servant and also a man of accomplishment, having negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and formulated the Monroe doctrine. While President he made great efforts to travel the country and connect with its citizens. Jefferson helped Monroe select the home site and design its landscape. But in comparison to Monticello, Ash-Lawn Highland is a very small and simple home (which now is under the stewardship of the College of William and Mary). A tour of the home is available and takes around a half an hour; its furnishings are lovely and interesting as most did actually belong to Monroe. But it’s no Monticello. If you’re pressed for time, focus only on Monticello.
Michie Tavern, a few miles downhill from Monticello, is a great place for lunch if you've visited Monticello in the morning. They offer a southern-cooking style buffet, wonderfully delicious and very recommended.
After lunch we did a 30 minute tour of the historic tavern which was interesting but also could be skipped if you’re rushed for time. The tavern was built in the late 1700s and moved to the current site in 1927. The tour included a discussion of how a Colonial tavern/inn functioned and was furnished. The tavern has many rare period collectibles, such as maps created by Jefferson’s father. Several older restored buildings are present on the grounds of the tavern, including a mill, blacksmith shop and tobacco drying barn.
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
The University of Virginia is not to be missed, in my opinion second only to Monticello in importance and together with it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My wife and I typically enjoy visiting universities and colleges on our travels, so this University was a real treat. President Jefferson was a strong advocate of public education and firmly believe that a well-educated society could effectively govern itself. Much of Jefferson’s “retirement” was involved in the conception, planning, architectural design and building of the University, and he even was involved in developing its curriculum and hiring its faculty.
The University is beautiful. The original design incorporated only 2 acres, with the Rotunda (designed after the Pantheon in Rome) at its focal point. The lawn behind the Rotunda frames a series of architecturally beautiful lecture halls (Pavilions) and student dormitories (Jefferson believed it was important for students and their faculty to mingle). Over the years the original 2 acre campus with 120 students has expanded to 3500 acres with almost 20,000 students. Its Art Museum is especially well known. U.of V. is a beautiful complex and the governors of the University have done an excellent job in overseeing that expansion was compatible with Jefferson’s vision. I’m sure Jefferson would be very proud to see it today. (Of interest, one of the University’s most famous students is Edgar Allen Poe)
Charlottesville is a charming college “village” (as they like to call it). It has done a fine job revitalizing its Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall with assorted shops, cafes, restaurants and theaters that make for an interesting stroll and some window-shopping. Many of the buildings lining the mall are beautifully designed, even elegant. We never had a chance to eat here, but I hear many of the restaurants serve fine cuisine.
THINGS TO DO NEAR CHARLOTTESVILLE
There are many beautiful drives in the state, one of the most interesting being through the vineyards and farmland between Charlottesville and Orange, a route that President Jefferson often rode by buggy in the early 1800s when he visited his good friend President James Madison at his magnificent estate, Montpelier. We really enjoyed seeing the rolling hills, vineyards and cattle herds. Jefferson also had a plantation retreat at Poplar Forest, North of Charlottesville. Poplar Forest was a private oasis for the retired President when he needed time to get away from his many visitors and statesman duties at Monticello and recharge his mental batteries.
The area is home to many fine vineyards and for those who enjoy wine tours this is an excellent destination. The Monticello Wine Trail passes over 20 vineyards, including some of Virginia’s most famous such as Barboursville vineyards.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit to Charlottesville as much as we did! The thumbnails below have additional photos from this visit which you can enlarge if you're interested.