Thanks to the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau for inviting us on a tour!
Article and photos by Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
If you live in Virginia and are looking for a fun, family-friendly getaway that does not involve air travel and requires little time on the road, consider a visit to the Charlottesville area. My family loves road trips, and we know many of our readers here do, too. At just two or so hours from Northern Virginia, Charlottesville is a great destination for travel at any time of year, requiring little to no time off from school or work.
In fact, I got to see all the places outlined below in just a couple of days. With a little careful planning, you could visit all of these places, and maybe even more. Wear comfortable shoes and bring your appetite! With lots to see, many historic sites, and great choices for restaurants, you will end your day a little tired, but with your bellies and minds full. Below we outline in detail:
Things to see
- University of Virginia
- Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson
- Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
- Blenheim Vineyards
- Carter Mountain Orchard
- Downtown Mall
- Gearharts Chocolates
Plus, I will outline suggestions for where to eat — Boar’s Head Inn, Michie Tavern, The Whiskey Jar, and Albemarle Baking Company — and where to stay (Residence Inn downtown).
University of Virginia
A centerpiece of Charlottesville is the University of Virginia (UVA). Thomas Jefferson, a founding father, the chief author of the Declaration of Independence, and third president of the United States, created what is now UVA. Jefferson designed the original grounds of the university, including the Rotunda and the Lawn, to be what he called an “Academical Village.” A visit to UVA is a must because of its rich history (in 1987, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added the University of Virginia and nearby Monticello to the list of World Heritage Sites).
What is now the university was a highly ambitious project at the time, with multiple buildings created at once. Jefferson designed the Rotunda as the centerpiece of this “Academical Village,” modeling it after the Pantheon in Rome, with the purpose of it housing the library and classrooms. The Rotunda was the last building on the lawn to be finished (in 1828) so Jefferson never got to see it completed.
Visitors can tour the Rotunda for free, with guided tours offered daily at 10 am, 11 am and 2 pm. The Rotunda has many signs explaining the history, as well some interactive displays, that tell the story of its creation and key events taking place during that time. You will learn about the workers and the slaves who built this massive project, and about the successes and strife. One wall display honestly tells about the clashes, sometimes violent, between students and faculty, and the struggles the school underwent before rising to national prominence.
Visitors also will see the chemical hearth, which was uncovered not long ago. During renovations of the Rotunda in 2015, conservators discovered a chemical hearth that was part of an early science classroom. Because it had been sealed in one of the lower-floor walls of the Rotunda since the 1850s, it was protected from the 1895 fire that destroyed much of the rest of the building. The hearth is now on permanent display.
The Lawn and the Gardens
The Academical Village includes a rectangular, terraced green space known as the Lawn, which is a key gathering place for the school or a nice space to relax or enjoy a picnic. Behind the pavilions on each side of the Lawn are the Gardens. This is a small but pretty garden space and you can’t miss it because of the walls surrounding it.
The Gardens are enclosed by serpentine brick walls, whose shape give them a distinct look, but the design is not just about appearances. The curves actually help to stabilize and strengthen the walls, which are just one brick thick, a testament to the attention to design and function that Jefferson put into the school.
As you tour the Lawn and Gardens, make sure to go by the nearby Ranges. These are rows of rooms in which graduate students now live, but the neat thing about them is who lived there before: West Range No. 13 is preserved as the Edgar Allan Poe Room, where the famous poet once briefly stayed, and No. 31 is the former room of Woodrow Wilson, another U.S. president.
UVA was established without a designated religious affiliation (unlike many other institutions at the time) and Jefferson had not wanted the school to be aligned with any one denomination. In 1885, construction began on the chapel, which now stands near the Rotunda and Gardens.
The chapel’s gothic style stands out against the Jeffersonian style throughout the rest of the Grounds, and today the interdenominational facility regularly hosts weddings, funerals and student organization events. The small church has several beautiful stained-glass windows.
Fralin Museum of Art
The Fralin Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Virginia has a collection of nearly 14,000 objects. This collection includes European and American painting, photography, works on paper, African art, and American Indian art on several levels. You can view the exhibits independently or take one of the tours that s graduate students, staff, and curators provide. The museum is open Tuesday through Sundays (closed on holidays) and admission is always free, with donations welcome. Plan about an hour to see everything on all floors, or a bit more time if you are an art aficionado.
You can’t say “Charlottesville” without immediately thinking of Monticello, the area’s most popular attraction. This stately mountaintop home is the architectural masterpiece of Thomas Jefferson and a can’t-miss stop in your Charlottesville itinerary.Located just outside the city, in Albemarle County, Monticello is the only home in America recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Jefferson, a former president and now at times controversial figure (most notably because of slavery), spent more than 40 years designing and creating his estate and plantation home. Touring the home you will get insights into Jefferson’s philosophies and personal life, the history at the time, his architectural ideals, and his relationship with his slaves (including Sally Hemings, who is said to have given birth to at least six of his children).
This is a place where you’ll want to spend several hours, as there’s much to see. The main tour of the home focuses on the architecture, rooms, and furnishings of the main house and Jefferson’s history. There’s also the historic gardens, which feature flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Jefferson was a horticulturist and Monticello “served as a botanic laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world.” There are also special tours focused on slavery at Monticello, the Hemings family, behind-the-scenes looks, evening visits, and more. You also can visit Jefferson’s gravesite, see his carriages, and more.
The main house tours are full of history and frankly discuss the issues of the time and how we see some things in a different context now. These tours are great for adults but might be too long and too serious for younger guests. If you are visiting with younger kids, check into one of the family-friendly tours Monticello offers at different times during the year. These special guided 40-minute tours of the house are designed especially for families with children ages 5 to 11. They feature hands-on opportunities while highlighting key Monticello and Jefferson facts.
During the summer and on other select dates, the Mountaintop Hands-on Activity Center is another fun place for kids. Young visitors can write with a quill pen, play 18th-century games, look through a camera obscura, build models and enjoy other hands-on activities.
And throughout the year, families with young kids can enjoy the Griffin Discovery Room by the visitors’ center. This hands-on activity center is geared to children ages 6-12, but young-at-heart adults (such as myself!) will enjoy it, too. The place helps kids learn what life was like for children in the early 1800s and discover more about Jefferson’s life. There are some replicas from the Monticello house, such as Jefferson’s alcove bed and Houdon’s bust of Jefferson, and the plantation, including the nail-making shop and a slave dwelling.
Among the hands-on activities, children can operate a working model based on Jefferson’s Polygraph copying machine, try on replicas of 18th-century clothes, and learn how to weave. They also can touch a mastodon’s jawbone, create secret codes on a wheel cipher based on Jefferson’s design, play games popular in Jefferson’s era, and engage in other self-directed activities. All activities take place on one level in a nice, bright room, and there is no charge for this.
If you are visiting Monticello with very young kids and don’t think they have the patience for a tour, or there’s not a family tour offered on the day of your visit, I suggest you “divide and conquer.” Have one adult stay with the kids at the Griffin Discovery Room while the other takes a house tour, or even take turns doing this. Monticello also has a café and gift shop by the visitor center so there are comfortable ways to make a full day of your visit.
Monticello offers guided tours of the house daily throughout the year; outdoor gardens and plantation tours take place daily April-October. Admission prices vary, and parking is free. Free shuttle busses continuously take guests from the visitor center to the mountaintop for the house tour.
Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
For a look at history up to more recent times, visit the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center. Housed in a magnificent building that was once a public school, the site now serves as museum and cultural center. Its permanent historical exhibit, rotating contemporary art gallery, and special events highlight Charlottesville’s African American history and culture of the African diaspora.
This is a great place for learning about African-American history in the Charlottesville area, especially related to education. The permanent exhibition, Pride Overcomes Prejudice, draws from the oral and written histories of African Americans who participated in local, regional, and national struggles for racial equality as students, teachers, and alumni of Jefferson School from around 1865-1965 and beyond.
The exhibit showcases their influence and civic engagement and how they developed their school and the community. The staff at the center enthusiastically can provide guests with a wealth of information beyond what the exhibits provide. Beyond the story of local African-American, the history of the building itself – how they preserved it and renovated it while adding state-of-the art technology – is fascinating, so be sure to ask the staff about that.
In renovating the school, though, organizers did NOT do away with more than necessary. In fact, much of it still looks like a school, and the cafe is a nice example of how this museum honors its past. The “Alumni Room,” as the cafe is called, keeps the classroom feel, and the original blackbirds serve as the menu boards. The Jefferson School’s Heritage Center is open Tuesday-Friday, with the contemporary gallery also open on Saturdays. Admission and parking are free.
The Charlottesville area is a good place to discover (or expand on your knowledge of) Virginia wines. The Monticello Wine Trail consists of 33 wineries all within easy access of Charlottesville. Some of the larger ones (Jefferson Vineyards, Trump Winery) may have more name recognition, but don’t overlook the smaller ones, as each has its own “personality.”
While in Charlottesville, we visited Blenheim Vineyards, a local favorite. This winery has amazing views of the vineyards and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. The indoor tasting room is a redone barn, and one of its unique features is the glass floor that lets you look down at the wine barrels and processing area. South-facing windows and skylights provide so much natural lighting during the day that no electricity is required to light the space in the summer.
This winery has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. Is it any wonder that it’s owned by local-musician-turned-big-star Dave Matthews? Because Matthews also is an artist, some of the wine labels also feature his fun, quirky designs. We enjoyed the wines here (currently there are nine varieties) but more so, we loved the welcoming, friendly feel of the place.
Carter Mountain Orchard
To get a taste of what Charlottesville has to offer, visit Carter Mountain Orchard. This fun, family-owned place is on a mountaintop, offering spectacular views along with the fresh goodies. You can pick your own peaches or apples, or buy other pre-picked produce such as cherries, nectarines, and pumpkins and gourds.
The shop features all kinds of great food and craft products, and their homemade cider donuts are nothing short of amazing! You also can sample Virginia cider and wine, thanks to the on-site Prince Michel Wine Shop and Bold Rock Cider Cellar (two more places we love!). Be sure to try one of the wine slushies for a grown-up treat!
Other treats include fresh-baked pies, frozen peach yogurt, and soft-serve ice cream. Carter Mountain Orchard is a fun place to bring the kids. The staff couldn’t be any nicer and this soon became one of my favorite places in Charlottesville.
The orchard is most popular during the fall and pick-your-own seasons, of course, but at any time of year, you can visit to shop in the large country store, enjoy farm-to-table dining from the Mountain Grill, and enjoy stunning views from the large deck. This is a great place to visit during sunset, and the Thursday Evening Sunset Series (weekly from mid-May through the end of September) takes advantage of that with late hours until 9 pm and live music.
Day or night, a visit the Downtown Mall makes for a nice stroll. More than just a place to eat or go shopping, this is one of the most beautiful and successful pedestrian malls in the United States. Located right in historic downtown Charlottesville, the Downtown Mall has more than 120 shops and 30 restaurants featuring regional and international cuisine. The businesses are housed in historic buildings around old Main Street, so you get the feeling of an old-time downtown with all the modern amenities. A notable aspect of the Downtown Mall is that almost all the businesses in it are locally owned.
Just walking through the mall makes for a nice visit, since along the way you’ll see public art and various fountains (especially pretty at night). Since it’s closed off to vehicular traffic, the mall makes it very easy to walk to multiple places, especially with little kids in tow. The mall spans eight tree-lined blocks. For extra fun, see the historic kiddie carousel, enjoy a movie at the theatre, visit an art gallery, take in a live show at one of the theatres, and in winter enjoy an ice-skating rink. The Downtown Mall also is the site of Virginia Discovery Museum, Charlottesville’s only nonprofit, hands-on children’s museum, geared to kids ages 1-8.
Gearharts Fine Chocolates
Need an excuse to indulge in some delicious chocolate? How about “shop local?” Gearharts Fine Chocolates blends world-class flavors with a fun local twist. When Tim Gearhart started Gearharts Fine Chocolates in 2001, artisan chocolate still was a rarity in the United States. But his vision for fine chocolate making, along with years of experience in the kitchen, led to this Charlottesville store.
Gearhart had served as a cook in the Marine Corps and later as a pastry chef, working in locations around the world. When he returned to Charlottesville he decided to focus on artisan chocolates and now creates traditional and unique delicacies. The chocolates, handcrafted on site from start to finish, use the finest ingredients and are finished off with beautiful details.
Here you can buy traditional confections such as truffles and caramels, but definitely try out some of the specialty items, too. Some of these include the popular Maya, made with rich, bittersweet chocolate ganache flavored with cinnamon, Ancho chili and orange, and dusted with cocoa, or the Pistachio Orange Toffee.
The presentation of the chocolates is lovely, and this perhaps is most evident in the Peanut Butter Pups. The very popular pups are made for creamy Virginia peanut butter covered in milk chocolate, then dotted with dark chocolate for the eyes and nose, along with toasted almonds for the ears. The result is an adorable miniature “dachshund” face that is almost too cute to eat… almost! Other one-of-a-kind creations include the Pod and Vine signature line made of artisanal chocolates crafted with premium wines from three Virginia wineries.
Gearharts is a nice place to stop in for a break, since it has a bright, clean, spacious seating area and the store also sells coffee. The glass walls along the side give you a great view into the chocolate-making in action, so this is makes it a wonderful place to bring the kids. If you have a chance to meet Tim, he will happily answer your questions, and his passion for creating fine chocolates is clear (ask nicely and you may get extra samples!).
WHERE TO EAT
Charlottesville has become a foodie town, with more than 100 independent restaurants, cafes, and pubs to choose from. Most of the choices tend to be on the relaxed side, tied to its small-city feel, but you also will find some elegant choices. Whatever your tastes or budget, you will find something to your liking in the local restaurant scene. Below are some of the places we tried during our visit.
Boar’s Head Inn
This beautiful facility offers upscale dining at the only AAA Four Diamond resort in Charlottesville. But just because it’s fancy doesn’t make it stuffy. On the contrary, the ambiance is warm and inviting. The restaurant, which is open to the public, is on this resort that offers 175 elegant rooms and a luxury spa. The grounds are gorgeous, so take the time to go for a walk before or after dinner.
We ate at the Old Mill Room, which was built from the timbers of an abandoned gristmill dating back to 1834. This AAA Four-Diamond restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, and an extensive wine selection. In addition to steak, seafood, and other items you’d expect, you’ll find many Southern favorites and dishes that pay homage to Virginia, such as peanut soup. Appetizers and desserts are excellent also, so come hungry or be ready to share!
More than just a place to eat, at Michie Tavern you can immerse yourself in history. This Virginia Historic Landmark was established in 1784 and served as a stopping point for travelers, providing them with food, drink and lodging. It 1927, the entire tavern was moved 17 miles to its present location, close to Monticello.
Today this lunchtime spot (open daily 11:30 am to 3:00 pm) serves a hearty buffet based on 18th-century Southern recipes. The five cozy rooms, tin plates and cups, and servers dressed in period attire add to the “old-time” ambiance. The down-home food is filling, and choices include excellent fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, pulled pork, and homemade biscuits and cornbread.
Make time to take a self-guided tour to complete your 18th-century experience, and be ready for anything: while we were there, we learned an old dance, with everyone joining in! You’ll see a house and kitchen from the era, and kids can try on period clothing and participate in an 18th-century treasure hunt throughout the site. Also be sure to walk around the property to see all of it, including the old grist mill and stores including the General Store, Tavern Shop, Antiques & Artifacts Shop, and the Metal Smith Shop.
The Whiskey Jar
Located in the Downtown Mall, The Whiskey Jar has great pub food with interesting dishes, large portions, a huge whiskey selection, and fun live music on some nights. Here you will find Southern staples such as pork chops, brisket, and fried chicken and collard greens. This is the place to go if you want to support local agriculture, as just about every item is sourced locally from nearby farms, and all meals are prepared from scratch.
Come hungry because the food portions are large, and appetizers – including barbecue pork nachos and hush puppies and sweet potato biscuits served with sorghum butter and apple butter – are tempting. Decadent desserts, including bourbon bread pudding and pecan pie, are made from scratch. And finally, The Whiskey Jar lives up to its name: the restaurant’s full bar includes more than 125 varieties of rye, bourbon, scotch, whiskey, and Irish whiskey.
Albemarle Baking Company
For breakfast or a midday treat, visit Albemarle Baking Company (ABC) at the Main Street Market. This locally owned bakery has a nice variety of European and American breads, cakes, cookies, and pastries.
The bakery handcrafts every item and sources many of them to restaurants and food shops in Charlottesville. We tried several items and I especially liked the lemon tart, chocolate croissant, chocolate torte, and French macarons.
In all, Albemarle has more than two dozen breads and dozens of pastries and cakes. The shop also sells coffee and tea and has indoor seating, so it’s a good place to take a break or start your day. Selections vary daily, but ABC details on its website what you can find on any given day.
WHERE TO STAY
Charlottesville has a good variety of chain hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts, from luxury suites to budget rooms. We stayed at the Residence Inn Downtown. This Marriott property is an all-suite hotel with spacious and comfortable rooms, each equipped with a full kitchen and a sofa, desk, and table for two. This would be a good choice for families, since you can store all your snacks easily and cook right in your room.
Don’t bother making breakfast, though — head straight to the lobby for the complimentary hot buffet. When we stayed, the buffet featured more than just the typical breakfast items. In addition to eggs, breakfast meats, pancakes, fruits, cereal, and pastries were tortillas, steamed rice, and brie and other cheeses, and the dining area is spacious. with plenty of tables. The hotel also offers an evening social with snacks and drinks, and free underground parking.
But maybe the best feature is its location. The hotel is downtown, so you can easily walk to the Downtown Mall and Main Street Market, and all other main attractions are just a short drive away.
All text and photos (c) P. Hall, all rights reserved
Disclosure: I was invited by the Charlottesville Albemarle Cnvention & Visitors Bureau, along with other travel writers as part of a regional conference, to tour the area over three days. I was provided with accommodations, meals, transportation, and attractions. This post is my original creation and the opinions expressed here are my own.