By Bret Berlin with Josephine Berlin and Jackson Berlin for Fairfax Family Fun
Less than two hours from the Washington, DC, area is one of Virginia’s most popular attractions for general and family travel. Monticello is the name Thomas Jefferson gave to his home in Charlottesville, VA. I remember visiting this home as a student and it stands out as my favorite historic home. I wanted to share it with my children and we had the pleasure of touring it this summer.
Monticello is a beautiful estate in the rolling hills of Virginia situated in the most charming town, Charlottesville. Although you could do a visit as a day trip, I recommend spending the night so you can enjoy the quaint town.
The parking and Visitor Center is located at the foot of the hill but the tours start at the top of the hill. If you call ahead for tickets, as I did, be sure you leave enough time (about 20 minutes) to get to the top. You can walk up or take the free shuttle that runs continuously throughout the day. We took the shuttle on the way up, and then walked back down to the Visitor Center at the end of our tour. The Visitor Center also has a short film which a great introduction to Monticello and the life of Thomas Jefferson, as well as several small exhibits, and an interactive room designed just for young children (read about it in this related story).
The house tour
Inside the home, what can you expect? First of all, this is not Mount Vernon (George Washington’s home in Alexandria, Virginia) but in the words of my daughter, “Monticello is larger than it looks. There is so much to see and the views are incredible.”
Thomas Jefferson, aside from being a founding father, president, farmer, scholar, inventor, and author was an architect. He designed, built, and rebuilt this many times over. As a result, you can really get a deeper appreciation of his personality by seeing the space he created for himself. You can also see many of his inventions built into the house. Be sure to check out the models of different versions of the house throughout the years in the exhibit hall in the Visitor Center. The kids loved examining these and discovering the changes over time.
First, please note that although you will be seeing some cool things, Monticello does not allow pictures inside the home. This made my budding young photographers frustrated. Still, you will see some neat things. Some of our favorite features were a special wine elevator to make sure dinner parties never ran out of wine, special windows with built-in shutters, and a bed recessed into the wall so the bed didn’t take up the whole bedroom. After the main tour, there were several guided walking tours and a kids’ activity area. In the children’s activity area we learned calligraphy, and returned for more activities throughout the day.
The gardens and grounds tour showcases Monticello’s beautifully maintained gardens featuring vegetables, fruit, a vineyard, and herb garden and trees. Some of these are trees that Thomas Jefferson collected from across the country. Jackson, my nine-year-old, was fascinated by seeing how his favorite foods grow. Likewise, another favorite was a “sensitivity plant” whose leaves closed up when touched. My kids spent a good 20 minutes playing with them. You can also buy seeds from all the plants at the gift shop.
One of the guided tours of the grounds was about slavery at Monticello. Driving the tours are stories of individual slaves and their personal histories. Their lives were remarkably well documented, and as a result the stories brought this history to life. It really gave me an appreciation for life in that station at that time in our history. Some of the stories were very memorable and provocative yet age-appropriate for the kids. In addition, there is much history on the Hemmings family which included a short multimedia montage of the life of Sally Hemmings.
In the afternoon, we walked down the hill to the Jefferson family cemetery which is on the way back to the Visitor Center. We visited the exhibit in the Visitor Center at the end of our day. I recommend it, as we got to see many of the objects we learned about during our tour.
Finally, for families with very young children who may not be ready for the full Monticello tour, the estate sometimes offers special family-oriented tours. In all, we spent nearly five hours at Monticello and had a fun and educational day. To learn more about Monticello, including current prices, tours available, and special events, visit the website. For another resource on regional information and even more family travel ideas, see the Visit Charlottesville and Albemarle County site.
— Josephine Berlin, Jackson Berlin and their dad, Bret
Thank you to Monticello and to Visit Charlottesville and Albemarle County for providing tickets to facilitate this review. This work is the original writing and opinion of the authors. All photos are by Bret Berlin and family.