East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with a landscape that captivated Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, Central Virginia is steeped in the history of the founders. The region continues to inspire even the most seasoned enthusiasts. From the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, to the little tavern where legislators stopped on their way to Congress—all within a 30-mile radius—this itinerary will take you on a presidential tour more than 260 years in the making.
Duration: 36 hours; Friday evening to Sunday afternoon
School's in Session
After checking into your hotel, take some time to enjoy the Lawn, as it's known throughout Charlottesville. This grassy, terraced court is the center of the University of Virginia.
Jefferson's "Academical Village"—including ten architecturally unique pavilions—was a radical departure from the theological dogmatism of other American colleges in the 1800s. Free tours of the Rotunda, Jefferson's prized, domed Library at the north end of the Lawn, are offered daily. And don't miss the gardens, behind the pavilions. Varying in use, each features quirky plantings and serpentine walls.
Be Ye Not Afraid of the Heat
After your academic experience, take a dinner break to head up West Main Street, lined with shops and eating and drinking options. If you're in the mood for Tex-Mex with a flair in a no-nonsense atmosphere, follow the locals and students to a town favorite, Continental Divide, which should be hard to miss with "Get In Here" out front in neon.
Wind down the evening, if you so choose, with a stop at the Horse & Hound Gastropub. If port-chocolate-caramel is your taste, try a liter of the "Ommegang Three Philosophers." And the pub's dark, country plaids and sepia-toned hunt photographs will prime you for tomorrow's tour of the Virginia countryside.
The Light of Day
Although most founding fathers preferred a light breakfast, something akin to today's English muffin, one serious day of history requires one seriously hearty wake-up call. Begin the morning at local bagelry Bodos, the best carbs in this county and the next one over. Wash it down with a freshly brewed cup of Shenandoah Joe's (a locally-roasted blend) and you'll be set for the lovely, windy two-lane parkway that leads to the home of Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. Feeling power-fueled? For an added athletic experience, you can park at the bottom of the Saunders-Monticello Trail—a 2-mile walkway open to pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchairs—and trek straight up to the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center the way Jefferson would have intended, "...in different portions, through vistas."
First Stop: Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's "Little Mountain"
Begin your visit with a self-guided tour through the newly opened 42,000 square-foot Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center and Smith Education Center—the 21st century gateway to Jefferson's timeless Monticello. Located on the lower slope of Monticello mountain, the center emphasizes the power of place and strength of ideas, and showcases construction and evolution of the house, interactive displays of Jefferson's influential ideals and exhibits introducing both the enslaved and free community who lived and worked on the plantation. Don't miss the fifteen-minute, award-winning film, "Thomas Jefferson's World," spanning Jefferson's core concepts about liberty, and other world-changing ideas, that have reached far beyond his time period to present day. The kids will love the hands-on Griffin Discovery Room, too!
A quick shuttle bus ride takes you to Monticello—the only home in the United States recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the center of Jefferson's world. To understand the genius of Jefferson, one must understand Monticello, his three-dimensional autobiographical statement. As you move through the house, you'll see artifacts from the Lewis & Clark Expedition; Jefferson's library and private Cabinet; Jefferson's bedroom and his brilliant chrome yellow dining room.
Not only will you get to tour the original, authentically furnished house, but also stroll the grounds and catch one or two optional tours of the Plantation Community or Gardens and Grounds to view the restored flower and vegetable gardens, vineyard and Mulberry Row—all included in the price of admission. And to maximize your Monticello experience, consider an even closer look at the private, second floor bedrooms and the illusive Dome Room upstairs with the new "Behind the Scenes" tour. Complete your day by visiting the new "Crossroads" exhibition which explores the hub of domestic life humming below the house.
Don't forget to stop by the spacious Museum Shop located back in the Visitors Center and check out one of the largest selection of Jefferson titles available anywhere. (931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA 22902)
Life, Liberty and a Large Lunch
For a quick lunch to pacify those short attention spans, grab a bite at the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center Café. In the mood for something a little more substantial? Try Michie Tavern. Constructed in 1784 and located less than 2 miles down the road from Monticello, historic Michie Tavern (683 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA 22902) once served not only as a place to eat, drink and sleep, but also as the center of the community. For lunch, enjoy an early American platter of hearty midday fare in The Ordinary, the Tavern's main dining room, served by smiling staff in period attire. And after a helping of Colonial fried chicken and stewed tomatoes, you'll be ready to walk off those extra homemade biscuits and gravy and tour the structure's second floor rooms. A notably "hands-on" Inn, you might even learn how to dance the Virginia reel.
Be My Guest
While you're in the area, ultimate entertainers James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth would just love it if you would stop by their historic home, Ash Lawn-Highland (1000 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902). Not far up the road from Monticello, and also known as Monroe's "place of comfort and hospitality," James and his wife Elizabeth made this simple family farmhouse their official residence from 1793 to 1826. The historic house museum and its 535-acre working farm also doubles as a performing arts site throughout the year.
Taking It to the Streets
Running through the heart of Charlottesville's historic pedigree, the oak-lined and bricked pedestrian Downtown Mall is at its finest on a Saturday night: Street vendors, street musicians and plenty of street food. An interesting mix of restored and revitalized buildings house chic boutiques (many staying open late on weekends) and dozens of restaurants ranging from the French-infused to gourmet pizza to local Southern fare. The best part? Most have al fresco cafes prime for people-watching.
Join the Revolution
It's said that the first American recipe for ice cream is penned in Thomas Jefferson's hand, a dish he regularly served to guests after dinner. Why break with tradition now? After dinner, grab a scoop (or three) of Chap's Ice Cream or genuine gelato with flavors like Amarena-Amaretto-Bacio-Blood Orange from Splendora's Gelato Café. Stroll up a block to historic Court Square, where the Courthouse itself has been in use for more than 200 years and remains the only American courthouse used by three Presidents—Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—at the same time. And don't miss the 19th-century structures facing the Courthouse, like the grand red brick Inn at Court Square (the oldest existing house in Downtown Charlottesville) and the building housing the former Swan Tavern, (owned by Jack Jouett's father).
End your stroll smack in front of City Hall, where you'll find Charlottesville's Freedom of Speech Wall—a tall slate wedge lined with chalk for passersby to scrawl their most insightful thoughts. Our founding fathers would be so proud!
Grab a latte to go and take in the splendid scenic drive from Charlottesville through Barboursville and into Orange County on your way to your next stop, Montpelier, (11407 Constitution Highway, Montpelier Station, Virginia 22957) the home of James and Dolley Madison. Your journey should only take about 30 minutes but drive slowly&—if you blink you might miss the stately Virginia plantation homes and preserved farmland of the Piedmont.
Formed in 1723 and the lifelong home of James Madison, this full estate tour features the recently renovated Madison mansion, historic buildings, gardens, and a freedman's cabin and farm. The jaw-dropping views of the Southwest Mountains aren't too shabby, either.
Popular Pit Stops
On the way back from Montpelier, stop by the quaint Virginia town of Gordonsville, tucked between Orange and Charlottesville. A large portion of Gordonsville "grew-up" around a specific tavern founded by Nathaniel Gordon in 1794, originally located where the traffic circle is today. The Gordon Tavern, which was located on the site of the current Toliver House Restaurant, hosted Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee among other famous figures of early America. Jefferson told southern legislators it was a "good house" for stopping over on their way to Congress.
Riches Among the Ruins
Continue back to Charlottesville along Route 20 because you don't want to miss a detour through Barboursville ruins. One of the largest residences in the region, it was owned by James Barbour, Jefferson's close friend. Barbour served as governor of Virginia, U. S. Senator and Secretary of War. His home, Barboursville, was the only building in Orange County designed by Thomas Jefferson. The building was destroyed by fire in 1884, and the ruins are now home to Barboursville Vineyards.
Call in advance for reservations at Barboursville Vineyards's renowned Palladio Restaurant for a leisurely lunch. Northern Italian dishes go local under the talents of Chef Melissa Close Hart, who was also just named one of the twenty-five best in the Mid-Atlantic region.