Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, the city of Charlottesville is a delightful place to visit. Full of flowers, great tall trees, and stately buildings, abundant with history, it is an easy, pleasurable hour and a half excursion down U.S. 29.
The drive itself makes the trip worthwhile: miles of beautiful pastoral country surrounded by magnificent views of the mountains. The traffic is negligible, and one can proceed at a leisurely pace, admiring the scenery.
A couple of historic sights along the way are well worth a visit.
James Madison’s home, Montpelier, is located a few miles from Orange. Near Culpeper turn south onto U.S. 15 and proceed to the town of Orange. A right-hand turn at the stop light will put you onto U.S. 20 south; Montpelier is four miles further on the left.
The 2,650-acre estate was the lifelong home of James Madison. Madison’s grandfather settled there in the 1720s.
In 2003, the Montpelier Foundation began the restoration of the Montpelier mansion to the 1820s home where James and Dolley Madison spent their lives; the restoration will be completed this year.
The foundation calls Montpelier a window into Madisons life and legacy, a place of education where visitors, scholars, and educators can explore the ideas of the Father of the Constitution and fourth president of the United States. Montpelier is open to visitors seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; admission is $14 for adults and $7 for children.
Continuing a few miles further down U.S. 20 will bring you to the Barboursville Ruins. Constructed in 1814, the house at the Barboursville plantation was designed by Thomas Jefferson, one of only three residences he designed for his friends.
The Barbour family occupied the house until it was destroyed by accidental fire at Christmas, 1884. They then moved into to the beautiful Georgian villa next door for several generations, now The 1804 Inn. For those planning a mini-vacation, the inn offers elegant accommodations; the Palladio restaurant next door is a great place for a gourmet feast.
Barboursville is an active vineyard and offers wine tastings Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. While there, take a self-guided tour of the ruins.
Head back to U.S. 29 and stop for lunch in Ruckersville at the Blue Ridge Caf. Impossible to miss since it is painted neon yellow, the caf is open for lunch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (dinner, 4-9 p.m.) Mondays through Saturdays, and for brunch on Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (dinner 2-9 p.m.). The menu has an excellent selection of innovative appetizers, salads and sandwiches, and the beer-battered onion rings alone are worth the trip.
Walk off all that food by exploring the nooks and crannies of The Antiquers Mall, at the intersection of U.S. 33 and 29. The Mall is home to 220 shops and 120 dealers, besides numerous consignors. It is open seven days a week. U.S. 29 is lined with antique shops; most of them are well-worth a look. Another excellent find is Blue Ridge Emporium, with more than 100 dealers. It is on the northbound side of the road, midway between Ruckersville and Madison, so hit it on the way home.
After your pit stop, continue on U.S. 29 into Charlottesville and make your way to the grounds of Monticello.
The centerpiece of anyones trip to Charlottesville, Monticello, (from the Italian, Little Mountain) sits atop an 850-foot high peak in the Southwest Mountains.
Jefferson designed the house for his family; construction began in 1768. It was nearing completion when Jefferson left to travel in Europe in 1784. When he returned he expanded the design to include Palladian elements he had admired in buildings and ruins in Europe.
In 1987, Monticello was declared a World Historical Site, the only private home in America to receive that designation. The house is full of innovative and even eccentric features. The entrance hall features a unique clock, designed by Jefferson and re-creations of items collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition. Upon the recommendation of artist Gilbert Stuart, the floorcloth is painted grass green to continue the sense of the outdoors inside the house.
Monticello appears to be larger than it is. Jefferson dispensed with much of the usual furniture, the dining room table was erected only at mealtimes, and beds were built into alcoves cut into thick walls that contain storage space. Jefferson’s bed opens to two sides: to his cabinet (study) and to his bedroom (dressing room).
The north wing has a dumbwaiter incorporated into the dining room fireplace. and two guest bedrooms. The gardens are extensive and include many plants that Jefferson imported from Europe.
Monticello is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults; $8 for children 6-11 (free for those under 6).
Next stop, a little further on down the road, is Ash Lawn-Highland Plantation, home of James Monroe. Ash Lawn-Highland is an historic house museum, a 535-acre working farm, and a performing-arts site.
President James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe of New York, owned Ash Lawn-Highland from 1793 to 1826 and made it their official residence from 1799 to 1823.
Ash Lawn-Highland continues the tradition begun by the Monroes of welcoming friends, neighbors, dignitaries, and visitors. It is the scene of meetings, parties, picnics, a summer music festival, and a variety of special events, according to Ash Lawn-Highland literature. It continues to provide an authentic view of 19th-century life for our many other visitors through examples of Early American and Victorian architecture, decorative arts from those periods, and craft demonstrations on the grounds.
The plantation offers workshops in candle-making, rope-making, colonial games, tin lantern-making, paper-quilling, and ornament-making, as well as a class in archeology and one in open-hearth cooking. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week; admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $5 for children 6-11.
Take 29 back into Charlottesville and follow the signs to Jeffersons beautifully designed University of Virginia. Park the car and stroll along the street opposite the campus, a bustling avenue filled with shops, restaurants and coffee emporiums.
Cross to the campus and admire the magnificent rotunda, the lawns, and the beautiful gardens.
Finally, head for the Downtown Mall. Ask for directions at or near the university, if you are driving. Trolley service is also available to and from the university. Covering seven blocks, the mall is closed to traffic. It is filled with small gardens, fountains, strolling musicians, outdoor eating places, more than 30 restaurants and 120 shops: book stores, antique and art dealers, fanciful clothes, glitzy jewelry. Have a late afternoon coffee or an early evening cocktail at one of the many outdoor tables and watch the pedestrian traffic.
The mall also has an ice palace, a Discovery Museum for children, and the newly opened Charlottesville Pavilion, where you can sit on the lawn and listen to such musical superstars as Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn.
There are a multitude of food options. If you dont want to spend a lot, try Ragazzis Italian Restaurant on U.S. 29 (youll pass it on the right as you head for the bypass and Monticello.) This is not great cuisine, but its more than passable for the money, the service is excellent, and it has nice touches, like hot bread sticks and a huge bowl of mixed salad served up with individual chilled bowls.
On the other end of the spectrum, for a really big bash, try the Boars Head Inn. Part of a luxurious resort, the dining room is elegant, with old wood paneling and fireplaces. With waiters decked out in spiffy red jackets, the food is always good and sometimes superb. The Sunday Brunch is especially memorable, though at $28, it’s not cheap.