You know that age old question, if you could invite 3 people, alive or dead, to dinner who would they be? Two of my three are always shifting but one remains constant: Thomas Jefferson. Yes that Thomas Jefferson — the 3rd President of the United States, author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, self taught architect, prolific inventor, voracious reader, all around genius, and ice cream lover.
He lived just about 2.5 hours from Washington, DC (a four day trip in his day). And finally 2 years into my residency here, I took a little road trip to peek into the life of Mr. Jefferson. And to my surprise, I found a great little town in Charlottesville, Virginia:
See & Do:
Monticello – The home of Thomas Jefferson and Unesco World Heritage site. The biggest tourist attraction in the area and that is no understatement. Tours start every 5 minutes whereby large groups of people are carefully ushered through the many public rooms of the first floor of this large house. Pay extra as I did for a behind the scenes tour and you get to see additional rooms on the 2nd and 3rd floors including the Dome Room — undoubtedly the best room in the house with beautiful light and commanding views yet it was used as an attic space of all things. Guests and even Jefferson himself whose quarters were on the first floor, never ventured up the steep and narrow stairways to the private spaces that by comparison to below were cramped and spare.
The brilliance in the design came in the lowest level cellar rooms, from whence the staff of slaves kept things running smoothly with kitchen and stables reached by underground walkways safe from the elements yet away from the main structure, providing terraces above perfect for entertaining and viewing of the grounds. Tours of these areas are self guided and have low tech interactive features.
All tickets also include guided garden and slavery tours of the immediate grounds. And you can walk between the visitors center and home with a stop at the Jefferson cemetary in between. The visitors center houses a introductory film, cafe and one of the nicer gift shops I have seen. Prebook an early morning tour to avoid long lines and assure access to convenient parking.
Helpful hint: The house sits on a razed mountain top so take the shuttle bus there and make the easy walk back downhill. I passed many upward bound visitors huffing and puffing on my way down. And the path is loose gravel so wear close toed shoes if you’re going to walk.
University of Virginia — Steeped in history, the UVA campus is amazing especially for this girl who went to college in the city and never had that true campus experience. By the end of my few hours wandering around, touring the Rotunda, viewing Edgar Allen Poe’s room, lounging on the lawn taking in the sights and sounds of academia, i was kicking myself for not going to grad school here when I had the chance. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
I recommend visiting during the school year and taking a student guided tour but Rotunda tours go all year long (every hour on the hour from the lower level) and there are many buildings and exhibits to see all around the campus. Edgar Allen Poe’s room is #13 along the West Range (past the gardens on the far side of The Lawn rooms) and is open for viewing through a permanent glass door.
Barboursville Winery – Virginia is a thriving wine region with tastings and tours galore — Dave Matthews wine, anyone? But why not mix a little wine and a little Jefferson? At the Barboursville Winery you can do just that. On the grounds, you’ll find ruins of a Jefferson designed home built for Governor James Barbour in 1814 and devastated by fire in 1884. Tour the ruins then taste the award winning wine named for the octagonal room (one of Jefferson’s favorite motifs) at their center. It’s a beautiful drive out to Barboursville along back roads and wine provides the perfect souvenir of your trip to Charlottesville. A $5 tasting Glass allows sampling of all Barboursville wines in the visitor’s center. Octogan Wine sells for $49.99/bottle, 2008 vintage now available
Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, 400 Worrell Drive — a few miles off campus in a stately Georgian home on beautiful grounds is of all things, a UVA owned museum housing the largest collection of Aboriginal art outside of Australia. And even though the permanent collection was being reorganized and unavailable for viewing, my experience here was one of those awe-inspiring, highly educational, goose bump inciting kind of dealios. Might even say, life changing.
Not only does this museum house the works of both modern and traditional Aboriginal artists collected in the late 20th century by the men whose names grace the collection, but they offer the most amazing artist in residence program providing exhibit opportunities for today’s Aboriginal artists who bring together traditional motifs with modern techniques, telling the stories that can only be told from their unique perspecitve.
The curation here is spot on. A modern point of view with sensitivity to keep the history of a people alive and well — a history that a goes back thousands of years but only became an art movement in our lifetime. It’s a most unique proposition. One I look forward to learning more about, my interest now peaked by this marvelous museum.
Farmers Market – every Saturday morning in a parking lot off South Street is a small but lovely farmers market. Local farmers, bakers and craftspeople, musicians playing, a variety of prepared foods from omelets to dumplings fill the 3 rows of stalls. The selection of vendors is well balanced and the market was bustling.
I don’t know what the story was behind these felt crowns but they were super cute. The fresh eggs disappeared faster than I could swoop some up and so instead I bought berries galore and embarked on a strawberry ice cream making frenzy upon my return home.
Eloise, 505 W. Main Street — along main street between downtown and the university lie all kinds of inviting restaurants and shops. This little beauty caught my eye but I never expected what I found inside. Designer wares, casual in style and very high in price. (Sometimes I forget how monied a university town can be.) But sitting on the front table were a series of chunky rings made of horn that I have come to learn are from Haiti — sourced by a local team dedicated to supporting artisan efforts in a place still ravaged from the earthquake. Eloise is the sole distributor of their jewelry and leather goods in the Charlottesville area. Well worth any price if you ask me and beautiful to boot.
eat and drink:
Arch’s Frozen Yogurt, 104. N. 14th Street – your typcal self serve frozen yogurt shop with a plethora of flavors and the most amazing ooey gooey chocolate brownie topping ever. Over indulgence galore. I feel that freshman 10 coming on!
Bodo’s Bagels, 1609 University Avenue – this institution in Charlottesville has the closest thing to New York bagels I have ever had outside the city. True boiled water bagels of the perfect chewy consistency. More of a sandwich shop than just a bagel stop, I indulged in another Jewish delicacy, chopped liver and Swiss on a poppy seed bagel with yellow mustard. Perfection for under $5. Another thing I forget about college towns, good food comes cheap.
Ace Biscuit and Barbeque, 711 Henry Avenue – OK this place is a true find. Tucked away in a warehouse business district bordering a small residential neighborhood, it’s the size of a postage stamp with one communal table and a few counter seats that serves up bbq I hear is to die for. But i was there for Bfast — homemade biscuits of the dense wholemeal variety topped with anything you want from house made sausage, to egg, to fried green tomato & cheese — or all of the above if you’re me. The woman next to me said this is like McDonalds only really really good. Really really really good if you ask me. A little off the beaten path but go find this place.
Eppie’s, 412 E. Main Street — another institution located right smack dab in the middle of the downtown pedestrian mall the likes of which graces many college towns. Homestyle classics that, again, don’t gouge the wallet. The Santa Monica Salad of spinach, fresh corn, grape tomatoes, goat cheese and sweet dates was an ample meal served with pumpkin bread for under $8. Can’t beat that!
Mudhouse Coffee, 213 E Main Street – this may not be the fasted coffee house in town but they just may be the busiest which says something. Brewing their own roasted beans, I stopped in on my way to the farmers market to pick up a hot chocolate on an unseasonably chilly morning. Another thing I love about college towns, local grads establishing local businesses are always supported.
Rooms in Charlottesville don’t come cheap. Even the more mundane chain hotels are pricey. So go for the charm of an inn and have the full small town experience.
I chose the 200 South Street Inn located right downtown, the perfect location if you ask me. Two blocks from the pedestrian mall, walking distance to the University, right across from the farmers market and a block from GlassHaus, the hippest restaurant in town. The only drawback to staying downtown — freight trains pass through at all hours of the day and night. While this inn may shimmy and shake with the passing trains, it aims to distract you with lovely breakfasts, fresh baked cookies all day, wine and cheese from 5-7 PM and a wrap around porch to enjoy it all on. It’s typically Victorian with a patina of wear but lovely just the same.