Arriving in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the vibrant spring season is a sensory delight. The mountainside trees paint the landscape with shades of light emerald. As my wife, two kids and I explored the region, we were greeted by blooming flowers with a kaleidoscope of colors and scents.
But this was just a backdrop. We came for exciting lessons in history and architecture.
Jefferson’s Gift to the People
Our exploration of Charlottesville began with a visit to the nation’s first public university: the University of Virginia, established in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson.
At the heart of the university’s grounds: the Rotunda, a neoclassical masterpiece designed by Jefferson himself. He called it his “last gift” to the people.
The Rotunda’s interior provided a sense of scholarly ambiance. The domed ceiling and columns showcased Jefferson’s architectural prowess.
Roaming the campus, we took time to admire other notable monuments. The most poignant was the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, recognizing 4,000 slaves who worked the grounds from 1819 until the end of the Civil War.
UVA also boasts an art museum with more than 12,000 works, including pieces by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Norman Rockwell.
‘Essay in Architecture’
Jefferson referred to his home, Monticello, as his “essay in architecture.”
Monticello’s exterior is a beautiful example of Jefferson’s neoclassical style, the white columns and red brick facade reminiscent of ancient Greek temples.
Just as impressive: Monticello’s interior, revealing Jefferson’s exquisite taste and intellectual pursuits.
Jefferson began designing Monticello in 1768, when he was just 25, inspired by the Italian villas he’d seen during his travels. He designed and oversaw the construction himself and focused on every detail to make sure it reflected his taste.
Refining Monticello remained a lifelong project. Jefferson lived in Monticello for more than 50 years, entertaining guests from around the world.
Delight was in the details. For example, the songbird he kept during an era with no radios or audio recordings. His library of books and modified office equipment. And the bed that divided two rooms, allowing him to wake into his study or bedroom, depending on which side of the bed he woke up on.
Who Really Did the Planting
Back outside, the meticulously manicured gardens greeted us with a riot of colors. More than 8,000 tulip bulbs had just burst open, creating a natural spectacle to surround the architectural one.
Monticello’s history extends beyond its beauty and grandeur. The Slavery at Monticello tour is a somber exploration of the enslaved people who labored on the plantation. We visited the slave quarters, gardens and Mulberry Row.
The tour guide offered more questions than answers on a discussion-filled experience that provided perspective on the complexities of Jefferson’s legacy.
Mellow in Monticello
As we relaxed in the gardens behind Monticello, we came across Thomas Jefferson himself, orating about his views on education and the freedom of religion.
Bill Barker, a renowned Jefferson impersonator, even wrote a book on the subject. We posed with him for a “nickel shot” (referring to the image of Monticello behind us, appearing as it does on the nickel).
This half-day in Monticello brought us closer to the philosophies and times of Jefferson—including the contradiction that such an enlightened man could enslave so many people.
The Pursuit of Happiness
No visit to Charlottesville is complete without indulging in its wine scene.
We savored the exquisite flavors of Jefferson Vineyards, situated on land once owned by Jefferson.
Blenheim Vineyards also captivated us with its scenic beauty and handcrafted wines. Established in 2000 by Dave Matthews (of the band), the vineyard is named after the farm where Jefferson was born.
We capped our wine tastings at Barboursville Vineyards, in a tasting room with a panoramic view of the vineyards and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
After a day steeped in Charlottesville, we ventured to the banks of the Potomac River where we visited Virginia’s Mount Vernon, the estate of America’s first president.
The wood façade of the neoclassical mansion is textured and painted in a soft yellow hue, giving the appearance of sandstone. The symmetrical design and imposing portico with grand columns drew us in.
As we entered each room on the tour, a guide told us about their posted chamber. We glimpsed the bed where Washington slept—and where he breathed his last.
Washington began building Mount Vernon when he 22; he died here in 1799, at 67—two years after his presidency ended. Mount Vernon was the only home he owned.
The expansive flower gardens reflected Washington’s passion for horticulture. The sprawling farmland greeted us with sheep, cattle and horses. Behind the mansion, overlooking Lake Potomac, we glimpsed the Washington Monument—a reminder of how close Washington’s home is to D.C.
Washington’s Tomb includes an inscription: “Within this Enclosure Rest the remains of Gen.l George Washington.”
We wondered aloud, “Why general instead of president?”
An expert happened to be within earshot. “Washington was a modest leader. He didn’t want to take authority from succeeding presidents.”
The tomb is a fitting tribute to a founding father, stately red brick with two obelisks towering in front of it.
After Disarray, Ladies Save the Day
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased and restored Mount Vernon. Founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham, the association continues to operate Mount Vernon and develops educational programs and exhibits to teach visitors about the history of Mount Vernon.
History Has its Eyes on You
Like Jefferson, Washington’s vast estate depended on the labor of slaves. The Lives Bound Together tour offered a profound look at the lives and stories of the enslaved community.
Through visits to the rustic quarters and engaging narratives, we learned of the resilience, struggles and contributions of enslaved people here.
Telling His Story
Leaving Mount Vernon, we passed through the museum, where we enjoyed the exhibit, “Mount Vernon: The Story of an American Icon,” featuring the most extensive collection of original Washington objects ever assembled.
Mount Vernon stands as a testament to Washington’s enduring legacy, and we left with renewed admiration—if somewhat tainted by the contradiction that such a champion for freedom owned slaves.
Eye on History
Learning and leisure are oftentimes one and the same. Our weekend exploring Monticello and Mount Vernon provided a captivating look at America’s history and the legacies of two men who helped form the world’s longest-lasting democracy. We came home with great memories … and a case of wine from the hills of Virginia.
Virginia: Home of Presidents
Virginia arguably gave the United States more presidents than any other state, so it makes sense that it is also home to many presidential homes.
The two most significant are Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. But it’s easy to turn a two-stop visit into grand tour. Here’s a game plan.
James Madison’s Montpelier (Orange County)
Montpelier was the residence of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and Father of the Constitution. Montpelier is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., offering guided tours and engaging exhibits that provide insights into Madison’s life and the early days of our nation.
James Monroe’s Highland (Charlottesville)
Highland was the estate of former residence of James Monroe, fifth president of the United States. Set against the picturesque backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Highland offers visitors a glimpse into Monroe’s life and legacy. Highland is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., providing guided tours that delve into the life of this influential statesman.
William Henry Harrison’s Berkeley Plantation (Charles City County)
Berkeley Plantation is the birthplace of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States. Known for its Georgian architecture and breathtaking grounds, Berkeley Plantation is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with guided tours that offer a glimpse into the world of this remarkable leader.
Eric D. Goodman is the author of six books and more than 100 published stories, articles and travel stories. Learn more about his travels and writing at EricDGoodman.com.