Situated in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville is one of Virginia's most fascinating places to visit, thanks in large part to its three distinct personalities.
First, Charlottesville is a quintessential college town, with the University of Virginia predominating everyday life for a large portion of its 42,000 or so residents. UVA is one of the country's finest and most beautiful public universities -- a fact most begrudgingly admitted by those of us who matriculated at that other fine public beauty, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of UVA's major rivals.
Second, this vibrant cosmopolitan center is consistently ranked as one of America's best places to live. Its charm, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, and an extraordinary number of facilities for a town this size have attracted a number of rich and famous folk like rock star Dave Matthews, author John Grisham, and former pro football player-turned-broadcaster Howie Long. Indeed, you never know whose famous face you'll recognize on the streets and in the restaurants here. Most of the celebrities live on estates out in the surrounding horse country, giving them a high degree of privacy but also quick access to a town that seems not to notice.
That's not surprising since Charlottesville has always had more than its share of famous Americans, which brings up its third -- and most important for us visitors -- personality as a center of American history.
It was here that Thomas Jefferson built his famous mountaintop home, Monticello; selected the site for and helped plan the Ash Lawn-Highland home of his presidential buddy, James Monroe; designed his "academical village" at UVA; and died at home fifty years to the day after Congress adopted his Declaration of Independence. "All my wishes end where I hope my days will end," he wrote, "at Monticello."
Indeed, the third president's presence is still so much in evidence here that locals call this "Mr. Jefferson's Country."
The Legacy of Thomas Jefferson -- The phrase "Renaissance man" might have been coined to describe Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps our most important founding father, he was a lawyer, architect, scientist, musician, writer, educator, and horticulturist.
After drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson served as governor of Virginia, ambassador to France, secretary of state, and president for two terms, during which he nearly doubled the size of the United States by engineering the Louisiana Purchase from France. He sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their famous exploration of the territory.
Yet despite all his achievements, Jefferson ordered that his gravestone be inscribed: "Here Was Buried Thomas Jefferson/Author Of The Declaration Of American Independence/Of The Statute Of Virginia For Religious Freedom/And Father Of The University Of Virginia."
Jefferson was 83 when he died at Monticello on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after his Declaration of Independence was signed at Philadelphia. Ironically, his fellow revolutionary but later heated political enemy John Adams lay on his own deathbed in Massachusetts. Unaware that Jefferson had died earlier, Adams's last words were: "Jefferson survives."
Charlottesville is an independent city located within the confines of Albemarle County in the Commonwealth of Virginia, United States, and named after Princess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III of the United Kingdom.
As of the 2005 census update, the city proper had a population of 40,437. It is the county seat of Albemarle CountyGR6 though the two are separate legal entities. The Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the city of Charlottesville with Albemarle County for statistical purposes, bringing the total population to 118,398. The city is part of the Charlottesville, VA Metropolitan Statistical Area. In 2004, Charlottesville was ranked the best place to live in the United States in the book Cities Ranked and Rated by Bert Sperling and Peter Sander. Sperling and Sander ranked the cities based on cost of living, climate, and quality of life. Charlottesville is best known as the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson. The city is also known for Jefferson's Monticello, his renowned mountain-top home which attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year.
Charlottesville has a large series of attractions for its relatively small size. Sometimes referred to as the "city of the three presidents," the Charlottesville area was the home of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Monticello, Jefferson's plantation manor, is located just a few miles from downtown. The home of James Monroe, Ash Lawn-Highland, is down the road from Monticello. About 25 miles northeast of Charlottesville lies the home of James and Dolley Madison, Montpelier. During the summer, Ash-Lawn Highland also serves as the home of the renowned Ash-Lawn Opera Festival.
Charlottesville's bustling downtown is the center of business for Albemarle County. It is home to the Downtown Mall, one of the longest outdoor pedestrian malls in the nation, with many stores, restaurants, and civic attractions. The newly renovated Paramount Theater hosts various events, including Broadway shows and concerts. Local theatrics are highlighted by Charlottesville's professional level community theatre Live Arts. Also on the mall is the Virginia Discovery Museum, and a newly built 3500 seat outdoor amphitheater known as the Charlottesville Pavilion. Court Square, just a few blocks from the Downtown Mall, is the original center of Charlottesville and several of the historic buildings there date back to the city's founding in 1762.
For information, contact the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 178, Charlottesville, VA 22902 (tel. 877/386-1102 or 434/977-1783; fax 434/977-6151; www.soveryvirginia.org). The bureau has two visitor centers. One is in the Monticello Visitors Center, on Va. 20 at Exit 121 off I-64, near Thomas Jefferson's home. The other is at 100 5th St., NE, on the second level of the Market Street parking garage on the northeastern edge of the Downtown Mall. The Monticello center is open March through October daily from 9am to 5:30pm; the rest of the year, daily until 5pm. The downtown center is open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Sunday 11am to 3pm. Both are closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Be sure to pick up copies of The Charlottesville Guide (www.charlottesvilleguide.com), a slick, advertiser-supported booklet containing maps and information about the area's attractions, hotels, restaurants, and shops; Charlottesville Arts & Entertainment (www.artsmonthly.com), a monthly mini-magazine concentrating on the town's cultural life; the Historic Downtown Dining, Entertainment and Shopping brochure, a valuable aid in exploring the Downtown Mall; and the town's two free weekly alternative newspapers, C-Ville Weekly (www.c-ville.com) and The Hook (www.readthehook.com), both packed with restaurant listings and news about what's happening. Bite & Sites, a C-Ville supplement, reviews every restaurant in town.
Tourist attractions: Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center of VA Inc (Museums; 2000 Holiday Drive), Lee-Jackson Foundation (Museums; 114 4th Street Northeast), Family Research (Cultural Attractions- Events- & Facilities; 1424 Westwood Road), Monticello Home of Thomas Jefferson (Cultural Attractions- Events- & Facilities; 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy), Putt-Putt Golf Courses (Amusement & Theme Parks; 1525 Rio Road East), Splathouse Inc (Amusement & Theme Parks; 946 Grady Avenue Suite 8), Apex Amusement CO (Amusement & Theme Parks; 716 Rose Hill Drive), Amf Kegler's Bowling Center (Amusement & Theme Parks; 2000 Seminole Trail), Charlottesville Ice Park (Amusement & Theme Parks; 230 West Main Street).
Hotels: Econo Lodge (400 Emmet Street North), Fairfield Inn Charlottesville North (577 Branchlands Boulevard), Budget Inn (140 Emmet Street North), Comfort Inn Charlottesville (1807 Emmet Street), Hampton Inn & Suites at the University (900 West Main Street), Holiday Inn (1901 Emmet Street North), Econo Lodge University (400 Emmet Street), Courtyard by Marriott (638 Hillsdale Drive), Econo Lodge North (2014 Holiday Drive).
Parks in Charlottesville include: Ridge Street Historic District (1), Albemarle Historic District (2), Washington Park (3), Quarry Park (4), Rugby Road-University Corner Historic District (5), Lewis and Clark Memorial (6), Rives Park (7), Jackson Park (8), Greenbriar Park (9).
On the Downtown Mall, the Charlottesville Ice Park (tel. 434/817-2400; www.icepark.com) offers an irregular schedule of ice-skating, skating lessons, and pick-up hockey games. Groups are always welcome at the Ice Park, and discounted rates are available for groups of ten or more with at least a week's advance notice.
This well-heeled college town has a lot going on between sunset and the wee hours. For a complete schedule, see Charlottesville Arts & Entertainment (www.artsmonthly.com) and the free newspapers C-Ville Weekly (www.c-ville.com) and The Hook (www.readthehook.com), all available at the visitor centers.
The two top performing arts centers are on the Downtown Mall. Built in 1931 and restored in 2004 after being dark for 30 years, The Paramount Theater, 215 E. Main St. (tel. 434/979-1922; www.theparamount.net), has showcased the diverse likes of Bill Cosby, Vince Gill, Sir James Gallway, and Arlo Guthrie. At the mall's eastern end, the outdoor but covered Charlottesville Pavilion (tel. 434/817-0220; www.charlottesvillepavilion.com) hosts concerts by nationally known artists as well as community events.
You can watch local theater at Live Arts, 123 E Water St. (tel. 434/977-4177; www.livearts.org), and Old Michie Theatre, 221 E. Water St. (tel. 434/977-3690; www.oldmichie.com), both near the Downtown Mall.
The University of Virginia has a constant and ever-changing parade of concerts, plays, lectures, and other events, most at the Culbreth and Helms Theatres of The University of Virginia and the Heritage Repertory Theatre, all at 109 Culbreth Rd. (tel. 434/924-3376; www.virginia.edu).
Like most college towns, Charlottesville sees numerous bands blasting away, especially on weekends. Even if you're hard of hearing, you can feel the music coming from the student-oriented bars around The Corner. The largest venue is Star Hill, 709 W. Main St. (tel. 434/977-0017; www.starhillbeer.com), a restaurant, music hall, and brewery west of the Downtown Mall. On the mall, there's nighttime jazz or blues at Miller's, 109 W. Main St. (tel. 434/971-8511).
Unusual for a college town, The Prism, 214 Rugby Rd. (tel. 4340977-7476; www.theprism.org), allows neither alcohol nor tobacco during its acoustic, folkloric, and traditional roots concerts.
Some daytime activities include:
You can go rafting and canoeing on the James River at Scottsville, a quaint, 19th-century town 20 miles south of Charlottesville via Va. 20. The river can run swiftly here -- class I or II if it has rained recently; canoeing and tubing conditions if it hasn't. Contact James River Runners (tel. 434/286-2338; www.jamesriver.com), which has been rafting the rapids, taking adventurers on overnight canoe trips, and renting canoes and inner tubes since 1979.
Charlottesville is Virginia's prime venue for hot air ballooning, with several companies sending their craft soaring over the foothills, depending on the direction of the wind. Bear Ballooning (tel. 800/932-0152 or 434/971-1757; www.2comefly.com) takes off from the Boar's Head Inn. Others include Blue Ridge Balloon Company (tel. 434/589-6213; www.blueridgeballoon.com), and Monticello Country Ballooning (tel. 434/996-9008; www.virginiaballoon.com). Contact them well in advance of coming here.
By Car -- Charlottesville is on I-64 from east or west and U.S. 29 from north or south. I-64 connects with I-81 at Staunton and with I-95 at Richmond.
By Plane -- US Airways, Delta, Northwest, and United fly commuter planes to Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, 201 Bowen Loop (tel. 434/973-8341; www.gocho.com), north of town off U.S. 29. Taxis are available, and Van on the Go (tel. 877/973-7667 or 434/975-8267; www.vanonthego.com) provides shuttle service into town and shuttle service to the Washington, D.C., airports.
By Train -- The Amtrak station is at 810 W. Main St. (tel. 800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com), midway between the Downtown Mall and the university.
Just as it has three personalities, Charlottesville has three centers of interest to visitors. One is on the southeastern outskirts of town, where Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland, and Michie Tavern are within 2 miles of each other. The second is the University of Virginia, at the western end of Main Street. Opposite the campus, between 13th Street and Elliewood Avenue, The Corner neighborhood is a typical campus enclave, with student-dominated restaurants, bookstores and clothing stores, and a dearth of parking spaces. The third area, Historic Downtown Charlottesville, a mile east of The Corner, is centered on the Downtown Mall, an 8-block, pedestrian-only strip at the eastern end of Main Street, between 2nd Street W and 7th Street E.
The easiest way to get between the university and the Downtown Mall is on the free trolley operated by the Charlottesville Transit Service (CTA; tel. 434/296-7433). It runs along Main Street every 10 to 15 minutes Monday to Saturday from 6:30am to midnight.
CTA also has bus service Monday through Saturday from 6:30am to 6:30pm throughout the city (but not to Monticello).
Parking -- On-street parking is extremely limited. In the Downtown Mall area, you can park free for 2 hours with merchant validation (take your ticket with you and get it stamped) in the garages on Market Street between 1st and 2nd streets NE and on Water Street between 2nd and 4th streets SE. The university's visitor parking garage is on the western side of the campus, on Emmet Street (U.S. 29 Business) a block south of University Avenue (which is the continuation of W. Main St.). On the eastern side of campus, two public garages are located opposite the University Hospital on Lee Street, off Jefferson Park Avenue. The Corner has public parking on Elliewood Avenue at 14th Street.