The University of Virginia rotunda.

The University of Virginia rotunda. Photo © David Baron, licensed Creative Commons Attribution & ShareAlike.

Map of Charlottesville, Virginia


Charlottesville was home to two U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. James Madison also lived nearby in Orange. Monticello, Jefferson’s home, hosts nearly 500,000 visitors each year and is one of the top attractions in the area. Here are some recommended sights in the area including all three presidential homes.

University of Virginia

The University of Virginia (434/924-0311) is one of the top-rated state universities in the nation, with 11 schools in Charlottesville and one in southwest Virginia. The university, founded by Thomas Jefferson, opened in March 1825 with 123 students. Jefferson was heavily involved with the students and faculty for the first year of operation, but he passed away on July 4, 1826. UVA now adds more than 20,000 students to the local population in Charlottesville during the school year.

The main grounds are situated on the west side of Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village, also referred to as “The Lawn” is its focal point. The Academical Village reflects Jefferson’s vision that daily life at college should be infused with learning. He designed 10 pavilions each focused on a different subject that had faculty living quarters upstairs and classrooms downstairs and were attached to rows of student housing. The Lawn is a long esplanade with two premier buildings: the elegant Early Republic-style Rotunda (which Jefferson designed, standing 77 feet tall with a diameter of 77 feet) and the stately Old Cabell Hall (which faces the Rotunda and has a pediment sculpture that reads, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”).

Free guided tours of the Rotunda and Lawn are offered daily at 10am, 11am, 2pm, 3pm, and 4pm. They depart from the Rotunda’s Lower East Oval Room.

University of Virginia Art Museum

The University of Virginia Art Museum (155 Rugby Rd., 434/924-3592, Tues.-Sun. 1pm-5pm, free) is one block north of the Rotunda. It houses a permanent collection of more than 10,000 artifacts. Exhibits include 15th- to 20th-century European and American painting and sculpture, Asian art, American figurative art, and photography. There is a special focus on the “Age of Thomas Jefferson” (1775-1825), and temporary exhibits change often throughout the year.

Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum

The Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia (400 Worrell Dr., 434/244-0234, Tues.- Sat. 10am-4pm, Sun. 1pm-5pm, free) is the only museum in the nation fully dedicated to Australian Aboriginal artwork. The museum collaborates with artists, scholars, and art professionals to advance the knowledge of Australia’s indigenous people and to provide learning opportunities for the university community. The museum houses one of the premier Aboriginal art collections in the world. It is located approximately three miles east of the UVA campus.


Monticello (931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., 434/984-9880, daily 10am-5pm, entrance with tour $24), located on a mountaintop approximately four miles southeast of Charlottesville, is one of the most visited historic sites in the region. The 5,000-acre plantation was the home of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, author of the Declaration of Independence, and the University of Virginia’s founder.

Jefferson inherited the land Monticello sits on from his father and began building Monticello at the age of 26. He maintained and lived in Monticello the rest of his life, always working on and expanding the beautiful home.

Jefferson conceived of his home as a functioning plantation house. Although the design was influenced by Italian Renaissance architecture, it included many elements that were fashionable in late 18th-century Europe and even more elements that were entirely Jefferson’s own.

View of the columns of Monticello with a neatly groomed path lined by blooming flowers.

Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, as seen in spring. Photo © Visions of America LLC/123rf.

Monticello has one of the most recognized exteriors of any home in Virginia. The large brick structure has a facade adorned by columns and a dramatic octagonal dome. Two large rooms anchor the interior: an entrance hall that Jefferson used to display items of science and a music room. The dome, which sits above the west front of the building, had a room beneath it that is perhaps the most famous part of the house. This “dome room” has yellow octagonal walls and a green wooden floor. Each wall contains a circular window. The top of the dome (the oculus) also has a window that is made of brown glass. The room functioned as an apartment but is said to not have been used much. Visitors are prohibited from entering the room today due to fire regulations.

Monticello is the only house in the country included on the United Nations’ World Heritage List.Jefferson never sat idle. He is said to have told his daughter in a letter, “Determine never to be idle…It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing.” As such, he created many unusual contraptions in his home and some are still on display today. Fascinated with time, Jefferson put a clock in nearly every room of his mansion. One notable clock is the Great Clock in the entrance hall. He designed the Great Clock to tell both the time and day of the week and with an interior face, which faced the hall, and an exterior face that looked outside over the plantation. The exterior face bears a huge hour hand so workers on the plantation could read it. It also contained a gong that sounded so loudly that the time could be heard three miles away. Another fun invention was Jefferson’s clothing rack. Instead of climbing a ladder to reach the top of his tall closet, he created a large spiral rack with 50 arms to hold his clothing. He then turned the rack with a stick to make his outfit selection.

Thomas Jefferson was a terrific gardener and grew many varieties of plants and vegetables. There are three main gardens on the grounds of Monticello for flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

Monticello is the only house in the country included on the United Nations’ World Heritage List. Visitors can take a guided, 35-minute tour of the first floor of this beautiful mansion and see original furnishings and personal items that belonged to Jefferson.

Monticello offers tours on a timed ticketing basis. To ensure you get a tour time that’s convenient for you, purchase your ticket online. Be sure to arrive 30 minutes ahead of your ticketed time since it takes 30 minutes to submit tickets and ride the shuttle bus from the ticketing area to the house. Allow two hours for your visit. Tours run throughout the day, April through October, and tours of the grounds and gardens are included in the price of the house tour (visitors are welcome to walk the grounds on their own at other times of the year). Interpreters lead these 45-minute walking tours and provide plant identification, stories, and historical insight into the extensive gardens.

Several additional tours are offered, such as the “Behind the Scenes” tour ($42) visiting the upstairs of the mansion, “Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden Tour” ($42), with guests participating in seasonal garden activities, and the “Evening Signature Tour” ($49), providing viewing of additional rooms in the house during the evening in the luxury of a small group.

Ash Lawn-Highland

James Monroe’s home, Ash Lawn-Highland (2050 James Monroe Pkwy., 434/293-8000, Apr.-Oct. daily 9am-6pm, Nov.-Mar. daily 11am-5pm, $12) is 2.5 miles south of Monticello. Ash Lawn-Highland is not a grand mansion like Monticello, but instead, it is a 535-acre working farm, a performing arts site, and a historic home museum. James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, owned the estate from 1793 to 1826 and lived there most of the time. The estate is now open to the public and displays examples of Victorian and early American architecture, features period craft demonstrations, showcases decorative arts, and is the site of special events and a summer music festival. Original period furnishings are on display in the main house including some the Monroes had while living in the White House. There are even rumors of a resident ghost.

Visitors can come year-round and can even cut their own Christmas trees in December. Ash Lawn-Highland hosts many special events and workshops throughout the year. The College of William & Mary (Monroe’s alma mater) now maintains the estate.

Virginia Discovery Museum

A great place to bring the little ones is the< a href="">Virginia Discovery Museum (524 E. Main St., 434/977-9681, Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm, $6). This children-oriented museum at the east end of the Downtown Mall is small compared to other children’s museums in large cities, but it is still a wonderful little attraction, especially on a rainy day. The interactive exhibits are wonderful for little kids (under 10) and offer crafts, science, and opportunities to run around. Don’t miss the beehive in the back of the museum.


Another presidential home, Montpelier (11407 Constitution Hwy., 540/672-2728, ext. 100, Apr. 1-Oct. 31 Tues.- Sun. 9am-5:30pm, Nov. 1-Jan. 1 and Jan. 16- Mar. 31 Wed.-Sun. 10:30am-4:30pm, $18) was home to the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, and the country’s first first lady, Dolley Madison. Madison spent six months in the library of the home performing research and designing the principles for a representative democracy. These ideas first became the “Virginia Plan” and were later used to frame the Constitution.

Today the estate features Madison’s mansion, garden, archaeological sites, and other historical buildings. The Madisons frequently hosted guests at the estate, and the central feature of the compound is their stately brick mansion. Admission tickets include a guided tour of the mansion, particularly the dining room that was used to host dinner parties, the drawing room, and the presidential library. A self-guided tour of additional exhibits on the second floor of the home, the cellars, gardens, and grounds is also covered by admission. Plan on spending at least two hours at the mansion.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Virginia & Maryland.