Home to three founding fathers and named in honor of Queen Charlotte of England, Charlottesville, Virginia is steeped in history. Whether or not you are a history buff, these sites will keep the entire family entertained.
We visited Charlottesville as part of a media trip. It’s the second year we’ve returned because we enjoy it!
6 Must Visit Historical Sites in Charlottesville, Virginia
Michie Tavern– Have you ever wanted to step back in time and experience the past? You can at Michie Tavern. They have been welcoming guests since 1784 and continue the tradition today. Built by William Michie, a canny businessman, after his exile from Scotland, you can visit the original tavern for a self-guided tour. Filled with antiques and hands-on activities, it truly feels as if are in the 18th century. A docent is available to answer questions and give details about the Michie family. (Be sure to ask them how to play “Shut The Box” and have them show you the cabinet where Mr. Michie kept his candles, which he rented to patrons by the inch.) The kids will be entertained by an 18th-century treasure hunt throughout the site.
After the tour, visit the other historic building on the site, including the Armory, which sells antique weapons, coins and bills and newspapers, and the Metal Smith Shop, which sells beautiful jewelry and other metal goods, many sourced from Virginia artisans. Finish with a meal from Michie Tavern, where you will enjoy traditional Southern cooking, with selections including Southern Fried Chicken, Stewed Tomatoes, Homemade Mashed Potatoes and gravy, and a delicious Peach Cobbler. Once you’ve eaten in the restaurant, you’ll want to stop by the gift shop and pick up a copy of The Michie Tavern Cookbook for yourself. Be sure to check their website for monthly coupons for lunch specials for adults and children.
Monticello– The former home of President Thomas Jefferson is a highlight of Charlottesville. Begin the day with a 15-minute film presentation to learn the history of Monticello, then take the tour bus to explore the home and grounds. Day passes are available which cover the first floor of the home along with a slavery tour and garden tour. You can also purchase the “Behind the Scenes” Tour, which covers the 2nd and 3rd floor, including the bedrooms and dome room. If possible, I recommend taking the Behind the Scenes tour to get a more in-depth look at the family. You’ll see such sites as Jefferson’s daughter’s bedroom, who because her father did not believe in closets, hounded him until he allowed her to have her own.
After the house tour, be sure to explore the grounds, including the area under the house, which now includes a gift shop where you can purchase the heirloom seeds Jefferson used in his garden. If you prefer to explore the grounds on your own, you can download the Slavery at Monticello App, which introduces visitors to the enslaved people who lived and worked on Mulberry Row, the industrial hub and “Main Street” of Thomas Jefferson’s 5,000-acre plantation. Before leaving the grounds, stop by the family gravesite to visit the grave of Thomas Jefferson. Insider Tip: Jefferson believed in steep and narrow staircases as he believed stairs were a waste of space. The Behind the Scenes tour involves climbing steep staircases and is not handicapped accessible. Plan to spend most of the day at Monticello if you want to see and explore all the sites.
Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center– Did you know Charlottesville is the home of Merriweather Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) and the home of the Lewis Family Farm? The Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center is now open on the site of the original family farm and offers hands-on activities for the entire family. Inside the building, you’ll find exhibits from the Native American tribes Lewis and Clark met during their voyage of discovery, historical artifacts from the Lewis Family and interactive exhibits for children which change on a monthly basis. Outside you can visit three replicas of ships used during their voyage, and during the summer, visit the garden featuring heirloom seeds from Monticello. Finish your visit by hiking the scenic trails around the nature center, providing a beautiful view of the Ravana river.
The Exploratory Center is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays and offers a variety of workshops and classes on a rotating basis, including classes in carpentry, model boat building, nature observation and journaling, hiking, and compass and GPS games. Group reservations are available during the week.
The Rotunda– Located on the grounds of the University of Virginia, the Rotunda was designed by Thomas Jefferson to be the “heart of the architectural and academic” experience. Recently renovated, the Dome Room has been redone to reflect Jefferson’s original design and the statue of Thomas Jefferson has been returned. Free tours of the Rotunda are offered daily at 10 AM, 11 AM, and 2 PM. While visiting the Rotunda, be sure to check out the exhibits in the basement, which include a tribute to the enslaved people who once worked there. After you leave the Rotunda, wander through the lovely gardens and stop by Edgar Allen Poe’s room for a quick peek at how the University looked during the 19th century.
The Albemarle and Charlottesville Historical Society– is located on second street, approximately two blocks from the Downtown Pedestrian Mall. While recognizing the importance of the Founding Fathers, they share the “other side” history of Charlottesville. During the one hour “Downtown Charlottesville Tour” you’ll see the oldest house in Charlottesville, hear the little-known story of Jack Jouett, who rode to Charlottesville to warn Thomas Jefferson and members of the General Assembly of a plot by the British to capture and imprison them, and see the old jailhouse, the site of one of the last hangings in the state. You’ll want to ask about the story behind that too!
Paramount Theater– Opened in 1931, the Paramount Theater was an immediate success. Dedicated to luxury and comfort, the theater operated in the Downtown Mall for many years before being closed and abandoned in 1974. In 2002, remodeling began to restore the theater to its original grandeur. The theater reopened their doors in 2004, restored to the luxury of the past (but with more comfortable seating and more aisle room.) Today the theater can be rented for events and weddings, but it’s also open to the public for all sorts of productions, from ballet to live theater to movies.
When you stop by to see a show or movie, be sure to go out of the 3rd street entrance. During segregation, this was used as an entrance for African Americans and has an informative tribute, telling of the history and discrimination of the past.
Have you visited Charlottesville? What are some of your favorite sites?