Before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson—the former president, vice president, and secretary of state—wrote a simple epitaph, soon to be inscribed on his tombstone at Monticello. “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.”
It’s fitting that Jefferson made prominent mention of the university he founded in 1819, a banner accomplishment for a man who had accomplished so much. He had realized his vision of an academical village based upon the daring idea that a university should be centered around a library instead of a church. And today, the University of Virginia is routinely named among the best (and most beautiful) universities in the country, all while acting as the beating heart of a city at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In the centuries since Jefferson built his home at Monticello, Charlottesville has blossomed into a star of Virginia cuisine, wine, art, and music. With the student-centric UVA Corner to the west, the pedestrian-only Downtown Mall to the east, Shenandoah National Park to the north, and Monticello to the south, Charlottesville offers endless escapes for students, locals, and long weekenders alike.
So if you find yourself in central Virginia, here are some budget-friendly ways to get the most out of three days.
Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Ham Biscuits
In the interest of starting this weekend off right, make an early morning stop at JM Stock Provisions, the nose-to-tail butcher shop that has taken West Main Street by storm. Your objective? A hot buttermilk biscuit topped with tasso ham, hot sauce, and honey that has quickly become the city’s most iconic breakfast. But be sure to get ’em quick—they’re only served until noon (709 West Main Street).
And with a long day of driving and hiking ahead of you, don’t leave the city limits without packing a picnic lunch from Feast!, the gourmet grocery and sandwich shop down the road (416 West Main Street).
The Skyline’s The Limit
From downtown Charlottesville, it’s a scenic 30-mile drive to Shenandoah National Park, Virginia’s awe-inspiring stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Enter through Swift Run Gap and head north on spectacular Skyline Drive, pausing to explore trails and overlooks near Lewis Mountain, Big Meadows, and Skyland. And no, it’s not your imagination—those mountains in the distance really do appear to be blue, thanks in part to the isoprene that the trees release into the atmosphere.
Ignore This Advice At Your Own Risk
There are several things you can always count on in Charlottesville. Fantastic restaurants. Jam band enthusiasts. Endless references to Mr. Jefferson. And on Friday nights, the fact that there’s no better place to be than Más.
The brainchild of chef Tomas Rahal, Más brings the vigor of Spanish cuisine to the quiet residential neighborhood of Belmont. The menu of traditional and seasonal tapas changes daily, so keep your fingers crossed that the tortilla española, bacon-wrapped dates, and broccolini bathed in sherry have made the day’s cut. Reservations aren’t part of the game plan, so be prepared to enjoy a pitcher (or two) of sangria while you wait (501 Monticello Road).
Back To School
Ease into the morning with a stroll across the University of Virginia, my very own alma mater and the only American college designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Begin your visit at the Rotunda, the school’s most famous landmark, the former home of the university library, and a great spot to unwrap the MarieBette pastries you picked up on the way (700 Rose Hill Drive).
From the Rotunda’s south front, you’ll have your first glimpse of The Lawn, the magnificent quad that’s home to a select group of professors and fourth-year students. But the prestige of a Lawn room comes with a price—keep your eyes peeled for the bathrobed undergrads scurrying to reach the cold, communal bathrooms out back.
Down On The Corner, Out In The Street
When lunchtime rolls around, make your way back to The Corner to sample the Hoos’ most beloved house dressing at Take It Away Sandwich Shop. The breads are freshly baked, but don’t bother asking for lettuce and tomato here—it’s sprouts and cucumbers all the way (115 Elliewood Avenue). And for those who digest best with a microbrew and an outdoor seat, walk a block down University Avenue to Michael’s Bistro and Tap House, home to one of the best (and smallest) patios on The Corner (1427 University Avenue).
A mile down the road, you’ll have your pick of 120 shops, 30 restaurants, and several outstanding art, music, and theater venues on the pedestrian-only Downtown Mall (Main Street between McIntire Road and Ninth Street). Whether you stop for coffee at Mudhouse, stationery at Rock Paper Scissors, or home goods, jewelry, and handbags at O’Suzannah, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy until dinner.
Just don’t forget to check the upcoming schedule at the Charlottesville Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue that consistently draws some of the nation’s best musical talent.
Zou Bizou Bizou
With prime outdoor seating on the Mall and a quirky French diner interior, where to sit will be the first of many tough choices you face over dinner at Bizou. Succulent roasted chicken or comforting homemade meatloaf? Grilled banana bread with caramel sauce or decadent molten chocolate cake? Do yourself a favor and order one of each (119 West Main Street).
For after-dinner drinks, try the basement bistro at C&O, a local favorite for intimate fine dining or a night-capping bourbon. With wooden planked walls and a bar constructed from a dismantled Albemarle County barn, C&O’s bistro also boasts the city’s best late-night menu—if you’re not stuffed to the gills already (515 East Water Street).
Ace In The Hole
If it’s Sunday morning, it’s breakfast at Ace Biscuit & Barbecue, chef Brian Ashworth’s little piece of meat-and-butter heaven. Think oak-smoked pulled pork, buttermilk fried chicken, and house-ground chorizo—all served on freshly baked biscuits (711 Henry Avenue).
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
In 1769, a 26-year-old Jefferson began construction on his first design for Monticello, the hilltop plantation he inherited just outside Charlottesville. Following an extensive redesign, the year 1809 saw the completion of the house as we know it—an expansive home, library, and museum of early American artifacts. Today, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation manages the estate and offers tours of the rooms where Jefferson lived and died, as well as the grounds where he grew tobacco, owned slaves, and was buried in 1826 (931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway).
The Barbour Of Barboursville
With 210 wineries scattered across the state of Virginia, the greater Charlottesville area has no shortage of vineyards ripe for an afternoon of wine-tasting. One of the loveliest is Barboursville Vineyards, which has occupied the hillsides 20 miles north of Monticello since 1976. Today’s vineyard grows on the site of the Barbour family plantation, which includes the ruins of an 1822 estate house designed by Jefferson for his friend James Barbour. But before admiring the grounds, stop by the tasting room to sample more than 15 award-winning wines (17655 Winery Road, Barboursville).
Stuck In The Middle With You
After a day on the outskirts of town, end the evening—and the weekend—at Lampo, one of Charlottesville’s newest and brightest culinary stars (205 Monticello Road). The focus at this Belmont neighborhood eatery is (outstanding) Neapolitan pizza, yet the menu is full of delightful surprises. The roasted cauliflower appetizer and the Tuscan kale salad are so well-balanced and flavorful that you’ll almost forget to leave room for the Margherita D.O.C. … almost.
TITLE: Más | FRIDAY: Charlottesville farmland; Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park | SATURDAY: The Lawn at UVA; a pavilion on The Lawn; the Rotunda; the UVA Corner; the Downtown Mall; Rock Paper Scissors | SUNDAY: Barboursville Vineyards.