Thomas Jefferson thought a scenic mountaintop near Charlottesville, Va., would be the perfect place for his house, and admirers who put Monticello on their must-see list would agree. But even Mr. Jefferson might be surprised to learn there are many other good reasons to visit Charlottesville these days.
Festivals are a great introduction to a region, and Charlottesville has some unique ones.
Coming up June 25–Aug. 1 is the Heritage Theatre Festival at the University of Virginia. The popular summer festival brings professional artists from all over to present five eclectic shows. This season the Heritage Theatre Festival offers Luv, Monty Python’s Spamalot, I Love a Piano, Almost, Maine, and Violet.
“We’re very proud of what we put on the stage,” said the festival’s Robert Chapel. The festival is under the umbrella of the university’s Drama Department and performances are given in a campus complex with three theaters of different sizes and configurations.
By request during the festival and at other times, you can take a fascinating backstage tour that includes the scene shop, prop storage room, lighting lab, costume and fitting rooms, dressing rooms, stage manager’s control booth, and catwalk. “This is where the magic really happens,” said the department’s Steven Lewis Warner.
The Paramount Theater is a grand former movie palace built in 1931. It hosts a wide variety of shows year-round; Diana Ross was a recent headliner. Past performers, including Frankie Valli, Bob Newhart, Lily Tomlin, Morgan Freeman, and Kris Kristofferson, have scrawled their signatures on a wall near the dressing rooms. The theater is also a venue for the Virginia Film Festival, scheduled for Nov. 5–8. The 2014 festival smashed records with 41 sold-out screenings and guests such as Hal Holbrook and Katie Couric.
Arts and fun
A lot of people think they don’t have an artistic bent, but they find out differently at The Glass Palette, an interactive art gallery that’s fun for the whole family.
You purchase a plain dish, are given glass-cutting tools and instruction, then you create your own design out of fragments of colored glass. These are glued on, fired, and, voila, you have a unique gift for Grandma’s birthday. “You can’t mess it up,” said the gallery’s Cara DiMassimo.
The Virginia Discovery Museum offers activities that engage children and their families. A mock vegetable garden, cabin, stable, farm stand, fire station, and treehouse are among its play stations. On a recent day, a girl studiously reorganized plastic bagels at the bakery counter. Boys dived onto giant teddy bears, and three children were engrossed in art projects. Frequent museum visitors James and Ruth Shelhamer, of Washington, D.C., assisted their toddler granddaughter at a checkerboard.
Back in time
Take a shuttle up the mountain to see Monticello, an architectural beauty that showcases many aspects of Jefferson’s genius — his inventions, books, wine, and agriculture. Slave life on the plantation is freely acknowledged.
Two other presidents also had homes in the area. A lane of ash trees leads to James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland. The four-room cabin emphasizes Monroe’s many contributions to U.S. history. James Madison’s Montpelier, in Orange County, has a mansion with a commanding view of the mountains and a landmark forest.
A ritual for Monticello visitors is lunch at the rustic Michie Tavern, featuring fried chicken, homemade biscuits, and stewed tomatoes based on 18th-century recipes. A self-guided tour of the tavern, built in 1784 and moved to this location in 1927, shows where guests ate, drank, gambled, played games, danced, and slept — two to a bed or on the floor, and no boots allowed.
Insider tip: A Monticello Neighborhood Pass covers Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland, and Michie Tavern.
Arrange historic walking tours at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. Court Square and equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson are among the sights. “People come here looking for history. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Jefferson,” said the society’s Steven G. Meeks.
Stroll the dog-friendly, eight-block downtown pedestrian mall. It has brick sidewalks, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and even an ice rink. (Ask businesses to validate your parking ticket.)
Cider, common in Jefferson’s day, is making a comeback at the family-owned Albemarle Ciderworks. Taste dry varietals and blends made from apples and enjoy music on weekends.
“We’re small but mighty,” said the cidery’s Anne Shelton.
Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards, part of the Monticello Wine Trail and a destination wedding magnet, features a restaurant and indoor and outdoor tasting areas.
There’s a range of accommodations in the area. One of the newest is Homewood Suites, which offers complimentary breakfast and dinner. One of the oldest is the luxurious Clifton Inn, built by Jefferson’s son-in-law. Watch the chef prepare farm-to-table gourmet fare and enjoy Madeira wine in your room — Jefferson would feel right at home here.
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