It is a perfect “Goldilocks Climate” – not too hot, not too cold – as we drive into the vibrant city of Charlottesville in Virginia, US. Nicknamed fondly as “C-Ville”, the University town, with a trendy vibe, hooks you literally from the moment you enter the portals of the city. The prestigious Virginia University was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the former President of the United States. Monticello or Little Mountain built atop a little hill is more than just his home but reflects his larger-than-life personality and chronicles the historic era of Virginia as well.
While Downtown Charlottesville with its picturesque pedestrian mall beckons you, the verdant vineyards and lush orchards give you a sense of high. Hike along the rocky trails in the Shenandoah National Park or go on a 100-mile-long road trip along the scenic Skyline Drive through the national park and explore Luray Caverns and Shenandoah Caverns.
There is something in it for every traveller – from historic monuments and museums to the great outdoors, wine and music, and arts and crafts.
On your next visit to Washington DC, don't miss the compelling and charming town of Charlottesville which is just a couple of hours away. Here are seven things you must do in Charlottesville:
Explore Luray Caverns
Your eyes start playing tricks the moment you walk into the dark underground chamber enveloped with ghostly columns of frozen limestone. They seem to tease your imagination morphing into multiple forms like a supernatural shapeshifter. There is an eerie ghost, a towering giant, a shimmering veil, a translucent curtain, and a sheer drapery among others. You can even find fried eggs in a fish market. And amidst the crystalised limestone formations, called calcites, you see the optical illusion of a calm lake reflecting the mammoth formations of stalactites hanging from above. Look above you and you can see ceilings that are ten storeys high decorated by nature’s artistic hands.
Drop a few coins in the Wishing Well as you listen to the stories of the breathtaking Luray Caverns located in Virginia in the United States. Formed four million years ago, this area was once a vast ocean that eventually dried up over the passage of time. The stalactites and stalagmites were created as the water slowly dripped through layers of limestone and clay. They rose to form surreal and gigantic columns of rock painted in various hues, from ochre to white, lending an ethereal look. If gazing at 50 feet tall earth pillars at Giant Rock Hall was not enough, we were treated to some “rock” music as well from the stalactites performed by the Great Stalacpipe Organ.
Go on a scenic drive in Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is the place to be if you love the outdoors. Hike through the steep trails snaking through verdurous valleys, surrounded by acres of wildflowers, listening to the roar of the waterfalls and the murmurings of the brooks. The birds come calling and you might even sight a black bear or so on your trail.
If you are not in a hiking mood then strap on your seat belts and head out on the scenic Skyline Drive with the Blue Ridge Mountains for company. The 105-mile drive is sheer wilderness at its best with postcard views of the Shenandoah National Park. Stop at some of the lookouts like the Range View Overlook and lose yourself in the panoramic landscapes of the breathtaking Shenandoah Valley. While the trail is about three hours, you can just pause and wander around the woods or slow down and immerse yourself in the lap of nature. The best time to visit would be in spring or autumn as the seasons paint the dense foliage in myriad hues.
Get heady on the Monticello Wine Trail
The heady wine trail is one of Virginia’s best-kept secrets and it includes over 40 wineries with unique stories that make for a lively afternoon with spirited conversations. From smaller and intimate family-owned vineyards to heritage wineries and luxury cellar experiences, Virginia is one of the biggest producers of wine and the Charlottesville region had its patron in none other than Thomas Jefferson, “a distinguished viticulturist” whose dream was to bring wines to the region.
The Monticello Wine Trail is an ode to the former president of the USA and takes you into the heartland of Virginia where you can taste local wines in stunning locales, surrounded by mountains and wooded countryside. We visited the Blenheim Vineyards which once hosted the Jeffersons as well and sipped their exquisite handcrafted local and sustainable wines. Spread over 32 acres, the lush vineyards are now owned by legendary musician and artist Dave Mathews. You must try the Painted Series of red and white wines with exclusive artwork by Dave Mathews.
Step into a kaleidoscopic world at IX Art Park
The moment you open the doors, you are in an enchanted forest with fanciful creatures. This is a world of dreams where fantasies become real. The magical forests turn into a whimsical wonderland where mysteries lurk in every corner. But as the forests lure you, another portal draws you into a kaleidoscopic cave, where colours and patterns keep changing. We are at the Looking Glass, an immersive art experience inside the IX Art Park, a creative interactive space where artists come together to express themselves.
Highly Instagram-able, this is a perfect escape into an imaginative world where the trees are dancing and you are cast into a spell. The outdoor park is filled with vivid murals and massive sculptures. Immersive and inspirational, the stimulating space conducts festivals and events as well, besides being a venue for farmers’ markets. There is a brewery as well. Charlottesville has become the hub for music, arts, museums, and shows and there is always something new and exciting around the corner.
Be charmed by the Historic Downtown Mall
The cobblestone paved pedestrian lane is humming with a tinge of nostalgia as the heart of Charlottesville lies in its Downtown Mall. This is the shopping district of the city where you can potter around, admiring the architecture or losing yourself in the atmospheric buildings. There are over 150 historic buildings housing boutiques and restaurants, coffee shops and bookstores, antique markets, and souvenir stalls. Watch a play at the local theatre or attend a live musical show at an outdoor venue or dine alfresco in any of the local restaurants. Just around the corner is the City Market and the weekly Farmers Market which comes alive during the weekends.
Say hello to the Raven at the Virginia University
The Rotunda stands right at the centre of the vast campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, founded by Thomas Jefferson. Designed by him, the architecture was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and it was meant to house the library and was surrounded by the rooms of the students and the faculty pavilions. The historic buildings were referred to as the “academic village” by Jefferson. The walking tour of the campus shows you some of the original buildings which also give you a tour of the libraries and an insight into the history of the university.
The campus also includes a Memorial to the Enslaved Labourers who built the university and there is also a tour that is conducted weekly on the history of African American slaves and their life stories. While there are several authors, politicians, and journalists among other noted alumni of the University, one of the students was Edgar Allan Poe who resided here for a while, and his room with the famous “Raven” can be seen even today.
Take a tour of Monticello
A trip to Charlottesville is not complete without a tour of the historic estate, palatial mountaintop villa, plantations, and gardens of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Designed and redesigned for years by Jefferson, the “Little Mountain” as it was called in Italian was inspired by the neoclassical architecture of Italian Renaissance artist, Andrea Palladio fused with Jefferson’s ideas. The house was more of an autobiographical statement that gives you a peek into Jefferson’s personality, his dreams, and passions besides being a time capsule of the historic events of the era.
Jefferson had over 600 slaves who lived in the plantation and they were freed only after his death, including his children who were born to his mistress. As you stand in the gardens and look down, you can see the Rotunda of the University of Virginia. Monticello along with the University are now World Heritage Sites and they are more than just iconic monuments.