The refined beauty of Charlottesville

Sun Staff

The Eden of the United States.

That's what Thomas Jefferson called Charlottesville, Va., the charming city three hours south of Baltimore at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To Jefferson, not even Paris could compete with the bucolic beauty of his hometown. "I am as happy nowhere else," he wrote.

Of course, after spending 27 years building his home in Charlottesville, Jefferson might have romanticized the place a little. But even if the city is not your idea of Eden, one visit might convince you otherwise. One stroll across the Lawn of the University of Virginia when the afternoon sun casts its shadows through its majestic columns and there's no denying it - Charlottesville has an aura of Paradise.

The university

What do the University of Virginia, the Taj Mahal and Versailles have in common? All have been designated world architectural treasures by UNESCO. Jefferson designed the university to mirror classical Greek and Roman architecture, centering it on the Lawn - a rectangular, terraced green space lined with rows of columns and pavilions.

The school opened in 1825 to its first 123 students. Today, it ranks as one of the top public universities in the country and is home to approximately 13,000 students. No visit to Charlottesville is complete without a tour of the school - with enough time to wander the romantic, flower-filled gardens adjacent to the Lawn. A word of caution: University of Virginia's Jeffersonian influence is not only in its buildings. The school also has its own peculiar phraseology. Instead of the "campus," the university community says "the Grounds." And did you say "Thomas?" It's "Mr. Jefferson," please! (To schedule a guided tour of the university, call 434-924-7969).

Take a hike

There's something about Charlottesville's skyline - those hazy blue mountains, undulating softly in the distance - that calls. Carve some time in your itinerary to drive in the direction of one of the area's many hiking trails or scenic vistas, many of them no more than 30 minutes outside of town. A popular spot for a panoramic view of the mountain range is Humpback Rock, a 2-mile round-trip climb.

It's a steep trek, but the rocky outcropping at the top offers such a stunning sight you'll forget about your achy joints. (For directions to Humpback Rock and other area trails, call Blue Ridge Mountain Sports at 434-977-4400).

Eat, drink, be merry

Charlottesville might have quaint Southern charm, but it's also got some serious chic. Home to a number of transplanted Washingtonians, actors (Sissy Spacek), writers (John Grisham) and musicians (Dave Matthews) - the city has, in the past decade, developed a booming art and music scene, a wealth of restaurants and coffee shops at every corner (yep, there's a Starbucks). There's something to please even the most discriminating palate in town, starting with Bizou (119 W. Main St., 434-977-1818). Located on the downtown mall, an eight-block pedestrian plaza, this gem is the best place to get a delicious but not too pricey dinner. Tastings (502 E. Market St., 434-293-3663) is consistently good for a more elaborate dining experience, with a spring menu featuring delicacies such as shad roe and guinea hen. Ask any resident about the best bagels in town, and the answer will be Bodo's, a bagel shop with two locations serving mouth-watering breakfast and lunch at a meager price.

For the best in local bands, check out Fridays After Five, a free outdoor concert series that runs until Oct. 4 at the amphitheater on the downtown mall. (call 434-296-8548 for a schedule) Other concert hot spots include Starr Hill (709 W. Main St., 434-977-0017), where bands like the Cowboy Junkies have played, and Miller's (109 W. Main St., 434-971-8511) where Dave Matthews used to tend bar.

As the wine capital of Virginia, Charlottesville is home to dozens of vineyards open to the public for tours and tasting. One of the most popular local products is Monticello wine from sangiovese vines. Jefferson never quite perfected the wine, but today's version is a sellout that can be purchased only at Monticello.


Jefferson began construction of his home on the hill - three miles southeast of Charlottesville - in 1770 when he was 27 years old. Perched majestically on a hill overlooking the city, the estate is open daily for tours and is well worth a visit. Everything about Monticello is a testament to Thomas Jefferson's appetite for science, agriculture, literature and nature. On a clear day, the view is stunning. (Take Interstate 64 East to Exit 121A, go west to Exit 121 and follow the signs to Monticello.

Guided tours are given daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours are $8 for adults and $4 for children).

Getting there

Take I-95 south toward Washington. Take Exit 27 (I-495 west toward Silver Spring). Merge onto I-95 south at exit 57 toward Richmond. Take I-295 exit 84B toward Charlottesville. Take the U.S. 1 ramp toward Richmond. Merge onto I-295 north and take I-64 west to Charlottesville. Merge onto Monacan Trail Road U.S. 29 North Exit 118 B toward Charlottesville.

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