One of the highlights of traveling through the state of Virginia is visiting Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson. It’s found high on a hill above the city of Charlottesville. Monticello was for Jefferson a lifelong project. His architectural ideas sprang to life here. He planted gardens and grew vegetables for his dinner table. He wrote here, and he collected a massive library. Jefferson held slaves. He also owned neighboring land. At the home of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, you can delve into the history of this complex man while enjoying gardens and views of the town.
Jefferson called Monticello his home from 1770 until his death in 1826. Himself a fine architect, Jefferson worked with other skilled people to build a main house, plant gardens, and erect outbuildings. Monticello was constantly being redesigned, rebuilt, and upgraded. Entering the house, you will immediately see Jefferson’s inventions, architectural quirks, and books everywhere. For example, our guide pointed out as we shuffled into the entryway that there is no curving grand staircase, as so many homes of this ear showcase. Jefferson, she said, saw this as wasted space. He went for a more practical narrow, steep staircase. This left more room for his displays of art and artifacts.
If you plan to visit Monticello, knowing what to expect will help you get the most from your time there. After all, Monticello Plantation is 5,000 acres, so you will want to know how to navigate your visit. Here is information and some tips to aid you in planning your day. Whether you have two hours or an entire day, you will definitely enjoy exploring Monticello.
How to Visit the Monticello Plantation
You can choose from a variety of tours when visiting Monticello. Study the website before you go. Figure out what aspects of Monticello interest you most. Entrance tickets include take the 45-minute highlights tour and the Slavery at Monticello tour. You can add on the behind-the-scenes pass to tour the second and third floors of the house. A visit with “Thomas Jefferson,” played by an actor, is featured on certain days. And another option is to choose a self-guided pass to the house and grounds, available in the afternoons.
The official website recommends spending 3.5 to 4 hours. I took the highlights and slavery tour, as well as wandering the gardens and then hearing “Jefferson” speak. I spent about 5 hours visiting Monticello, including a break for eating a picnic lunch. If you want to take other tours or hike on the Monticello Trail, allow more time.
Start at the Visitor Center When Visiting Monticello
At the Visitor Center you can buy tickets here if you haven’t already obtained them online. See the 15-minute introductory film on Monticello. Then line up for the shuttle that will carry up to the mountaintop house. You are also welcome to walk the half-mile, but it is fairly steep.
Save the exhibits and gift shop in the Visitor Center for later in the day, after you have seen the main sights of Monticello. This is so you don’t run out of time to tour the historic buildings.
Tour the Heart of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Home
Arriving in front of the main house, leave the shuttle and walk all the way around the iconic red brick home while you wait for your tour. Take photos in front of the white pillars. Gaze at the surrounding hills and green valleys from atop this mountain. The views are breathtaking. You immediately understand why Jefferson chose this windy pinnacle for his home.
On your tour of the house, you will see where Jefferson worked, where he dined, where he entertained. Even though he sold a large portion of his library to the government to pay his debts, some of his books remain at Monticello. Notice how many of the rooms have books and study aids. Jefferson was a lifelong learner.
Explore the Issue of Thomas Jefferson and Slavery
You can learn about slavery at Monticello by touring the outbuildings adjacent to the main house. And then by taking the tour called Slavery at Monticello, included with your entrance ticket. More than 400 enslaved people lived at Monticello during Jefferson’s lifetime.
This tour begins at the tiny cabins of Mulberry Row. Monticello relied on and profited from slave labor. As you stand inside the four walls of these primitive homes, you gain a better understanding of the contrast between life for those who lived here and life for those privileged to live in the main house.
Obvious questions arise, and those who run Monticello do not shy away from them. How could the author of the Declaration of the Independence own slaves? How could twenty percent of the population of the new United States, founded on the principles of liberty and equality, live in bondage? What was life like for enslaved people in the early republic? These questions have no easy answers, but Monticello is a place to contemplate these issues.
Learn about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Near the main house, a row of outbuildings includes recreations of where Sally Hemings and other enslaved people lived. Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s slave who had at least six children by him. Once DNA tests proved this, Monticello acknowledged this. Our guide admitted that for a time this information was hidden, but now Monticello has sought to make all known information available.
Sally Hemings got Jefferson to agree to free their children, although she remained enslaved.
To learn more online about enslaved people at Monticello, check out these excellent presentations on the Monticello website.
Meet Thomas Jefferson
We ended our visit by listening to a historical actor, Bill Barker, portray Jefferson. Sitting on wooden benches under a backyard tree, we heard about Jefferson’s views on the new country as well as on the building of Monticello. Check the website for days and hours if you wish to hear this interesting presentation when visiting Monticello.
Peruse the Gift Shop
After riding the shuttle back down the hill, we looked through the gift shop at the Visitor Center. I was impressed with the wide selection of books about Monticello and its era of history. You can also pick up snacks or lunch in this area.
Pay Your Respects at the Slave Burial Ground
As you leave the Visitor Center, to the southwest in the parking lot you will find the Slave Burial Ground. Surrounded by a rail fence, this area is known to contain the remains of at least 40 enslaved people. More research and exploration is being done on this area. You can quietly pay your respects here.
Where to stay in Charlottesville, Virginia
We enjoyed our stay at the historic Dinsmore Boutique Inn on Main Street, centrally located in Charlottesville.
Built by Jefferson’s master builder, James Dinsmore, in 1817, this is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Dinsmore also contributed to the University of Virginia, which is directly across the street from the Dinsmore house.
The Inn features nine rooms of different sizes and décor. I chose the Dinsmore Room, which was the master bedroom and looks out onto the street. The original windows and hardwood floors give the room character, while modern touches such as remote-controlled heating and cooling and high-speed Internet allow you to have a comfortable stay. I loved watching out the windows as the students hurried down the sidewalk to their classes.
The Farm Bell Kitchen
A fabulous breakfast is included with our stay at the Dinsmore. The genteel Farm Bell Kitchen is a restaurant known in Charlottesville for an elaborate and delicious brunch. The scones, cheese grits, and other featured dishes were all amazing.
Relax at the Mellow Mushroom for Dinner
The Mellow Mushroom claims to make the best pizza in Charlottesville, Virginia. And I can certainly recommend this fun restaurant. Full of color and music, the Mellow Mushroom serves stone-baked pizza, salads, and burgers. Draft beers and handcrafted cocktails complete your meal.
Stroll Through the Historic Charlottesville Downtown Mall
The pedestrian-only mall area of Charlottesville is about a half mile from the Dinsmore Inn. This refurbished urban center offers shops, boutiques, and restaurants. It’s a place to hang out after a day at Monticello.
Monticello and the vibrant city of Charlottesville, Virginia offer much to visitors. For those looking to learn more about the third president of the United States, visiting Monticello is a must. A clearer picture of the early days of the country and the fascinating man who’s credited with writing the Declaration of Independence can help inform our views of the present. Plan your visit and allow a leisurely day to take it all in. You’ll be glad you did.
Check out the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and other Memorials in Washington DC. And read about the Library of Congress, which features a large collection of books once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
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