JUST INSIDE MONTICELLO, Thomas Jefferson’s marvel of a home in Charlottesville, Virginia, a tour guide draws visitors’ attention to the clock over the door — a device that hints at some of the personal qualities that made Jefferson unique. The clock, which Jefferson designed, is built into an exterior wall and displays the time to people inside and outside the home. It uses a specially procured Chinese gong to sound the hour to field workers. Wound once a week, the clock uses two sets of 18-pound cannonball weights for power, and down one wall Jefferson devised a system where the weights point to the corresponding day of the week. But it turns out he miscalculated. When the entrance hall proved tall enough to fit only six days, Jefferson adapted: He cut a hole in the floor, allowing the weights to descend into the cellar, where Saturday is marked along the basement wall. “Jefferson loved gadgets,” the guide tells us. “He was the Steve Jobs of his age.”
Were it not for Jefferson, Charlottesville would be an unremarkable place — but thanks to him, it is anything but. Within a short drive of Jefferson’s home lie two other presidential estates — those of James Madison and James Monroe, both Jefferson proteges. Downtown, life is centered on the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded a decade after his presidency, in 1819. Around Charlottesville, the rural landscape is dotted with wineries, which may also owe their existence to Jefferson, who developed a taste for wine while living in France in the 1780s and traveling extensively throughout Europe.
Charlottesville is more than 500 miles from Boston and lacks a major airport, so at first blush it’s not particularly convenient as a weekend destination. But when planning weekend travel, there’s one consideration that can trump accessibility: a wedding invitation. So when a dear cousin invited our family (including my children, 8, 12, and 14) to a marriage celebration in Virginia in July, we decided to make time to explore Charlottesville. Boston may rank as one of the nation’s greatest college cities, but this was a chance to expose my kids to one of America’s great college “towns.” And getting there isn’t as hard as you might think: There are inexpensive direct flights from Logan to Dulles Airport, and then it’s just about a 100-mile drive through the countryside to Charlottesville.
In theory, visitors might spend a full day at Monticello (434-984-9800, monticello.org), whose design reflects how Jefferson was influenced by his observations in Europe. In addition to a comprehensive look at the home, guides lead two additional tours: One covers the estate’s gardens, the second focuses on slavery at Monticello. (These outdoor tours run primarily from April 1 to October 31; the slavery tour is also available in February.) We stuck to the basics, however, walking the grounds ourselves, visiting Jefferson’s burial site, and then touring the red brick home. For my family, the highlights were the personal objects on display. My youngest child, a budding chess player, stood a few feet from Jefferson’s ornate chess set; my oldest, who rides horses, spied Jefferson’s boots, which he wore while riding daily into his 80s. My favorite item: In Jefferson’s study sits his “polygraph,” a mechanical writing contraption that allowed him to simultaneously produce a copy of each of the 19,000 handwritten letters he produced during his lifetime — letters that have become the lifeblood of his biographers. After touring the house, we stopped in the museum store to grab bottles of Monticello root beer, sweetened with honey and based on a recipe for the sassafras drink that was popular during Jefferson’s time.
It’s a short drive down Jefferson’s mountain to the heart of Charlottesville, where we arrive just as the weekly farmers’ market is shutting down. In our locavore economy, every community now has a farmers’ market, but Charlottesville’s City Market (434-970-3371, charlottesvillecitymarket.com), which runs Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon April to October and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in November and December on Water Street, has been around since 1973. Today vendors sell a wide range of products — tacos, flowers, artisanal laundry soap, pesto. We buy bars of olive oil-and-oatmeal bath soap and head across Water Street to get in line for lunch.
One attribute of a great college town is food that’s tasty and cheap. The Flat (434-978-3528, theflatdowntown.com), a takeout creperie housed in a tiny brick building, qualifies on both counts. It’s cash or check only, and the service can be a little slow, but lines form nonetheless. We stand alongside students, many of whom order the Hangover Relief (a crepe with local ham, cheese, and eggs for $7.50). I try The Return of the King (a chicken, avocado, and feta crepe for $6.50) and the tangy rosemary lemonade ($2); my children go for gooey chocolate crepes ($4). The Flat has just a couple of outdoor tables (many customers sit on curbs to eat), so we opt to eat and walk, wandering around the corner into Charlottesville Historic Downtown Mall (434-295-9073, downtowncharlottesville.net).
The brick-lined shopping center, which has a pedestrian-only section that opened in 1976, is considered a prototype for how a car-free area can revitalize a downtown. The center contains 120 stores and 60 restaurants — many of which have open-air cafes in the middle of the street — but it feels less tourist-focused than Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which also opened in 1976. That’s partly because Charlottesville is smaller (population: roughly 44,000), so a larger proportion of the city’s restaurants and stores is here, compelling locals to actually visit. (And unlike at Faneuil Hall, nearby parking is cheap or free.) This neighborhood also has popular concert venues to attract the college crowd — venues that have helped give Charlottesville a rep as a great place to hear live music.
At the University of Virginia campus (virginia.edu), we pick up brochures for the self-guided tour and walk a loop past the Rotunda (architect: Jefferson) and the Lawn. Surrounding the grassy area is Jefferson’s Academical Village — made up of stately large pavilions that house professors and classrooms, more rustic student quarters for fortunate fourth-years, buildings used as offices and graduate housing, and gardens. School isn’t in session dur ing our visit, but it’s easy to envision how this would look on a fall football weekend or at graduation, which takes place on the Lawn.
DURING TOURS OF MONTICELLO, one of the gadgets the tour guides point out is the dumbwaiter system built into the dining room fireplace. Jefferson created the pulley configuration to connect the room where he entertained guests with one of Monticello’s most important facilities: its wine cellar. When Jefferson’s guests finished a bottle, they’d simply send it down the dumbwaiter and a servant would hoist up a replacement. Later, while touring the spacious wine cellar, my 8-year-old commented dryly, “This guy must have really liked wine.” Indeed.
Today the results of this affection are found throughout Albemarle County and the surrounding region. While Virginia is hardly Napa, it does attract growing numbers of wine-focused tourists — enough that several van, shuttle, and limo services advertise tours of the wineries, for tasters who want to drink and not drive.
With kids in tow, we choose to visit just a single winery: highly regarded Pollak Vineyards (540-456-8844, pollakvineyards.com), located off Interstate 64 in Greenwood, some 25 miles west of Charlottesville. Set amid the rolling countryside, Pollak boasts a modern tasting room with a high ceiling and a well-staffed horseshoe-shaped bar. (Tastings cost $5, but the fee is waived if you buy bottles.) It also features a large wraparound veranda and a separate patio with tables and umbrellas — which lead many visitors to buy bottles to drink on the premises. This region is best known for producing viognier, a dry white wine that originated in the Rhone region of France. Before departing, we buy a bottle of it, along with a bottle of rose.
En route to the airport on Sunday, we have time, so instead of following the direct route northeast toward Dulles, we divert west and head up scenic Skyline Drive. It’s a much slower route — the speed limit through Shenandoah National Park (nps.gov/shen) is just 35 miles per hour — but the views are extraordinary. Looking out over undeveloped forests provides a reminder of why Jefferson and many early Americans chose to make this part of Virginia their home.
WHERE TO EAT IN CHARLOTTESVILLE
The Virginian Restaurant
Every college town has a traditional eatery, the place every legacy’s grandfather ate at that hasn’t changed much since then. In Charlottesville, The Virginian has been serving Southern food (ribs, crab cakes, fried chicken) since 1923. On average, entrees cost $15. 434-984-4667; virginianrestaurant.com
Charlottesville is now home to a wide array of ethnic restaurants, and this South African—inspired pub is testament to that. The menu (entrees are $12 and up) includes a variety of lamb dishes, along with West African Ground Nut Stew ($17), a spicy version of ratatouille. 434-296-3185; shebeen.com
Tastings of Charlottesville
This wine-focused restaurant is part of a wine store. It features 125 wines available by the glass and half glass. The menu (entrees are $22 and up) includes locally sourced seasonal specials, sauteed backfin crab cakes, and oak-grilled tenderloin or strip steak. 434-293-3663; tastingsofcville.com
Daniel McGinn, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, last wrote about frozen yogurt shops for the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.