Lots of parents want their kids to get something more than fun out of a vacation. Here are two excellent things to do in Charlottesville, Va., that combine history, food, and fun to make your visit educational.
Charlottesville, Virginia: Perfect Marriage of Learning and Fun
As a homeschooling mom, I always find an educational angle in our family vacations. Some trips are more challenging than others, but I had no problem finding the perfect marriage of learning and fun in Charlottesville, Va.
Besides being a gorgeous city with tons to do, discover plenty of things to do in Charlottesville that inspire curiosity and teach your children (and you!) about history. To name a few of my favorites: Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home), Ash Lawn-Highland (estate of James Monroe), the historic downtown outdoor mall, and nearby Shenandoah National Park.
My Top 2 Things to Do in Charlottesville
If you only have a short time, there are two things to do in Charlottesville that you can’t miss: a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a meal at Michie Tavern. Both will give your family the feeling you stepped right back into the 1700’s and leave you in awe of everything Jefferson accomplished in his lifetime.
1. Michie Tavern
Michie Tavern operated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, serving as a tavern, inn, and ordinary (where a complete meal was served at a fixed price). It was originally located 17 miles from Monticello, and was moved to its current, more accessible location in 1927 by a preservationist. As we listened to our wonderful docent during our tour, we were transported back in time.
We learned about the many roles the tavern fulfilled in colonial times. One of its most important roles was to serve as a place where travelers could rest, refresh, and share the community and political news of the day. But the tavern also served as a general store, meeting place, sleeping space, location for dances and church services, barber, post office, and school. In the meeting space – about as big as a modern home’s living room, yet considered “expansive” at the time – we had some laughs while our docent taught us to dance the Virginia Reel!
An Exceptional Midday Meal
Next we had our “midday meal” in the Ordinary. In colonial America, most people ate a small breakfast, a large dinner in the early afternoon, and a light snack for supper. This was because they wanted to do most of their cooking in the morning, when the kitchens were cooler. In keeping with the traditional timing of colonial dinners, the Ordinary serves meals between 11:15 am and 3:30 pm.
Our food was served in a buffet line and included fried chicken, roast chicken, pulled BBQ pork, black-eye peas, stewed tomatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, cole slaw, beets, biscuits and cornbread. I tried everything except the beets and it was all delish! (My mouth is watering now remembering those biscuits.) Once you are seated, servers dressed in period clothing come around to offer you seconds on anything and everything – all for one price.
When we were sufficiently stuffed, we moved on to our next activity at Michie Tavern: Mr. Michie’s Treasure Hunt. Kids ages 15 and younger can participate in the hunt by touring the tavern, eating in the Ordinary, visiting the Clothier, Metal Smith Shop, and General Store, and answering a list of questions.
My kids had a blast exploring the shops and the staff were all friendly and genuinely pleased to interact with the kids and teach them more about colonial times. At the Clothier, we were all encouraged to try on period clothing. My kids looked so adorable! When they finished the hunt, they received their treasure: a bag of gold chocolate coins.
When you visit the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, known as Monticello, there is so much more to do than tour Jefferson’s home. You’ll start out at the visitor’s center where you can enjoy films and exhibitions. You can then walk or take a shuttle to the estate where you can wander the gardens, the cemetery, the slave quarters, and several surrounding nature trails. And of course, you’ll tour his home and marvel at all his incredible accomplishments. It’s awe-inspiring.
Jefferson was a ravenous learner and prolific inventor who lived by the mantra “to try all things.” My favorite of his inventions that we saw was a device that held several open books and “spun” around – allowing Jefferson to read many books at the same time. We learned that Jefferson was an avid gardener and saw his expansive vegetable beds, which are maintained and producing veggies to this day.
Interactive Fun for Kids
There are also several hands-on activities the kids can engage in such as learning to write calligraphy with ink and a quill pen, or decoding a secret message with a wheel cypher – which was invented by Jefferson!
Visitors can get a day pass to the grounds and a house tour, or opt for specialty tours like a tour from an enslaved family’s point of view, a “behind the scenes” tour that gets you upstairs in Monticello, or a garden-focused tour (you can even taste the vegetables!). There are also tons of special events, so check their calendar!
For educational value, entertainment, good food, and a visit back in time, Monticello and Michie Tavern are must-see things to do in Charlottesville.