The Traveling Steve's

Day tour of Monticello

Our Charlottesville mini-getaway continues with a visit to the mountainside estate of Monticello, home of the third U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson (link to Monticello’s official site).

While DOS and I have both been to Monticello previously and separately, it was part of school trips when we were growing up, so it had been many years for both of us. I had also been back once as a teenager with my parents. Honestly, Monticello is pretty much the way I remember it as a young kid, although there are many more exhibits, tours etc, and I certainly can appreciate the history more today.

We had a Behind the Scenes tour pre-booked for 10:30am, but the web site said to be there half an hour early as you have to go thru security, take a bus up the mountain from the parking lot, find your assigned tour and time etc – all very organized though.

Before heading to Monticello, we had a nice breakfast at the B & B we were staying at, 400 West High Street in Charlottesville. The city of Charlottesville is an ideal place to stay when visiting Monticello as geographically it’s very nearby, and also as it’s the home of The University of Virginia, which Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819. Add in lots of local restaurants, pubs, history, and beautiful scenery and you have all the ingredients of a nice vacation or mini-getaway. Our bed and breakfast was fabulous, as I’ve written in a previous post.

As so much has been written on Thomas Jefferson and I’m not a history scholar, I’ll refer you to this Wikipedia article for more information on the man and his busy and amazing life. As I said to one of the guides in the museum after touring Monticello, “Did he ever take a day off in his life!” He had so many talents, inventions, collections, writings, surveying, written observations and lists etc, it seemed like he must not have let a minute go to waste. I’m getting ahead of the tour of Monticello as we toured the museum last, but it’s definitely a must-see on your day tour of Monticello, with many of his instruments, hand-written writings etc on display there. As no photos are allowed in the museum (or mansion) the exterior of the museum is show below.

Museum at the Visitor Center complex

We arrived at Monticello early after a short 15 minute ride from our B &B in Charlottesville. We parked in the self-parking (no charge) which is on a hillside with several parking levels.

Before I show photos of the mansion, I want to point out a couple logistical notes which are important for touring Monticello. First, while there is handicapped parking, there is still a bit of a walk up to the visitor center. Depending what parking lot you are in, there could be quite a few stairs or hills to walk up with the regular parking. Second, book your tickets online which will save you time, as well as secure a tour time. The tours are very punctual and while there are lots of them, they are purposely kept to small groups (ours had 15) and are very efficient so as to avoid over-crowding.

Entrance to Monticello Visitor Center

Third, photography is not allowed inside the mansion or museum, with the exception of the Dome Room in the mansion if you are on the Behind the Scenes tour. Finally, the Behind the Scenes tour takes you on all three levels of the mansion, and this involves walking up a super tiny and tight circular staircase (really a 360 degree circular ladder it felt like!) which will not be possible for people in walkers, canes, or even people with knee or leg issues. Apparently in the late 1700’s Jefferson wanted to save energy efficiency by keeping the staircase small and narrow. Per the Monticello official site, here is a link to accessibility options, which does allow wheelchair on the first floor only, and all levels of the visitor center. Ok, one more tip: allow plenty of time for touring Monticello, the grounds, exhibits, etc, and start early in the day before it gets crowded and the photo opportunities are better.

Now for the Monticello site photos! After taking the short bus ride to the top of the mountain, we were pointed over to the tour area where we were told where to gather for our respective tour.

As we were about 20 minutes early, we had some time to roam around the grounds for a bit before meeting our 10:30am tour. It was really a bonus too, as this school group was playing their band instruments, all dressed up in colonial attire.

Visiting school group playing on the grounds of Monticello.
Breathtaking mountain views from the Monticello lawn.

When it was time for our tour, we joined our group and tour guide and entered Monticello from the back entrance. The back of the mansion is undergoing major restoration, but has held up well over the last 200 + years.

There was actually a Monticello One (started in 1786) and later a much enlarged Monticello Two, which was completed in 1809. This comprehensive article in Wikipedia provides detailed information on Monticello history, construction, design, plantation life, slavery, and preservation efforts etc.

We entered thru the east entrance shown above, which was the original entrance. Our guide explained the mansion was designed to look like a single story building, although it’s actually three levels. If you notice the top square windows are small and not full length like the ones below. Likewise the basement has smaller windows as well. This reminded us of how Disney World uses “forced perspective” in some of it’s buildings and layover to make something bigger or smaller than it appears.

As I mentioned earlier, photography is not allowed inside the mansion, with the exception of the Dome Room, which is only available on the “Behind the Scenes Tour”. Thomas Jefferson, in addition to being the third President of the United States, was also a surveyor, lawyer, writer, international traveler, and inventor among other things. I remember the large clock he invented in the lobby which extends the width of the room, and has large weighted balls that indicate the approximate time of day, and literally extend thru the floor! Here is a link to the Great clock with a short You Tube video, as posted on the official Monticello web site.

As we toured the mansion in Monticello, we visited the main rooms including Jefferson’s bedroom, office, dining room, parlor, and other bedrooms on the other floors, accessed by a TINY and circular staircase. Almost all of the rooms had a fireplace for those cold winter nights, and the beds were alcove in design; fitting into the enclosed wall space with draw curtains surrounding them.

On the top floor only, we were allowed to take photos in the Dome Room. The guide said this had varied uses over time; writing room, meeting room, sitting area etc, but wasn’t used as a ballroom which is what I would have thought due to the size and grandeur. I guess due to those TINY circular staircases, it would be conducive for ladies in hoop skirts or men in jackets with tails trying to climb those TINY stairs to reach the Dome Room. Here are some photos of the top floor Dome Room.

As our Behind the Scenes tour ended with the Dome Room, we headed back down those TINY stairs, and exited back outside. There are a host self-tour exhibits in the basement/outdoor portion of the house, as well as the grounds. Some of these building were former slave quarters, and we toured one of the exhibits on Sally Hemmings, the slave mistress of Jefferson who is believed to have fathered all six of her children.

Walking thru the estate grounds, you have to wonder how this mountain-top estate could have been built in the late 1700’s without the tools, roads, transportation options etc today? Our guide said the roads to the estate were designed as concentric circles winding their way to the top of the mountain. Shown below is one of the carriage types that would have been used for transport. A simple trip into the town of Charlottesville would have taken a full day, compared to the 20 minutes by car today!

We wandered around the estate grounds for quite a while before heading back to Charlottesville around 2:30pm. Here are some additional photos of the beautiful grounds. We would love to come back here in Fall and see the colorful views of the trees at that time.

Small fish pond built to hold fish caught locally until ready to serve.
DOS jumping for joy at Monticello!

After leaving Monticello, we headed back to our B & B, but stopped for lunch along the way at Mitchie Tavern, a welcome stop for weary travelers, circa 1874.

Today there is a restaurant and several shops on the complex. We had lunch at The Ordinary, which offers a southern, country-type buffet, with dining hosts dressed in period attire.

While the food was so-so, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, pulled pork, salad, cornbread etc, the 18th century atmosphere was wonderful. DOS and I enjoyed our lunch, and then walked around the property a bit.

Mitchie Tavern just recently opened the Pub on it’s property, but it’s only open on several days, and wasn’t open when we were there, although it was open for touring. We walked thru the room with it’s rustic furnishings mixed with modern day beers and wines, and wished we could have downed a brewski or two there. Maybe next visit!

After lunch and touring the pub and the basement shops, we headed over for a short walk to the other shops, each of which carried artistic type things made in Virginia or at least in the U.S.

The last building housed the general purpose store and was attached to the 18th century mill.

We enjoyed walking thru the shops and purchased a few local souvenirs before heading back to our B & B at 400 West High Street. It was quite a fun and full day touring Monticello, with our late lunch at Mitchie Tavern!

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