11 Things to Do (and Eat) on Your First Trip to Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville, Virginia
Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Redux

If you haven't already met, may we introduce you to Charlottesville, Virginia? We don't mind sounding like a proud mama as we tally this small town's accolades. With 500-plus miles of Blue Ridge trails, it's a hiker's paradise, and for those who prefer watching others play, there are the NCAA championship-winning Virginia Cavaliers to cheer on. Your palate will be pleased to discover a restaurant-per-capita density that rivals major cities like New York City and San Francisco. It's no wonder college students and tourists flock here—and locals are in no hurry to leave: You'll find all three groups mingling at hidden-gem restaurants or drinking pints of Bold Rock cider as they watch the sun dip beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. Can you tell we love this place yet?

Not far from the city, there's Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to tour, as well as his pride and joy the University of Virginia, which is within walking distance of downtown. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the array of wineries, breweries, and cideries in the area. Even with its fast-paced growth, this city maintains its small-town spirit (and amazing bagels). So, please, add Charlottesville to your bucket list ASAP—and make sure you check out these spots along the way.

01 of 11

Visit Monticello

Charlottesville, VA
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Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello is only a 15-minute drive away from downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia campus. Tailor your visit to your interests with one of several tours of the 19th-century plantation, including a behind-the-scenes look at Jefferson's home and an educational tour about slavery at Monticello. With a wide variety of trees and flora, the impeccable grounds are a must-see for any garden aficionado.

02 of 11

Eat at Bodo's Bagels

Bodo's Bagels
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Bodo's Bagels is a beloved Charlottesville institution with three locations around town. The bagels are made from scratch every day on-site, and you can customize your New York-style bagel sandwich any way you like (don't skip the cream cheese!). On busy weekend mornings, expect the line at Bodo's on the Corner to snake out the door, so venture to Preston Avenue or Emmet Street locations to avoid the crowd.

03 of 11

Take a Historical Tour of the University

University of Virginia
Facebook/University of Virginia

Student tour guides provide a glimpse into the rich, complex history of Thomas Jefferson's school during the University Guide Service's free daily historical tours. Each tour is unique, with topics ranging from the architecture of the Lawn to slavery at the university. Prime stops include the stunning Rotunda, designed by Jefferson in homage to the Pantheon, and the Academical Village, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

04 of 11

Hike the Blue Ridge Mountains

Old Rag Mountain, Blue Ridge
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Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Charlottesville offers easy access to some of the best hiking trails (and views) in Virginia. The nearby Shenandoah National Park offers over 500 miles of trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Experienced hikers can embark on the all-day adventure of Old Rag Mountain, the park's most popular and most strenuous trail. Complete with precipitous rock scrambles and incredible summit views, Old Rag is worth the exertion.

05 of 11

Brunch at MarieBette Café and Bakery

MarieBette Charlottesville
Courtesy MarieBette Cafe and Bakery

If Charlottesville were the kind of place that brags (which it isn't), it'd definitely be boasting about its brunch. The cult favorite for late-morning eats is MarieBette Café and Bakery, a European-inspired spot with fresh-baked bread, on-the-go coffee and pastries, and a light sit-down brunch menu. If you can snag a table at MarieBette (there's normally a thirty-plus-minute wait), try their baked eggs, or if you're in a rush, order a sourdough breakfast sandwich at the counter. Other delicious weekend brunch spots include Tip Top Restaurant, which serves breakfast all day, and Tavern and Grocery, located in a building that once housed a grocery-slash-tavern owned by freed slaves.

06 of 11

Wine and Dine Along the Monticello Wine Trail

Pippin Hill Vineyard
Robbie Caponetto

The Monticello Wine Trail includes 40 wineries, all within driving distance from central Charlottesville. Book a wine tour for an afternoon spent hopping between some of the region's best vineyards, and make sure to download the trail's mobile passport to scan at each spot. If you're looking for a full-service experience, visit Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards, where the seasonal, locally-grown food pairs beautifully with their signature Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, or Cabernet Franc. If you're looking for a more laid-back option, grab goodies from artisan market Feast! and head to King Family Vineyards, where you can enjoy your picnic spread with a bottle of their blush-pink Crosé.

07 of 11

Drink Virginia Cider

Cider Flights at Castle Hill Cider
Zoe Denenberg

When in Virginia, make like the locals and swap out that pint of beer for a glass of cider. Since Virginia is known for its hard cider, visiting a local cidery, like Bold Rock Cidery & Taproom or Castle Hill Cider, is a must. Why not settle in for the afternoon, taste a few seasonal flavors, and learn more about the production process?

08 of 11

Visit the Art Museums

The Fralin Art Museum
Leah Stearns

Peruse the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia to take in its extensive permanent collection or latest exhibitions. (Be sure to chat with one of the student docents.) Also at UVA, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection is the only museum in the United States completely dedicated to Indigenous Australian art. Admission to both museums is free.

09 of 11

Dine Locally

Red Pump Kitchen, Charlottesville
Eric Kelley

The brick-paved Downtown Mall is concentrated with restaurants, including one of our favorites, Red Pump Kitchen, a modern Tuscan eatery. The upscale menu changes weekly (pick the homemade pasta if you can), but mercifully, the craft cocktails aren't going anywhere. Indulge in fresh seafood at Public Fish & Oyster, authentic Neapolitan pizza at Lampo, or a formal steak meal at Prime 109.

10 of 11

Eat on the Corner

The Corner, Charlottesville
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For more casual dining options, check out the Corner, a strip of shops and restaurants adjacent to UVA's Grounds. The Virginian, Charlottesville's oldest restaurant (founded in 1923), is a favorite amongst students and tourists alike—a status no doubt related to its Stumble Down Mac N' Cheese. This delicious twist on a classic is slightly spicy, wonderfully creamy, and topped with a crispy cheddar potato cake. Or check out Boylan Heights, a prep-school-inspired sports bar with custom burgers, curly fries, and local beer and cider on draft.

11 of 11

Explore the Downtown Mall

Charlottesville, Virginia
Peter Frank Edwards/Redux

Spend an afternoon wandering around Charlottesville's Downtown Mall, a foot-traffic-friendly historic area packed with restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. Browse the old bookstores—New Dominion Bookshop, Blue Whale Books, and the three-story book lover's wonderland, Daedalus Books—and on Saturday mornings during the warm months, swing by the Charlottesville City Market. You won't know what to try first with the wide variety of fresh produce, local cheese, and other food vendors.

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