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10 Things to Do in . . . Charlottesville

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 9, 2002; Page C02

Hip college town, presidential stomping ground, playground of the horsey set -- it's no wonder that Charlottesville, in central Virginia about 2 1/2 hours southwest of D.C., frequently pops up on magazine lists as one of the most livable cities in the country. And, we would add, one of the most visitable, too. From Thomas Jefferson's legacy of a beautiful university and a house worthy of the nickel to wineries, restaurants and those humbling Blue Ridge views. Beware: the area is suffering a severe drought, and serious water restrictions are in affect at public buildings and restaurants. Here are ten ideas to fill a C'Ville weekend. For more, contact the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-386-1102, www.charlottesvilletourism.org.

1. University of Virginia. With its classic red brick buildings, ancient oaks and sloping green lawns, Jefferson's "academical village" has inspired many a case of perpetual-student syndrome. Inside the Rotunda, modeled after Rome's Pantheon, climb the stairs to what has been called the most beautiful room in America -- the light-filled Dome Room, with its series of double 15-foot columns cleverly hiding a series of bookcases. Free guided tours of the Rotunda and Lawn are offered year-round by the University Guide Service, 434-924-7969, http://uvaguides.zapto.org/visitors/tours.asp.

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2. University of Virginia Art Museum. Eclectic is the word at this compact but impressive repository a block from the Rotunda. Old Masters share space with Roman statuary, Chinese porcelain, Native American artifacts and a few edgy photographs. Temporary exhibits include contemporary California art, through Dec. 22, and photographs by William Wylie, through Oct. 27. Free admission. 155 Rugby Rd. (one block north of the Rotunda), 434-924-3592, www.virginia.edu/artmuseum.

3. Historic Downtown Mall. How now, downtown? As blocked-off city thoroughfares go, Charlottesville's is vibrant and appealing, with an eccentric assortment of cafes, galleries, specialty shops (no chain stores!), vendors, even an ice rink. After you've prowled the quilt store, cat store, pawn shop and Chinese antiques shop, check out the New Dominion Book Shop (404 E. Main St.), with its cozy mezzanine gallery, and the Blue Whale (115 W. Main), with a fine selection of antiquarian maps and prints. Main Street between First and Fifth streets.

4. Monticello. No matter how many times you visit, every trip to Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop mansion is a revelation. The only American house on the United Nation's list of World Heritage sites, Jefferson's "essay in architecture" delights the eye, nurtures the soul and speaks eloquently to the inner handyman in us all (the windows that double as doorways! the retractable desk! the amazing auto-pen!). Save time to explore the grounds, especially Mulberry Row, the 1,000-foot-long road where about 60 of Jefferson's 135 slaves lived and worked. Their houses haven't survived, but docents re-create the details of their daily lives on refreshingly candid tours. Admission $11. Route 53, two miles southeast of Charlottesville, 434-984-9822, www.monticello.org.

5. Ash Lawn-Highland. It may play second fiddle to Monticello, but fifth president James Monroe's former abode is definitely cuter -- a cozy frame house with a Victorian-style addition, shaded by a magnificent white oak. Now owned by the College of William and Mary, the house is fitted with elegant 18th- and 19th-century furnishings, and you can tour the original smokehouse, overseer's cottage and reconstructed slave quarters. Even better, there's a resident menagerie of sheep, chickens, cattle and screeching peacocks -- the watchdogs of their day. Admission $8. 1000 James Monroe Parkway, 434-293-9539, http://avenue.org/ashlawn.

6. Montpelier. Third in the triumvirate of Charlottesville's presidential mansions, James Madison's house appears oddly modern. That's because when it was purchased by the duPont family in 1901, they made extensive renovations, virtually doubling its size. Inside, there's an odd mixture of horsey duPont artifacts and colonial-era trappings, but the staff makes a determined effort to convey what life was like when the fourth president and his wife, Dolley, lived here. Take the Behind the Scenes tour to view rarely seen rooms on the second floor. Admission $9. 11407 Constitution Hwy., near Orange (27 miles north of Charlottesville), 540-672-2728, www.montpelier.org.

7. The Corner. If you've been searching for a pair of khakis embroidered with hundreds of tiny blue and orange V's to go with your U-Va. ball cap, this is the spot. This funky strip of shops and eateries across the street from the Rotunda is the place to go for all things Cavalier. Stock up on indie CDs, grab a Gusburger at the venerated greasy spoon the White Spot, and have a beer at Michael's Bistro, where you can view the Rotunda from the bar. University Avenue, across the street from the U-Va. campus.

8. Clifton. Lodging in C'ville ranges from chain hotels to in-town B&Bs to splurges like Clifton, an impossibly romantic 18th-century inn tucked away in the woods. The antique-filled guest rooms feature wood-burning fireplaces, Oriental rugs, fresh flowers and CD libraries, and overlook luxuriant gardens or a lake. Outdoors, there's tennis, swimming, croquet and hiking. But the greatest pleasure may be the leisurely three-course dinners, made with fresh local and regional ingredients. Route 729, 1296 Clifton Inn Dr., 888-971-1800, www.cliftoninn.com; doubles $175-$495 weekends, $165-$365 weekdays; prix-fixe dinner $45 (not including wine or tip).

9. Jefferson Vineyards. Several of Virginia's 70-odd wineries are located in and around Charlottesville, including Barboursville (540-832-3824), Horton (540-832-7440) and Jefferson vineyards. Jefferson, on 650 historic acres just down the road from Monticello, was the original site of Thomas Jefferson's first (and unsuccessful) plantings of European vinifera vines. Today you can tour the winery that now flourishes there, sample the chardonnays and bordeaux varietals, and picnic on the deck, with its incomparable mountain views. Route 53 between Monticello and Ash Lawn, 434-977-3042 or 800-272-3042, www.jeffersonvineyards.com.

10. C&O Restaurant. Sure, you can do the burger-and-a-beer thing, but there's no lack of stylish nouvelle-cuisine eateries downtown, including Mono Loco (Cuban), Hamilton's (new American), Oxo (French) and Bizou (bistro). The C&O, housed in a former diner, has won a loyal following for its inventive entrees, including local trout stuffed with braised fennel and lemon, stir-fried Thai vegetables in green curry and coconut broth over sticky rice, and Cuban steak marinated in Dijon mustard and Tabasco. 515 E. Water St., 434-971-7044. Entrees $15-$28.


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