BY MADDY THOM
In the heart of Virginia at the unlikely crossroads of academia and sensory pleasures, Charlottesville sits nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Rivanna River. While perhaps off the beaten path, set against a picturesque backdrop and bursting with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that titillate the senses, Charlottesville is the perfect place to relax, explore, and indulge on the east coast. A mere few days in this bustling, but cozy town and you’ll be wishing you had more than just a long weekend to linger.
Although each of Virginia’s four distinct seasons will fascinate, the paramount time to visit is during the fall, when the reds, yellows, and oranges of the changing foliage line the streets in celebration of Autumn; while the local swimming holes may be a bit chilly for a dip, the cooler temperatures are ideal for outdoor activities in the mountains. Go hiking in Shenandoah National Park along the 2,181-mile long Appalachian trail, or if road tripping, spend your morning cruising down Skyline Drive for a relaxing self-guided tour of the countryside, stopping for sights and photos at the numerous overlooks that line the scenic bypass.
Surrounded by vineyards, no trip to Charlottesville is complete without an afternoon spent touring and tasting at the local wineries. While there are dozens to choose from, in close proximity to Monticello and Carter Mountain Orchard’s apple picking, Jefferson Vineyards and Blenheim Vineyards are both good bets. For $5-10 you will try up to ten types of wine while enjoying an afternoon overlooking peaceful pastoral hills and discovering the cellars.
For those with a penchant for hops over grapes, Starr Hill Brewery is only a short drive away. The brewery, which takes its namesake from the Charlottesville neighborhood where it was first established in 1999, has since moved to Crozet, a 30 minute drive west of the city. Tours run on weekends and tastings ($5 for six samples) are available daily.
Recently established as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia offers a history lesson for even those who aren’t enrolled in classes. Spend an afternoon touring the Academic Village and Rotunda, visiting the Special Collections Library or the Hogwarts-esque McGregor Room, or admiring the 19th century architecture that adorns the grounds. Visit the Lawn at night, however, and you might be in for a surprise—according to custom, before a University student graduates, he or she must streak the lawn to kiss the statue of Homer at the opposite end before returning to don clothes again, and this long-established tradition is a year-round occurrence, even when the weather turns cold.
Strolling the Mall, keep your ears open for Miller’s Downtown. Known famously as the place where the Dave Matthews Band got its start, this converted drugstore hosts live musical acts every night of the week. Featuring both musical professionals and amateur performers, the crowd varies from night to night, but consistently attracts locals and college students alike who gather in this melodious melting pot for an intimate experience of jazz, rock, and blues. In a town filled with venues, Miller’s is not the one to miss.
For a more subdued evening activity, continue on toward the pavilion to the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. Aptly named after the carved tree that climbs the walls and extends across the ceiling, this Bohemian venue is the perfect place to cozy up with a warm cup of tea (over 45 seasonal varieties are offered) or a glass of local wine. Catering to a diverse clientele, the TBTB offers a full menu (with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options), an eclectic variety of musical events, and an outdoor patio area for warm summer nights.
Whether you prefer steak or sushi, Italian or Indian, Charlottesville’s rich gastronomy caters flawlessly to all palettes and all budgets. And, in a place where even the sandwich shops are known for their five star meals, you don’t have to look far for sure satisfaction.
Since first opening, Bodo’s Bagels has expanded to a chain of three stores, to satisfy the demands of hungry locals and hungover university students. While soups, salads, and other sides supplement the menu, not surprisingly the draw here are the bagels. Rivaling the best from New York City, with chewy crusts, a dozen homemade spreads, and meats, cheeses, and eggs galore, you’ll find breakfast, lunch, or dinner for around $5.
For an indulgent night out, head to the nucleus of downtown. Zocalo, a Spanish colloquialism for “center of town” is one restaurant in the area that is sure to please. With a chic Latin American flair, the menu is simple but smashing, and their unique flavor combinations will have your taste buds salsa dancing across your tongue. Food presentation is creative and servers are attentive. Reserve a table on the patio when the pavilion hosts concerts and enjoy the music while you dine. Spice up the night with the pork tenderloin or the black bean and corn relleno.
Though hostels are sparse, the Alexander House in Belmont, a worker-owned cooperative, provides comfortable and affordable accommodation ($30/night). Just outside of the city, it assures a taste of Charlottesville beyond the University’s realm. The inn is staffed by a friendly, compassionate, and youthful crowd and breakfast (with local products) and Wi-Fi are included.