The Washington Post Sunday
GO HERE, NOT THERE The presidential residence that’s just five minutes from Monticello.
Alternatives to overcrowded destinations.
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville, is insanely popular. With recent updates that include a fuller picture of Jefferson’s history as a slaveowner, there’s a lot to take in at the home of the country’s third president. But beware: Monticello racks up nearly a half-million visitors a year, and crowds peak in the summer months and around Christmas. (The least-busy times to visit are late fall and during the week, says Jennifer Lyon, a spokesperson for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.)
With guests milling around the visitors center, and a shuttle bus taking passengers up the hill to join their tour (allow 15 minutes each way), Monticello can be reminiscent of Walt Disney World, in both the crowd-control strategies and the sense of being herded from place to place. And, as with the theme park, it requires a substantial investment of time. After checking out the film and exhibits in the center and taking the 30minute house tour or one of the longer specialty excursions, you’ll want to explore the 370-acre property, which includes the slave quarters, a cemetery, gardens, a four-mile hiking trail, two optional seasonal walking tours and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Location: 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., Charlottesville; 434984-9800; home.monticello.org.
If you don’t have hours to spare and want to avoid crowds and fully immerse yourself in a historical experience, save Monticello for another trip and head next door to Highland, the estate of James Monroe, the nation’s fifth president.
Highland is more understated than Monticello, but that also means visitors can hop on a tour at the last second and get a real feel for the life of the Founding Father who fought alongside a fellow future president, Gen. George Washington, in the Continental Army and crafted the Monroe Doctrine.
The location of Monroe’s home was no coincidence; Jefferson had encouraged his friend and former law student to move near him. In 1789, Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “It has always been my wish to acquire property near Monticello,” announcing that he had purchased land in Charlottesville (now Monroe Hill on the grounds of the University of Virginia). Then, in 1793, he bought a farm that bordered Monticello and finished his house in 1799.
Although the original house burned down in the mid-1800s (the property would be renamed Ash Lawn until 2016), recent and extensive archaeological work has revealed the footprint of the main house. The guesthouse adjacent to the original site remains, with rooms filled with actual furniture and portraits from the Monroe family, as well as contemporary pieces like the ones he would have used.
This summer, to offer an even better sense of what the plantation looked like in Monroe’s day, Highland introduced a tour using enhanced-reality glasses. Yes, guests can feel a little dorky walking around wearing the visorlike contraptions, and the technology could use some tweaking. But it’s illuminating to stand in certain spots on the property and “see” Monroe, his overseer and enslaved people discussing events on the plantation, superimposed on buildings that would have existed at the time.
Location: 2050 James Monroe Pkwy., Charlottesville; 434-2938000; highland.org.