The Ultimate Local’s Guide to Charlottesville, Virginia
Charlottesville is a lively little college city in Central Virginia, best known for being the home of American Founding Father and 3rd President Thomas Jefferson. Monticello, his beautiful home just outside the city, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the grounds of UVa. There is a huge restaurant culture in Charlottesville as well as a fantastic variety of music venues that host artists that range from the very popular (Elton John, Snoop Dog, Arcade Fire, Carrie Underwood) to the less well-known (Panda Bear, The Love Language, Trombone Shorty, Horse Feathers, Cut Copy). No matter what you're into, there's always something going on in this charming and historic city.
things to Do
The University of Virginia has a beautiful university campus - or "grounds" if you're using the local lingo. I really like walking down the picturesque Lawn, sitting on the steps of the Rotunda, or exploring the serpentine brick-walled Pavilion Gardens. If you're a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, you could make a stop at his old dorm room while on the Lawn. Also, I've personally never been to either but have heard only good things about the Fralin Museum of Art and the off-grounds Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection.
Go to a college game.
If you've ever had any interest at all in watching an American Football game played out in a stadium full of dedicated fans, UVa is a great place to do it. Their footballers may not be as great as their basketball team, but it's a very American (and a very Southern) experience to shout for Virginia amidst a sea of orange and blue.
UVa’s college basketball team has also done really well in recent years. Be sure to by a ticket in advanced to one of their packed arena games in late Fall/ early Winter.
Check Out the Blue Ridge Mountains
Charlottesville is within driving distance of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. It's about a 30 minute drive to both the North entrance of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the South entrance of Shenandoah National Park. You could continue driving either south on the Parkway or north on the Skyline Drive for excellent mountain vistas. Out of the two, I'd recommend the Parkway first because entrance is free and the Rockfish Valley is even more beautiful than the Southern part of the national park. That being said, you should still go to Shenandoah - it's worth the $20 fee for seven day admittance - especially if you plan to visit more than once.
On the Blue Ridge Parkway, two of the most popular hikes are Humpback Rocks (35 min. from the entrance) and Crabtree Falls (50 min.). Humpback has very photogenic views of Shenandoah Valley and the Crabtree hike takes you up alongside the namesake 70-foot falls. In Shenandoah NP, I'd recommend either Turk Mountain (8 min. from park entrance) or Cedar Run (~1 hr 40 min). Turk Mountain has excellent views of the valley no matter which season & Cedar Run ends in a natural water slide that's perfect for a hot summer day.
If none of the hikes I mentioned interest you, you could always pick and choose different sections of the local stretch of the Appalachian Trail or check out the website I've been linking, hikingupward, for even more info on area hikes.
Visit Jefferson's Monticello
Monticello, located on a mountain above the city, is the sweeping historic estate of Thomas Jefferson. The buildings and artifacts are all very interesting but my favorite part is the gardens. Monticello's gardens have been fully restored to include every kind of plant originally grown there by Jefferson himself in the 19th century and they are truly a sight to behold. The gardens have made Monticello a mecca of sorts for heirloom plant enthusiasts and seed-savers. There's even a Center for Historic Plants on the grounds that's dedicated specifically to that topic.
Spend an afternoon or evening on the Downtown Mall.
There are many restaurants, shops, bars, and concert venues (see sections below for more) on Charlottesville's historic pedestrian mall. The Downtown Mall is a great place to spend an afternoon or evening checking out shops and then grabbing a bite to eat. Or a few drinks.
See a Show
A lot of venues for smaller concerts and shows are on the Downtown Mall: The Southern Cafe & Music Hall, The Jefferson Theater, The Paramount Theater, & Sprint Pavilion. Big-name tickets tend to play at UVa's John Paul Jones Arena. The Southern is probably my favorite venue. A lot of bands I really like have played there and the place just has a nice, intimate vibe. The Paramount tends to have a broader range of performers and people coming through than the other places. For example, I've been twice: once to see comedian Aziz Ansari & once to see author Barbara Kingsolver.
Ultimately, though, the best way to figure out where to see a show is to see who's in town.
Buy & Eat Local at the Saturday City Market
Charlottesville City Market, in between Water Street and South Street off the Downtown Mall, is a must-do if you're in the city on a Saturday morning. Grab a bite to eat and then check out the wares for sale. The market runs from April to December starting at 7 - Noon.
Charlottesville has a very busy festival calendar throughout the whole year but my favorite seasonal activities in the area all revolve around fruit & fruit picking.
The Virginia Festival of the Book in March of each year brings all things literary to town.
If you enjoy being preppy and like hanging around inebriated co-eds while watching a steeplechase, you could go to Foxfield's Spring Race located just outside of town.
The Charlottesville Dogwood Festival occurs each April in honor of the state flower of Virginia.
Also in April is the Tom Tom Founder's Festival, a week-long celebration of local food, art, innovation, & music.
Pick apples and eat cider donuts at Carter Mountain Orchard.
Garden geeks would love Monticello's Annual Heritage Harvest Festival that's all about seed-saving and heirloom plants.
Try out the family-friendly Fall Foxfield Race.
If you're a fellow vege, the Charlottesville Vegetarian Festival is a fun place to try out some delicious veg food and attend workshops or cooking demos as well.
On Halloween, take the kids in your life or just your costumed-self to see Trick or Treating on the Lawn at UVa - an adorable candy free-for-all and fun costume-spotting event.
Film buffs might like to check out the Virginia Film Festival which happens in either late October or early November each year.
There's an awesome pop-up holiday shop that's been going on in the city since 2010 called "The Gift Forest." The shop is loaded with items created by local artists and is one of my favorite places to buy gifts for friends or family. The Gift Forest pops up just for the month of December in Charlottesville and you can usually find out where they'll be from either their facebook or instagram.
Visit Albermarle Ciderworks for their hot cider and a picnic lunch.
Go to the Lighting of the Lawn at UVa for a non-denominational, festive gathering of locals and hear some student groups sing holiday songs.
If you don't do Lighting of the Lawn, I recommend that you try and catch a holiday concert by one of UVa's talented student singing groups like the University Singers or Virginia Women's Chorus. (I'm a tad biased because I know people who have been/are in both groups but if you like choral music at all you will love these folks).
where to Eat
Charlottesville has an incredibly diverse food scene - I couldn't even begin to mention them all. However, I could tell you about some local and personal favorites...
Bodo's Bagels // They have three locations: Route 29, Preston Avenue, and the UVA Corner // Each Bodo's location has it's own hours but are all generally open from 8 AM to 8 PM on weekdays // This place is a true Charlottesville-institution. They serve DELICIOUS New York-style water bagels for incredibly affordable prices and the service is so fast and efficient. Bagels are available in ten different flavors for 80 cents each, or 70 cents each if you get a dozen or more. Bodo's makes their own (also delicious) cream cheese, too. Emmett and I used to stock up on a bag of bagels and two tubs of cream cheese to take home for the week. Bodo's also sells individual bagels with cream cheese and sandwiches for equally dirt cheap prices. I'm a huge fan of getting a "No-Bull" vegetarian lentil patty on a plain bagel with mayo & pesto. Emmett recommends plain cream cheese, tomato, & onion on a garlic bagel. Also, the herbed tofu paired with feta or kalamata olive spread was a close second for him. If you have to eat at one place in Charlottesville, eat here!! Tasty and ridiculously low budget.
Shenandoah Joe // They also have 3 locations in town: Ivy Road, Preston Avenue, and the UVA Corner // Hours vary but all three are open from 8:30 on weekdays, 7:30 on Saturday, & 8 on Sunday // Another Charlottesville institution with a loyal following, Shenandoah Joe offers Arabica coffe in 25 varieties.
Mud House // 3 Locations in Charlottesville: the Downtown Mall, Mill Creek Market, & Bellair Market & 1 location in nearby Crozet // Again, hours vary // Mud House makes great, ethically-sourced and locally-roasted coffee. Also, they just won Roast Magazine's 2017 Micro Roaster of the Year award which is pretty cool.
Blue Grass Grill & Bakery // 313 2nd Street SE // Tues-Fri 7-2, Sat 7-1:30, Sun 8:30-1:30 // Southern-style brunch at a place that makes all of their own biscuits and pastries from scratch.
The Nook // 415 E. Main Street // Mon-Thurs 7-8, Fri 7-10, Sat 8-8, Sun 9-8 // The Nook is a diner that's been on the Downtown Mall since 1951. They serve standard diner fare that's pretty tasty as well as a mac & cheese only menu. Yum, yum, yum.
La Taza // 407 Monticello Road // Brunch served Sat-Sun 7-3 // Latin-style brunch food with very good mimosas available in tropical flavors. I really like their Guatemalan Breakfast.
Lunch & Dinner
Citizen Burger Bar // 212 E. Main Street // Sun-Thurs 11:30-12, Fri-Sat 11:30-2 // A gourmet burger and beer joint. I love their truffle fries and vegan beet burgers.
Now & Zen // 202 2nd Street NW // A Japanese restaurant with excellent sushi - especially the vegetarian offerings. Do get a Green Giant Roll no matter whether you're a vegetarian or not.
Lemongrass // 104 14th Street NW // Lunch: Tues-Fri 11-2:30, Dinner: Tues-Fri 5-9 and Sat-Sun 12-9 // A blend of Thai & Japanese cuisine can be found at Lemongrass, with a few vegetarian & vegan options available. Their massaman curry is very, very good.
Himalayan Fusion // 520 E. Main Street // Monday 11:30–2:30, Tues-Thurs 11:30–2:30 & 5–9, Friday 11:30–2:30 & 5–9:30, Saturday 12–3 & 5-9:30, Sunday 5–9 // HF offers Indian curries & tandoori plus Tibetan specialties like momos. They also have a $7.99 Lunch buffet Monday through Saturday.
Brazo's Tacos // 925 2nd Street SE // Mon-Weds 7-7, Thurs-Sat 7-8, Sunday 8-3 // "Texas-style" tacos from either a regular or vegetarian menu. Get anything there and you'll like it, as long as you like tacos.
Vivace // 2244 Ivy Road // Mon-Thurs 5-9:30, Fri-Sat 5-10, Sunday 5-9 // An Italian restaurant with high-quality food on the pricier side. I love their gnocchi.
Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar // 416 W. Main Street // Lunch: Mon–Sat 11:30–3, Dinner: Sun-Weds 5:30–9, Thurs 5:30–9:30, Fri-Sat 5:30–10 // Delicious, somewhat expensive Mediterranean fare can be found at Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar. I'm crazy about their squash soup starter and the chocolate pot de creme for dessert.
Christian's Pizza // Again, another C-ville chain with 3 locations: The Corner, The Downtown Mall, and Pantops // All locations open from 11 AM till "late" // This place is perfect for a no-fuss pizza slice. They have a ton of options that would please both meat-lovers and vegetarians alike. Great place to visit when you're out on the Corner or Downtown Mall drinking and need to refuel.
Little John's // 1427 University Ave // Open 24/7 // This UVa Corner institution only has a few vegetarian options but was one of my favorite sandwich joints back in the day when I was still eating meat. I always got their delicious "Wild Turkey" sandwich. Also, the fact that they're open twenty-four hours a day makes them another great meal choice for a late night on the town.
Arch's Frozen Yogurt // 104 14th Street NW #1 // Open 11 AM-11 PM // Arch's does decent self-serve frozen yogurt but we usually only went on Tuesday nights when you can fill up your cup with anything for $5 plus tax.
The Pie Chest // 119 4th Street NE // Mon-Thu 8-6, Fri-Sat 8-8, Sun 10-4 // I haven't been able to try each type of dessert pie at the Pie Chest but I wish I had. They also bake savory pies that are good - but not nearly as mouth-watering as the sweet pies. My favorite pies I've tried are Whiskey Chocolate Chip, Honey, Peanut Butter, Bourbon Pecan, and Peppermint Crunch. Pie Chest pies are available whole or by the slice and the flavors rotate depending on the season.
Splendora's Gelato // 317 E. Main Street // Mon-Thurs 7:30 AM-10 PM, Friday 7:30 AM-11 PM, Saturday 9 AM-11 PM, Sunday 12-10 // Splendora's makes some yum gelato in both traditional and unique flavor pairings. They also serve coffee, hot chocolate, and warm spiced cider. I really love their fruit sorbets but I also highly recommend the sometimes-available goat cheese, honey, & fig gelato.
where to Drink
Kardinal Hall // 722 Preston Avenue // Open Tues-Thur from 3 PM, Fri-Sun from 11 AM, Closed Mon // Kardinal Hall is a great place to hang out with friends over a beer, a glass of wine, and snacks. They also have cocktails and cider but that menu is a bit less extensive. Kardinal Hall is in our old stomping grounds of 10th & Page and there were a few times we went just to eat the vegetarian version of their take on the Canadian classic, poutine ($9). They have a variety of board games to play while you're there as well as a bocce ball court on the terrace outside.
Three Notch'd Brewery // 946 Grady Ave // Mon-Thur 4-10, Fri 3–11, Sat 12-11, Sun 12-8 // I'm not a beer drinker, so this recommendation comes to you from Emmett. They have "Tap That Thursdays" where pints are $3. Free tours happen every Saturday at 2 PM.
The Whiskey Jar // 227 W. Main Street // Mon-Wed 10-12, Thu-Sat 10-2, Lunch: Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Sat 11-10, Lunch & Midday Menu: 2:30-5 Weds-Sat // I've heard the food is good (mostly Southern cuisine) but have never eaten anything here as I've only been for drinks. They do standard cocktails for decent prices (>$7) but are also great for whiskey fans. Just listen to this whiskey flight deal, as quoted from their menu: "Pick 3 different whiskeys. Get an ounce of each. The price is the most expensive of the 3."
Oakhart Social // 511 W. Main Street // Sun-Thurs 5-12, Fri-Sat 5-2, Dinner from 5-10 // Oakhart has delicious cocktails. I'd recommend the Smoky Rose ($11). They also have wine and beer. And the food is phenomenal here, try the burrata ($13) or the roasted beets ($9) or a mushroom and black kale flatbread ($15) to share.
The Alley Light // 108 Second Street SW // Open on Sun & Tues 5-11, Weds & Thurs 5-12, Fri & Sat 5-2, Closed Mondays // My classy cousin Victoria took me to this place. It is actually in an alley and can be tough to find at first. As the name suggests, though, there is a light in said alley that indicates the bar's location - it makes you feel like you've found a speakeasy. The cocktails are great; I had a seasonal local strawberry-infused mint julep last May and loved it. They also have wine and pretty pricey dinner plates but their snacks are relatively affordable. Overall, though, this is definitely not a budget establishment.
Violet Crown // 200 W. Main Street // 30 minutes prior to & 30 minutes after last showtime (see site for listings) // Why not drink and snack while seeing a film? I never got to go here as it was relatively new when I was living in C-ville but I wish I had, it sounds fun!
Carter Mountain Thursday Evening Sunset Series // 1435 Carters Mountain Trail // Each Thursday from mid-May through the end of September until 9pm // This is a really enjoyable and popular event put on by Carter Mountain Orchard on Thursday evenings. You can hang out on the orchard's hill overlooking Charlottesville and the distant silhouette of the Blue Ridge as the sun sets. It's best to arrive early, though, especially when the weather is nice. Try to show up around 5:30 to pick out a spot to set your picnic blanket or grab a table. Bring your own snacks (cough cough Bodo's) or buy some from the orchard's shops. BYO Alcohol is not encouraged but there is a local Bold Rock Cider cellar as well as a shop for orchard-grown Prince Michel Wine. I'm a huge fan of the peach wine slushies that they sell at that shop by the (plastic) glass.
In the area:
Albermarle Ciderworks // North Garden, VA // Open January through June on Wed-Sun, 11-5, Open July through December Mon-Sun 11-5 // Just 15 minutes outside of Charlottesville on Route 29 South, this ciderworks is a cozy little escape from the city. Tastings of their crisp heirloom apple ciders are from $5-10 and they also have local snacks for sale. My favorite thing about Albermarle Ciderworks, though? Their cider - the non-alcoholic kind. You can buy gallon jugs of their un-pasteurized cider and it is way better than any other cider you could ever buy in a store. I'm genuinely bummed not to be able to have access to it anymore.
Barboursville Vineyards // Barboursville, VA // Mon-Sat 10 AM-5 PM, Sun 11 AM-5 PM // This vineyard is lovely and has $7 wine tastings & free winery tours. Enough said.
Pippin Hill Vineyards // North Garden, VA // Tue-Sun 11-5 // Also located just down Route 29 South, Pippin Hill is the most beautiful of all the vineyards closest to Charlottesville. It's a huge (bougie) wedding destination for the area. They have pretty views, tasty food, a really congenial staff, and great wine. Tastings include five wines for $10. I'm partial to their Rosé.
Starr Hill Brewery // Crozet, VA // Tues-Fri 12-9, Sat 11-9, Sun 12-6, Closed Mon// Starr Hill is an award-winning brewery that originated in Charlottesville and is also Virginia's second-oldest craft brewery. Beer flights are five for $5. Free brewery tours happen on Saturday & Sunday at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, & 4:00. They also offer a beer class for $10 on Saturdays at 5 that includes a tour, a tasting, & a pint.
Cruise Nelson 151. Route 151 is in the Rockfish Valley in neighboring Nelson County, Virginia. This road is a must-do tour for anyone who likes to drink while looking at the mountains. There are five wineries, three breweries, a distillery, and a cidery all located along the route. I really enjoy three of those places: Afton Mountain Vineyards, Veritas Vineyards, and Devil's Backbone. Afton Mountain is my favorite vineyard in Virginia. It's a smaller-scale winery with some extra-stunning views due to the fact that it's up higher than many of the other wineries around. Though they don't sell food, this is a great place to bring your own snacks for a picnic. Both my younger brother and I have celebrated our 21st birthdays with family at Afton by doing one of their wine tastings ($10 a person).
where to Buy Local food & Produce
Charlottesville has a relatively large collection of groceries and shops selling locally produced food. Here's a rundown:
Integral Yoga Natural Foods // 923 Preston Avenue // Mon-Sat 9AM-8PM, Sun 11AM-6PM// Integral Yoga has natural and organic foods for sale. My favorite things to buy here are all local: house-made smoothies, seasonal produce, local fresh herbs, Twin Oaks Tofu & Twin Oaks Soy Chorizo.
Mona Lisa Pasta // 921 Preston Avenue // Mon-Fri 10-7, Sat 10-6 // This isn't a grocery store. But it's a shop where you can buy fresh pasta and sauces made on-site to take home or eat on location. Their fresh garlic pasta is beyond excellent. Whenever we had last minute guests, I'd run over and buy some pasta & sauce to whip up a quick dinner.
Timbercreek Market // 722 Preston Avenue // Mon-Fri 9 AM-7 PM, Sat 9 AM-6 PM, Sun 10 AM - 5 PM // I'll admit it, I am what you'd call a "locavore." I genuinely believe that it's better for you and your community to buy locally-sourced products as much as possible. Timbercreek Market is most well-known for the meat-centric sandwiches. The reason that I frequented the market, though, was because it was the only place I could find in town that sold local butter, yogurt, & milk. I'd also buy produce & eggs there on occasion and was delighted to find that they were the only shop in C-ville selling the infamous ramps when they came into season.
Fifth Season // 900 Preston Avenue // Mon-Fri: 10-7, Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5 // This is a (rad) garden shop, yes. But it's also a home brewing & fermenting wonderland where you can take classes or just buy supplies to ferment your own food and beverages. The staff is really helpful, too. Emmett and I made some very strong raspberry wine from supplies we bought here. If we'd lived in Charlottesville longer and had more time to experiment with it, I would have been making all sorts of fermented food all the time. They even stock kefir and sourdough starters.
Feast! // 416 W. Main Street, Suite H // Mon-Fri 10 AM-7 PM, Sat 9 AM-6 PM, Cafe: Mon-Sat 11 AM-3 PM // Feast! has excellent sandwiches and sides at their cafe. But they also sell a lot of fresh local produce & products like Twenty Paces' Ricotta Cheese or Jane's Sweet Potato Biscuits. I also enjoy their house-made sauces and dips. Prices do run high here, so this is mostly a shop for special occasions. I can tell you from experience that when you go, you should definitely taste all the samples but don't talk to the cheesemongers unless you want to spend way too much money on awesome cheese.
Market Street Market // 400 E. Market Street // Mon-Fri 8 AM-9 PM, Sat 8:30 AM-9 PM, Sun 10 AM-8 PM // Market Street Market has a lot of local produce and products. They also bake great bread and feature a small cafe.
Rebecca's Natural Foods // 1141 Emmet Street // Mon-Fri 9-8, Sun 10-6 // This store looks intimidatingly small from the outside but they somehow manage to pack a lot of great products into the narrow space. Items to purchase here are: No Bull Gourmet Veggie Burgers, Sharondale Farm Mushrooms, Farmstead Ferments Sauer Kraut, & local honey refills.
where to Stay
For those on a budget: Apparently there are some active couchsurfing hosts in town if you're up for that! Beyond that, there are some inexpensive airbnb options but they are a ways out of town, so having a car would be a must. There is one guesthouse/hostel that's much more centrally located and is called Fairhaven Guesthouse. It has three private rooms for $70 each per night with a continental breakfast included.