First Person: Charlottesville, Virginia
Fall is my favorite season for traveling and Charlottesville, Virginia, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is my top choice getaway for experiencing the autumn weather and enjoying one of the major events of the season, the Virginia Film Festival. The four-day event always occurs in early November and presents more than 120 films as well as visiting luminaries such as actresses Shirley MacLaine and Liv Ullman and German director Werner Herzog who appeared with his new film Into the Inferno.
But there are plenty of other reasons to visit C’Ville (as some locals like to call it) during cooler months - nature hikes, historical sites, brewery and wine tours (Pippin Hill Vineyard pictured below) and a constantly expanding culinary scene that has attracted attention from the nation’s top food critics are just a few of the attractions.
If you want to be where the action is I recommend you book your lodging near the downtown mall where you will find plenty of fun diversions. This is a town of book lovers similar to Seattle so there are plenty of used and new bookstores and Daedalus Books with its maze-like interior and stuffed-to-the-brim shelves is a popular favorite. Fitness buffs can hike to their heart’s content on trails in Riverview Park and other nature paths or go ice skating at the Main Street Arena. Music enthusiasts can check out the local indie scene at The Garage or The Southern Cafe & Music Hall or catch a major label act at The Jefferson Theater. And for hardcore foodies, the town is a moveable feast with almost every cuisine imaginable.
Stay Charlottesville offers a wide variety of options from cottages to dog-friendly properties. The Townsman, a four-room hotel directly on the mall, became my wife's and my home-away-from-home while we attended the annual Virginia Film Festival. Ask for The Secretariat room which comes with your own private outdoor patio on the third-floor walkup. Three of the film venues, The Paramount Theater, The Vinegar Hill Theater and the Violet Crown Cinemas, were mere footsteps from our front door.
You can start your day with an early breakfast at The Nook, which has been in operation since 1951 and has a diner-like interior with mahogany booths. The pumpkin waffle, homemade corned beef hash and crab cake benedict are just a few examples of the daily fare available. For brunch lovers, I highly recommend the Threepenny Cafe, a farm-to-table operation at 420 West Main Street (a 12 minute or so walk from the Main Street Arena at the mall’s end). They offer three variations on the classic Bloody Mary with an extra spicy version that comes with an artisanal bacon, jalapeno and tomato garnish and paired well with my order of shrimp and grits.
Lunchtime on the mall is great for people watching since many of the restaurants offer outside seating with choices that range from high-end fare like Hamilton’s Restaurant to superb bar food at The Whiskey Jar where I enjoyed a succulent cornmeal-crusted catfish sandwich and washed it down with an Irish ale from the nearby Starr Hill Brewery.
The Whiskey Jar is also the go-to place in town if your drink of choice is bourbon, scotch or whiskey. You can build your own flight or take one of the suggested specials like the pairing of John J. Bowman (classic bourbon), Reservoir Wheat (wheat whiskey) and Virginia Highland (smoky single malt whiskey). Another recommended hangout is the Skybar where you can enjoy local craft beers for $4 during happy hour (plus local wines, specialty cocktails and light meals) in a second floor open-air deck.
Dining at night offers even more options than lunchtime and one of my top faves is The C&O Restaurant, a beautifully restored rail yard and passenger station that first opened in 1976. The rustic interior and warm atmosphere is ideal for an intimate but unpretentious dining experience and daily specials could include oxtail raviolo, duck breast or artichoke pate. We also love Fleurie, a French restaurant on the mall that serves up an excellent steak frites. Just five blocks away from downtown is the now trendy Belmont neighborhood where you can eat like the locals do in Spain at MAS Tapas or sample Sicilian dishes at Tavola, considered the town’s best Italian restaurant.
The rapid expansion of the culinary scene in the town in recent years has seen the successful opening of such food-centric complexes as the Main Street Market which houses Feast! (a gourmet food store specializing in cheeses), Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar, The Spice Diva, The Organic Butcher and Seafood at West Main. Just walking through the space is a sensory overload for chowhounds and you’ll probably succumb to sampling the wares as I did at the Albemarle Baking Company where I can attest to their excellent pear tart. If you like to cook and want to expand your repertoire during your visit, you might even take a one-day cooking class at the Charlottesville Cooking School (on a previous visit, I learned how to make a quick and easy French dish: chicken breast with mustard cream sauce).
If you aren’t traveling by car, you can take advantage of the free C’ville trolley offering several pick-up points along the mall that will take you on a circular route around the historic grounds of the University of Virginia campus. I love strolling around this beautiful campus with its mixture of the past (you can visit Edgar Allan Poe’s room restored to its 1826 appearance) and the present (lunch at the student cafeteria comes with a background soundtrack of current rap and hip-hop tunes). You can also wander over to the nearby Fralin Museum of Art which is currently showing the work of Canadian artist Dorothea Rockburne and American figurative painter Ann Gale. Or you could just pass the time exploring the downtown scene around the mall with the Saturday morning Farmers' Market a solid highlight offering locally sourced produce and specialty foods as well as arts and crafts.
For those traveling by a car, you should definitely consider a visit to one of Charlottesville’s top tourist draws, Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is a short 15-20 minute drive depending on local traffic and a must for history buffs. The guided tours, in particular, offer fascinating insights and insider information about the third U.S. President/inventor/slave owner and author of the American Declaration of Independence. Further down the road, less crowded and almost as interesting is the bucolic estate of Highland, the home of the 5th U.S. President, James Monroe.
Hikers already know about the great trails in the area but an easy one to start with is the Saunders-Monticello Trail, a 4-6 mile hike that travels up to and beyond the historic Michie Tavern where you can take a lunch break. A popular destination for families is the Carter Mountain Orchard. You can pick your own apples here or enjoy some of their other specialties like the homemade cider (non-alcoholic) or apple cinnamon doughnuts.
For more information, access the Visit Charlottesville website where you can get up-to-date information on seasonal events, places to stay and sightseeing suggestions and tours.