Southern

10 Reasons to Visit Charlottesville, Virginia this Fall

October 23, 2015

Charlottesville, Virginia is like a good little New England town that tumbled down past the Mason-Dixon line while nobody was looking: It's as adored for its irreverence as it is for its good looks. It's tiny—its population hovers under 50,000—but somehow feels limitless, the edges of town bleeding into the University of Virginia grounds and then on into the surrounding horse country quickly and seamlessly.

charlottesville, va
The Lawn at the University of Virginia.

There's so much to do in Charlottesville that one of the hardest parts of being a student there, as I was, is checking off your entire bucket list. This leads many a graduate of the University of Virginia to stick around after matriculating or to return, sooner than expected. Whatever you're looking for in a getaway (history, nature, food, music, secrets?), Charlottesville has it, and fall is the very best time to go. 

Here are 10 reasons to visit Charlottesville, and exactly where to go when you do.

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1. The country roads. 

skyline drive
The view from Skyline Drive. 

You can't go to Charlottesville without noticing the Blue Ridge mountains, which peer over the tops of buildings in all directions, and it is important to see them up close. Running along the crest of those peaks, Skyline Drive is the area's most popular drag to get a look at all that golden Virginia foliage this time of year, and with 4 entrances, you don't have to commit to all 100 miles of it. Note: It's one big winding bear crossing, so heed the 35 mile per hour speed limit and don't miss a thing. 

Blue Ridge Tunnell
The Blue Ridge Tunnel, site of many slightly spooky adventures. 

Less adventurous vista-seekers can simply exit Charlottesville via Barracks Road, which quickly gives way to fences and pastures and becomes Garth Road—known for rolling horse farms, vineyards, and view after view of the aforementioned mountain ranges. The more adventurous, on the other hand, should do the necessary sleuthing to find one of two secret entrances to the now-abandoned Blue Ridge Tunnel, located right outside of town. You can't go through it anymore, but the entrance is ghostly and beautiful, the site of many late nights with budding hipsters, beer, and fiddles.

 

2. The tapas.

Mas Tapas
Mas Tapas in the off hours (as soon as it opens, the crowds come running).

Maybe there are other Spanish restaurants in Virginia, but anyone who's ever been to Mas knows it's the only one that matters. Located at a fork in the road in Belmont (the Brooklyn of Charlottesville with its scrappy-but-burgeoning food scene and shabby-chic housing options), Mas is far and away the best restaurant in the city. Yes, I'm biased (I used to wait tables there), but you will be too once you taste the unfussy, excellent food—from a hunk of tortilla española to marinated anchovies, charred carne asada, and manchego-and-serrano bocadillos. The wait is reliably long (there are no reservations), but the drinks flow freely, the kitchen's open until 2 A.M. The food is always, always worth the wait.

C&O
C&O, the only suitable alternative to Mas.

If you can't handle the wait or the loud music, the only other place I go for dinner is C&O, which is an all-American sort of eatery in an old, seemingly storied brick building off the Downtown Mall. Their late night menu, featuring mac & cheese and creme brulée, is tops. 

 

3. The history. 

Monticello
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

If you only know one thing about Charlottesville, it probably has something to do with Thomas Jefferson. His plantation, Monticellois just outside of town (tours of the house and historic gardens are available daily, year-round), and he founded the University of Virginia there in 1819. The original campus, characterized by a temple-like "Rotunda," two long rows of tiny dorms and pavilions, and a grassy front yard known as "The Lawn" is called The Academical Village—and you should go see it. 

the lawn at uva
The Rotunda at UVA (it's currently under construction, so if you go this year there will be some scaffolding up!).

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Lawn is very pretty for a stroll or a picnic; the buildings were designed in the Neo-Classical style, so students could learn about European architectural history in person, and those original dorm rooms are now home to some of the most decorated upperclassmen. Out back, there are meticulous gardens where you can get comfortable with a book or a lover, serpentine brick walls, and archway after columned archway. 

 

4. The pizza. 

Lampo  
Pizza at Lampo.

I wouldn't say that pizza is something Charlottesville's known for, but it should be. There are a few institutions you should know about, first and foremost being Christian's with locations on the Corner (that's the strip of restaurants and bars right by campus) and the Downtown Mall (a pedestrian wonderland of brick facades, eateries, coffee shops, and outdoor seating). Their pizza is crunchy-crusted and is offered in all kinds of combinations by the slice. 

Crozet Pizza is another longstanding favorite, family-operated since 1977 (go to their original outpost outside of town, which has all the ambiance). Rounding out the pizza scene is newcomer Lampo, a Neopolitan-style pizzeria now cranking out slippery-middled, crackly-crusted pies. They even imported a special oven from Italy and lowered it into the new building with a crane, which made the local news. Everyone loves it. 

 

5. The vineyards. 

pippin hill
A Blue Ridge backed wedding at Pippin Hill.


Pippin Hill, which considers itself a "boutique vineyard," is new (it wasn't around when I was in school there), but didn't take long to become the hardest place to book a wedding—because do you see those views? For just as much ambiance and a dose of youthful raucousness on any given Saturday during the school year, go to King Family VineyardsTheir orangey-pink Crosé, named for the town of Crozet, is the epitome of easy drinking, and the Viognier, king of Virginia grapes, delivers. If you'd need more options, try Veritas, Keswick, Jefferson, or Barboursville. 

 

6. The gas stations-turned-eateries. 

hunt country market
Hunt Country Market, once a pump, now available for lunch or for dinner. 

I don't know enough about the world to understand how this became *a thing*, but many of Charlottesville's gas stations are also top-notch places to get a meal. Back in the day, there was even a high-end filling station called Fuel, which was so fancy you could only go when your parents were in town. Nowadays, the standout gas station restaurants are the Bellair Exxon, which is adjacent to the interstate on-ramp (where all good gas stations live) and features a great selection of sandwiches named for historical neighborhoods nearby, and the Brownsville Shell, for fried chicken. 

Best of all, on your drive to the mountains is Hunt Country Market, which serves "take and bake" dinners and fresh, hot specials like Roast Pork and Lamb Curry in aluminum tins—all cooked out of a bitty kitchen in the adorably unassuming establishment pictured above. 

 

7. The bookstores. 


The stairs at Daedalus.

In such a nerdy town (accost any passerby for no less than three Thomas Jefferson facts), it's no surprise that the bookstores slay. Daedalus Bookshop is something of a hoarder's dream, with books on every inch of every wall going up and down the stairs and nooks for cozying up unnoticed; Blue Whale Books is like an antique shop for readers, with rare books and maps and a strange orderlieness; New Dominion Bookshop is for collegiate types, with all the bestsellers, tall white ceilings, and librarians who wear bowties.

 

8. The 'burbs.

belmont charlottesville
Downtown Belmont. 

Located just east of downtown, Belmont is the smart place to move right when you graduate, as the housing is still relatively cheap and there's so much (so suddenly) going on. Mas was the first big restuarant to be a draw here, and recent years have seen the opening of the Local, with its seasonally-inspired menu and buzzy back deck, an Italian place (Tavola), a little barbecue joint (Belmont BBQ), and the coffee shop La Taza. 

If Belmont is a young, eager graduate, Crozet, on the other side of town, is your favorite grandpa. The drive there from downtown Charlottesville features landscape after quintessentially-Virginian landscape, all ruby leaves and faded mountain ranges, and many well-to-do families live on estates in the area. Downtown Crozet is hardly prim, however, a little four-way stop with Crozet Pizza, Green House Coffee, and Three Notched Grill holding down the fort. 

 

9. The breakfast spots. 

Charlotetsville
Bluegrass Grill and the wonderful lady who will tell you your table is not yet ready.

Lest you forget this is the South, head directly to Bluegrass Grill for a huge, steaming biscuit (with a side of eggs) on your first morning in town. There might be a wait, but you can grab a coffee at Mudhouse instead of tapping your foot. It's pretty ramshackle as far as decor goes, with strange plastic fabric tablecloths and a pastel mural of...mermaids (?). If you prefer more of a classic diner vibe, head down West Main to Blue Moon Diner. There are swively bar seats, dishes like "Hogwaller Hash," and if you stay until dinnertime, you'll catch entertainment like local string bands and C.L.A.W competitions (that's Charlottesville Ladies Arm Wrestling, of course).

And if you must have a bagel, there is Bodo's, where they're boiled, never toasted, and so good you should go ahead and order two. 

 

10. The music.


The Garage at dusk.

For being thought of as such a quaint, orderly little town, Charlottesville can make some noise. There are a few large venues to note, like the Downtown Pavilion (which is outdoors and right off the Downtown Mall) and John Paul Jones Arena, which draw as many big acts as Nashville can generate, but the best music venues in this city are—no surprise—the littler ones. The Jefferson (obviously), checks off the historical requirement, a restored theater that recently re-opened to the public, and across the mall is Miller's, a very divey bar where bands cram into the back corner and play between pulls of whiskey (Dave Matthews is from Charlottesville and got his start playing here—one of many important local facts).

But best of all, especially in jeans-and-sweater weather, is The Garage, a single-car garage that belongs to a downtown Anglican church, restored by a group of crazy young people me and my friends in 2008, which hosts any band who stops through town who is cool enough to have heard of it. Listeners sit on the grassy hill of a park across the street, and the Garage glows from within. 

What are your favorite places in Charlottesville? Tell us in the comments! 

Lawn photo by Nataliekrovetz (via Flickr); Skyline Drive photo by Mrs. Gemstone (via Flickr); Blue Ridge Tunnel photo by Photo Moe Photography (via Flickr); Mas Tapas photo by Andrea Hubbell; C&O photo by C&O; Monticello photo by mbell1975 (via Flickr); UVa photo by James Marshall (via Flickr); Lampo pizza photos by David Liebovitz; Pippin Hill photo by Jen Fariello; Hunt Country Market by Hunt Country Market; bookstore photo by Britanny B (via Yelp) 

18 Comments

Arizona J. October 30, 2015
Your article makes me homesick!
 
Ida Y. October 29, 2015
Also the best cider donuts I've ever had at Carpe Donut. Yes, the ones at the orchards are ok but they're filled with all sorts of strange ingredients. Carpe is an adorable little donut shop tucked in with a bunch of other little shops and they make their donuts with wholesome ingredients. PLUS they have a great donut robot you can watch from the counter. <br /><br />And for pizza - Dr' Ho's Humble Pies right across from Pippin Hill makes some of my favorite pizza in the Cville area. <br /><br />And Feast <3<br /><br />Oh and the Pigeon Hole on the Corner for brunch! Their specials are always creative and delicious.
 
Elizabeth S. October 27, 2015
Wonderful to see my (little) city featured on Food52! I love to see old school faves like C&O and Mas mixed in with newcomers like Lampo. In terms of other greats, MarieBette is making some of the best bread (and breakfast) I've ever had, and local brewery Champion makes excellent beer and is home to a spare but cool outdoor space downtown. One of my very favorite places is the relatively new nose-to-tail butcher shop JM Stock – they've got a huge selection of locally sourced, pastured meats, dairy, and provisions. (I do have to agree with James Harrigan on the pizza front – Christian's and Crozet Pizza are not what they used to be. I think Lampo is excellent; Dr. Ho's also makes a solid pizza.)
 
Bryan October 27, 2015
Wish you would comment on Cville's growing alt wellness/arts scene. The local foods movement, the new community initiatives, my favorite new business--AquaFloat floatation spa. You get the drift. Mostly you've mined older stories here...
 
Winifred R. October 27, 2015
You described the wineries and vineyards but forgot the orchards. There are orchards nearby with cherries and apples and peaches. Not to be missed IMHO. The fresh fruit is wonderful and the ciders (including fermented) are also keepers.
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. October 27, 2015
Agreed!
 
Michael W. October 26, 2015
Naturally you just scratched the surface. Lots of excellent restaurants. On the mall there's Alley Light (my current favorite) as well as Fleurie, Red Pump, and many more. In the country (romantic and more expensive) the Clifton Inn shines. I agree with Harrigans comments about other eateries. The winery scene is lots of fun even if the wines are a bit pricey for the quality ( it's hard to grow grapes here). And the pop music scene is completed by a fine classical music scene especially chamber music.
 
Curry H. October 26, 2015
Great article! Thank you for including Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards - we're in great company with other #VAwine. Let us know next time you're back in Charlottesville! Our photo credit should go to the incredibly talented Jen Fariello. Cheers!
 
James H. October 26, 2015
I love Cville as much as anybody, but this article has so much misinformation it is hard to know where to start. The biggest howler has to do with pizza: Christian's is OK, but Crozet Pizza is downright bad (Lampo is the real deal, though). Mas Tapas is worth going to, but the food is uneven, and it is not anywhere near the best restaurant in town - it is the third best restaurant within 100 yards though (after The Local and Tavola). And if you find the statement "many of Charlottesville's gas stations are also top-notch places to get a meal" to be unbelievable, you are right - as you'd expect, zero of Charlottesville's gas stations are actually top-notch places to get a meal. lastly, the music at Millers is not in a "back corner", it is in the front window.
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. October 26, 2015
Too bad that our opinions differ!
 
HRH October 25, 2015
Love the mall in Cville! And of course, all the vineyards make for a tipsy day- be sure to find a DD, you won't want to miss all the tastings! Also, while you're in the area, check out Crabtree Falls and since it's fall... one of the local apple orchards ;)
 
Leslie S. October 23, 2015
You restored a SUPER COOL garage concert venue???? I feel like you're too cool for me to talk to anymore—don't be surprised if I stutter during our next convo (also this who Charlottesville place looks amazing)
 
AntoniaJames October 23, 2015
My favorite place in Charlottesville? You really want to know? The tables near the big windows in the law school library, where I spent many happy afternoons, thinking while looking out across the Blue Ridge Mountains (they are, indeed blue . . . . a variegated indigo, except during autumn, when the leaves add reds and oranges). I was so grateful to be there; I often asked myself if there could be any more beautiful place anywhere to sit whenever I wanted, in quiet reflection, and to study. <br /><br />Speaking of down the road . . . . Lexington is a real charmer, worth the detour. The old town is perfectly lovely, with its fine coffee shops, bookstore, antique stores and restaurants, as is the historic cemetery. I like how the VMI men tip their caps to every woman they pass on the street in town, saying "Good afternoon, Ma'am." (I've heard that they tip their caps and say the same thing to the young men who attend W & L, which is right across the village.) ;o)
 
Mary W. October 23, 2015
Love the bookstores in CVille, though it's spelled Daedalus and it's an adventure, that's for sure. I'd also recommend Bold Rock Cidery and Silverback Distillery.
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. October 23, 2015
Right you are; fixed above!
 
Olivia B. October 23, 2015
So much love for this article and my hometown. For curious travelers I'll also add these spots: Ace BBQ for biscuits and (obviously) BBQ, MarieBette for breakfast, Albemarle Ciderworks or Blue Ridge Mountain Brewery for a boozy fall outing, Oh Suzannah for meticulously curated paper goods and gifty things, the super excellent Saturday Farmer's Market, Feast for a foodie's heaven, and Spudnuts for the best dang blueberry donuts ever.
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. October 23, 2015
Feast + Spudnuts = Perfect Saturday.
 
Samantha W. October 23, 2015
Monticello was one of my favorite childhood memories. Beautiful!