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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you only know one thing about Charlottesville, it probably has something to do with Thomas Jefferson. His plantation, Monticello, is 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.
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.
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.
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 Vineyards. Their 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)