Fun and Unique Things to Do in Charlottesville Virginia

Updated on April 4, 2024 by Julie McCool

The best things to do in Charlottesville VA make the most of the small city's unique history, natural beauty, and great food and drink scene. Since Cville is just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Washington DC, it's close enough for a fun Virginia day trip. We prefer a multi-night Charlottesville getaway, allowing more time to enjoy the area.

My suggestions and tips on fun things to do in Charlottesville highlight places we like to eat, drink, and stay, plus fun activities. Our favorite places in Charlottesville mix outdoor fun, American history, and local shops and restaurants. Charlottesville has the only UNESCO World Heritage cultural site in Virginia and preserves the homes and history of US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.

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National Geographic called Thomas Jefferson “America's First Foodie,” and his devotion to local agriculture is reflected in an excellent range of dining options. We highlight a few options below, but you'll find many more in our guide: 21 Favorite Local Restaurants in Charlottesville VA.

Spending the Night in Charlottesville?

Here are our top recommendations for places to stay in Charlottesville. We have stayed in all of these properties and you'll find additional information and photos near the end of this article.

Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall

The Charlottesville Historic Downtown Mall, one of the largest pedestrian malls in the US, tops my list of the best places to visit in Charlottesville. The mall is 8 blocks long and it's packed with great places to shop, dine, and people-watch.

Charlottesville Virginia Downtown Pedestrian Mall
Charlottesville VA Downtown Mall

Several of our favorite Charlottesville restaurants are on the mall and it's a popular spot for lunch, dinner, or a drink. Many restaurants on the mall offer outdoor seating under a central aisle of pretty trees.  Citizen Burger Bar is our favorite stop for excellent, locally sourced burgers and tasty fries. For a more refined atmosphere, try Brasserie Saison.

There are frequent special events and performances on the mall. A massive renovation returned the beautiful Paramount Theater to its neoclassical glory, and it once again hosts performances and movies. Ask about free behind-the-scenes tours that include a visit backstage, where hundreds of performers have signed the walls.

Arts and history meet at The Paramount Theater
The Paramount Theater, Charlottesville

At the east end of the mall, the open-air Ting Pavilion hosts national acts, concerts, and other events. Visit in December and the pedestrian mall is transformed with festive Christmas lights and special events.

West Main Street Restaurants

West Main Street, which connects the downtown mall and the University of Virginia, is home to several excellent restaurants. We love the fresh seafood at Public Fish and Oyster and the Italian dishes at Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar (across from Quirk Hotel). If you're staying at the Draftsmen Hotel, head downstairs to The Ridley for seafood and Southern cuisine.

Closer to UVA, Farm Bell Kitchen is our favorite stop for an indulgent breakfast. If you want something a little lighter, head to Bodo's Bagels, a Charlottesville institution. We recently enjoyed tacos from Mod Pod, a food truck just up the hill from The Corner, a prime hangout for UVA students.

The University of Virginia

The University of Virginia, along with Monticello, is a designated UNESCO world heritage site, and a National Historic Landmark. Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, UVA preserves many of the buildings and tenets of Jefferson's original design and should be part of any history-lovers Charlottesville getaway.

Our daughter earned her Engineering degree at UVA (go Hoos!) so we've spent a lot of time at the school. For a great introduction to “grounds”, join one of the free UVA historical tours offered every day during the school year.

UVA Rotunda Charlottesville VA
UVA Rotunda Charlottesville VA

If you explore on your own, be sure to visit these places:

  • The Rotunda: The iconic heart of Jefferson's Academical Village underwent extensive renovations in 2015/16 and is still a gathering place for students and faculty.
  • The Lawn: Stretching behind the Rotunda is an open space Jefferson designed to encourage interaction and learning. Note the coveted rooms in the original brick Pavilions that border the lawn.
  • Old Cabell Hall: At the lower end of The Lawn, check out the elaborate mural in Old Cabell Hall that depicts “The Students Progress” at UVA.
  • Memorial to Enslaved Laborers: Close to University Ave, the memorial shares the powerful and harrowing stories of enslaved people who built and maintained UVA.

About 5 miles from the Rotunda is UVA's Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to indigenous Australian Art. Admission is free and they have unique galleries and a nice Gift Shop.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Monticello was Thomas Jefferson’s home and plantation for much of his life, before and after he served as America’s third President. Tours of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello highlight his life as a scholar, inventor, and founding father. They also share the stark contrast of Jefferson's role as a slaveholder and the stories of enslaved people who toiled here.

Photo credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
Photo credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

We recommend the 90-minute Behind the Scenes Tour to visit all three floors of the mansion, including the stunning Dome Room. After your tour, explore the slave quarters on Mulberry Row and learn about the difficult life of the enslaved families at Monticello. A more in-depth From Slavery to Freedom Tour shares the lives and legacies of the enslaved at Monticello.

Allow extra time to explore the gardens and grounds, Visitor Center, and excellent Gift Shop. If you're hungry, the Monticello Farm Table serves lunch using fruits and vegetables grown onsite and on local farms. Monticello is open daily except for Christmas, and hours vary throughout the year.

Saunders-Monticello Trail and Kemper Park

One unique way to reach Monticello is via a hike on the 2-mile Saunders-Monticello Trail. The trail climbs steadily, but not too steeply, up the mountain from Kemper Park to Monticello. Many sections of the trail are lovely boardwalks through the woods. I expected this to be a more challenging climb but the 5% grade is gentle throughout.

The trail Saunders-Monticello Trail begins on the Thomas Jefferson Parkway (Route 53) at Kemper Park. If the closest lot is full, head down to the largest lot on Dairy Barn Road. Both parking areas are free and a trail connects the two.

Fall foliage surrounds the boardwalk on the Saunders-Monticello Trail, one of the best things to do in Charlottesville VA
Saunders-Monticello Trail

Parking and the trail are free and open daily, dawn to dusk. Note that dogs are allowed in the park but they are not allowed on the boardwalks. Since much of the trail is boardwalk, you can't hike the trail to Monticello with dogs.

If time allows, you can explore other trails at Kemper Park. The park is a natural arboretum with a network of dirt trails. Tip: Skip the overlook trail as the view is mostly obscured by trees. Enjoy a much better view at Carter Mountain Orchard (details below).

Carter Mountain Orchard, Charlottesville

Drive up a steep side road near Monticello and you'll find Carter Mountain Orchard. Vineyards and fruit trees cover the hills, and you can enjoy lunch, Bold Rock Cider, wine, or a treat in the barn's porch and yard. The apple cider donuts are decadently delicious and so popular that they run out on busy days.

Picnic area and a beautiful view of Charlottesville and the Blue Ridge Mountains from Carter Mountain Orchard.
Carter Mountain Orchard View

The orchard is one of the most popular places for apple picking in Virginia, so purchase tickets in advance if you plan to visit on a fall weekend. If you can't get tickets for apple-picking you can still enjoy a scenic drive up the mountain with a stop at a “to go” stand.

Take a free scenic drive through the Carter Mountain apple orchard.
Carter Mountain Apple Orchard

Rivanna Trail

The Rivanna Trail circles the city of Charlottesville, following a mix of parkland, streets, and greenways for 20 miles. For an easy, pretty walk, we like the segment along the river in Riverview Park. This section is level and stroller-friendly so it's great for a family hike.

Rivanna Trail Charlottesville VA
Rivanna Trail Charlottesville VA

iX Park

See an eclectic collection of art and small businesses at iX Park, half a mile south of the downtown mall. The space features an outdoor plaza and event space dotted with cool sculptures and murals. You may even see artists at work.

LOVE Artwork of a mosaic tree at iX Art Park in Charlottesville VA
LOVE iX Art Park, Charlottesville

Indoor spaces include The Looking Glass, an immersive experience featuring works by local and regional artists. The experience is free on Thursday, tickets start at $10 Friday through Sunday. Other park businesses include Three Notch'd Brewing‘s main location, North American Sake Brewery, and Bad Luck Ramen Bar.

More Charlottesville Historic Sites

Monticello is the most well-known historic site in Charlottesville, but you can experience more American history at these sites in and near Cville.

James Monroe Highland

Another presidential home, James Monroe's Highland, is close to Monticello. Monroe was America’s fifth President and the last of the Founding Fathers. He served with George Washington at Valley Forge, studied law under Jefferson, and authored what came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine.

View from James Monroe Highlands, Charlottesville Virginia
View from James Monroe Highlands, Charlottesville Virginia

Visitors to Highland learn about Monroe’s life in public service and tour a building once thought to be his home. Highlands is open daily and hours vary by season (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year). Rustic Trails are open and free to use during regular hours.

Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center, Darden Towe Park

Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center Charlottesville VA
Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center in Charlottesville VA

The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Darden Towe Path promotes the skills of exploration, creativity, and discovery from a central building and surrounding exhibits. Visitors can climb aboard a keelboat like the one Lewis and Clark used to explore the Missouri River. Lewis was born in Albermarle County, and Clark's family lived on land next to the Exploratory Center site. A dirt path leads through the woods to river overlooks.

James Madison’s Montpelier, Orange

About 25 miles from Charlottesville is James Madison's Montpelier, the home of America’s fourth President. Madison spent much of his life at Montpelier, as a boy, a family man, and a founding father. He is often referred to as the Father of the Constitution and the architect of the Bill of Rights.

Front view Montpelier Orange Virginia
Front view on James Madison's Montpelier in Orange Virginia

Tours of the mansion at Montpelier interpret the life of James and Dolley—the first American power couple—after he was elected President. Visitors can also explore the recreated slave quarters, extensive grounds and hiking trails, and archeological digs. There are interesting galleries and shops to visit, and the Exchange Cafe serves tasty sandwiches.

On your way to the Visitor Center, stop for a photo at the wonderful “We the People” LOVE sign.

We the People LOVE sign at Montpelier is a fun photo spot in Orange Virginia
We the People LOVE sign at Montpelier

Getting Around Charlottesville

Visitors from the Washington DC area can drive to Charlottesville or take the Amtrak train. The primary driving route from Northern Virginia and DC follows Route 66 west to Route 29 south. The drive is scenic as you head south on 29, but this is a busy commuter route so avoid rush hour.

There are 3 or 4 trains a day and it takes about 2.5 hours to get from DC's Union Station to the Cville Amtrak station, depending on route. The Amtrak station is conveniently located downtown between the pedestrian mall and UVA.

Charlottesville Area Transit

The Charlottesville Area Transit, aka CAT, operates bus routes throughout town. Visitors can find route maps and check realtime bus locations online. In addition, they operate a free trolley that stops at the pedestrian mall, the University of Virginia, and other downtown areas. The free trolley is an excellent way to get around the downtown core and see many of the sites listed above.

Cville Hop On Tours

Albermarle County's growing brewery and winery scene should be on the itinerary of any craft beer and wine lover. The Charlottesville area also boasts the most cideries in Virginia, so add a few to your tasting mix. A unique, fun, and safe way to explore all that local sipping goodness is with CVille Hop On Tours.

Cville Hop on Tour bus Charlottesville Virginia
Cville Hop on Tour bus Charlottesville Virginia

Hop on and off the rotating shuttle on several different routes, with pick-up at Three Notch'd Brewing and select hotels. We really enjoyed the comfortable buses (snacks and water included) as they safely shuttled us to our next stop. You can also schedule private group tours that include transportation, tastings, and behind-the-scenes access. Weekend tours frequently sell out, so book early to ensure your spot.

Fun Places to Visit Near Charlottesville VA

Scenic roads and nearby towns in Albemarle County showcase a passion for agriculture, food, wine, beer, and cider.

Crabtree Falls Hike

One of the best hiking trails near Charlottesville VA is the popular Crabtree Falls trail, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Crabtree is the longest vertical cascade in the Eastern US. The series of several waterfalls cascade a total of 1200 feet.

From the lower parking lot, it’s a steadily uphill, but not too challenging, 1.8-mile climb to the top of the falls. At the top, a viewpoint looks out over the Tye River Gorge. This is one of the best fall hikes in Virginia, especially when fall foliage colors the views, and is well worth the drive during a Charlottesville getaway.

Crabtree Falls cascade, fall hikes in Virginia
Crabtree Falls Cascade Virginia

Crozet Virginia

The small town of Crozet (pronounced Crow-zay) packs a lot into its lovely spot at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Visit shops, food, and drink spots downtown then head to the mountains for great hikes and scenic views.

Shop for unique treasures at the Crozet Artisans Depot which features goods from a juried collection of local artisans. Across the street, head to Crozet Pizza for a casual meal. It made National Geographic's “Best in World” list, and we absolutely loved The Hittie, a rich pie covered in sausage, onion, and peppers. Nearby, treat yourself to homemade ice cream from Crozet Creamery.

There are two excellent craft breweries in Crozet. Star Hill Brewery, the second oldest craft brewery in Virginia, occupies a former ConAgra plant. Keep an eye on beer production from the open space as you sample from a long list of core and seasonal brews. To the south, Pro Re Nata Brewery has a relaxed vibe and great beer.

While you're in Crozet, stop at Montfair Resort Farm for a photo with its wonderful LOVEwork. The LOVE is made with woven branches and twigs and it makes a fun or romantic picture spot.

Virginia LOVE Sign in Crozet VA one of the Free Romantic Places in Northern Virginia, No Reservations Required
Virginia LOVE Sign in Crozet VA

Monticello Wine Trail

Charlottesville has been cited as one of the top wine regions in the eastern US and there are more than 30 wineries in a 30-mile radius of the city. Wine Enthusiast recently named the Charlottesville and Monitcello area the 2023 Wine Region of the Year!

Stop at Jefferson Vineyards for wine tasting after a visit to Monticello or Highland. Vines were planted here in 1773 on land provided by Thomas Jefferson. The original vines were destroyed within a few years, but the vineyard returned in the 1980s. Enjoy your wine in the pleasant tasting room and large patio or head out to the Adirondack chairs for lovely views of Mt Alto.

To the west in Crozet, King Family Vineyards has a large tasting barn next to a polo field. The 327-acre farm was started as a place to train and breed polo ponies, and you can watch polo matches on the field on summer weekends. Sip along with a glass or two of Croat, a dry Rose which has become the “official” polo wine.

King Family Vineyards Crozet VA
King Family Vineyards Crozet VA

If you're staying at Keswick Hall, or driving to Montpelier, stop and sample the wine at Keswick Vineyards. The tasting room has a large patio where you can enjoy views of the vineyards, planted in 1999, and surrounding mountains.

Glass House Winery is a lovely stop between Charlottesville and the Swift Run Gap entrance to Shenandoah National Park. Sip and relax in a beautiful conservatory filled with tropical plants and pair your wines with housemade chocolates.

Pick up a map of the Jefferson-inspired Monticello Wine Trail to find more wonderful wineries to visit during your Charlottesville getaway.

Shenandoah National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway

The southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park (Rockfish Gap), and the northern entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway are just 25 miles west of Charlottesville. Drive to Waynesboro and head north to enjoy stunning overlooks and excellent hikes from Skyline Drive. Some of the best trails, views, and stops are in the Shenandoah Park Central District, north of Swift Run Gap (30 miles from Cville).

Or head south from Waynesboro to experience gorgeous views and hiking from the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of the most popular hikes, Humpback Rock, is just 7 miles south on the parkway. This is a favorite spot for UVA students to watch the sunset.

Where to Stay in Charlottesville VA

If you plan to spend a night or longer in Charlottesville, you'll have plenty of excellent options for lodging downtown and in the surrounding area. Here is additional information on our top picks for Charlottesville hotels and inns, based on our stays in and near town.

Residence Inn by Marriott Downtown Charlottesville

Fall view from The Residence Inn Charlottesville Downtown
Fall view from The Residence Inn Charlottesville Downtown

The Residence Inn is an ideal base for exploring downtown Charlottesville. The hotel is just a block from the downtown mall, within walking distance of both the malls and Main Street restaurants and shops.

Rooms are spacious and comfortable, and breakfast and free parking are included. Ask for an upper floor to enjoy gorgeous views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.

Check rates and availability at The Residence Inn Downtown Charlottesville.

The Draftsman Hotel

The Draftsman opened in 2018, just a block from the University of Virginia. The vibe is hip and friendly, with design references to Thomas Jefferson and Cville's history. We stayed in a Signature King room with a comfortable bed, a large couch, and a funky drafting table-style desk.

The location on Main Street is excellent for exploring UVA and the free shuttle to the downtown mall stops right outside. Be sure to enjoy a meal at The Ridley (see dining info above).

Check rates and availability at The Draftsman now.

Hyatt Place Charlottesville

Hyatt Place Charlottesville Virginia
Hyatt Place Charlottesville Virginia

We are fans of the Hyatt Place brand. They offer spacious, comfortable rooms with an L-shaped sofa ideal for relaxing or working. The Charlottesville property is located in the north end of town, next to several good restaurants and stores in the Shops at Stonefield. This is a good location if you're heading to Shenandoah National Park.

Check rates and availability at the Hyatt Place Charlottesville.

Oakhurst Inn, Charlottesville, Virginia

Oakhurst Inn Charlottesville Virginia
Oakhurst Inn Charlottesville Virginia

Tucked away on a quiet residential street, but only steps from the UVA Lawn, the Oakhurst Inn offers 27 comfy rooms. The Oakhurst makes a good in-town base for a Charlottesville getaway, especially if you are visiting students at the university. While it’s not a B&B, Oakhurst has its own gourmet cafe offering delicious breakfasts and lunch, with indoor and patio seating.

Check rates and book your stay at the Oakhurst Inn.

Little Mod Hotel, Charlottesville

King Suite at the Little Mod Hotel in Charlottesville Virginia
Little Mod Hotel Charlottesville VA

Add some fun and kitsch to your UVA visit when you stay at the 1960s-inspired Little Mod Hotel. Bright mid-century modern decor, including a turntable and vinyl records, makes every room pop with personality. The hotel is just a block from The Corner, so it's super convenient to UVA but can get a little noisy.

Check rates and book your stay at the Little Mod Hotel.

Keswick Hall, Keswick

A luxurious home base for exploring the Charlottesville area, Keswick Hall takes pampering and price several notches. Built as a private residence in 1912, the hotel recently underwent a major renovation and reopened in 2021. Today, Keswick Hall boasts 80 sumptuous rooms, restaurants, a golf course, an infinity pool, and more.

Check reviews and availability for more Charlottesville lodging.

When major events are in town lodging can be tight, and overflow crowds spill into nearby Waynesboro and Staunton in the southern Shenandoah Valley.

Road to James Monroe Highland in Charlottesville Virginia
Road to James Monroe Highland

Whether your focus is history, food, drink, hiking, or just the chance to relax, you'll find a lot to love on a Charlottesville getaway. The historic small city is a year-round destination, filled with blooming orchards in the spring, green mountains in the summer, vibrant foliage in the fall, and cozy spaces in winter.

Some of our Charlottesville activities were hosted by the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. Visit their website or Facebook page for more info. As always, opinions, photos, and text are our own.

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Discover fun and fascinating things to do in Charlottesville  Virginia on a getaway to Jefferson's Virginia home.
Visit Chalottesville Virginia