David and I have talked about visiting Virginia ever since we met 8 years ago. He loves history, and has fond memories of a Williamsburg-Charlottesville road trip he made in his twenties. I came about thisclose to attending the University of Virginia for graduate school, but never took the time to visit Charlottesville. (If you happen to be curious, I decided on Vanderbilt instead, also sight unseen. How I ever thought you could choose a school and a city without seeing it in person is unfathomable to me now! Luckily things turned out well.)
Anyway, Virginia has always seemed too far away for a quick weekend and too close to make taking precious vacation days from work worthwhile. With my husband’s wacky school/job schedules and his needing to allocate a few vacation days to my brother and sister’s weddings in California, we thought this was a perfect year to use his remaining days for some of these medium-sized trips we’d been putting off. So, we spent five days in the Old Dominion State. It was a lovely destination, for history buffs and normal-person history admirers alike.
Last post I shared a little about the hiking we did in Shenandoah National Park, so maybe now you’d like to hear about Charlottesville itself? The city surprised me. I don’t know where in the world I got this impression, but I figured the University of Virginia area would feel similar to Stanford/Palo Alto, Northwestern/Evanston, or Vanderbilt/Hillsboro Village. I pictured it as a somewhat gentrified, refined college town with a cute shopping district and a swirl of East Coast and Southern flavors. In my imagination, preppy men wore oxford button-down shirts and boat shoes, and the buildings were stately and impeccable.
In real life, the school and city reminded me more of Berkeley. The campus itself showed its age more than I anticipated, and didn’t seem particularly well-preserved.* Throughout town there was a counter-culture, irreverent vibe. Of course, this does feel collegiate and has its upsides, like locally-brewed kombucha on tap at a donut shop (!), tofu on menus, an amazing array of independent businesses and restaurants, and an emphasis on local food and products. I guess just personally had to adjust to my mental image boat being rocked.
In contrast, the grounds surrounding Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, are gorgeous and perfectly maintained. Many of the photos in this post are from there, in fact. Before or after the guided tour of the home that is included with your admission price, you can wander through the gardens, stable, lawns, graveyard, and outdoor kitchens/cellars. There are also a few additional tours you can opt to join and a huge, impressive gift shop featuring cookbooks, decor items, and books.
I think it is worthwhile to stop by the Charlottesville visitors’ center to get maps and information. You’ll almost certainly want to go to the downtown pedestrian mall anyway, and the center is conveniently housed on the east end of it, in front of the concert pavillion. The man we spoke with was incredibly helpful in advising us where to hike, and the many free maps they have on hand are well-done and useful. We also picked up and referred often to a free “Bites + Sights” booklet, which provided hours, location, and brief descriptions for every eatery in Charlottesville.
Armed with recommendations from one of my very favorite bloggers, Andrea Hubbell at Bella Eats, we eagerly investigated and jotted down notes on at least three times as many restaurants as we’d actually have time to visit. Charlottesville certainly seems to have plenty to offer foodies! We were practically drooling on our computers as we googled bakery menus and read about The Spudnut Shop, an eatery specializing in potato-flour donuts that apparently has restored one Yelper’s “faith in humanity.”
Our first stop was Feast!, which had an inventive menu of health-conscious sandwiches and salads. I loved my Mediterranean salad with white beans, artichoke hearts, and olives. It was exactly what I was craving after a few days of typical travel fare.
But then my foodie world got even better, because we walked through Feast!’s shop and discovered these among other tempting goodies.
I forgot all about recovering from days of not-super-healthy travel food and snatched up a delightfully smaller-sized bag (maybe 2 or 3 ounces?) of the triple chocolate toffees for $3. They were not only pretty, but were also perfect little candy bites to finish a meal… or a tour of Monticello… or a drive through campus…
Joyfully, Feast! will ship gift boxes anywhere in the country, and they have some adorable options including “Virginia Feast in a Box” and “S’mores Box.” It sounded like they might be willing to customize boxes too. I am definitely keeping these foodie care packages in the back of my mind for special present occasions. To order, call the friendly folks at Feast! at (434) 244-7800.
Feast! is located in the Main Street Market, with several other small businesses, including a kitchen store right across the way and a chocolate shop that Andrea recommended. While you’re in the area, the Albemarle Baking Company (a classy establishment with beautiful treats and a wide selection of t-shirts to remember it by) is right around the corner.
We had lunch the next day at Revolutionary Soup on the downtown mall, because we just couldn’t resist the fact that there were tofu and ten different soups (several vegan and vegetarian) on the menu. The atmosphere was offbeat and very, very casual, and the food was fine. We both had a summer veggie soup with kale and grilled tofu sandwiches. Neither was mind-blowing, but I liked the mustardy flavor of the sandwich and welcomed a healthy, light meal on the road.
We followed Andrea’s advice to eat dinner at Tavola, a cozy, red-brick Italian restaurant on a quiet street in the Belmont neighborhood of Charlottesville. Across the street is La Taza, a coffee shop by day, low-key outdoor tiki bar with patio seating by night. We enjoyed a beer at La Taza while waiting for our table at Tavola. (The hostess phoned my cell when one opened up.) Just down the street is MAS, another of Andrea’s favorites, with possibly the largest tapas menu I have ever seen along with a bar and late-night hours.
At Tavola I had housemade pasta with cream, mint, lemon, peas, asparagus, and pecorino cheese. I also ordered the torta de patate: a simple, rustic cake made from potatoes cut like hashbrowns and seasoned lightly with rosemary. The torta was okay, but not as good as the pasta.
David feasted on brilliant ruby red beet risotto beneath a few scallops.
We ended up having our breakfasts at Whole Foods, because by this point in our road trip fruit, vegetables, beans, and healthy fuel were really appealing. The store’s range of salad and hot bar items was much bigger and more enticing than we’re used to in Birmingham, and the full spread was out when we got there at 8:30am, along with oatmeal, eggs, and breakfast burritos.
You may have gathered that we just did not have the time or appetite to actually sample all Charlottesville had to offer in our short weekend, but that didn’t stop us from wandering around and popping into places. We saw fresh-baked peanut butter cup cookies still on the hot baking sheet at C’ville Coffee, and talked with a welcoming, friendly fellow at Carpe Donut. The latte at quiet and quirky Shenandoah Joe’s was smooth and pleasing. A few doors down from their Ivy Road location, we noticed Wine Made Simple, a shop specializing in wines under $20. There was pizza piled with broccoli in a store window on the downtown mall, and an apple orchard with a view or two high up on a dirt road, just down the way from Monticello.
After our meal at Revolutionary Soup on the downtown mall we were still a little hungry, so we ended up at Sweet Frog, a self-serve frozen yogurt shop nearby. They list a fun variety of yogurt flavors, like green tea, white chocolate macadamia nut, Greek with a touch of honey, taro, and maple bacon donut. Sweet Frog also has a very impressive array of toppings: a large number of nuts and fresh fruits (including mango and kiwi), along with what looked to be brand-name candy (not those waxy-tasting imposter candies I’ve noticed in some yogurt places).
We noticed as we drove around that there were several hotels near the Whole Foods and Kroger, up around Emmet Street North, Hydraulic Road, and Highway 29/250. Though normally I don’t love staying in bustling areas of town around “big box” stores (Kmart, Gold’s Gym, etc.), I found myself wondering if I should have booked up there so we’d have easy access to breakfast and road trip necessities.
Charlottesville was busy the weekend we visited and there weren’t many hotels to choose from. We ended up rooms at the Holiday Inn-Monticello, which was 2 miles from the downtown mall and 1 mile from campus. It was an average suburban hotel and convenient to those cool parts of town, as well as the independent restaurants and shops. However, once we had walked through UVA and the pedestrian mall once, we didn’t feel much pull to visit either a second time. On the other hand, when I am hungry first thing in the morning, having a Whole Foods across the street seems really appealing!
If you’re after romantic, special accommodations or think you might like to be within walking distance of the downtown mall, the Inn at 400 West High bed and breakfast looka quiet nice, and the woman I spoke with there at one point was helpful and welcoming.
So, that’s Charlottesville through our eyes, in a nutshell. Truly a unique city. Hope you enjoy the combination of history and foodie fare if you make your way there!
*After we got back into town, I read that apparently the University of Virginia has become a symbol of the tough financial-balancing issues facing many colleges in our current economy. That could certainly have something to do with how fresh the centuries-old buildings on campus appear!