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A visit to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia

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Monticello is the former home of the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Located just outside the city of Charlottesville, Va., it is situated on a small mountain, which Jefferson inherited from his father. He actually inherited 3,000 acres and chose this hill where he had played as a child to be the location of his home. The name Monticello means “small mountain” in Italian.

Exterior shot of Monticello
Isabelle Esteves

Jefferson was a self-taught architect who studied the work of Palladio among others. He designed Monticello himself and it was the work of his lifetime. He spent over 50 years getting it just the way he dreamed it should be.

He moved onto the property in 1770 when he was 27, living in a one room dwelling in what is now the South Pavilion and two years later he brought his wife to the same small dwelling. The original design of the house called for eight rooms. The family may have lived in the new house but it was not complete when his wife died in 1784. After her death, Jefferson resumed his public service and was away for most of the next 10 years.

In 1794 he decided to enlarge the house to 20 rooms. This is the basically the house that you will see today. It is one of the most recognizable facades in the country. Just as Jefferson never completed work on Monticello, the current owners are constantly uncovering more about the house and also opening more of it up to visitors.

When planning a visit to Monticello allow plenty of time. How much depends on your level of interest and whether or not you will have more than one day to visit. No matter what you decide you visit should begin at the Visitor Center. There is plenty of free parking but it can get very busy. If you know what day you will be visiting, you can purchase your entrance tickets online in advance. This is a very good idea especially if you want to take one of the twice daily behind the scenes tours. They sell out quickly.

At the visitor center in addition to purchasing your entrance ticket you can also view a 20 minute film about Thomas Jefferson and his home. It plays on the hour, at 20 after and 20 of. I highly recommend that you take the time to watch the film; it is the perfect way to begin.

Depending on what time your house ticket is for you can take the bus up to the house or visit the museum. The museum is on two levels and on the lower level includes a display about the building itself and its architecture. Upstairs there are some very interesting displays about the people who worked at Monticello during the time of Jefferson both free and enslaved.

You can hike up to the house if you enjoy hiking; it is uphill and about a mile. There is a bus that will also take you up to the drop off point. You should plan to arrive at least 15 minutes in advance of your entrance ticket.

All tours of the house are guided. All of the guides are knowledgeable and they offer similar if not identical tours. You will get lots of information about the Jefferson family, Thomas, his two daughters and grandchildren as well as some of the enslaved craftsmen who made the house possible.

When the inside tour is complete you are free to wander in the two pavilions, in the cellars under both sides of the house, Mulberry Row and the gardens. There is a gift shop in the visitor center and also one on the top of the hill.

When you have complete your tour on the top of the hill you can take the bus back to the visitor center with a brief stop at the graveyard or you can walk from the house to the graveyard. It is an easy walk and the views are amazing. You can then either walk back to the visitor center or take the bus from the graveyard.

When you return to the visitor center you can visit the restaurant, gift shop or finish enjoying the museum. If you prefer, Mitchie Tavern is very close by and offers an amazing lunch buffet.

There are additional tours offered. You can take the Behind the Scenes Tour, Garden and the Grounds Tour or Slavery at Monticello Tour. For dates and prices please check the website. The regular house tour takes about 40 minutes the behind the scene tours is an hour and 40 minutes and includes the regular house tour.