Getting Out: Charlottesville, Virginia

Oh, college. I remember you sometimes-fondly, often not-so-fondly. See, I was bad at going to college. I got good grades and had friends, but I loved Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson, and the idea of UVA more than I loved College: The Experience. Toward the end there, one of my peers described me as less a student and more a “townie who takes a lot of classes,” which I think was supposed to be an insult but was definitely true. I lived far from Grounds, worked far from Grounds, and cultivated relationships with long-time Charlottesvillians. I was glad I did that then, and I’m glad I did that now.

This guide grows out of an email I initially wrote to my friend Gill entitled “places for your to go and see and be and do in charlottesville, the nicest town in the entire world.” Gill was trying to impress his U.Va. grad wife by taking her to some places she hadn’t been in Charlottesville, and apparently this list helped.

This will be your face the whole time you're there.
This will be your face the whole time you’re there. It was my face for most of it.

I have virtually no photos from when I lived in Charlottesville that aren’t of my friends and me in younger, thinner, drunker, more beautiful days, because I left there in 2010, before the spread of smartphones. I’ve been back many, many times, but the photographs from those trips, too, are just a nostalgia binge. I’ve dug up a few good ones for you, and those are with the tips I’ve wrangled for you after the jump.

If you’re looking for somewhere cheap to stay in Charlottesville, this place is good, according to some friends. There are a lot of bed and breakfasts that have inexpensive weeknight or off-season rates, and of course, couch surfers find a lot of places to stay in college towns. You don’t need a car to do most of the things in town, but if you have an eye on the surrounding area, I’d recommend you have one. If you plan to fly, go in to Richmond, rent a car, and drive over. I swear, this is cheaper. If you’re taking the train, yahtzee. The stop is right in the middle of town. There are a few areas worth visiting in Charlottesville– Belmont, the Downtown Mall, and Grounds. Belmont is the hip, residential neighborhood. The Downtown Mall is where you go to shop and do The Fancy Eatin’. Grounds is UVA– no need to go to the Corner unless you’re nostalgic, but the University is really beautiful. Outside of town are dozens of wineries, inns, and historic homes, all of which I heartily recommend to the traveler with a little more time (and some substantial cash) at his disposal.

Pick up a copy of the Hook or the C-ville on your way in to get a feel for what’s going on. Remember that this is definitely a college town, so be sure to check if there’s a major event at U.Va. before booking your trip so as to avoid terrible traffic/terrible undergrads. With that, I bring you my list of things to love about Charlottesville.

Eat:

  • C&OFrench/Southern fine dining in a converted train station. This place is tiny and as Charlottesville as it gets. The downstairs bar is one of my all-time favorites and serves a cheaper, late-night menu most nights. I don’t know how to describe this place any other way than this: get a little drunk together downstairs on your first date. Ask her to marry you over dinner upstairs some time later.
  • The FlatCash only, and open at the owner’s whim. Great sweet and savory crepes out of a kitchen the size of my pantry. They have local produce and meat, and lots of vegetarian-friendly options.
  • Bluegrass BakeryBreakfast and brunch only, no reservations. They have great biscuits and gravy, and zero ambience. Get there early or the fratstars will overrun the place.
  • The LocalMy friend Nicole says that Charlottesville is the Park Slope of Virginia, and this place does nothing to counter that. Local, free-range, organic dinners are served up nightly at this Belmont restaurant. The food is great, and the bartenders cute. Can’t lose.
  • Aqui Es MexicoLocated in a strip mall next to a laundromat, this place is nothing to look at from the outside. Inside, though, is great, cheap Mexican food and it’s the real deal. I’d offer you directions, but you’ll never find it. Put this in your GPS and hope for the best.
  • Al HamraaThis is in an old warehouse behind a chainlink fence. You will doubt me until you get inside. They have tasty Moroccan food, lots of space, and belly dancers on the reg. This place is fun and very much a hidden gem of Charlottesville.
  • MonsoonBecause this is a college town, there are approximately 3 Thai restaurants per capita. My friends and I argue angrily about which one is the best, but I’m right. If they want to be right, they need to get their own blog. Monsoon is a tiny, family-run Thai place a few blocks off the Downtown Mall. I dig the masaman curry with tofu balls, and the hot, sweet Thai tea.
  • Mas! Come early and be aggressive about keeping your seat at the bar. Great tapas and outstanding sangria! This place is the ultimate fun spot on a summer night.
  • L’Etoile Forgettable dinner, great brunch. Cute location!
  • Beer Run Tons of my friends, enemies, and lovers have worked here throughout the years. Great beer for here or to go, and good food if you opt to stay.
  • SpudnutsCash only. It’s my understanding this used to be a national doughnut chain, but that this is the last of the Mohicans. The ladies who work here are so kind and wonderful, and their potato-based doughnuts (hence the name) are out of this world.
  • Blue MoonThere is nothing to say other than this place is my heart. Okay, there’s another thing to say: get the burger. And another: come for brunch. And another: let the cook pick you a record out.
  • Chap’s. Fun fact: This ice cream shop was in a Playboy shoot. It’s also great, cheap, and a fun throwback right on the Downtown Mall.
  • Continental DivideUnmarked, tiny, and amazing. They do fusion Mexican food that is very, very good, but the real reason to come is the margaritas. I HATE margaritas, but you would have to wrest my CD margarita from my cold, dead hands. I love it.
  • Taste of ChinaThis place is nondescript, but Peter Chang is the cook, so go out there and stop acting like you’re slumming it by eating Chinese in rural Virginia.
  • Revolutionary SoupI’ve been told they serve many kinds of soup, but the only one I care about is the spicy Senegalese peanut tofu one. Bone up on your classical poetry before you head here; you’ll get an “English major discount” if you can recite ten lines of poetry from their writer of the week.
  • TavolaRustic Italian in a great storefront in Belmont. I love this place in the summer for an intimate dinner.
  • Mel’s CafeSweet potato pie. That is all. I think they sell other things here, but I’m not sure.
  • White Spot Are you drunk? How drunk? Pretty drunk? Great. Go here, get the gusburger and a grills and hate your body so much in the morning.
  • Mudhouse. Charlottesville has great coffee. Tons of great coffee. Really, really great coffee. This place is not the best one, but it is convenient, excellent, and cozy. I like it, and I bet you will, too.
  • Belmont BBQ Damn good barbecue in a teeny cottage with zero parking. They do takeout, and I advise you do that.
  • La TazaDepending on the wind, I guess, this place is EITHER amazing or average. When they’ve decided to be Ecuadorian/great coffee, I’ve had better brunch nowhere. When they decide to Americanize it, it’s forgettable. Check in advance, since I can remember about 5 times this has happened in recent memory.
  • WaysideNot vegetarian-friendly. Not gluten-free friendly. Not friendly. Oh, my god, carry me back to Old Virginny if for no other reason than to acquire this stupidly good fried chicken.
  • Splendora’s Excellent gelato in interesting flavors. The unsung hero of their menu is the coffee menu, which is delicious!

Do: 

  • Monticello. Certainly, the legacy of TJ is problematic, but you have to admire his vision. This house is an architectural marvel and the views are spectacular. It’s a veritable Disneyworld of historic sites– everyone is helpful, it’s very clean, and highly organized. You can choose to take the standard tour of the house (focuses STRONGLY on architecture and the basic outlines of TJ’s life), the agricultural/floral tour of the grounds (great if you love flowers and don’t care about history that much), the historical tour (does not shy away from the tougher topics like slavery), or the one designed for children (I haven’t taken this, since I don’t have kids, but I hear it’s nice!). You really should not miss this, even if you’re less attached to the man than I. 
  • Carter’s Mountain Orchards. If you’re here August-November, spare a few hours to pick Central Virginia’s famous apples. They are tasty, this orchard is lovely, and you will not be disappointed.
  • Charlottesville Farmer’s Market. Yeah, this is the best farmer’s market in the world. My boyfriend (read: has no idea I exist) sells jam there, my other boyfriend sells his fresh pork sausages, and many other non-boyfriends proffer excellent local food 9 months out of the year.
  • Friends of the Library Book Sale. This happens a mere two weeks a year and I plan my visit around it. A whole culture of well-read people give their castoffs to benefit the public library, and your record collection and personal library are the beneficiaries.
  • Take a tour of UVa. Again, this is for more than TJ lovers. The Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s School (as we called it because we’re kind of jerky) are really beautiful, particularly in spring. Ask for a historical tour of the Academical Village– there’s a lot of fun stuff to see and learn, and again, it’s really, really pretty.
  • Vinegar Hill Theatre. I’ve lived in Maine, Spain, and Spokane and I’ve never seen hipper/cooler/fresher cinema offerings than they have here. Also: tasty snacks.
  • The Garage. I’ve seen adult puppet shows here. I’ve attended a Sufjan Stevens sing-a-long here. I’ve seen some far-out singer-songwriter types here. Check and see what this teeny, tiny venue in the sideyard of a funeral home is up to when you plan your trip.
  • McGuffy Arts Center. Check in advance to see what’s going on on a given night at this joint. I’ve been to some great art exhibits, open houses, and the like here, but you never know what may or may not be afoot.
  • Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. I wasn’t sure which category to put this in. They do tea, Middle Eastern-ish food, live music, dance parties, hookah, and craft beer and local wine. It’s got this great vibe, and everyone who works there is impossibly attractive and hip. I spent many, many aimless afternoons here from 2006-2010, and it’s always at the top of my list of places to hit when I’m in town. The music there is always fun and sometimes weird; you won’t be disappointed regardless of when you visit.
  • The Jefferson. A great place to see live music. Danny Shea simply does not book losers, and the venue is pretty pretty. Also fun: Cinema Taco, which will sell you tasty snacks in the lobby.
  • UVa. Art Museum. Free and open to the public, they have great rotating exhibits and also the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal art!
  • Hike Humpback Mountain in the Blue Ridge Parkway. This was the first hike I ever went on, and it’s not too hard and very pretty during every single season. If you’re a more seasoned adventurer, there are definitely some challenging trails nearby.
  • Wineries X 100000. They’re all nice. They’re all aways out of town. It’s fun, but definitely something I’ve yet to be able to really afford to do right.
  • The Blue Ridge Tunnel. I want to be clear: this is definitely trespassing and 100% illegal so naturally, I have never gone and would not advocate your going, but I HAVE HEARD that it is beautiful, haunting, and worth the trip out of town to see.

Shop: 

  • Derriere de Soie. I worked here for about a month as an undergraduate, and they have the most beautiful lingerie humanly imaginable and at a great variety of price points. The shop is totally a babe, too.
  • Feast! This is my favorite of the fancy Charlottesville grocery stores, and their cheese counter is dizzying. I may or may not have mentioned my crush on their cheesemonger in an earlier post. The attached Albemarle Baking Company, cooking supply store, and chocolatier aren’t shabby either!
  • The Happy Cook. This is out in Barracks Road Shopping Center, a part-local, part-chain outdoor mall near the University. They have a TON of amazing stuff for sale, great cookbooks, and a killer newsletter.
  • London’s Bathecary. Lots of hard-to-find, foreign, and fancy bath offerings. I buy presents here still.
  • Timberlake’s Drugs. They sell Chanel, but also shaving cream. Their very old-fashioned lunch counter has great grilled cheese and milkshakes at rock-bottom prices.
  • New Dominion Bookshop. The best new books in Charlottesville, and staggering poetry offerings. Seriously, I have never seen such a complete poetry section.
  • Fifth Season Gardening. They have everything you need to plant a killer garden, but also homebrew supplies? Helpful staff and very complete offerings.
  • Finch. The only shopping I really want to do on the Corner (okay, I love Mincer’s, but you probably won’t unless you need a UVA tshirt). It’s a tad expensive, but I’ve found some great items on clearance here over the years.
  • Market Street Wine Shop. Robert, the owner, does free and very informative wine tastings every Thursday night. He’s so knowledgeable about wine, and really eager and kind with his knowledge! Come by here to buy excellent wines at all price points.
  • The Men and Boys Shop. Fashionable, very Southern, and very, very old-fashioned. Pick up suits, hats, dress shirts and the like here.
  • Bittersweet. At the intersection of interesting and affordable exists Bittersweet. I picked up a lot of great clothes and shoes here in college and several times since.
  • Daedelus Used Books. This is my favorite of Charlottesville’s hundreds of used book stores (slight exaggeration). The owner is crotchety and it looks like the organizational system was created by hoarders, but it’s really fun to peruse for hours upon hours.
  • Random Row Books. Used books in an old service station. Community events in their living room. Tiny artist studios. This place is just comprised of awesome and awesome only.
  • Ike’s Underground. Bizarre collection of vintage clothes, shoes, magazines, books, and the like. There’s a lot of junk, but tons of treasure.
  • ChaCha’s. Kooky gifts and accessories. I’ve purchased handbags, inflatable deer, and thermoses here.  
  • Oh Suzannah! Pretty baby gifts, but pretty adult-lady gifts and homewares, too. Everything is arranged so nicely, you won’t want to pick it up.

Okay, U.Va. graduates and Charlottesvillians, let the complaints begin! Tell me what you love, what I’ve missed, and what new and cool thing has opened in the 6 months since I’ve visited.

Update: Everyone and their mom wants me to include Bodo’s, which I don’t care for (I like I really, really chewy bagel). I can say this: it’s convenient, inexpensive, and filling, which is a great thing for a place to be for the traveler with limited time and cash.

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