Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is as much an architectural rendering of the man himself as it is a masterfully manicured property. Graceful in its formal exterior, the classic villa-style residence and gardens conceal an interior full of complexities — private quarters, a hodgepodge of curiosities from around the world, and underground passages — that reflect the full and complicated life of its owner. If you’re even remotely interested in Jefferson, or Jeffersonian times, a visit to Monticello is an absolute must.
Jefferson’s complex legacy
Jefferson’s legacy is boundless — he was author of the Declaration of Independence, the third U.S. President, founder of the University of Virginia, an international statesman, an architect, and a farmer. He was also a prolific thinker who developed many of the foundational principles of political and religious freedom upon which America was built.
At the same time, Jefferson was a slave owner, possessing as many as 600 slaves during his lifetime. His relationships with some enslaved people, notably Sally Hemings, were personal, and his extended family included children and grandchildren — from both his wife, Martha, and Sally — many of whom lived at Monticello with him.
Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s home
The residence itself, along with the slave quarters and plantation gardens, sits quietly atop a 868-foot-tall “little mountain” overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. There’s a lot to see, so be sure to allocate at least three to four hours for a full visit.
We recommend starting at the Visitor’s Center where you can purchase tickets (or online if you prefer). While there are several admission options, the “Behind-the-Scenes” ticket is your best bet. Though pricey at $67, it includes a guided tour of the house’s upper floors and private rooms, including Jefferson’s private toilet, his daughter’s walk-in closet, and iconic dome room (the latter of which is not available with the $29 regular admission).
A Family-Friendly ticket (also $29) works best if you have a five to 11-year old along. This includes an abbreviated version of the standard house tour (first floor and basement only) and is specifically geared towards younger visitors. In all cases, admission includes guided tours of the gardens and slave quarters, each about 45 minutes, and Visitor Center exhibitions.
Next, decide whether to catch the shuttle bus to the summit or do the moderately challenging hike (allow 25 minutes). In spring and summer Charlottesville can get hot and sticky quickly, so we might suggest shuttling up and walking down.
Inside Thomas Jefferson’s home
Monticello, the only private home designated as a World Heritage Site, was always a work in progress, designed, built, and rebuilt by Jefferson over 40 years. As his household grew (up to 26 family members), so too did his “essay in architecture.” The main house is constructed in a neoclassical style with the signature portico, Doric columns, and archetypal dome on top. The two-story entry hall is positively presidential and opens on to a series of public rooms designed to receive and entertain guests.
Though many architectural features and furnishings are replicas, nearly a third of the glass windows and all floors and interior doors are original. Extensive collections of Native American and European art, animal skins and bones, portraits, maps of then-known continents, and instruments — showcasing some of Jefferson’s many interests — are scattered throughout.
The second floor includes a cluster of private quarters occupied by Jefferson’s many children and grandchildren, and from there it’s a steep but worthwhile climb to the dome room. Magnificent in its “Mars yellow” circular perfection, the dome is the only interior room in which visitors may take photos. Get your pics and head back down — carefully.
Many of the “Dependencies,” or functional rooms such as the kitchen, smokehouse, and dairy, are housed in two wings strategically placed adjacent to the main house to be invisible from the main reception rooms. Take the underground tunnels connecting the wings to the main house to experience how staff and servants typically moved between buildings. And while you’re down there, check out the extensive wine cellar; aside from his other illustrious titles, Jefferson served as official Wine Advisor to Presidents Madison and Monroe.
Slave quarters and gardens
Slaves were an integral part of Monticello, both in the day-to-day functioning of the plantation and in Jefferson’s personal life. Guided tours of the Mulberry Row slave quarters and workshops, and the recently discovered slave burial ground focus on the slave experience at the plantation, an important dimension of any visit.
To get an appreciation for Jefferson’s green thumb, take a walk through Monticello’s extensive vegetable garden, ornately landscaped flower beds, and fruit orchards. More a lab than an amusement, the gardens yielded hundreds of plant and herb varieties over the years, and now support a preservation bank for 19th-century vintage seeds.
On the way back down be sure and catch Jefferson’s gravesite. The beautiful obelisk gravestone and modest inscription were designed by Jefferson and reveal his three proudest achievements (hint: they may not be what you think).
Eat and shop
For a bit of rest and revolutionary reflection, head to the Visitor’s Center’s Farm Table Café for a very reasonably-priced Heritage Ham sandwich made with garlic aïoli and Manchego on pecan raisin bread; or a Grilled Flatbread Board with roasted butternut squash, chorizo, and creamy goat cheese. Many ingredients are sustainably raised or sourced right at Monticello.
Refreshed, pop into the gift shop for a few Jefferson-themed souvenirs. Home décor, collectibles, and knickknacks abound, but for something really special, go with a historic plant or seed package harvested from Tom’s own garden.
University of Virginia
If you need more historic Jefferson, the University of Virginia is a mere five miles down the road. Ever the overachiever, Jefferson took on the founding and designing of the University and its curriculum as his “retirement project.” Don’t miss the Academical Village – arguably the architectural jewel of the University crown. This is comprised of a terraced central lawn, surrounded by single-story residential buildings, and majestic Rotunda building. Indeed, Jefferson’s preference for neo-classicism, balance, and equanimity are on show here and not surprisingly, the village remains the heart and soul of the University.
For more information on Jefferson’s homestead, visit Monticello online.