Monticello, the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Virginia, is a treat to visit. First, you should stop at the Monticello Visitors Center just south of Interstate 64 on Route 20. The center hosts a free museum with a permanent exhibit, Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and the vistor center staff will advise you how to best use your time.1 Next you will drive out to Monticello (the roughly two mile route is well-marked) and park in the designated area near the base of the mountain. The road is narrow and the posted speed limit is 20 mph, so you'll probably be glad you aren't allowed to drive to the top. Check in at the ticket booth, where current temperatures and wait-times are posted, and then take the shuttle bus to the house. Groups of 25 at a time are guided through the half-hour house tour, so if the wait is long, the staff will issue you a line pass which allows you to wander the grounds on your own or take one of the other guided tours while you wait for your turn. This is great, since you don't have to waste time standing in line, staring at your shoes.
Thomas Jefferson inherited this land from his father (who was a surveyor for the English Crown and got paid in land) when he was fourteen. He named his plantation Monticello, which means "little mountain" in Italian, and designed the house himself. He began building it when he was 26 and worked on it the rest of his life (with help from many other skilled workers, both slaves and free persons). Monticello is the only house in the United States on the list of United Nations' UNESCO World Heritage Sites and it is featured on the reverse of the U.S. five-cent coin. Based on Roman neoclassical architecture Jefferson observed during his visits to Italy and other European countries, the house has 43 rooms, a front porch with stone pillars, and a domed apex. The guided tour2 takes guests through all of the first floor, including the entrance hall, Jefferson's private suite, an octagonal guest bedroom, the parlor, dining room, and tea room. The upper two floors, containing lots of bedrooms and the dome room, are off-limits to visitors because the stairways do not meet current fire regulations. Jefferson thought grand staircases were a waste of space, so he built two tiny spiral stairways that are extremely steep and narrow. It would not have been very easy to climb or descend those steps under the best conditions, much less in a full-length dress or at night!
There is much to see on the ground floor, however. The floors, some of the art, and some of the furniture is original. Jefferson wanted to bring culture to the wilderness, so when he returned from Europe he brought with him 86 crates of clocks, paintings, pieces of furniture, books, and other items. Busts and portraits of his friends and people he admired decorate his private rooms. His wife, children, and grandchildren all lived in the house with him, and traces of their lives are to be found there too. Some unique features of the house include the self-closing parlor doors that Jefferson designed, the revolving wall shelves that allowed food to be served in the dining room without the disturbance of a lot of people going in and out, and the famous clock in the Entrance Hall. It required winding only once a week and its cannonball weights marked the days as they dropped down the side wall (although the wall wasn't quite tall enough so there's a hole in the floor and Saturday is in the basement). This clock used to regulate time all over the plantation by ringing a gong on the hours which could be heard up to six miles away.
Two L-shaped wings in the hillsides on either side of the house contain spaces for many of the household operations. Guests are allowed to roam through most of them on their own. The roofs of these wings formed terraces like long wooden porches extending from the main floor of the house. Beneath are the stables, kitchens, icehouse, smokehouse, some servants' rooms and two privies. The wings are connected to each other by an all-weather passageway under the house. This area also housed the food pantries and the wine cellars.
Behind the house are most of Jefferson's extensive gardens. You can either take a guided tour which lasts about an hour, or walk through them on your own. The Jefferson Foundation has restored the gardens as closely as possible to their original state, following detailed notes left by Jefferson. Over 160 species of trees grow at Monticello, including fruit and nut trees. Much of the vegetable gardens on a terrace below the house (behind Mulberry Row) have also been restored. Jefferson grew more than 250 varieties of vegetables and herbs there. Elsewhere around the house, Jefferson laid out fabulous flower gardens where he kept examples of strange new plants brought back by the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as more familiar varieties.
Mulberry Row is where the cluster of slave quarters and artisan workshops stood. It is named for the trees that grow along both sides of the road. None of the buildings have survived, but several foundations are marked out and the chimney of the joiner's shop still stands. There is a 45 minute guided tour of this area, which emphasizes the lives of Jefferson's slaves (he owned about 100 at any given time) and in particular the stories of the Hemings family. If you don't want the guided tour, you can read most of the information on posted signs or in the free brochure. At the top of Mulberry Row is the Museum Gift Shop and the vending machines (in and around a stone building that used to be the weavers' workshop). At the other end is the path down the hill to the family graveyard. The graveyard was planned by Thomas Jefferson as a family plot, and many of his descendents are buried there. Jefferson's own grave, and several others, are covered by a tall obelisk near the tall black iron fence that surrounds the graveyard.
From the mountaintop, you can see far into the distance in all directions. The land is very hilly and covered with trees, and there are surprisingly few buildings to be seen.
Imagine that Thomas Jefferson owned almost all of that land at one time, and organized it into four quarter farms, worked largely by slaves. From the north side, the dome at the University of Virginia is visible, marking the location of Charlottesville amongst the trees.
After Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, his family sold most of the contents of the house and then the plantation itself in order to resolve his debts. The house and 522 acres was first bought by apothecary James T. Barclay in 1831, but he soon sold it again to Uriah P. Levy in 1834. The Levys owned the property until 1923, when the Thomas Jefferson Foundation was formed to take it over. Monticello is open to visitors 8 am to 5 pm during the summer season and 9 am to 4:30 pm in winter, every day except December 25. Regular adult admission is 11 USD, children 6 to 11 are admitted for 6 USD.3,4 To see the site requires quite a bit of walking (although there is wheelchair access to the house) and most of the outdoor paths are unpaved. Really athletic visitors can skip the shuttle bus and hike up and/or down the mountain. Since the house is on top, the grounds are exposed to weather and it may be very hot or very windy, so plan accordingly.
1. This is the only place you can buy a "Presidents' Pass" for 22 USD which admits you to Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland (James Monroe's home across the valley from Monticello), and Historic Michie Tavern (a museum, restaurant, and historic c.1784 stagecoach stop). You can take up to one year to visit all three, and it saves you 5 USD.
2. A virtual tour of the first floor is available at the official Monticello website: http://www.monticello.org
3. Children under 6 get in for free. Families with children under 12 years can ask about a family tour which is specially designed for young kids.
4. I visited Monticello August 3, 2002 and these ticket prices were current at that time.
Other information in this writeup came from Monticello tour guides and several handouts obtained at the site.