Playing “I Spy” at Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, VA

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On a recent visit to Charlottesville, Virginia (check out our posts featuring James Monroe’s Highland and one of my most favorite resorts, the Omni Homestead), we spent a wonderful afternoon at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (see ALL the ways to explore Monticello here). 

America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson inherited over 3,000 acres of land from his father and built his estate and working plantation, Monticello (pronounced “ch’ello” and Italian for “Little Mountain”), over the course of 40 years in the late 18th century. Jefferson lived at Monticello until his death in 1826. Over the past 100 years, since the Thomas Jefferson Foundation bought the estate in 1923, the main house has been restored and expanded to include museum exhibits, outdoor gardens and vineyards, a restaurant, gift shop, and a robust calendar of family friendly events and programs. Read about the numerous areas of the campus to explore here; but this week, we’re focusing on the Highlights tour of the main house. 

Travel Tips:

  • Monticello is open all year, with varying seasonal hours. The Visitor Center typically opens 30 minutes before the first tour begins and closes 30 minutes after the last tour ends. Check here for up to date information on hours and admission fees. Purchasing tour tickets online will save time on busy days. Information on special rates and discounts here
  • There are a wide variety of tours offered each day; we recommend the 45 minute Highlights Tour, which includes the first floor of the main house and the chance to attend additional tours (the Garden and Grounds Tour, which features the restored flower and vegetable gardens and orchards, and the Slavery at Monticello Tour, which focused on the lives of enslaved people who lives and worked on the plantation) for free. 
  • Check for special events and family friendly programs here.
  • Guests must park at the base of the property near the Visitor Center. Guests must walk or talk the shuttle to the main house and Graveyard. Parking is free and there is space for buses and RVs. 
  • Guests must go through a security check and metal detectors before entering the Welcome Pavilion. Restrooms are located in the Visitor Center, the Discovery Room Building, the Farm Shop, and the Textile Workshop building. 
  • Monticello is handicap accessible; complimentary strollers are available during house tours. 
  • Dining options on the property include the Farm Table Cafe, which has a wide variety of sandwiches, salads, soups, snacks, and drinks. A smaller Farm Shop cafe with snacks, ice cream, and drinks is located on the lower level of the main house. Both spots have outdoor shaded seating, and the Farm Table Cafe also has indoor dining.  Another great, nearby spot is Michie Tavern.
  • The Shop at Monticello, located in the Visitor Center complex, has a wide variety of curated gifts, apparel, housewares, gifts for children, and a large book collection. A smaller gift shop is located in the cafe in the lower level of the main house.
  • Make sure kids complete the Family Scavenger Hunt, or any of the themed hunts by scanning the QR code. They might also enjoy downloading the Exploring Monticello guide and reading ahead of a visit. Check here for other kid friendly activities.
  • Plan on 3-4 hours for a Highlights tour and time to explore the other buildings and exhibits at the main house and at the Visitor Center. Make sure to arrive at least 30 minutes ahead of scheduled tour time to get situated and take the shuttle to the main house. 

While taking the guided Highlights tour, have kids look for the following items:

  1. The unique weekly wall calendar that Jefferson had created (and notice what day of the week is missing from the front foyer and is located in the basement) in the foyer?
  2. The only pair of elk antlers that survived from the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the foyer.
  3. Modern recreations of gifts from over 40 different plains tribes given to Jefferson. The recreations were made from modern descendants of the tribal members. The originals were ruined by time. 
  4. Some of the original books from Jefferson’s collection of over 9,000 books in Monticello, one of the largest private libraries in America in daughter’s sitting room.
  5. The polygraph used to make a copy of every letter Jefferson wrote (he kept a copy of every piece of correspondence) in the office.
  6. The hidden closet (hint: look up!) in his bed chamber. Note the length of his bed despite Jefferson’s height (people often slept sitting propped up during time, as they thought it would prevent respiratory illnesses). 
  7. Portraits of scientists Francis Bacon, Issac Newton, and John Locke in the Parlor
  8. The self activating doors in the Parlor. Both doors can be closed with one pull, utilizing the original chain in the floor.
  9. The vacuum pump used to conduct scientific experiments that was often a conversation starter with guests in the Parlor
  10. The dumb waiters that servants used to serve Jefferson and his family more efficiently in the Dining Room. The family typically ate breakfast at 8am and dinner at 4pm in the bright yellow Dining Room. Bright colored paint was considered a sign of wealth. 

Looking for other presidential homes to explore? Check out our post featuring Washington’s Mount Vernon, and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. And if you’re in Charlottesville, check out our visit to James Monroe’s Highland. And follow along on our adventures on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Disclosure: Our family was given a media pass to explore Monticello. All opinions expressed are my own. 

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  1. Recently, we enjoyed Monticello with a guided tour, and by exploring many of the outside sites. One stop not to be missed is the conversation with Thomas Jefferson held out in the yard several times today. He doesn’t give a speech as much as asks for questions from those sitting on the benches in front of him, and answering with historical fact and reasons for actions taken or not taken. The visit was a real pleasure.

  2. Love this blog post! We were there several years ago with our family and I wish I had the benefit of knowing all your tips. It would have made the trip so much better. The photos are amazing too! Great job as always!

  3. It’s great that museums like these are open to the general public and provide an historical account of previous times that help children to learn their country’s history.

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