Educational Adventures, Featured, Museums, Road Trips, Tours

Historic Homes: How to Visit Monticello

I love history.  I love art.  I love architecture.  And I’m a big fan of gardens.  In short, I am the target audience for attractions like Monticello, Thomas Jeffereson’s grand estate on a mountain top in central Virginia.  I finally made it down for a visit over Thanksgiving weekend, and learned a great many things about the third President of the United States.  But those lessons are for a future post.  This post is all about how to visit Monticello–and a little bit about how not to visit, too.

Arrive early in the day.  This will always be rule one when visiting any sort of popular tourist attraction–even a historical home.  Monticello is a very popular destination; thus, it will be crowded.  People often oversleep–or spend more time at breakfast than they planned, so it will be less crowded early in the day.  We were among the first to arrive at Monticello, and even then the parking lot was beginning to get full; by the time we left, it was downright packed.

Watch the film at the welcome center. Before I get into why you should watch this film, let me explain how you should watch this film.

1.  There is no lobby to the theater room; if the door is CLOSED, do not open it.  Opening it will embarrass you–as you back apologetically out of the theater–and it will annoy everyone inside, as you allow bright sunlight to stream into the darkened theater.

2.  When the door opens–and ONLY when the door opens–go inside and take a seat.  Try to get a seat near the front, where people constantly opening the door won’t bother you.

3.  Shut up.  Seriously.  Just shut up and watch the film.  I can not for the life of me understand why a grown person would choose to stand in the back of the theater and talk the entire time.  It’s rude.  Don’t do it.

All of that being said, it’s an amazing film (when not being interrupted by inconsiderate people).  Extremely inspirational, it is a must-do before making the trek up the hill to the house itself.  Most people come to Monticello not because they know a lot about Jefferson, but because they want to learn a lot about him; this film is a great introduction to his life as well as to the historic home.

Take the shuttle up; walk back down.  Having spent the previous day hiking in Shenandoah, we decided to spare our legs and take the shuttle up to the house itself.  They tell you it is a ten minute drive, but they are lying.  It’s three minutes, max.  And it is up a rather steep hill, so even if you are super-motivated and in perfect health (as I am), there’s no shame in taking the shuttle.  However, if you are motivated and in perfect health, do walk back down.  It’s a mostly-downhill trek, and it passes by the Jefferson cemetery about halfway down.

Leave small children at home.  Ok–don’t get me wrong, I think that traveling with your child is very, very important.  Clearly, given my blog perspective–that travel teaches you many things–I’m all about educational travel for people of all ages.  But that educational travel needs to be age-appropriate.  Thus, I bring to you my children-at-Monticello-rant…

If your child is under the age of eight, please leave him or her at home with a loving family member, babysitter, or super-intelligent St. Bernard (oh wait–that’s only in Peter Pan; scratch that last one.)  Your toddler will get absolutely nothing out of a visit to Monticello.  I promise.  I saw people with infants at Monticello.  Screaming infants.  I saw a little girl walking in with a doll bigger than she was.  If your child is more interested in her doll than in the life and work of President Jefferson, by all means, wait until she’s old enough to put the doll down, pay attention for more than three minutes, and appreciate the historic site for what it is–a historic site.  Not a playground, not a daycare.  There was a family on our tour with three children under the age of five; one was in a stroller.  Monticello was not built for strollers.  Not even kind of.  And it definitely was not built for three-year-old, 21st century twins who, as far as I could tell, had skipped their nap that day in lieu of consuming mass quantities of sugar and caffeine (while the parents appeared to be highly sedated).

If you must visit with your toddler, please do consider the Toddler Time visits, which are age appropriate and, I assume, filled with other parents of toddler-aged children who will not glare at you for the duration of the tour.

Please note:  the above rant is not Monticello-specific.  This applies to all historic sites, battlefields, art museums (though natural history museums are often great for kids), national monuments, tropical beach resorts, and anywhere else that being quiet is required.  I’m sure you’ll hear from me again on the subject in the future.   

Travel light.  The only thing I brought with me on the tour was my dSLR camera, which I wore slung across my back (as you can’t take photos in the house anyway; I brought it with me for the grounds tour).  On multiple occasions, it bumped into something–a door frame, a chair–and caused our tour guide quite a bit of stress.  And this was only a camera the size of a soft ball; the people with large shoulder bags, backpacks, and–ahem–strollers–caused even more of a problem.  So leave your large bags in the car.  Monticello is a lovely house comprised of many rather smallish rooms.  At least they feel small when there are thirty people packed into them and no one can touch anything.  Which brings me to my next point…

Visit in-season and avoid holiday weekends.  You may be beginning to think that my Monticello experience was not the most positive experience.  And you’d be correct in thinking this.  I imagine this was my own fault, however, as I visited on a holiday weekend.  I sincerely imagined that on the day after Thanksgiving–the biggest shopping day of the year–everyone would be hitting the malls and outlets and Monticello would be a ghost town.  I was very, very wrong.

Additionally, as it was late November, the grounds tours were not running.  I would truly like to return some day in-season to take one of these tours–which is included in the price of your admission.  I’d also like to visit during the week on a non-holiday to see if the crowds (and the screaming children) would be more manageable.

Explore the grounds.  That being said, even though it was late November, the grounds really were quite beautiful.  If you are a person who budgets time, plan to spend at least two hours at Monticello; this will give you a good half hour to wander the gardens and enjoy the spectacular views.

Hit the winery.  After a morning spent learning, take a break in the afternoon for a sip or six of wine at Jefferson Vineyards.  While it is not associated with Monticello in any way, it is right down the street; just hang a left out of the parking lot, drive about a mile, and turn right at the cool little church surrounded by grape vines. If your Monticello experience was anything like mine–loud and crowded–you’ll want a drink by noon.  Trust me.

Honestly, I did enjoy my visit to Monticello.  And I’d go back again.  But perhaps I’d pay extra for the behind-the-scenes tour, or split the cost of a private tour with three other super-nerdy (and semi-wealthy) people.  I did learn a lot just on the regular house tour–lessons I’ll be sharing in a future post, in fact.

Have you visited Monticello?  If so, please share your experience in the comments below.  

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