Photos by Erica Ruth
Located in the heart of central Virginia, Charlottesville just might be one of the world’s best cities. Rich with historical sites like Monticello, local restaurants serving up ingredients from nearby farms, a thriving music scene, and even a UNESCO World Heritage site, I promise that you won’t be bored for a minute in the city that has become my college home. In this article, I’ll share a few of my favorite sights and bites in Charlottesville, but keep in mind that I’ve had to limit myself to a selection rather than a complete list—because let’s be real, I’d put almost everything down if I could.
First things first: Although Charlottesville is full of interesting nooks and crannies, I’ll be focusing on two main areas. Downtown Charlottesville was the first to be built and is the home to our parks and government buildings. Nestled among the low brick buildings that are characteristic of Virginia railroad towns is the Downtown Mall, one of the longest pedestrian malls in the U.S. You’ll find lots of boutiques and restaurants, as well as troubadours, on any given day, and during the summer you’ll want to stop by the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market.
The University of Virginia was built about a mile away from the downtown area, but as the city grew, the two were connected by one continuous Main Street lined with shops, restaurants, and businesses. Regardless of what you think of U. Va. and its notoriously preppy students, you’ll want to stop by the Lawn and the Rotunda—it’s one half of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (the other half being Monticello), after all. Afterwards, wander the Corner, a strand of restaurants and shops frequented by students.
This section was by far the most difficult to write. It’s easy to eat fresh and local when the restaurateurs in your area share those values, so if you’re into knowing where your food came from, Charlottesville dining will put your mind at ease. To make things easier, I decided to split things up by meal and location and add an order suggestion for most.
Breakfast/Brunch: The Pigeon Hole
Cozy and quirky, The Pigeon Hole is a brunch place with a decidedly indie flair. I’ve tried most things on the menu and you really can’t go wrong; Erica and I ordered Red Eye Biscuits and Gravy with grits and the Pigeons in a Hole (fried eggs nestled in toast) with hash browns, as well as Pecan Sticky Buns when we visited.
Coffee: Para Coffee
Listed as one of the nation’s best college coffee shops, you can sometimes catch live music here if you’re lucky. Go for one of Para’s unusual offerings (which include goat’s milk and yerba mate) or stick with a classic latte and admire the foam art that Para’s baristas are so skilled at producing.
Lunch: Bodo’s Bagels
Bodo’s is a Charlottesville staple. The menu is really endless and the New York style bagels are boiled in-house, so you’ll need a few trips before being able to settle into a sandwich routine. My favorites over the years have been a wheat bagel with honey pecan cream cheese; a turkey sandwich on an everything bagel with herb cream cheese, sliced tomato, and lettuce; and a good old egg and cheddar on a salt bagel. Don’t miss out on the tangerine seltzer, which happens to be the hangover cure I swear by. Getting the first Bodo’s order ticket of the day is on the list of things to do before graduating from U. Va.
Dinner: The Virginian
Since its doors opened in 1923, The Virg has been a Corner staple. You’ll want to try their never-too-greasy, always delicious fried chicken with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy. And you can’t come to Charlottesville without sampling their macaroni and cheese, which comes baked in a little pot and is topped with a potato cake. The curly noodles are surprisingly spicy thanks to pepper jack cheese. You can also find the Charlottesville area’s many local brews on tap (Starr Hill, Three Notch’d, Bold Rock, Devil’s Backbone) or go for a classic Old Fashioned and enjoy bourbon in the setting for which it was created.
Dessert: Arch’s Frozen Yogurt
You might be tempted to pass up on the opportunity for some frozen yogurt—after all, who hasn’t been to Sweet Frog 500 times at this point?—but don’t be too hasty to dismiss a fro yo place. You absolutely have to try the gooey brownie topping. It’s a half-baked eggless brownie that is mind-blowingly good.
Downtown Mall and Belmont:
Spudnuts is one of the only locations in the country that still makes doughnuts out of a potato-based flour. The business is family-run and the donuts are different each day thanks to the old building, which isn’t controlled for heat or humidity. If you get there early enough, you might be able to have your pick of flavors, but it’s not uncommon for them to sell out thanks to their popularity!
Coffee: Mud House
Mud House is a favorite workspace for professional and students alike. If you’re serious about your coffee, Mud House is for you—they offer a variety of brewing methods and can provide plenty of details about where they obtain their beans.
Lunch: The Flat
The Flat is a tiny kitchen stuck on the back of a building on the Downtown Mall, and they serve up the best crepes in Charlottesville. Whether you like ham and cheese, veggies, or something sweet, The Flat won’t let you down. As delicious as their crepes are, I think their rosemary lemonade is what actually steals the show.
I went to Bizou on a somewhat bizarre outing with a few professors from U. Va.’s Politics Department (all the more puzzling because I’m an English major), but the food is probably the best I’ve had in Charlottesville. They specialize in French-American fusion dishes—for example, I chose a chicken pie that ended up having the lightest, creamiest sauce I’ve ever tasted. (It beat out the chicken pie I had at Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah. Sorry, Paula.)
Chaps is a good old-fashioned ice cream shop, plain and simple. Pick up a cone and stroll around the Downtown Mall in the evening. In the summer, there are always plenty of musicians and jugglers to admire, or you could mosey down to the Free Speech chalk wall and leave a message for all to read.
The Jefferson Theater is hands-down my favorite concert venue. I’ve seen everyone from Stars to Jeff Mangum to The Zombies there, and the acoustics never fail to deliver. The space has also felt consistently intimate to me—I’ve always been able to lean on the stage during a show if I chose to. The Jefferson is also affiliated with nTelos Pavilion, the huge outdoor venue where I saw President Obama and the Avett Brothers, as well as The Southern, a tiny basement venue where I saw Benjamin Francis Leftwich and Wild Nothing. From the bands I’ve listed, you’ve gathered that Charlottesville attracts many indie bands (and hey, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement even attended U. Va.). However, Charlottesville also has an active jazz scene. Check out Miller’s or Escafé if you’re trying to track down the Charlottesville Jazz Society.
I mentioned history earlier in this article, and I can’t emphasize enough how packed with history Charlottesville really is. I went on a ghost tour one Halloween and learned that the dormitory rooms that line the Lawn were used as a hospital for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War—and that practically every room witnessed a painful death. You can also find Edgar Allen Poe’s dormitory room near the Lawn. Just this past week, a section of the Berlin Wall was unveiled near our libraries. Plus, you really can’t miss the beautiful architecture and view from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
If you’re into vintage clothing, check out Vintage Vixen and Ike’s Underground. Both are located on the Downtown Mall and offer a wide variety of intriguing vintage finds. Vintage Vixen offers women’s clothing (and, occasionally, Living Social discount deals and Great Gatsby themed parties), while Ike’s Underground is an assemblage of clothing and objects from various time periods and locations. You really never know what you might uncover.
Charlottesville is also home to my two favorite used bookstores. The first is Heartwood Books; located on the Corner, you can almost always find Heartwood’s owner there, and he has the almost magical ability to locate any book within seconds—no small feat considering that they offer thousands of used volumes. Daedalus Books is located on the Downtown Mall, and the best way to describe it is “overwhelming.” There are so many books that they have stopped keeping track of inventory, so you’re forced to browse around and probably end up with more volumes than any sane person should buy. Every wall and surface is literally lined with books—as much as I’d like to post a photo, no still image really does it justice.
If you’re a record collector, stop by Melody Supreme. It’s a mysterious little shop tucked away in the alley where Fourth Street intersects with the Downtown Mall, and you never know what signed copies the owner has recently acquired.
Other Things You Should Know:
As a bonus, there are some gems located in and around the small towns surrounding Charlottesville. We’re close to the Appalachian Trail and a variety of swimming holes. There’s a fabulous sandwich shop known as Bellair that’s hidden in an Exxon station. Central Virginia is packed with wineries boasting stunning mountain views. The local beers are heavenly. There’s even a speakeasy. The longer you stick around, the more you’ll find to love.
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