The first thought that enters your mind as you make your way up the front walk to Monticello is that it's much smaller than you expected.
That's not to say that it's small. In fact, the living quarters are 11,000 square feet.
But when you've grown up looking at photos and paintings and even the tiny image on the back of the nickel, you might be expecting something like the White House. And Monticello isn't that.
But the house and plantation, the legendary home of Thomas Jefferson, is big enough to hold an awful lot of history. In a state that bills itself as the Birthplace of Presidents, no historic home is more fascinating to visit than Monticello.
Jefferson, a self-taught architect, designed it himself, of course. He didn't like most of the designs he saw in the fledgling United States, so he built his home incorporating design elements he saw on his trips to Europe. He was constantly changing his mind, adding and subtracting rooms - "putting up and pulling down," as he liked to say.
An hour-long tour of the ground floor provides an amazing education in history, philosophy, art and design. The decorations include engravings of Shakespearean plays (intended to inspire his daughters to read), as well as busts and portraits of men Jefferson admired - everyone from various Founding Fathers to people such as Napoleon, Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke.
Everything about the design and décor provides insight into Jefferson himself, beginning with his decision to build his home in the scenic mountains, rather than a more traditional riverfront location. He chose not to construct a grand central staircase, preferring to save space by utilizing two smaller flights of stairs that remain practically hidden within the walls.
It's hard to stand in the parlor - where Jefferson used to play chess with James Madison, looking out on the beautiful west lawn - and not be awed by the history of the location.
Once you're done touring Monticello, including the gardens and Jefferson's gravesite, make a quick side trip up Route 53, less than 21/2 miles, to Ash Lawn-Highland, home of James Monroe. Looking to create what he called "a society to our taste," Jefferson picked the spot for Monroe's home and helped plan the landscaping.
Ash Lawn-Highland, owned and operated by the College of William and Mary (Monroe's alma mater), is a nice complement to Monticello - smaller, homier, but also steeped in American history.
It is often noted that in writing the epitaph for his own gravestone, Jefferson listed his three proudest accomplishments: authoring the Declaration of Independence, authoring the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and founding the University of Virginia.
He made no mention of his presidency.
If your primary image of Jefferson is as our third president, then a visit to Monticello will give you a fuller portrait of the man - his family, his many interests and passions, and the breadth of his life.
From the Peninsula
Take Interstate 64 to Charlottesville (using Interstate 295 to bypass Richmond), and get off at Exit 121. From the exit ramp, turn left onto Route 20, and at the second light, turn left onto Route 53. You'll go about 2 miles before you pass under the stone arch. The entrance to Monticello is on your right. It's a little over 150 miles each way. It's all interstate highway, so if the traffic is light you can make it there in 21/2 hours.
Tips for your visit
-- If you're into horticulture, plan your visit between April and October. That's when the flowers on Monticello's west lawn are in full bloom. Go online to monticello.org/gardens /inbloom to see a calendar for the various gardens.
-- A new visitors' center is under construction at Monticello. It's scheduled to open in late 2008, and the full dedication ceremony is planned for April 13, 2009 -- the 266th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth.
-- After your guided tour of Monticello's first floor, take the time on your own to go downstairs and look around. You'll find the cook's quarters, the kitchen, the wine cellar and exhibits on Jefferson's life.
-- To complete your daylong Thomas Jefferson experience, make a side trip to the University of Virginia and take a walking tour of the historic campus. Free tours start daily at 10 and 11 a.m., and at 2, 3 and 4 p.m., beginning at the Rotunda (designed by Jefferson himself as the intellectual heart of his beloved university). The Lawn is one of the most picturesque spots on any college campus.
-- If you share Jefferson's love of wine, stop by Jefferson Vineyards on Route 53, right between Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland. Tours and tasting fees are just $1, and the winery's deck looks out on the Blue Ridge Mountains.
If your school-age kids have an interest in history, they will love visiting Monticello and learning about one of our country's most legendary figures. If the historic aspects don't appeal to them, they might still enjoy walking around the hilly estate. There's even a walking trail near the ticket office. As long as they behave and don't run amok, the outdoor parts of the Monticello experience will be fun for younger children.
Details of the trip
Info: Call 434-984-9822 or go on-line to monticello.org. Advance tickets and reservations are available online.
Admission: A basic tour of Monticello is $15 adults, $7 children. More extensive tours are available for $27-$40. Just up the road, you can tour Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of James Monroe, for $9 adults, $5 children. A $27 "Presidents' Pass" gets you admission to both homes, plus the museum at nearby Michie Tavern.
Eats: Local residents swear by the fried chicken at Michie Tavern, which you'll pass along the way to Monticello. Closer to Thomas Jefferson's beloved University of Virginia campus (take Route 20 north and turn left on Main Street), you can grab a sandwich at the historic Virginia restaurant.
If you want to spend the night: The Inn at Monticello, nearby but not affiliated, is a lovely bed-and-breakfast that was recently recommended by Life Magazine. A room at the Inn (877-735-2982 or innat monticello.com) goes for $195 a night. The Foxfield Inn (866-369-3536 or foxfield-inn.com) comes highly recommended and has rooms starting at $135.
Other nearby sites
Looking for other day trips to learn about the lives of U.S. presidents? Try some of these.
Montpelier. James Madison's home is close enough to Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland that it's possible to squeeze all three into one day trip. But there's enough to see at Montpelier to fill a full trip by itself. Call 540-672-2728 or go online to montpelier.org.
Mount Vernon. George Washington's plantation home on the Potomac River features tours of the mansion and several other buildings on site, plus four separate gardens. It's a great place to learn about Washington and Colonial America. Call 703-7780-2000 or go online to mountvernon.org.
James River Plantations. William Henry Harrison died shortly after his inauguration in 1841, and his vice president John Tyler ascended to the White House. Their historic homes -- Berkeley Plantation and Sherwood Forest -- are barely 10 miles apart in Charles City. There's information on both at jamesriverplantations.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times