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Day trips in Virginia

Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

Virginia is loaded with history, and there is no shortage of day trips from Washington. Here are two suggestions:

Mt. Vernon

George Washington's home is so vast and fascinating that it's worth spending four to six hours here. The first highlight is the short drive from Washington. You scoot along the scenic Potomac River on Virginia Highway 400 almost the entire way (it's a flat 18-mile bike ride on a bike path if you want some exercise). Little expense was spared when making the site a tourist destination, so you get a thorough chronicling of the first president's life and home. You can see his false teeth, his slaves' graveyard and many original structures. There are even farm animals--just like in his day.

(3200 Mt. Vernon Memorial Highway, Mt. Vernon, Va.)

A long but worthy day

From Washington, head south on Interstate Highway 95 to Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles to the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library (908 Charles St.), which is housed on the land where the fifth president practiced law. You'll get an up-close view of why he was one of the most important people to become president (the Louisiana Purchase, which he negotiated before becoming president, and the Monroe Doctrine, for starters). A block away is a sobering stop: the street corner where the local slave market was held. Though immortalized by a monument, a hair salon sits there now.

Head west 35 miles on Virginia Highways 3 and 20 to Orange and you can visit James Madison's home, Montpelier (11407 Constitution Highway). Set in central Virginia's pastoral hills, it's a stunningly beautiful piece of land. The house, expanded after Madison's death, was (controversially) restored to his day but has yet to be furnished. Still, it's a worthy stop; Madison was a fascinating and underrated president whose story is well told here.

Finally, a pretty drive heads another 40 miles southwest on Virginia 20 to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, in Charlottesville (931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway). Far more popular than Montpelier, this universal tourist attraction is a must for any history buff. The home, which is on the back of the U.S. nickel, is smaller than you might think.

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