Steeped in history and blessed with natural beauty, Virginia oozes tradition and charm. Located in a remarkably compact area are dozens of carefully preserved sites that tell the stories behind America’s birth and fight for independence as well as its bloody Civil War. From the Revolutionary War to the War Between the States, Virginia has seen more battles on its soil than any other state. With majestic estates of America’s first presidents with the hallowed grounds of its national cemetery to the most significant fields of battle, Virginia is a fascinating place to explore for anyone with an appreciation of history.
10. University of Virginia
Many other universities can claim a long and prestigious history, but what school other than the University of Virginia can boast it was designed by Thomas Jefferson? The third U.S. president, who lived just outside Charlottesville on his Monticello estate, spent the last years of his life designing the university as a model academic institution. Today, the thriving, picturesque campus that opened in 1825 remains a remarkable architectural showcase, dotted with large trees and stately historic brick buildings. Jefferson’s crowning achievement is the domed Rotunda library. Designed to resemble Rome’s Pantheon, the Rotunda serves as the center of a majestic pavilion lined with student dorms that are still in use. A vibrant college town, Charlottesville bustles with energy. Its pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown has dozens of shops and restaurants complemented by street musicians. The mall’s Paramount Theater opened in 1931, hosts concerts, plays, and other special events.
9. Appomattox Court House
The horrific violence of the Civil War came to a most civil end on April 9, 1865, when Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant sat down in the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House and worked out the details of the Army of Northern Virginia’s peaceful surrender. Today, the quaint, quiet village is a National Historic Park with over a dozen buildings including the restored courthouse and McLean House, a theater showing a film on the monumental significance of the surrender, and a museum filled with documents and military artifacts related to the milestone event. A gentle, four-mile walking trail allows visitors to relive the history up close at several landmarks such as the site where the Confederate flag of truce was received by Union General George Custer and the road where the defeated Southern army laid down their arms.
8. James Madison’s Montpelier
A leisurely drive northeast of Charlottesville past well-manicured horse farms is one of Virginia’s most impressive historic estates—James Madison’s Montpelier. The fourth U.S. president and father of the U.S. constitution lived at Montpelier throughout his momentous life. He is buried there along with his equally famous wife, Dolley Madison. Archaeological digs continue today at the sprawling, 2,650-acre complex that includes a two-acre, formal botanical garden and over 200 acres of old-growth forest behind the home that was built in 1723. A hike in the quiet forest, designated a National Natural Landmark in 1987, is worth the visit alone, with interpretative signage marking trails where workers took grain through the woods to be ground at nearby mills. The visitors center presents a film and exhibits life at Montpelier. The mansion includes Madison’s presidential library along with other authentic books, furnishings, and art from Madison’s years living there.
7. Museum and White House of the Confederacy in Richmond
As the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, Richmond is chock full of history. The city’s Museum of the Confederacy has the largest collection of Confederate artifacts found anywhere, including personal items from Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and other legendary leaders. Founded in 1890, the museum also includes impressive art depicting the South’s war experience. Next door, the White House of the Confederacy was the residence of Davis and his family during the war. The circa 1818 mansion has been restored to its stately antebellum condition. Also nearby is the Virginia State Capitol that served as the site of both the Virginia and Confederate legislatures. Capitol Square surrounding the state capitol complex includes the governor’s historic Executive Mansion. The Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center provides a fascinating overview of the bitter fighting that took place in and around the capital city.
6. Old Town Alexandria
Much of the Washington, D.C. suburb of Alexandria doesn’t feel historic with high-rise apartments adjacent to commuter train stations and trendy shops. Old Town Alexandria is a delightful exception that extends westward from the Potomac River for several blocks. Once part of the original Washington, D.C., Alexandria was a busy seaport during the Colonial period and became a hospital center for the Union army during the Civil War. Gadsby’s Tavern in the heart of Old Town is one of America’s most famous watering holes. Now a museum, the circa 1785 tavern and adjoining City Hotel (ca. 1795) was visited by the nation’s first six presidents including hosting Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural party. The free King Street Trolley runs through the heart of Old Town, the home of Christ Church where George and Martha Washington worshiped, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, now a museum where the Washington’s shopped.
5. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park
Located between the capitals of Richmond and Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg and nearby towns endured some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park captures the intense battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania that saw 100,000 casualties. The four battlefields are within a short drive from each other and collectively comprise the world’s second-largest military park. Each battlefield has self-guided driving tours and walking trails, but a stop at the visitor centers of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville is a smart way to begin your tour. They present a short overview film along with maps and exhibits, plus rangers can help determine the best options with the time you’ve allotted. A comprehensive exploration could easily take two days, but a half-day can be rewarding. Special events and guided tours are offered in the warmer months to the numerous historic buildings and landmarks of this hallowed ground.
4. Arlington National Cemetery
Perhaps no single site is more steeped in American history than Arlington National Cemetery. Perched on a picturesque hill overlooking the Potomac River and the nation’s capital, the former estate of Robert E. Lee became a national cemetery at the height of the Civil War in 1864. Originally owned by the grandson of Martha Washington, Arlington is the final resting place for a Who’s Who of American dignitaries including generals, admirals, chief justices, secretaries of state, Presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy, as well as Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline and brothers Ted and Robert. The hallowed ground is highlighted by the Tomb of the Unknowns that is guarded by soldiers 24 hours a day and the eternal flame at President Kennedy’s grave. Another not-to-be-missed site is the Arlington House where Lee resigned his U.S. Army commission to lead the Army of Northern Virginia as the Civil War began in 1861.
Thomas Jefferson made Monticello his permanent residence just outside Charlottesville in northwestern Virginia beginning in 1770, and today the domed estate offers a revealing glimpse into the genius of Jefferson. Mementos of the Lewis & Clark expedition and Jefferson’s world travels grace the estate, as do many of the third U.S. president’s mind-boggling inventions. A stroll along the grounds of the heavily wooded estate takes visitors to the family cemetery where Jefferson was buried upon his death in 1826, as well as to the lovely orchard, garden, and vineyard areas. In fact, Jefferson was a noted wine lover who unsuccessfully attempted to recreate the delicious wines he savored during his trips to France. Today, Jefferson Vineyards has been much more successful in producing vintage-quality wines on the same soil as its namesake. It’s among dozens of wineries around Charlottesville offering tastings of wines made from Virginia grapes.
2. George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Virginia lays claim to many famous people but none more so than George Washington. America’s first president moved into George Washington’s Mt. Vernon in 1752. He expanded and transformed the circa 1735 home his father built into a 21-room mansion with a sweeping, two-story porch facing the Potomac River that he designed. The mansion and grounds have been meticulously restored to their 18th-century condition. Over a dozen outbuildings are open for visitors on the sprawling estate including a working blacksmith shop, distillery, and gristmill. Serpentine paths wind through impressive groves of trees, beautiful walled gardens, and to the family cemetery where George, Martha, and other members of the Washington family are buried. Visitors can even opt to arrive at the site of Washington’s original wharf on the Potomac. Operators run a regular schedule of shuttle boats from nearby Alexandria and Washington, D.C.
1. Jamestown, Williamsburg & Yorktown
Driving along the 23-mile Colonial Parkway in southeastern Virginia that connects Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown is akin to stepping into a time machine that takes you back to the beginnings of a nation. Start at Historic Jamestown where English settlers arrived in 1607, some 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and then onto Jamestown Settlement to see replicas of the ships that brought the settlers. There’s also a reconstruction of their original fort and a recreated Powhatan Indian village where Pocahontas lived. Nearby Colonial Williamsburg is a truly immersive experience of colonial life complete with costumed characters, horse-drawn carriages, and seemingly countless historic buildings on the 301-acre complex including the Governor’s Palace and taverns frequented by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Yorktown is where America finally won its independence from Britain when the surrender of General Cornwallis signified the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1781.