My next addition to our list of Presidential and First lady sites is Monticello, home to our third President, Thomas Jefferson. This beautiful historic home and estate sits dramatically on a hilltop near Charlottesville, VA and is the only Presidential site to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Monticello is still preserved as it was when Jefferson lived there. The tour encompasses the house, the dependencies, and the vast gardens. It is definitely a must-see when in Virginia!
Your visit will begin at the large Visitor Center/Education Center complex.
Tours do sell out so be sure to purchase your tickets ahead of time. Stop in to the ticket center to pick up your map and the children’s guide, which has lots of activities and facts for kids.
The house tour is the main tour at Monticello, and your tickets will have a specific house tour time. Note that the house is a 10 minute shuttle bus ride from the Visitor Center and you need to go through security before boarding so plan accordingly. If you have time before your tour, stop in the theater to see a 15-minute movie about Thomas Jefferson’s life, best for ages 10 and up. While nice, this movie is not essential to your visit so feel free to skip it if you are short on time.
I recommend heading straight to the shuttle bus so you can start exploring the house site, leaving the exhibits and activities at the Visitor Center for after the tour. The shuttle bus will drive you up the mountain to the house. There is a path to walk to the house but use this to come down the mountain after your time at the house site is over.
Don’t forget to get your picture made with Mr. Jefferson before you get on the shuttle bus!
The house tour is fascinating and you need to arrive at the tour site (in front of the house, at the shuttle bus drop off) at least 10 minutes before your tour begins. You will learn more about Thomas Jefferson and how he built Monticello from the docents as you wait for your tour to begin. If you arrive early, go ahead and visit some of the gardens and grounds described later.
I have toured Monticello several times, through the regular house tour, the Christmas candlelight tour (where you get to see the upstairs!), and most recently, the kid-friendly tour. If you have little ones between the ages of 5-12, the kid-friendly tour is wonderful, however it is only available during the summer. This tour allowed the kids to sit on the floor and ask lots of questions. The guide had things that they could touch and see, like a stuffed animal of the bird in one of the rooms, and documents to review. The guide also had stories about the kids who lived at Monticello and really made the house come alive to our group!
There is also a Hamilton-focused tour that is next on my list! As fans of the Broadway musical know, Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were political opponents, and our guide told us that Jefferson had put busts of himself and Hamilton across the room from each other so they could be opposed here as well as in life!
All of these tours take you into Monticello and its public rooms on the first floor. It is momentous walking up the stairs into the entry where so many distinguished people from history have walked! Your tour will include: the entry with its museum-like displays of Western artifacts (and don’t miss the clock that goes through the floor!); the parlor which served as a school room for Jefferson’s grandchildren; the library/study, where you will see his polygraph machine that copied letters as Jefferson wrote them; his bedroom where he passed away on July 4, 1826; the living room where he entertained; and the dining room with a wine dumb waiter. There are fascinating inventions and stories in each room. You will come to appreciate just how innovative Jefferson was with gadgets and items to make life easier. The tour itself lasts about 45 minutes and may be a little challenging for younger guests but is definitely doable. Strollers are available free of charge to use while visiting the site.
Your tour will end on the North Pavilion and Terrace. This is also where the kids’ activity center is set up during warm weather. Your children can try their hand at writing with a real quill:
It is not as easy as it looks!
They can also use the secret wheel cipher that he invented to decode a secret message. My son loved this part of the tour!
They can color a picture of Jefferson to take on their travels as well.
There is also a farm shop here selling drinks and snacks if needed.
After the tour is completed and you are done with the kids’ activities, be sure to take some time to explore the grounds. Kids will enjoy seeing the underground dependencies and going through the “secret” cellar passage under the house.
Start with the north cellar, which contains the ice house and carriage house, and then take the cellar passage. You will see the wine and beer cellars and the other end of the clock that went through the floor above so don’t miss it!
As you exit onto the south cellar passage and dependencies, you can tour the many rooms that were used for cooking, including the original kitchen used by Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife who passed away before Monticello was completed, and the post-1809 kitchen.
There is a moving exhibit on Sally Hemings in this area as well. Sally was an enslaved person who mothered several of Jefferson’s children. This is a hard subject to discuss with children but this exhibit does a tremendous job of explaining slavery and Sally’s plight. I recommend this exhibit for children ages 10 and up.
Before you leave this area, be sure to get a family picture on the West Lawn to capture the iconic Monticello facade.
As you leave the home area, head to Mulberry Row where there are multiple gardens and workshops to explore. My son loved standing in the Garden Pavilion, looking out over the gorgeous mountain scenery.
The walk along Mulberry Row is educational as well, with a recreation of a slave cabin and discussions of how enslaved persons worked here at the forefront.
There are two additional guided tours that are free with your entry, the garden and grounds tour and the slavery tour, both of which are 45-minutes. If you have time and older kids, I encourage you to take the slavery tour to learn more about how enslaved persons worked here. Monticello has not hidden this part of its history and does an excellent job with discussing this hard and terrible part of its past.
At the end of Mulberry Row is the pathway to Jefferson’s gravesite.
You can walk this trail or take a quick 5 minute shuttle bus ride to it. This graveyard is quite large and is still used by Jefferson’s descendants today.
The walk from Jefferson’s grave to the Visitor Center is a pleasant 20 minute walk downhill or you can wait on a shuttle bus to take you back.
As you return to the Visitor Center, be sure to finish exploring the activities here if you did not get the chance before your tour. The exhibits in the gallery at the shuttle bus stop on the ground floor includes displays on ideas of liberty and architecture. These are not as interesting for little ones so I recommend heading upstairs to view the exhibits on Jefferson’s inventions and quest for knowledge. There are some interactive exhibits here that kids will love.
A must-see activity for kids of all ages is the Griffin Discovery Room, underneath the cafe.
This room has recreations of many of Monticello’s rooms and furnishings, however these items here can be touched! Kids can sit in his chair, write with the polygraph machine, and build a house out of blocks.
My son spent 30 minutes here and could have stayed for hours! There are books to read and activities galore to do so don’t miss this room!
Also be sure to visit the extensive gift shop at the Visitor Center. There you can find books, toys, and even a quill pen of your own!
Monticello is a wonderful place to visit with your kids. The site has done a fantastic job at keeping kids entertained while learning more about our nation’s third President. I encourage you to plan a visit today!
- Cost: $30/adults; $17/youth; $10/children (online prices differ so see site for more details)
- Recommended: ages 6 and up
- Tour of house takes 45 minutes; allow for 3 hours of time to explore the grounds and Visitor Center complex
- Gift shop located at the Visitor Complex and under North terrace; cafe located at Visitor Center
- Transportation: Monticello is accessible by car only.
- Dining options nearby: There is a cafe onsite. Michie Tavern is very close by and is a great Southern buffet in a historical setting.
- Nearby hotels include many chain hotels in Charlottesville, especially near the Downtown Mall area. A more luxurious child-friendly option is the Boar’s Head Resort.
- Nearby attractions include: Carter Mountain Orchard, James Monroe’s Highland, University of Virginia, Virginia Discovery Museum, and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum
- Other Jefferson sites include Tuckahoe Plantation (Richmond) and Poplar Forest (near Lynchburg, VA)
Books to Read (continually updated):
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
Have you been to Monticello? What was your favorite room? Comment below!