Our next Presidential home to visit is Montpelier, the home of America’s 4th President, James Madison. Madison was a Founding Father from Virginia and is best known as the author of the U.S. Constitution and architect of the Bill of Rights. He is also best known as Dolley Madison’s husband, America’s first “First Lady.” There is no better place to learn about him and Dolley than at their home in central Virginia, Montpelier.
Montpelier is in the beautiful and picturesque little town of Orange, VA, and is an easy day trip from Richmond, Charlottesville, or Washington, DC. The home itself has been historically renovated to look as it was when James and Dolley lived there. There are many things to do at the site, from a home tour to walking trails, so be sure to leave enough time for exploration!
Your visit will start at the visitor center, where you can purchase tickets for several different tours. To guarantee your tour time and to save a few dollars, purchase your tickets ahead of time here.
For visits with children, I recommend the signature house tour, which is a 1-hour guided tour, recommended for ages 8 and up. During the summer months, the kid-friendly “Discovering Montpelier: A Family Friendly Tour” is available daily and is highly recommended for all ages. Check the calendar of events for other family-friendly tours, such as Juneteenth, Constitution Day, and the holiday open house.
Arrive at least 30 minutes before your house tour to visit the interactive gallery, which currently contains a fun exhibit on excavations at Montpelier.
You also want to leave plenty of time to view the two movies available to visitors, both kid-friendly. The 13-minute movie provides great background information on James Madison’s life and legacy. Your kids will love the trivia between the two films! The 8-minute film on Madison’s 3 big ideas is done in a comic book style that is appealing to all ages. I love when history is described in a fun way that kids can enjoy!
After watching the movies, head out of the theater and walk up the trail to meet your guide on the porch of the home. Be sure to capture a family picture in front of the home as you wait.
Once your guide joins you, you and your family will learn all about the home, from its beginnings as a small colonial home to the expansions over the years. You will get to walk through the original door and into the home.
You will see over 11 rooms on the guided tour, including the drawing room that houses beautiful paintings and inventions such as a static electricity machine.
You will also see the downstairs bedroom where James Madison passed away in 1836. Our guide told a very moving story about James Madison’s death and how his enslaved valet, Paul Jennings, described his death years later.
Our guide also told wonderful stories about the dinner parties held around this very dining room table. With Dolley’s charm and James’ intellect, they were definitely a power couple!
Your tour will then head upstairs to see the other bedrooms, including the master bedroom that was used by James and Dolley until he was too infirm to go up the stairs.
The most important room upstairs, which our guide described as the “most historic room in America,” is the library, where Madison read about thousands of years of government to prepare for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In this room, at this desk, he created the framework of the government that we still have today – over 200 years later!!
It is truly a wonder to be standing in the very spot and looking out the same window that he did all those years ago. You can see how the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains may have inspired him as he looked west to America’s future.
Your guided tour ends here but there are 4 additional upstairs rooms to view before leaving. You don’t want to miss the Interactive Room, which allows kids to play with toys, sit at a desk, and lay down on a bed – all from the 18th century! After so many rooms where they cannot touch or sit down, this is a fun room that enables kids to act out history!
The room explaining the inner workings of the house is also quite interesting. See if your kids can find the candle snuffer that was found between the walls – how do they think it got there?
As you leave the home, you have the option of seeing one of the newest exhibits at Montpelier, The Mere Distinction of Colour. This is an emotional and moving exhibit about the legacy of slavery, both in America and here at Montpelier. The exhibit does not shy away from hard content and confronts this terrible institution and its effect on Madison’s legacy and America’s founding. This exhibit is spread throughout the cellar of both house wings, with the north wing looking at how slavery has impacted America and the south wing looking at how it is part of Montpelier’s past. Both movies in the north and south wing exhibits do contain some mature content so please be aware before viewing with your children.
As you leave the cellar, you should tour the adjacent south yard, where extensive archaeological research has been conducted.
Several cabins have been reconstructed here, including smokehouses and slave cabins.
Another cabin has been constructed to house a child-friendly exhibit, opening in 2020.
Your kids will love running from cabin to cabin, all while learning the hard history of plantation life in the 18th century. Don’t miss the evocative cabin nearest to the visitor center.
After touring the south yard, you can walk back to the visitor center or choose to take advantage of Montpelier’s beautiful DuPont formal garden or the 8 miles of walking trails through one of the best preserved old growth forests in Virginia. Pick up a walking trails brochure at the visitor center or see this link to plan your hike. Of particular interest is the 3.55 mile Montpelier loop, which can be accessed at the visitor center parking lot and will take you to the Madison gravesite within minutes. You don’t have to do all 3.55 miles!
Once you are back at the Visitor Center, you don’t want to miss the expansive gift shop, which contains many books, toys, and treats for kids. There is also an excellent onsite cafe and a picnic area to enjoy. Before you leave, make sure to get a picture with Mr. and Mrs. Madison!
Other sites at Montpelier that you might be interested in seeing include:
- Archaeology Lab: look for family-friendly dig days and visit the labs to see how real digs take place!
- DuPont gallery: see how Montpelier was renovated throughout the years as it served as a private home for the DuPont family
- Gilmore cabin: just outside the gates, visit a restored freedman’s home
- 1910 train depot: just east of the entrance, a restored train depot contains an exhibit on segregation
Seeing Madison’s Montpelier, looking out over the mountain landscape, and learning more about his life and his impact on our nation is one of the best ways to step into history. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights – these ideas came from this one man, and you and your children should make this history part of your story by visiting Montpelier!
- Cost: $22/adults; $9/child 6-14; under 6 free (save by purchasing online); check for specials during the summer months (in 2019, kids were free all summer)
- Recommended for:
- Signature Tour: ages 8 and up
- Family-friendly Tour: all ages
- Grounds: all ages
- Total tour time: 2-3 hours
- House tour: 1 hour
- Visitor Center: 45 minutes
- Grounds: 30-45 minutes (excludes hikes)
- Gift shop and cafe located in Visitor Center
- Transportation: Montpelier is accessible by car only
- Dining options nearby: The onsite cafe, Exchange Cafe, is managed by the award-winning BBQ restaurant in Gordonsville, the BBQ Exchange. If you love BBQ, don’t miss a chance to eat here! In the town of Orange, I recommend Wise Guys Burgers and More on E. Main Street. Another option is Forked on Main.
- Nearby hotels include: The Inn at Willow Grove is a nearby luxurious option. It is truly one of my favorite hotels ever! For more budget-conscious travels, Charlottesville is a nearby city with lots of chain hotels.
- Other attractions nearby include: The Historic Town of Orange, The Exchange Hotel Civil War Medical Museum, Wilderness Battlefield and Historic Ellwood, the historic town of Gordonsville, and Liberty Mills Farm
- Other Madison sites include: Belle Grove (Madison’s birthplace), James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage (Orange, VA), Octagon Museum (Washington, DC), Greensboro History Museum (near Dolley’s birthplace), and the Todd house (Philadelphia, PA)
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
- Dolley Madison Saves George Washington
- Washington Is Burning
- A Picture Book of Dolley and James Madison (not on Amazon but may be at your local library)
- Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution
- A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution
- What Is the Constitution?
- If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution