There’s no doubt what the finest creation of Thomas Jefferson was. It’s the thing with the words.
You know… these words: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
That’s right – the United States Declaration of Independence, probably the most famous piece of American writing.
When it comes to deciding on his second finest creation, you would be misguided to look beyond Monticello, the house he built on a hill in Virginia.
These two creations of Thomas Jefferson are held up of great examples of the man’s genius and of American history. Rightfully so. But there is a darker side to both of them.
Either together or in isolation, they both demonstrate the hypocrisy and highlight the most controversial aspect of the man who is often lauded as one of the greatest Americans to ever live.
Why is Monticello famous?
Monticello is famous for several reasons, but they are all related to the man who designed and lived in the house – Thomas Jefferson.
Monticello is important firstly because the house is a symbol of the man who was a key player in the founding of the United States. But it’s also significant because of the interesting architectural styles that Jefferson used.
In recent times, Monticello has also become notorious because Jefferson kept hundreds of slaves here, which has led to questions about his legacy.
Who currently owns Monticello?
Monticello is owned by an organisations called the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
It is a private but non-profit corporation that receives no government funding and uses revenue from activities like tours and venue hire to maintain the Monticello estate.
Can you visit Monticello?
Yes, Monticello is open to the public and there are several ways you can visit Monticello. There are tickets that let you just onto the grounds, tickets that let you explore the building yourself, or there are also guided tours of the main buildings.
Monticello as a building is a masterpiece. The blend of architectural styles is fascinating and it’s one of the main reasons it has been listed as a World Heritage Site.
Beyond that, the importance to American history of Thomas Jefferson adds another layer to the site, and exploring that (along with his collection of possessions) is an important part of a visit to Monticello.
But history is rarely simple. And Thomas Jefferson has become a more controversial character as time has gone on.
When you visit Monticello, it’s hard not to ignore that – and it’s something that many of the exhibits here are now focusing on.
Controversy around Thomas Jefferson
Let’s just go back to the declaration and the words “all men are created equal”.
Then let’s pop into his home at Monticello and have a look at the hundreds of people who he kept there as slaves, imprisoned against their will and forced to work for him.
The two don’t seem to fit together comfortably.
At Monticello, Jefferson built two ‘pavilions’ to accommodate the slaves and their work. They stretched out from either side of the main house and were hidden underneath terraces.
Down here, the workers cooked, cleaned, stored food, kept horses and tended to domestic chores. While, upstairs, he drank wine and entertained his guests.
Of course, slavery was widely accepted in this part of the American story, and it could be argued that Jefferson was merely trapped in the standards of contemporary society. But he tangled his own web.
It’s now accepted knowledge that one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, became his lover after his wife’s death and he was the father to most, if not all, of her children.
Inside Monticello, more hypocrisy was born.
In more recent years, Jefferson has been criticised by historians for not doing more as president to end slavery. And on a personal level he has been criticised for freeing less than ten of his hundreds of slaves (and it’s believed that four of the slaves he freed were actually his children).
His writings show that he believed Africans were inferior to whites, and this influenced his views on the issue of slavery.
He was clearly a man who was prepared to be revolutionary – the Declaration of Independence proves that.
And he was clearly a man of intellectual enlightenment – this is demonstrated through the University of Virginia which, after his presidency, he designed and founded. (It is included with Monticello in the World Heritage listing.)
But there are valid questions to ask when you come here.
History of Monticello
Thomas Jefferson inherited the land at Monticello from his father at the age of 14.
In 1768, he started to build the first version of the house and, while construction was slowly taking place, he lived in the buildings that are now known as the South Pavilion.
Some of his early designs were based on the neoclassical principles of Italian architect Andrea Palladio (best seen in the Italian city of Vicenza), but this version is not the Monticello that we know today.
After Jefferson came back from his time as Minister to France, he redesigned much of Monticello in the 1790s, adding the third level and installing new features, including a large library.
Influenced initially by an Italian, then by the French, and then by all the other styles that he learned about, Monticello continually evolved as Jefferson tinkered with the design and its functions.
What didn’t really change, though, was his approach to the slaves who lived here – or anywhere in the US, for that matter.
For a man of worldly experience, ideals of liberty, a love of free thought, personal relationships with slaves and (to use his own choice of word) happiness, it’s a pity he didn’t do more to bring America’s shameful policies to an end.
After Jefferson died in 1826, his daughter inherited Monticello but she sold it five years later to a US Navy commodore who admired the former president and restored the house, living in it for thirty years.
It is now owned by a non-profit foundation with the mission to maintain the estate and keep it open to the public.
Things to see at Monticello
When you visit Monticello today, you will be able to get a sense of how the estate looked when Thomas Jefferson lived here. But, you’ll also have to accept that it’s a popular tourist destination and it’s likely to be crowded.
Exploring the estate means more than just seeing the main house, though. There are lots of things to do at Monticello to both see the site and learn about some of the many issues that relate to it.
Your visit to Monticello will likely start at the visitor centre at the bottom of the hill next to the parking.
Officially called the David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center and Smith Education Center, this is more than just the spot to buy tickets and get a cup of coffee.
There are several small exhibitions here, including one that focuses on a rare engraving of the Declaration of Independence.
There’s also a collection of items about life at the Monticello house and plantation, and a seven-minute film about the life of Thomas Jefferson.
Up the hill, the main house of Monticello is the highlight of a visit and is full of history – and architecture quirks, like an eight-sided guest room, and a bedroom where the bed was in an alcove (to save space).
Most visitors will be able to see the first floor, which has ten rooms, include the dining room, the bedroom, the library, and a tea room. Each is full of fascinating artefacts and artworks.
The second floor has only four rooms, which are generally less decorated than the level below. This is where guests stayed, meaning Jefferson spent little time in the rooms, so he didn’t put his important items here, where he wouldn’t see them.
On the third floor, the main attraction is the Dome Room, reached up two flights of steep and narrow stairs. Although it is not decorated, the architecture is one of the most important elements of Monticello.
Coming off the main building is the South Wing, a series of rooms that create a covered passageway to the South Pavilion.
The South Wing was generally used by Monticello’s slaves – as their living quarters, but also as the house’s main kitchen and dairy. Separate from the main house, it had a much less luxurious feel.
These days, the South Wing has a series of exhibits, including an interesting contrast between one about Jefferson’s mistress, the slave Sally Hemings, and his wife, Martha.
There’s also a recreation of the the kitchen as it would’ve looked after 1809, the cook’s room where the chef (a slave) would’ve lived, the dairy, and an exhibition about the descendants of those enslaved here.
Although the North Wing is the same size, it was used for fewer purposes during the time Monticello was occupied. It had bays for horses and carriages, a tack room, and an icehouse.
Now, there are a few exhibits here, including one about Jefferson’s travels, that has a few interesting displays including a reproduction of his 1802 horse-drawn phaeton.
This is also where there was a toilet, even though there was no plumbing back then. It was unusual to have a privy inside the house, but Monticello had three.
I think one of the most interesting things to see at Monticello, aside from the main house, is the small street called Mulberry Row.
Running along the western edge of the house, this 300-metre-long path is where the slave quarters were, with a series of cabins occupied by those who worked in the house or in manufacturing (but not in the fields).
Although not all the cabins are there now, you’ll find some fascinating exhibits on Mulberry Row, including a stone structure used as a stable and a textile workshop.
It’s not just the buildings that are worth seeing when you visit Monticello. Across the estate, there are also extensive gardens and a farm.
Thomas Jefferson had a keen interest in trees, so he grew a wide variety of species here, with the focal point being Monticello Grove – an ornamental forest.
There’s also a flower garden that was used as a botanic laboratory of plants from around the world. And, for more practical reasons, there are vegetable and fruit gardens used to feed all the people who lived here.
I would recommend taking a walk through the gardens – and when you do, follow the trail that will take you to Jefferson’s Grave (the bus shuttle also stops here).
The design of the gravesite is no accident – Jefferson left detailed instructions on what he wanted here.
That’s why you’ll see an obelisk with an engraving of the things he wanted to be most remembered for – the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and the Father of the University of Virginia.
No mention of Monticello or his slaves, it seems.
With all this in mind, I would give yourself at least three hours to visit Monticello. It may take you even longer if you want to explore more of the gardens and read all the information at the exhibitions.
Although there is a pass that just gives you access to the grounds, I would strongly recommend against getting that. Instead, buy one of the tickets that will let you go inside the house.
In the morning, that will mean going in with a guided tour. In the afternoons, there’s the option to see the main house on a self-guided visit.
As well as the main visit options, which I’ll outline below, there is a family-friendly tour ($42 for the standard ticket, $13 for teenagers from 12-18, free under 12) and a 2.5-hour ‘From slavery to freedom tour’ that runs once a day (fixed ticket price of $42).
With all of the tickets and passes, you can join some of the tours run on the grounds, like the ‘Slavery at Monticello tour’ (three times a day) and the ‘Gardens and Grounds tour’ (three times a day).
A few other things to note about visiting Monticello:
- The visit starts at David M. Rubenstein Visitor Center which is filled with exhibits on Jefferson and Monticello, along with food and shopping.
- There’s a security screening in the visitor centre + shuttle service to get to the mountaintop so make sure to be there 30 minutes before your tour starts
- Instead of the shuttle service, you can do the short hiking trail
- You can meet Thomas Jefferson (portrayed by Bill Barker) most Tuesdays to Saturdays
- Enjoy a collection of wine at Jefferson Vineyards after a long exploration.
- Some tours are accessible, others are not
Do note that some tours and passes are seasonal so there might be more added or some removed.
And, it can get busy (particularly in peak holiday times) so I recommend booking in advance to make sure you can get the ticket you want.
Where is Monticello?
Monticello is located just south of Charlottesville’s city centre, in the middle of Virginia.
The official address of the house is 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States.
You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Monticello?
The easiest way to get to Monticello is by car. Parking is free and there are RV and electric charging places available.
From the parking and visitors centre, a shuttle bus will take you to the house on the mountaintop or you can choose to hike the relatively easy 0.5 mile trail.
There is no direct public transport to Monticello. But you can take bus route 1 (hourly; not on Sundays) from the centre of Charlottesville to the PVCC Stultz Centre. From there, hike the Saunders-Monticello trail for 3.6 kilometres to the house. (The trail is accessible with wheelchairs and strollers; no dogs allowed.)
When is Monticello open?
Monticello’s hours of operation change seasonally:
The earliest it opens is 8:30 and generally, it’s open every day.
To make sure, visit their hours of operation on their website.
NOTE: The last tour starts 50 minutes before closing time.
What is the Monticello entrance fee?
There are a few different options for tickets to Monticello, depending on what exactly you want to see.
The Gardens and Grounds Pass: Allows you to see the outdoor areas but not inside the house. It costs $22 for a standard pass and $8 for teenagers from 12-18. Children under 12 are free.
The Self-Guided Pass: This is the cheapest way to access the house, and allows you to see the first floor (as well as everything included in the Gardens and Grounds Pass). It’s $32 for a standard ticket, $10 for children aged 12-18 and it’s free under 12. This tour is only available in the afternoon.
The Highlights Tour: This is the best option in the morning and early afternoon, and includes a guided tour of the first floor, the West Lawn, and the South Wing. It’s $42 for the standard ticket, $13 for teenagers from 12-18, free under 12.
The Behind-the-Scenes Day Pass: This is the most comprehensive ticket and includes a 90-minute guided tour, plus is the only one that allows a visit to the iconic dome room. It has a fixed price of $95 and is only available in the mornings and early afternoons.
Are there tours of Monticello?
Aside from the official tours, you can also take this private day trip from Washington DC to Monticello, which could be a convenient option if you don’t want to drive the two hours each way to the estate.
For more information, see the official website of Monticello.
Once you’re done visiting the Monticello Estate, you can take a trip to Charlottesville and explore the city.
Or take a walk heading to Montalto and enjoy the views or have a cafe break at Monticello Farm Table Cafe just beside the Monticello Estate