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The South's New Belle

The legacy of the founding fathers looms large in this 250-year-old city (Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe were residents). But history isn’t Charlottesville’s only appeal. Ringed by the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and centered on a brick-paved downtown, this small city, which has a metro population of 200,000, frequently ranks in polls as among the country’s best places to live. It’s also a rewarding destination for travelers, with its 18th-century center, leafy University of Virginia campus and sprawling presidential plantations. Plus, just outside town, deep in Piedmont, Virginia’s rich farmland, an array of microbreweries has taken hold.

Old yet innovating, pastoral yet urban: It’s these seemingly conflicting identities that make Charlottesville exceptional. And summertime, when the downtown mall comes alive with music, street food and artisanal crafts, is when this place is at its best.

Charlottesville’s effervescent core is the Downtown Mall, a pedestrian strip of Main Street flush with galleries, bookshops, boutiques, bars and, most conspicuously, restaurants. The weekday lunch crowd fills the tables at Bizou for cornmeal-crusted catfish and beanless burritos with crème fraîche. At Revolutionary Soup, they come for the housemade soups and good vegan and gluten-free options. And the new Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar is a chic bistro (with a buzz-generating rooftop bar) that offers dishes done with verve, like lamb chops with lavender-infused glaze and dense scallop-and-mushroom chowder. One classic spot remains unrivaled: the 36-year-old C&O Restaurant, just off the Mall in a former railroad bunkhouse, serving up gold-standard French cuisine in a pint-size dining room.

More choice bites beckon just a short stroll away. As you head west, there’s Main Street Market, a Virginia-centric food emporium with a gourmet grocery, Panini counter, wine bar, sushi stand, high-end kitchen store and spice shop. There’s even an atrium with tables for dining. Farther down Main, near the barn-red historic train station, is staid L’Etoile, a favorite of ladies who lunch. Foodies who ignore this place don’t know what they’re missing: pitch-perfect Franco-Virginian cuisine, surprise amuse-bouches and refreshingly professional service in this town of student waiters.

Quiet, residential Belmont, across the tracks from downtown, is giving the Mall food scene a run for its money. Here hedge funders and bearded hipsters alike tuck into brisket at Belmont BBQ and queue for tables at Tavola, a warmly lighted bistro serving artisanal bucatini and pappardelle with long-simmered sauces. 

Burn those carbs by cruising the Mall’s emerging shopping scene. You’ll find cocktail dresses and designer jeans at Eloise, sparsely arrayed Nicole Miller wares at Verdigris and pretty unmentionables at upscale Derrière de Soie. (Gentlemen can head to the 80-year-old Young Men’s Shop, an impeccably classic haberdashery.) For a wider selection and bargain prices, catch the free trolley to the UVA Corner district, where Finch (as in the bird, two of which chirp by the cash register) carries Free People, Tulle and Steve Madden and Seychelles shoes and much more, for men and women.

Live music has long been a pastime here; this is where the Dave Matthews Band got its start. Now, thanks to two reopened historic theaters, shows come in all sizes. The Jefferson Theater inaugurated its gussied-up auditorium last year with acts as varied as Snoop Dogg and Robert Earl Keen, while the landmark 1931 Paramount Theater showcases prominent orchestras, classic films and venerable performers, such as Harry Belafonte. Small venues around town bring in local and underground acts. For the dramatically inclined, there’s the Live Arts theater company, which stages ambitious, often successful plays, such as The Producersand Hairspray.

Peter Chang, sometimes called the Disappearing Chef, built his reputation by transforming strip-mall Chinese restaurants across the Southeast into Szechuan hot spots, then abruptly leaving to pop up elsewhere. In-the-know Charlottes villians were thrilled when, in 2009, he arrived to work his magic at the unassuming Taste of China, located in a shopping center north of town. Chang moved on from this venue, but only to do something unprecedented: He stayed put in Charlottesville and launched a second restaurant, Peter Chang’s China Grill. Now loyalties are divided between the two Chang-inspired kitchens. Taste of China actually does some of the chef’s electric originals better, such as the dry-fried eggplant with peppercorns and the poetically presented bamboo fish with green onion, and it is endearingly family run. The service at China Grill is disappointing, but the Peter Rolls are a crisp and smoky rendition of a classic, and the tofu skins in málà (spicy!) chile-and-peppercorn sauce have even carnivores hooked. Your best bet: Go to both and order ample spreads; your taste buds will thrill to the memory for months.

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson, who would later become the third president of the United States and found the University of Virginia, invited James Monroe, who became the fifth U.S. president, to move to Albemarle County and help create “a society to our taste.” Monroe came, and now the friends’ houses, separated by three and a half miles of vineyards and farms on a mountain outside town, reveal their illustrious owners’ particular charms. 

Monticello is clever and ostentatious; its rooms present the dizzying range of Mr. Jefferson’s talents: architecture (he designed the neoclassical house), mechanical tinkering (exemplified by the entrance hall’s Great Clock) and reading (the library holds more than 6,000 volumes). Ash Lawn–Highland, Monroe’s “cabin castle,” on the other hand, is a welcoming and serene working plantation with immaculately restored Federal interiors, artisans making traditional crafts, cows and sheep in rolling pastures and a gift shop of eclectic treasures. (The University of Virginia also merits at least two hours of exploring for its grand Rotunda and secret gardens.)

Virginia wines are well on their way, so the Commonwealth is channeling talent into its other favorite libation—beer. A 60-mile loop of country roads connects the six craft breweries of the Brew Ridge Trail. Start at the Starr Hill Brewery, whose U-shaped tasting bar is set right on the factory floor. Fifteen minutes away, Blue Mountain Brewery has gorgeous Blue Ridge views and a sophisticated setup, including a restaurant that uses local ingredients in both its menu offerings and its seasonal lagers (see page 91). 

Keep driving south on Route 151 through hilly Nelson County to try the wares at Wild Wolf Brewing Company and Devils Backbone Brewing Company. A loop takes you back toward Charlottesville via North Garden to Albemarle CiderWorks, an orchard and heritage-apple-seed conservatory where traditional Colonial-style hard ciders are distilled. 

Back downtown, sample North Carolina pulled pork or Creole stuffed trout—and yes, some excellent brews—at South Street Brewery. It’s a fitting end to your Charlottesville experience—a taste (and sip) of the South in a place where the past meets the present.

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.