Travel Tips: Taking Kids to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Traveling to historical sites can be a lot of fun, but having younger children can add a layer of uncertainty. Will they like it? Will they get it? What do you do when they’re tired, or hungry, or if something goes wrong? Places like children’s museums offer a certain peace of mind about these questions. Going to centuries-old homes of former presidents may not feel that way.

The good news is, Monticello has a lot for young kids to do.

What is Monticello?

In case you weren’t sure, here are the basics.

Monticello is the former home of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, became the third president of the United States, orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase, and founded the University of Virginia. Monticello sits atop a small mountain in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the northwest part of the state. The home is relatively easy to reach, as it is just a few minutes off of Interstate 64.

The present-day Monticello complex is composed of two major parts: the lower area and the upper area .

The lower area. When you first arrive, you’ll find parking in a wooded area. (Don’t worry if it initially looks like there isn’t enough parking — as you drive around you should be able to find more on terraced areas down below.) A short walk from the parking area takes you to a collection of connected buildings, all of them modern. They include a visitor’s center, gift shop, museum, theater, cafe, and a discovery room for young children. All of these areas are accessible to the public free of charge.

The upper area. Set up on the mountaintop, this area requires a ticket, and it is accessed via shuttle from the shuttle departure location in the lower area. The upper area is where you will find Monticello itself — Jefferson’s home — along with a number of other original and reconstructed buildings from the era. All tickets purchased for Monticello are good for the full day, so you can travel up and down on the shuttle as much as you please. Keep in mind that you will have to pass through some security to board the shuttle, including searches of handbags or backpacks. Keep in mind that bags must be smaller than 11” X 15” X 6”.

Monticello
The main house in the upper area. (Click to enlarge.)

What Are My Ticket Options?

First of all, I recommend buying tickets online if possible. They are often less expensive than at the ticket office, and it ensures you can lock in the day and time you want. Plus, you won’t have to stand in line.

Beyond that, you may wonder which tickets you can get. Monticello currently offers a number of different ticket options. The major ones include:

  • A Monticello Day Pass. This is the “standard” ticket. Tours run all day long.
  • A Family-Friendly Tour. This is almost identical to the Monticello Day Pass, except it features a more kid-focused house tour. Tours run all day long.
  • A Behind the Scenes Day Pass. This adds on to the standard ticket by allowing visitors to see the upper levels of the Monticello house. It is a lot more expensive, especially for kids, so we didn’t do it.
  • A Hemings Family Tour. This tour runs just once a day. It by and large offers the same tours as the standard and family-friendly tours, but it differs in that it looks at the house tour through the lens of Sally Hemings and other slaves. Because of the subject matter covered (including issues of sexual assault), Monticello does not recommend this tour for children under 12.

While the Monticello website doesn’t make it entirely clear, all of the above ticket options offer the same base experience: a house tour, a garden and grounds tour, a slavery at Monticello tour, and access to almost all of the rest of the upper area. (The only difference is the Behind the Scenes Pass, which also lets visitors go upstairs in Monticello.) The standard Day Pass, Family Friendly Tour, and Hemings Family tour all cost about the same.

I recommend that families with young children take the Family-Friendly tour. The Family Friendly offers a full house tour like the standard Day Pass and Hemings tours do (plus access to the rest of the grounds), but it does it with an interpreter who tailors the experience to children. This is not to say that adults don’t get something out of the Family-Friendly tour: they do, and adults can ask their questions without trouble. But grade school-aged kids will like the Family-Friendly tour better, and you will enjoy it more as a result. Unfortunately, it does not appear that you can pair the Family-Friendly tour with the Behind the Scenes tour.

The time you reserve on your ticket is for the house tour, which is the only really fixed part of the schedule. Everything else is flexible, with most of the garden and grounds tours and the slavery tours starting on the hour almost every hour for most of the day. You will want to make sure you’re at the shuttle station in the lower area about 30 minutes before the printed time on your ticket — this will give you time to get through security, onto the shuttle, up the hill (it takes just a few minutes), and into the holding area for the house tour.

Where Can I Eat?

When it comes to kids, food is always an issue. Here are your options in the immediate area.

  • The Farm Table cafe at Monticello. Located in the lower area. It’s a quick-order place, with many of the ingredients grown on the grounds or obtained from local producers. It can get pretty busy around the lunch hour, although there is seating both inside and nearby outside. It’s rather pricey for what you get, although the food is decent and we found the service to be great.
  • Michie Tavern. Located less than five minutes from Monticello, just down the road. (Keep in mind that there is no parking fee at Monticello, so you can come and go all day.) Michie Tavern is an 18th century lunch-only eatery that serves family-style food in a buffet setting. You can find various discounts on their website, but be aware that the buffet is pretty expensive, especially for adults.
  • Picnicking. There is a picnic area southwest of the lower area, so you can bring food in a cooler and eat it if you want. While the food options nearby are good, they do cost money, making this a good budget option. The area is pretty wooded, so you should be able to find some shade.

Because Monticello is a bit of distance from Charlottesville, other restaurants will be 10-15 minutes away or more.

Other Tips for Families

Based on our experience, here are some suggestions.

  • Monticello’s website states that guests should expect to spend 3 1/2 hours there. With our grade school children, we spent closer to 6 hours there, including a break for lunch. Not everyone will take that long, but if you expect to, you may want to schedule yourself earlier in the morning rather than later in the day.
  • Monticello reserves the right to ask parents of really squirrely children to take turns on the house tour if the kids get too active. There were no problems in the group I was in, but be aware that it is a policy. The family-friendly tour is probably the best thing you can do to lower the chances of that happening.
  • The gardens and grounds tours and the slavery at Monticello tours run on the hour over several hours during the day. You can drop in whatever time(s) you like. Unlike the house tour, you could also take these tours more than once in a day if you really felt like it. When we were there, the last garden tour started at 3 p.m., so don’t leave that until the very end of the day if it’s something you really want to do.
  • There is a nifty little 15-minute video that you can watch of Jefferson’s life in the lower area. It runs every 20 minutes or so. If you plan on watching it before your house tour, you’ll want to get to the theater at least an hour before the time posted on your ticket, so you have time to get to the shuttle afterward. Otherwise, you can watch the video later, which is what we did. (It works either way.)
  • There are gift shops both in the lower area and the upper area. The lower area shop is by far the larger one, but the upper area one sometimes has things the lower one does not, like ice cream. Everything is, as you would expect, a bit pricey, but if you’re looking to try something different or get a souvenir, that’s where you can go.
  • Don’t forget about the museum and the discovery room in the lower area. The museum has some really cool exhibits, while the discovery room has some fun hands-on things for the kids.

Recommended Reading

  • Monticello’s Do’s and Don’ts. Worth a look before you go, you can find them here.
  • Exploring Monticello. You can download the PDF here. Monticello also hands out physical copies of the booklet at its ticket office.
  • Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything. An excellent children’s book that not only talks about Jefferson’s achievements but grapples with Jefferson’s shortcomings, too, including his ownership of slaves. A copy of the book was available to read in one of the nooks in the upper area when we visited, but you can also find it at many local libraries or on Amazon.

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