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A Behind the Scenes Monticello Tour

Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

Of all the founding fathers, I’ve always been drawn to Thomas Jefferson. He was the author of Declaration of Independence, yet he was the youngest member of Congress. He was a complex man, yet he was consumed by the basic elements of life – growing vegetables, fermenting wine and brewing beer. He was a Francophile, yet he was an American patriot. I have looked forward to a Monticello tour to understand this founding father for a long time.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is arguably the most famous of former President’s homes. While Washington’s Mt. Vernon gets more visitors (its proximity to Washington DC ensures a steady stream of visitors on school trips), Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is the only Presidential home recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, Monticello is just one of nine cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the U.S.

The statue of Thomas Jefferson begins your Monticello tour at the visitor's center.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello without any public funding (Jefferson would be proud of that), provides two different tour options. The House Tour is 30 minutes and covers the eight rooms on the ground floor. The second choice is the Behind the Scenes Tour (90 minutes), which visits the nine rooms on the ground floor, plus the second and third floors. We chose the Behind the Scenes Monticello tour and were delighted by the experience!

“Wine from long habit has become an indispensable for my health…”

As a man, Thomas Jefferson was a renaissance man. He was an educator (founding the University of Virginia). He was a farmer. He was a librarian. He was a vintner. He was an inventor. His home reflects all of these pursuits. It leads to design decisions that could only be called quirky.

On the Behind the Scenes Monticello Tour, you visit the Dome Room (the only point on the Monticello tour where you can take pictures inside the house).

The Dome Room

For example, he invented a clock that hung over his front door that would be wound once a week and would tell the days of the week in addition to the time. He also designed a series of dumbwaiters to bring bottles of wine from his cellar directly up to his dining room. And he built his bed into the alcove between his bedroom and his study – so he was never far from his work.

Jefferson built most of the rooms of his house in an octagonal shape–the lack of sharp corners meant more light could get into the rooms. The Dome Room (the only room in the house where you can take photos) is a perfect example of Jefferson’s neoclassical architecture. But, more controversially for his family, he set all the beds in the house into alcoves to maximize floor space. His family hated the alcove beds.

As a man, Thomas Jefferson is not without controversy today. Many people cannot fathom how the man who wrote “all men are created equal” could also own slaves. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation does not skirt the issue of slavery on the Monticello tour. Slavery is tackled head-on – from Mulberry Row and the slaves quarters, to Jefferson’s alleged relationship with Sally Hemmings – and nothing is whitewashed.

During the Monticello Tour, we viewed the small brewery operating in the basement of the house within the beer cellar.

The beer cellar and brewery

After the Behind the Scenes tour concluded, we wanted to learn more about slavery at Monticello. There is a special Slavery at Monticello Tour that is offered several times a day and we started that tour. Unfortunately, Monticello is currently undergoing something called The Mountaintop Project, which is “a multi-year effort to restore Monticello as Jefferson knew it, and to tell the stories of the people – enslaved and free –who lived and worked at Monticello.” The construction noise from the Mountaintop Project was deafening and it was impossible to hear our soft-spoken docent over the revitalization effort. We, unfortunately, skipped the Slavery at Monticello Tour and headed into the gardens, walking past the extensive archeological excavations taking place of the slave buildings on Mulberry Row.

Archaeological excavations taking place on Mulberry Row.  Monticello tours of the archaeological digs are possible.

Archaeological excavations taking place on Mulberry Row

“Tho an old man, I am but a young gardener.”

Some call Thomas Jefferson “America’s First Foodie.” He was nearly vegetarian and was a proponent of eating a plant-based diet. He was an advocate for sustainable agriculture (when that didn’t mean anything) and he experimented extensively on plants and plant-hybrids. His vegetable garden had over 330 varieties and takes up acres! Laura loves her vegetable garden, but Jefferson’s is on a scale that is unimaginable.

On our Monticello tour, we visited Thomas Jefferson's massive vegetable garden.  Laura would be jealous to have onions like these!

Laura would be jealous to have onions like these!

During the summer, the lawns and paths around Monticello swell with visitors, but it seems few of them walk down the mountain. The brief 15 minute walk takes you past the small cemetery run by the Jefferson family (not owned or maintained by the Foundation). We had the walk down all to ourselves, but it gave us a chance to ponder Thomas Jefferson and his legacy.

Politics in recent years have left many of Jefferson’s ideas out of favor and his personal life is the subject of much criticism. As Americans, we can’t help view the man Thomas Jefferson through our contemporary lens, even if we don’t hold other historical figures to that same standard. Perhaps CNN said it best, “Jefferson tends to be held to a higher standard.”

Taking a Monticello tour, it’s impossible to deny to the beauty of the mountaintop views and the architectural magnificence of the home. Like historian Jon Meacham said, visiting Monticello, “…is as close as you can get to having a conversation with Thomas Jefferson.” I feel like I know Jefferson in a new way.

On our Monticello tour, we paid our respects to one of America's founding fathers.

Visitor Tip #1 – At all costs, get a tour as early in the day as possible (first tour if you can) and then take the first shuttle bus up to the house. If you quickly hustle around the backside, you’ll have the classic Monticello view and gardens all to yourself to take pictures. Later in the day, this will be packed.

Visitor Tip #2 – There’s no water up at the House, so consider bringing a bottle with you in a backpack. You can’t drink it inside, but you’ll be able to hydrate while viewing the gardens. It gets hot in the summer up at the house.

Gardeners at work on Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

We were guests of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. As always, all opinions and are our own.

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What do you think about A Behind the Scenes Monticello Tour?

  1. Renuka July 7, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Seems like a lovely place. Interesting insights on Monticello.

  2. Caroline July 20, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    Thomas Jefferson was far more fascinating than I ever reckoned … thanks for the in-depth look at his home!

  3. Ayngelina July 22, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    I would be most interested in the slavery aspect as well, so great that they also offer it as an option.

  4. Kristin Addis July 22, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Traveling around the US appeals to be more and more now that I’ve spent so long away from home. Posts like this definitely inspire me to do just that! What a cool experience.

  5. Alex July 22, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

    This looks like a beautiful property and sounds like an interesting tour. Maybe I’ll grab my presidential-history loving Dad and take him here someday 🙂

    • Laura Longwell July 29, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

      Oh, you definitely should! There are lots of layers to the property and to Jefferson as a person.

  6. Angie Away July 22, 2014 at 8:51 pm #

    Always wanted to visit Monticello! Thanks for the tips!

  7. Diana Edelman July 22, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    I went to Monticello when I was a kid. Growing up in the DC area, we always did little field trips around the area. It is one of those spots people don’t really know about, so I’m glad you were able to visit and provide tips!!

  8. Giselle and Cody July 23, 2014 at 1:49 pm #

    Gorgeous property. We would definitely be the ones learning about his garden. 330 varieties of veggies?

    Heaven!

    • Laura Longwell July 29, 2014 at 10:41 pm #

      The garden is stunning. Made me want to grow ALL THE THINGS.

  9. Mindy & Ligeia July 24, 2014 at 2:17 am #

    Very informative post. As Ligeia grew up in Baltimore, this was likely a field trip destination for her. However, we may have to plan a visit here as the history and those gardens are big draws for us!
    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Laura Longwell July 29, 2014 at 10:46 pm #

      If you give it a few more months, there will be lots of new things to see given all the excavation underway.

  10. Valen-Eating The Globe July 25, 2014 at 12:26 am #

    This was one of the first places that my parents took me to visit when I was a child. Thanks for bringing back the memories!

  11. Camels & Chocolate July 27, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

    I’m so embarrassed that I was born and raised next door to Virginia in TN and have never been to Monticello! I know, I know! It looks beautiful, though =)

    • Laura Longwell July 29, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

      We live in PA and hadn’t been either. It happens 🙂

  12. Tom Bartel August 2, 2014 at 11:31 am #

    Lance, I had the opportunity to visit Monticello a few years back, and although I thought I knew a lot about Jefferson, seeing his books and gardens, and the stuff brought back by Lewis and Clark made me appreciate him even more.

  13. Brianna August 3, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    I love,love,love Monticello! I’m not a huge tour person but this is hands down one of the well done, educational tours I’ve been on.

    • Laura Longwell August 7, 2014 at 10:56 pm #

      Agreed. Sometimes these types of tours can be a bit dry, but the Monticello tour was really engaging and interesting.

  14. noel August 3, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Lovely tour and story, I’ve always wanted to visit Monticello, one of these days I’ll make it for a real visit

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