Visiting Monticello is not just a visit to the former home of Thomas Jefferson. It is a visit to the former home of hundreds of enslaved people, who built and operated the mountaintop estate.
The United States was founded upon contradictions that have ramifications to this day. Independence and slavery. Liberty and bondage. These contradictions are clearly on display at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Through the Getting Word project, the staff at Monticello have collected hundreds of oral histories passed down through the generations of what life was like for enslaved people at Monticello. Because of this project, guests at Monticello have an opportunity to understand a more complete picture of the people – both free and enslaved – who lived at Monticello.
Visiting Monticello can be an emotional experience as you take in all that occurred there. But understanding the past is an essential step to help us form a better tomorrow.
The tips below will help you to prepare for your visit to Monticello.
Purchase your ticket in advance
I waited until the day before visiting Monticello to purchase my ticket. While there were still times available to visit, those times were later in the afternoon.
Don’t be like me. Purchase your ticket in advance to get the best times.
I recommend getting the first timed ticket of the day so that you can take your time exploring the estate and learning about the lives of the individuals who lived there.
Pack a clear bag
Monticello is one of many locations that requires visitors to carry their belongings in a clear bag.
A clear bag means that security doesn’t need to dig through your belongings to make sure you don’t have any prohibited items. Not having someone dig through my stuff seems like a win-win for both me and security.
I made the mistake of not realizing this was the policy before visiting Monticello.
Make sure you pack your belongings in a clear bag before going to Monticello.
Wear sturdy shoes
You’re going to be doing a lot of walking at Monticello.
All of the paths are covered with small, gravel rocks. If you’re walking uphill or downhill, it’s very easy to slip on the rocks. Since Monticello is located on a mountain, there are lots of uphill and downhill slipping opportunities.
I wore sandals and regretted it. Wear sturdy shoes that have a solid grip on the bottom.
Plan on a four-hour visit
The tour of the actual house is very short. Self-guided tours take about twenty minutes and guided tours (which need to be booked well in advance) take about forty minutes.
However, Monticello is a sprawling estate with much to see and learn about beyond the house tour. A museum, exhibits, short videos, and interpretive speakers all add to the Monticello experience.
I was at Monticello for about four hours from the start to the end of my visit. While you can likely complete your visit in a much shorter time, I recommend allowing for four hours to make sure you don’t feel rushed.
Arrive before your tour time to explore the visitor center
When you first arrive at Monticello, you’ll enter the visitor center.
The visitor center has a cafe with locally grown food, a museum, and a movie theater.
While you can explore the visitor center after your tour of Monticello, I recommend exploring the visitor center before your tour time.
If you’re like me, you’ll find the visit to Monticello itself to be emotionally and physically draining. It’s very possible you won’t have the energy to explore the visitor center after seeing Monticello, so I recommend exploring the visitor center first.
Watch the movie in the Thomas Jefferson theater
At the visitor center, there is a small theater that features a short (less than five minute) movie about Thomas Jefferson.
I highly recommend that you watch this short movie. It very eloquently describes the contradictions of independence and slavery that are intertwined into the life of Thomas Jefferson.
This movie helps to set the tone and understanding for your tour of Monticello.
Ask where the Sally Hemings movie is being shown – and watch it
Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman with whom Thomas Jefferson fathered six children, four of whom survived into adulthood.
Her story is one of resilience within an impossible situation. As an enslaved woman, she had no legal rights to deny any request from the man who owned her. Yet, she was able to negotiate with Thomas Jefferson for the freedom of her children.
The staff at Monticello have created a short movie that discusses Sally Heming’s life.
When I visited, the movie had been temporarily moved to the visitor center. It’s typically shown in the room where Sally Hemings is thought to have lived.
When you arrive, make sure you ask where the Sally Hemings movie is being shown so that you can watch it.
Ride the shuttle up to the house and walk the trail back down
From the visitor’s center, you have the option of riding a shuttle or walking up to the house.
I strongly encourage you to take the shuttle on the way up to the house. Monticello is located on the top of a mountain and the trail is uphill the whole way from the visitor center to Monticello.
However, I do recommend taking the trail back to the visitor center after you’ve completed your tour.
After you’ve explored the entire area around the house, take the path that leads to Thomas Jefferson’s grave. There you can see where Thomas Jefferson and some of his family members are buried.
The trail to the visitor center is directly behind the cemetery. From the house to the visitor center, the trail is downhill the entire way.
Attend an interactive lecture
When I visited Monticello, they offered several different lectures with highly informed staff members. These staff members were able to answer detailed questions about Monticello and the people who lived there.
Whatever interactive lectures are available when you visit, I recommend that you attend them.
When I visited, they offered lectures about slavery, the gardens at Monticello, and an interpreter who portrayed Thomas Jefferson. All three lectures were fascinating and helped me to gain a better understanding of the place and its people.
Take time to reflect
I found visiting Monticello to be an emotional experience.
Monticello was home to the man who penned the phrase “all men are created equal”. Monticello was also home to hundreds of enslaved people owned by that very same man.
As the guides at Monticello explain, both of these are American stories. Stories that we must acknowledge, explore, and learn from.