I've mentioned on here before that after I graduated from Penn State, I spent 5 years in grad school at the University of Virginia. During that time my wife and I thoroughly fell in love with Charlottesville. Unfortunately, I can't make it back for the game, but I thought I would share some of my favorite things to go in "C'ville" with anyone who is going to be in town. Hopefully you find something that interests you, but if you'd like any more info, feel free to ask in the comments. If you decide to check out any of my suggestions, I'd love to hear what you thought, so drop me an email!
Colin Cowherd once said "UVA is the softest bunch of creampuff, bowtie wearing, brie cheese eating, ascot wearing wussies I've ever seen in my life." Cowherd is a world class douche canoe, and he was characteristically wrong on that one. There are some passionate fans at UVA. But Penn State it is not. Heck, even in Charlottesville you'll probably see as many elite VT fans as UVA fans. And unfortunately there aren't the same type of wide open spaces that make tailgating at Penn State such a one-of-a-kind experience (which I guess is good, because otherwise it wouldn't be one-of-a-kind), although they do have a beautiful stadium. My suggestion: load up on Lager, pack a grill, and try to find a parking lot near campus. Strike up a conversation with the locals. They'll tell you about how great game day is at UVA, and then you can invite them up to State College next year for an eye-opening experience. They can be a great fan base, BSDers, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way.
I've heard it said that Charlottesville is home to more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. I don't think it is quite true, but it must be close. There are way too many great restaurants to list here, so I'll just try to highlight my favorites.
- Dr. Ho's Humble Pie (4916 Plank Road, North Garden, VA 22920 [EDIT: Corrected the address]): Go here. I cannot stress this enough. If you do nothing else of importance in your life, go to this restaurant. In my not so humble opinion, this is the best pizza on Earth. In fact, all the food is incredible, and it is my favorite restaurant of any kind. It is a bit off the beaten path (about 25 minutes south of town) but completely worth it. My favorite pies are the Don Juan and the Humble Pie, but they are all amazing. Do yourself a favor and get an order of fries (also some of the best I've ever had) and plenty of homemade ranch dressing for dipping (also amazing). Wash it all down with a Long Hammer IPA (the only beer they have on tap) and treat yourself to a Humble Crumble for dessert (it is...you guessed it...the best apple crumble I've ever had).
- Continental Divide (811 West Main Street Charlottesville, VA 22903): The only outward identification for this American-Mexican restaurant is a neon sign that says "Get In Here" and a crowd of people waiting to do just that. Located on Main Street, it is loud, crowded, and so, so good. They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait, but enjoy one of their many tequilas or a house margarita (a particular favorite of my wife).
- Aqui es Mexico (221 Carlton Avenue Charlottesville, VA 22902): I love Mexican food. I mean real, authentic Mexican food. I've never lived in the southwest, but people I know who have say that Aqui es Mexico can stand with the best of them. Really good prices on lots of great dishes, but definitely try something with the Mole sauce. To die for.
- Maya (633 West Main Street Charlottesville, VA 22903): This place is a little bit pricier than those above, but it has some really great southern-style food and a cool atmosphere. I recommend the ribs, grits, and kale, and a nice mint julep.
- Blue Moon Diner (512 W Main St Charlottesville, VA 2290): Our search for the best breakfast took us to many places, but I think we eventually settled on this place, located on Main Street (our old favorite, The Tavern, shut down). Not exactly a greasy spoon sort of place, you can actually get some pretty creative stuff. Like most places, there can sometimes be a wait, so go early.
- Coffee: You can get Starbucks but if you want to try something local, check out Shenandoah Joe or Mudhouse (which has locations all over).
Like I said, there are tons and tons of other great choices (just a small sampling in the following links), so if you have a particular request (Chinese, Italian, French, Burgers, Vegetarian, Thai, Tapas, locally sourced, etc.) just ask!
If I had one pet peeve about Charlottesville (I had several, actually, but I'll save that for another time) it was the lack of a good "bar" bar. There are lots of places with great beer, liquor, and wine selections and good atmospheres, but I missed the dark, dingy, (formerly) smoke filled bars of State College, with dart boards and pool tables. Still, I never explored "The Corner" (the area near UVA where mostly undergrads hang out) and there are probably places like the bars of my youth that I don't know about. But the recommendations here have great drink selections or cool atmospheres, and they are lots of fun. One thing to know---VA state law requires all places that serve alcohol to make a certain percentage of their profits from food (or so I was told), hence the lack of straight-up bars. That means most bars are decent restaurants in their own right.
- Beer Run (156 Carlton Road #203 Charlottesville, VA 22902): Just down the road from Aqui es Mexico, this place has by far the best beer selection in town, and doubles as a bottle shop and restaurant (the Sunday brunch is pretty good---get a Bloody Mary). Be warned: parking can be a pain, so try to go a bit early or be prepared to squeeze in on the side of an alley. Try whatever they have on cask---it is always worth it. If all you want is a bottle shop, Wine Warehouse (which also sells beers) is also excellent.
- Blue Mountain Brewery (9519 Critzer Shop Road Afton, VA 22920): This microbrewery is about 45 minutes out of town, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The beer is very good and views from their patio are spectacular. It probably isn't worth it unless you get in to town early or can get over before sunset, but if you are in the mood for mountain views, it can't be beat. Just be warned that it, too, gets crowded quickly (especially on Friday).
- South Street Brewery (106 W South St Charlottesville, VA 22902): This is one of the longer-standing brew pubs in town and a pretty decent restaurant, too. Located just off the downtown mall (more on that below), it has a nice, central location. Satan's Pony is their most popular beer, but I always enjoyed their seasonal beers the most.
- The Whiskey Jar (227 West Main Street Charlottesville, VA 22902): This is a newcomer that I only got to try once when visiting for graduation in May, but I heard good things about it. As the name suggests, they specialize in whiskeys and my mint julep was excellent (as was the scotch I had). They are also located on the downtown mall.
Things to do
Most of you will probably be going for just the game, but if anyone is making a weekend out of it, there are lots of fun things to do around town. Most are outdoors and a bit weather dependent, but in early September it should be beautiful. I'll break this one down by category.
- Go stargazing at the McCormick Observatory: I studied astronomy in grad school and spent many nights at this historic landmark. The nearly 130 year old observatory is open to the public on the first and third Friday of every month, so this week you are in luck (doors open at 9:00 pm). The observatory houses a 26-in refracting telescope that is truly a sight to see, and a smaller 6-in refractor that was actually my favorite because it still has the original brass casing and doesn't run off of any electricity, relying on a weight to track the stars instead. There is also a museum and a public talk by a UVA professor, so even if it is cloudy it is still worth the trip. The observatory is located on Campus (or Grounds, in UVA lingo) on the aptly named Observatory Hill.
- Go for a hike: You have nearly endless choices, with Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway within a 90 minute drive, not to mention lots of trails around the city (check out the Rivanna Trail System). I'll list my two favorites. St. Mary's Wilderness is about 2 hours away (note: you would want the entrance that is NOT on the Blue Ridge Parkway) but the relatively easy 4-5 mile out-and-back takes you to a waterfall and some really cool swimming holes (the best being past the falls). Closer to town you'll find Sugar Hollow, a local favorite, also for great swimming holes. I can give directions to both, as well as any number of other great hikes.
- Pick your own fruit: I probably enjoy this more than is rational, but nothing beats pulling a ripe peach off a tree and eating it right on the spot (I justify this theft by assuming it is built into their prices. By not stealing, I'd be making other people overpay). There are a few spots around town to pick strawberries, cherries, berries, peaches, and apples. But at this time of year, your best bet is to go with apples at Carter Mountain Orchard(575 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA 22902), located near Monticello. The views from Carter Mountain are almost worth it by themselves (Trivia: you can see my old apartment! Really! OK, go back to not caring.). You may also be able to find peaches at Carter Mountain, or at Chiles Peach Orchard, located farther from the crowds (which can get huge at Carter Mountain) about 40 minutes away in Crozet, VA (1351 Greenwood Road Crozet, VA 22932). At either location, you can get apple or peach cider donuts.
- The Downtown Mall: If you want to find a restaurant or bar but don't want to fight crowds near the University (you'll still fight them to a lesser degree...sorry), then check out the downtown mall. Lots of interesting shops, almost all local, and tons of good restaurants with beautiful outdoor seating. There are usually some interesting street performers and other riffraff, but it is all part of the charm. You can park in one of two garages, but you may also be able to find free street parking on the side streets off of Market Street and Jefferson Street. Do yourself a favor and get some ice cream. If you are in the mood for traditional, try Chap's, which is some of the best I've ever had (my wife is impartial to the black raspberry). If you want something more adventurous, go to Splendora's for gelato in strange and wonderful flavors such as goat cheese honey fig and plum caraway (if you are feeling less adventurous, you can get salted caramel or chocolate sorbet; remember that samples are free and unlimited!).
- Live music: At the far end of the downtown mall you'll find the Charlottesville Pavilion, an ugly tent-like structure that still features some great shows. There is a free concert series called Fridays after Five (which, you guessed it, starts after 5:00pm every Friday). Alas, the beer is not free, but the atmosphere is cool, and you should check out the mall anyway. This week, it looks like a group called Second Draw is playing that is described as "Blue Jam".
- History: Of course, there is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's famous home. It really is worth the trip, as the tour is excellent and the grounds are beautiful, but it isn't the only option. A walk around the UVA grounds, particularly the Lawn, has a lot of history in its own right. And a bit farther north is the less well-known but still very interesting Montpelier, James Madison's home.
- Wine tasting: I'm not really a big wine guy, but there are lots of vineyards in the area and some are apparently really good. Pick up a guide and do some exploring.
If you haven't been able to tell by now, you've got choices. As I said before, I'm happy to offer other suggestions if you didn't see something that piqued your interest. I hope everyone has a great trip. Go State, beat Virginia!