Pop Quiz: Is Presidents Day really a holiday? We’ll try to answer that but, whether it is or isn’t, you should forget about the traditional White Sales (whatever those are). Instead, celebrate with this special Presidents Day Road Trip in Virginia and Washington, and meet four Founding Fathers!
The Presidents Day Road Trip
Presidents Day may not be the most hotly contested holiday on any calendar; we’ll take a look at its legitimacy in a moment. As with many holidays – especially in the US of A – it’s been overly commercialized in a way that has no relation to the actual celebration. Regardless, we’d like to make a pitch for you to celebrate the occasion anyway.
Fun Fact: Presidents Day is not a federal holiday!
Americans of a certain age may remember George Washington’s Birthday popping up on our calendars every February 22nd. In 1971, something called the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved it to the third Monday in February, because…three day weekend! Since Abe Lincoln’s birthday is close by, why not make it Presidents Day?
Nope. Tried that. Also tried a second holiday for Honest Abe, but neither got through Congress. Officially, it’s still George Washington’s Birthday, as established back in 1879. In most places, though, Presidents Day is at least state holiday.
Official or not, by the mid-1980s it had been adopted as a holiday, and celebrated with Presidents Day Sales at every mattress store in town. Department stores, grocery stores, and pretty much everyone else hopped on the bandwagon. Even the tire store down the street is having a Presidents Day Sale. At least, with a Presidents Day Road Trip, tires are something we could use! We have to ask, though: Why celebrate with a sale? Let’s hit the road instead!
The Presidents Day Road Trip Route
Did you know that four of the United States’ first five presidents were from Virginia? Or that three of them lived near Charlottesville? Two of them were actually neighbors! The fact that you can see and tour their homes today makes this jaunt through the gorgeous Virginia Piedmont the perfect Presidents Day Road Trip.
We started and ended this trip in Washington, DC, but you can easily make it a one-way drive. Our map assumes that you start in either Charlottesville or Washington, and you can follow the route in either direction. We’ve added markers for airports and Amtrak train stations in both cities, in case you don’t live within driving distance of either.
For this post, we’re going from Charlottesville to Washington. The entire trip is about 150 miles, with about four hours of drive time. Most of the trip will be spent in the Charlottesville area, with a scenic drive to or from Washington. There will be other sites you’ll be tempted to visit along the way, including several Revolutionary and Civil War sites, so the more time you can take, the better.
Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, most sites along this route, including the former Presidents’ homes, are operating on restricted schedules. Many are currently only open on weekends. Check ahead before scheduling your stops.
Charlottesville: Jefferson’s Virginia
To make the most of the Presidents Day Road Trip, we suggest stretching it out over a three day weekend, and spending at least one night in Charlottesville. Not only is the town convenient to several presidents’ homes, no other city has quite the connection to Thomas Jefferson. (Aside, perhaps, from the nation’s capital.)
In Charlottesville, be sure to visit the University of Virginia, often rated the Most Beautiful College Campus in America. The centerpiece of campus is the Rotunda, around which the original university was built. In 1822, Jefferson designed the Rotunda to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason.” In 1966, the Rotunda was designated a National Historic Landmark. It achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status, along with Monticello, in 1987.
Other popular spots in Charlottesville include the Historic Downtown Mall, a pedestrianized section of Main Street, where you can shop and dine in a comfortable, casual atmosphere. Kids will enjoy the Virginia Discovery Museum, while the grown-ups might enjoy The Glass Palette Interactive Glass Studio. The Charlottesville area is also home to the Monticello Wine Trail and several wineries, with an active brew and cider scene, too. And, if you’re up for more driving, you shouldn’t miss the phenomenal Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, just outside of Charlottesville.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
As a Founding Father, statesman, and President #3, Thomas Jefferson needs little introduction. A tour of his Virginia mansion, Monticello, is filled with stories and mementos from those heady political days establishing the United States. Amazingly, by all accounts, the home looks much like it did in Jefferson’s day. It was meant to impress, but also to be functional.
Did You Know? Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is the only U.S. President’s home that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Thomas Jefferson you didn’t get to know in history books comes to life when you tour Monticello. He was an architect, lawyer, family man, and farmer, running an impressive plantation. There are generally six to eight tour options at Monticello focusing on different aspects, with some being seasonal. A Day Pass gets you access to the grounds and gardens, and a tour of the first floor. A Behind the Scenes Day Pass lets you go upstairs, all the way to the great Dome Room. Tickets start at $29/adult and $10/child 12-18. Tours can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on tour, but allow for up to a half day to see all of the gardens and grounds, too.
James Monroe’s Highland
As if to underscore the importance of Virginia farmers in establishing the United States, one of Thomas Jefferson’s fellow Founding Fathers lived literally next door. That neighbor was President #5, James Monroe.
Like Jefferson, James Monroe had a long and illustrious history in early American government before serving as President. But Monroe’s humble “cabin castle” in Virginia is a stark contrast to the accolades and accomplishments of his public career. Unlike Monticello, President Monroe’s home, called Highland, was a simple family home at the center of a 3500-acre plantation. Ongoing restoration is bringing back the estate Monroe would have known, though some additions over the years have been incorporated. You can tour both new and old buildings, and the working farm, for $19/adult, $13/child 6 to 11. Tours last 40 minutes, and there are several you can choose from. Allow another hour to explore the grounds, or hike the Highland Trails.
James Madison’s Montpelier
Another of Thomas Jefferson’s friends, and almost-neighbor, was James Madison. He served as President #4, and is known as the Father of the Constitution.
The Madison family home, Montpelier, is near Orange, Virginia, about 45 minutes from Monticello and Charlottesville. It’s evident when you arrive that the Madisons were successful: Montpelier is grand, and somewhat reminiscent of Monticello, minus Jefferson’s beloved dome.
Guided tours of the home will last about two hours, and are $20/Adult, $8/child 6 to 14. Admission includes the landmark slavery exhibit, The Mere Distinction of Colour, which you can see at your own pace. Take time to explore the beautiful Visitor Center, where you can also have breakfast or lunch, and the splendid Annie duPot Garden. If you have the time, the Montpelier estate includes eight miles of trails in the James Madison Landmark Forest, and an active Archeology Lab.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
We all know George Washington as The Father of the Country, a Revolutionary War hero, and President #1. First and foremost, though, he was a farmer, and his Mount Vernon plantation was the most successful in the Virginia Colony. There were five farms at Mount Vernon, along with looms and a blacksmith that produced fabric and metalworks. Washington harvested fish from the Potomac River, brewed and distilled spirits, and experimented in the most advanced greenhouse in the young country.
Tours of Mount Vernon feature the large family home, rich in Washington’s political history but emphasizing his leading role among colonial farmers. The sprawling grounds include the blacksmith shop and distillery, salt house, smoke house, and more. Touring his gardens, greenhouse, and Pioneer Farm, you gain an appreciation for the farmer and businessman George Washington was most known for in his time.
General Admission to George Washington’s Mount Vernon is $20/adult, and $12/child 6 to 11. (There is a $6 Active Duty and Veteran military discount.) Tours are additional ($10 to $30), and vary by season, so check the website before you visit. The standard mansion tour lasts about 30 minutes, but lines to get in can take much longer. Be prepared to spend half a day at Mount Vernon, maybe more, depending on your interests.
The National Mall
Having visited the homes of four American presidents, the National Mall seems a fitting addition to this special Presidents Day Road Trip! In keeping with the theme, you’ll want to see the monuments and memorials for American presidents. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are the best known monuments, but Franklin D. Roosevelt, James Garfield, and Ulysses S. Grant are honored as well. While you’re there, don’t miss the memorials to Americans who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. They are some of the most moving you’ll ever see.
Visiting the monuments on the National Mall can be done in just a few hours. The National Mall is so much more than memorials, though! You can see the United States Capital, the White House, and more than 20 museums! Best of all, visiting all of these monuments and museums is free, so you may want to consider staying an extra day or two in Washington.
The National Park Service website for the National Mall and Memorial Parks is an indispensable trip planning tool for your visit. Any park closings, renovation work, and special events will be listed there as well. For more on museums and other things to see and do, we recommend WashingtonDC.org’s website.
Park the Car
Since this is a Presidents Day Road Trip, there’s going to be parking involved. You’ll be glad to know there is free parking at all of the presidential homes on this trip. Parking in Washington DC is another matter. If you’re staying in or near Washington, we suggest leaving the car at the hotel, and taking public transportation to the National Mall. Or your feet, if you’re staying in the area.
Likewise, you can do this trip toll free. Most of this road trip is on Interstate or State Highways. The drive from Charlotte to Montpelier is on well-maintained local roads dubbed “The Constitution Route.” As a bonus, the scenery along the entire trip is fantastic! The Virginia Piedmont is a beautiful piece of America.
Ready to Take the Wheel?
We have to say that Washington is one of our favorite destinations, and we are ready and willing to visit pretty much anytime. When we decided to venture out from the city, we thoroughly enjoyed driving the Constitution Route to learn more about our Founding Fathers. We made it a weekend trip, staying in Charlottesville, and it was well worth the extra time. If you’d like to plan this road trip for yourself, feel free to reach out with questions, or if you need some recommendations. We’re always glad to help!
Now it’s your turn. We’d love to hear about your experience if you’ve visited these gems, or taken a similar road trip. Feel free to leave any recommendations for fellow travelers in the comments below!
As always, thanks for coming along for the read!
What a cool road trip! Virginia looks great. You squeezed in a lot by the looks of things. The buildings look very well kept and preserved from your photos. Interesting only one makes the UNESCO list.
It was a really fun road trip! We obviously like the historical aspect, but Virginia is beautiful! For the most part, the houses were all very well restored and cared for. We learned a lot about Colonial life and the personalities behind the Founding Fathers. It was really interesting! Thanks for reading, Garth!
This is a President’s Day activity I can get behind. I never have been one to find shopping enjoyable haha. I’m pinning this for later. My kids are still pretty little but I think this would be so fun when they’re a little older and learning about US history. #FeetDoTravel
We’re with you – all the sales never really made sense to us. But a road trip? Heck yeah! 😉 We hope you and your family get a chance to take this trip – lots of history, but also fun. Mount Vernon and Montpelier both have children’s programs now! Thanks for reading!
I had never realized so many presidents lived so near each other! This certainly makes it a lot easier to plan a road trip to visit their estates!Definitely saving this as I’ll be on the east coast soon enough! #FeetDoTravel
When we were first researching a trip to Monticello, we were a little surprised to find that out, too! Being history nerds, it got us very excited to book that trip! And, of course, to share with all of our history nerd friends. Having taken the drive, what we keep talking about, though, is how gorgeous Virginia is. Seriously considering another road trip there this summer. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Lolo!
Wow, so many interesting places to visit in a relatively small area! Sounds good! #WeekendWanderlust
That’s one thing we love about this trip – relatively short with lots of great places to see! Thanks for stopping by, Lisa!
Yes, I remember when the holiday was Washington’s Birthday! Your road trip idea sounds really fun. I have only been to a couple of these estates so the road trip would round out the bunch. This trip definitely warrants several days.
Agreed! We spent a two days in Charlottesville on this trip, with a few days in DC before and after. It was really fun, but then we tend to be #historygeeks 😉 Thanks for visiting, Rhonda!
This is such a great idea! How is it that only Monticello is a UNESCO World Heritage site? So funny that when I think of President’s day, I think of mattress sales. I think our holidays have become over commericalized, and I mean all of them. Thank you so much for this interesting tour!
Ha! That’s exactly our point in the first part of this post. How the heck did Presidents Day get associated with mattresses??? ?
We read once that UNESCO does not consider national historic sites, such as Mount Vernon, for World Heritage Status. According to UNESCO, “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value…”
Monticello, and the nearby Jeffersonian structures at the University of Virginia were selected because they are “notable architectural works.” So, despite Jefferson’s vast contributions to global politics, farming, and law, he is recognized for his architecture – a field in which he was entirely self taught! If you’re interested, you can read the inscription at UNESCO’s web site.
Incidentally, two other Jefferson sites are currently nominated to join that list: the Virginia State Capital, and Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s retreat about 80 miles south of Monticello. It’s designed as a perfect octagon, and is just as stunning as Monticello!