A winding drive in Virginia’s Central Piedmont region leads to a majestic home on a hill. The road travels past towering trees and a horse-racing track leading to James Madison’s Montpelier.
Before your tour, watch The Constitution & Madison’s 3 Big Ideas, an animated short film, at the visitor center. Then, follow your interpreter to the mansion for the life stories of President James Madison, first lady Dolley Madison, and their 18th-century Colonial Revival–style home.
The rippling contours of the Blue Ridge Mountains are the first thing you’ll notice from the mansion’s windows. It was restored (in some spots brick by brick) to how it looked when the fourth U.S. president lived there. Everything from the wallpaper to a collection of marble busts represents the family’s design sensibility. Dolley was famous for entertaining, and Montpelier’s dining room has cutouts of dignitaries, including regular guests Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.
The most striking room is the library, where Madison combed through history, looking for examples of people governing themselves, which prepared him to create a framework for the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. It’s moving to imagine how, surrounded by books and letters, he contributed to today’s federal laws and principles.
The Madisons lived an opulent lifestyle and owned about 100 enslaved people. Inside six reconstructed domestic dwellings, descendants tell stories about their ancestors using interactive life-size videos.
The permanent exhibition, The Mere Distinction of Colour, explains slavery on a national scale in 1787. “We talk about ideas across the spectrum about slavery. What people thought about it, pro and con,” says Elizabeth Chew, senior director of museum programs and chief curator.
Before leaving, take a walk in the Annie duPont Formal Garden. A 3.5-mile Montpelier Loop Trail passes by wildflower meadows and the Madison family cemetery.
“At Montpelier, we tell a complete and shared American origin story. We want everyone to see themselves in the stories we tell,” says Chew. “That is a departure from traditional homes of presidents.”
With a combination of beautiful scenery and educational experiences, Montpelier is a meaningful road trip for the whole family.
Where to Eat and Drink
Nearby Gordonsville has several independently owned restaurants. For an authentic Orange County meal, try the fried chicken at Champion Ice House. Or drive farther to visit Barboursville Vineyards.
Plan Your Visit
Check the website for daily tours and special events. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made online. Visit on Kids Free Fridays through August 25 and check out the archaeology lab from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 13384 Laundry Rd., Montpelier Station
Feature image by Aaron Watson Photography