Charlottesville, Virginia: Still a Great Place To Visit

Charlottesville Virginia
Sprint Pavilion concert in full swing in Charlottesville, Virginia. Kurt Jacobson photos.

By Kurt Jacobson

Who knew when I started exploring Charlottesville, Virginia that the whole country would be watching in July and August of 2017?

On my very first trip there, I wasn’t sure if I would even like this now-famous Southern town. I not only ended up liking Charlottesville, I fell for its bakeries, music venues, history, and residents in a big way.

On my first trip, I stayed at Keswick Hall, with its Pete Dye-designed golf course, and spa. This luxury resort was formerly a mansion and estate built in 1912 for Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Crawford. A series of five different owners would call the mansion home until it evolved into the resort we see today.

Sir Bernard Ashley, the widower of Laura Ashley bought the 600-acre property for 5.5 million and whipped the tired old estate into a world-class destination. Needless to say, I felt spoiled staying in this level of opulence.

Charlottesville Virginia
Keswick Hall outside Charlottesville

I spent two days driving the country roads and walking Charlottesville’s downtown area to get to know the lay of the land. The setting is at the foot of the peaceful Blue Ridge Mountains. Thick with healthy looking forests these hills look more like a national park than a recreation, food, and wine destination.

Vibrant Downtown Mall

The arts scene is alive and well in Charlottesville and can be witnessed on the pedestrian-friendly Downtown Mall. At one end I found the Sprint Pavilion where dozens of free concerts are held on Fridays throughout the warm months.

Paid performances are held at the Pavilion also. See acts like Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, Young The Giant, Stephen Stills&Judy Collins, and even the Top Of The Hops Beer Fest at this urban hot spot.

Charlottesville Virginia
Charlottesville Art Co-op

After two days trying to go as deep as possible, I knew I had to return to explore further. My next visit would be on the fateful day of July 8, 2017. Unbeknownst to me, the KKK was holding a rally to defend Confederate statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee, slated to be removed from the downtown parks.

I had brought my brother and his wife along, who were visiting us to see Charlottesville. This would also be my wife’s first visit.

I had no worries of safety and thought it would be a wonderful visit enjoying food, wine, and Monticello on this brief 30-hour visit. When we walked the Downtown Mall we noticed helicopters buzzing the sky above and wondered what the reason was for so much surveillance.

I asked the clerk at C’ville Arts Cooperative Gallery what was going on and he said: “The KKK and white supremacists are in town to protest the planned removal of Civil War statues. And there are several hundred people protesting the KKK’s presence here.” At dinner in the trendy Belmont neighborhood’s Mas Tapas that night it seemed like business as usual.

Felt Safe to Me

Charlottesville Virginia
Mas Tapas in the Belmont neighborhood

I never felt threatened by any of this commotion during the rest of our stay and hadn’t seen any trouble. As we drove out of downtown some two hours later I spied the unruly gathering just off Market Street. We headed home the next day but in the local paper’s headlines, it showed some 1,000 gathered to protest the KKK’s protest.

There were some arrests but nothing like the events that followed on August 12th when a young man allegedly drove his car into the crowd of protesters killing one and injuring several.

Things were looking tough for Charlottesville and the statues. Fast-forward to mid-September when I went back to continue my exploring of Charlottesville and Monticello. I wanted to see how the town was doing after so much negative press.

I was on assignment to cover the 11th annual Monticello Harvest Festival and wanted to spend time in town to see if I still liked Charlottesville.

After spending the day at the Monticello harvest festival I headed to the Downtown Mall for a look. The last Friday’s After Five concert of the year was gearing up.

It was an unbelievably gorgeous, sunny day with temperatures a mere 72 degrees and low humidity. At 4 pm the mall was just filling up with residents enjoying the spectacular day.

Charlottesville Virginia
Busker on the Downtown Mall, Charlottesville, VA.

I  decided to ditch my car and drove to my hotel, unpacked then ordered up an Uber ride back downtown. When I asked my driver Daniel what he thought of the protests.

Daniel said: Those unruly protesters were mostly people that were bussed in from out of state to cause trouble and not the people of Charlottesville.” I was to hear this statement two more times before leaving town on Saturday afternoon.

Free Music Attracts a Crowd

I headed to the Sprint Pavilion to see what the free concert was like before choosing a happy hour spot. The concert featured the Grateful Dead cover band “Alligator” and was in full swing. One of the things I noticed right away was the number of families with children at the concert.

There were probably 30 plus families with small children, a sure sign of them feeling this is a safe place. I hung out for a few minutes to enjoy the music before seeking food and refreshments.

Pavilion concert crowd

 

Two blocks down the mall I found Commonwealth Restaurant and Skybar. Eating and drinking outside appealed to me on this blue-sky day. I went up and sat at the bar watching the crowd below. The mall was bustling now and everyone was out enjoying the scene. After I pounded down a couple glasses of wine with three delicious appetizers it was time to walk the mall.

Everywhere I looked there was no sign of tension. I saw a group of four young girls, about 14 years old, walking the mall without adults in tow: a sure sign of a safe place to be. Buskers were juggling and playing music while the sun dropped lower over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I noticed a few of the businesses on the Downtown Mall had signs in their windows stating: If Equality&Diversity Aren’t For You Then Neither Are We. I admired their message on how they felt about their town.

Several of the businesses on the Downtown Mall had signs in their windows stating: If Equality&Diversity Aren’t For You Then Neither Are We. I admired their message on how they felt about their town.

A sign in window of Sky Bar, Charlottesville.

As I was approaching the west end of the mall I noticed a gentleman with a small cart holding a speaker. His name was Sid and he stood there operating his smartphone filled with soft flowing jazz music that filled the area.

Diners at outdoor tables nearby were bathed in this musical therapy provided for free. I asked Sid about this service and he told me: “After the August 12th events I had a vision that night telling me to bring music to the street to soothe people on the mall.”

Charlottesville Virginia
Sid bringing music to the mall

It was indeed soothing music and all looked like the events of July and August never happened.

The city of Charlottesville will need some time to heal but is still open for business. I feel it’s one of the best cities in the Mid-Atlantic region for a weekend getaway. There’s a thriving wine culture, miles of hiking and biking trails in the woods, friendly residents, and is close to the Shenandoah National Park too.

My hope for Charlottesville, Virginia is tourists and visitors will see it is indeed a safe town. The Downtown Mall shops and restaurants have seen a drop in business that hurts everyone in town.

If the locals feel safe to bring their little children to downtown and walk around that indicates a high level of safety.

Come see for yourself how much Charlottesville has to offer and tip a glass for me at one of the happy hour bars while you’re at it!

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Kurt Jacobson
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.