Yes, exploring Washington, DC, is fun, but exploring and learning about the rich history of nearby Virginia is just as intriguing as a tour through the streets of the nation’s capital… and here’s why. Virginia has a proud record of producing more American presidents than any other state. Eight – from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson – were born there. The presidential homes and birthplaces can be linked together to create a driving route that takes in many of Virginia’s other highlights along the way, including artisan cider makers near Charlottesville, African-American history in Alexandria or Luray Caverns in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
So, pack the car and hit the road! From the north bank of the James River in Charles City to the Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, Vacation takes you on unforgettable journey though the Commonwealth of Virginia.
1. Sherwood Forest (Charles City, Virginia)
The first James River plantation stop along scenic byway State Route 5 is the former home of John Tyler. There’s a graveyard for the family’s pets near the graveyard – including Tyler’s beloved horse, The General – but it’s the architecture that’s the star here. The meticulously maintained and white-painted main house is the largest frame house in the country, stretching more than 300 feet. It’s still owned by the Tyler family, and there’s a low-key approach – visitors are allowed to amble freely through the grounds.
2. Berkeley Plantation (Charles City, Virginia)
The ancestral home of both William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison, the Berkeley Plantation’s centerpiece is a handsome brick mansion further along the banks of the James River towards Richmond. Tours take you inside, and the rooms in the basement act as a small museum full of paintings and artifacts. But the other historical claims are more impressive than the presidential history here. The bugle call ‘Taps’, which is played at military funerals, was composed at Berkeley during the Civil War. And it was also the site of America’s first Thanksgiving ceremony.
3. Mount Vernon (Mt. Vernon, Virginia)
George Washington’s home on the banks of the Potomac River eight miles south of Old Town Alexandria features a thoroughly absorbing museum about Washington’s life and his presidential influences on the fledgling independent nation. The tours of the grounds – one of which concentrates on Washington’s complex attitudes toward slavery, and the lives of the slaves on the plantation – may even be more interesting than the house tours. Washington’s tomb can also be found in a forest clearing. Budget time for this stop off – the worthwhile visit can easily take a full day.
4. Monticello (Charlottesville, Virginia)
No presidential home bears as strong a stamp of its owner than Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, just outside Charlottesville. Jefferson designed it himself according to classical, Palladian principles, and the entrance hall is full of eccentric items he collected from around the world. Tours focus on the polymath president’s considerable list of achievements. But, grippingly, they also don’t shirk from his quirks and flaws – and the illegitimate children he almost certainly fathered with one of his slaves are openly discussed.
5. The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum (Staunton, Virginia)
Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton is home to his presidential library. It offers a fascinating snapshot into his era. The self-guided tour through the galleries takes in themes such as prohibition, universal suffrage and World War I. There’s also a World War I trench exhibit that aims to simulate what life was like for soldiers on the frontline. Handily, Staunton is near the start of the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, a fantastic way to end an historic trip with a dose of the USA’s spectacular natural history.