Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Charlottesville, VA

  • Published 2023/03/11

Charlottesville lies in Albemarle County, Central Virginia, about a hundred miles southwest of Washington, DC, and 70 miles northwest of Richmond, Virginia.

Informally known as C’ville, it’s an independent city and Albemarle County’s county seat and was named after Queen Charlotte of Britain.

Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe are two former US presidents who lived in this beautiful city.

It’s a small city, but you’ll find one of the biggest pedestrian malls in America there, and it is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Virginia.

Apart from the University of Virginia and Monticello, Charlottesville is known for its remarkable wines and distillery.

Prepare to experience the free things to do in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Explore Carter Mountain Orchard

Sign boards at Carter Mountain Orchard

Kristi Blokhin /

If you want to see something different that will surely please your eyes, Charlottesville has something you will love.

Located on Carters Mountain Trail, Carter Mountain Orchard gives you a spectacular view of the valley below.

You can feast your eyes on acres of grapevines and fruit trees and love the sweet waft of ripening fruits that lingers in the air.

The beautiful orchard is child-friendly and handicapped-accessible, and admission is free.

Carter Mountain Orchard welcomes visitors throughout the year.

If you want to buy some fresh apples, grapes, or peaches, you can pick them up during the harvest season.

Explore the Ix Art Park

See Virginia’s original and only immersive art space that features a tremendous mystic forest and mind-blowing cave at Ix Art Park.

Located on 2nd St SE C, this park strives to enable its community through organizing spaces, allowing everyone in the community a secure area to carry on creatively.

The foundation trusts that everyone is an artist and deserves a space to develop their creativity.

The Ix Art Park likewise manages a round-the-clock free mural, sculpture art park, and many community-driven series.

These include markets supporting women and minority entrepreneurs each week, innovative empowerment programs for the entire community, and arts education programs for underprivileged youth.

Spend the Day at Ivy Creek Natural Area

Landscape of Ivy Creek Natural Area

Gerry Bishop /

With an elevation of 548 feet, Ivy Creek Natural Area has an area of 215 acres of preserve located near the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In this sanctuary, habitats differ from the upland forest, pine stands, and open fields to the coastline.

Eleven trails include handicapped-accessible ones, providing nature lovers with countless opportunities to see incredible wildlife.

Ivy Creek Natural Area covered with snow

Gerry Bishop /

All year, you might see native red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.

You’ll never run out of different animals to see in this wildlife refuge jointly owned by the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County and managed by Ivy Creek.

Located on Earlysville Road, Ivy Creek Natural Area allows you to enjoy and use its facilities, including hiking trails, parking, an interpretive nature program, and restrooms.

View of Ivy Creek Natural Area

Gerry Bishop /

Explore Preddy Creek Park

If your family loves hiking, horseback riding, running, or mountain biking, there’s an excellent destination for you all.

Preddy Creek Park is a 571-acre park that offers visitors a 16-mile trail and has the best mountain biking system in the area.

There’s a suspension bridge and plenty of logs to climb on and mud to trample through.

You can bring your dog along and your horse, as long as you carry a copy of a negative Coggins report for the horse.

Preddy Creek Park’s amenities include picnic tables, a restroom, equestrian parking, and ten-mile multi-use trails for hiking, running, horseback riding, and mountain biking.

See the Stars at McCormick Observatory

Night view of McCormick Observatory

Rob, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The McCormick Observatory is named after Leander McCormick of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.

He donated a 26-inch refracting telescope to the University of Virginia.

Dedicated on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday in 1885, the telescope was the world’s second-largest telescope.

It was the primary department’s main research instrument until the 1960s and was used for astrometry into the 1990s.

Visiting the observatory requires no ticket and is child-friendly.

Admission is free to the McCormick Observatory located on McCormick Rd.

Explore the Rivanna Trail – Riverview Park

Scenic view along the Rivanna Trail

Gerry Bishop /

If you want to enjoy the outdoors, head to Rivanna Trail in Riverview Park.

You can take this two-mile, paved section of the Rivanna Trail that goes through the park.

Another trail forms a loop through wetland forests and open, bushy fields.

The large open fields are a sight for sore eyes because of the lovely and vibrant colors of blooming wildflowers that attract countless butterflies during warmer months.

If you’re lucky, you might see red-spotted purples, monarch, and eastern and black swallowtails butterflies species.

Located along Chesapeake St., the Rivanna Trail has 20 miles of a rustic network of hiking trails that weaves through and surrounds Charlottesville.

Check Out the Fralin Museum of Art

Exterior view of the Fralin Museum of Art

SharpCrumbs, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nestled inside the University of Virginia, the Fralin Museum of Art develops the spirit of curiosity and upholds diversity of thought by studying and celebrating art.

The museum exhibits art from around the world, from ancient times to the present.

Aside from its permanent collection, it also displays a current schedule of changing presentations and related programs and publications.

The exquisite museum keeps a collection of 14,000 objects and highlights photography, African art, American Indian art, works on paper, and European and American painting.

Located on Rugby Road, the Fralin Museum of Art is child-friendly and handicapped accessible with free admission.

Explore the Ragged Mountain Natural Area

Marsh land at Ragged Mountain Natural Area

Gerry Bishop /

The Ragged Mountain Natural Area is a striking 980-acre forest with a lake that supplies water.

You’ll find massive trees such as maple, pine, hickory, poplar, and mature oak that provide a good amount of shade while you explore the area.

Take a hike at the seven-mile trail leading to the forest, along bumpy terrain, and through areas teeming with diverse wildlife, offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for wilderness hiking.

Tall trees at Ragged Mountain Natural Area

Gerry Bishop /

With an elevation of 737 feet, this preserve has three major trails, allowing you to watch ruddy ducks, mallards, and Canada geese.

The Ragged Mountain Natural Area is on Reservoir Road and prohibits swimming, pets, and gas motor boats.

View of Ragged Mountain Natural Area

Gerry Bishop /

Follow the Saunders-Monticello Trail

The Saunders-Monticello Trail is a scenic trail that winds through Carter Mountain to the Monticello entrance.

The whole pathway never transcends a five-percent incline, making it accessible by a wheelchair.

At the base of Carter Mountain, the trail usually starts and passes through resident plantings and begins its elevation.

As you pass a small artificial pond bordered with bull bushes, you might see green herons catching small fish and hear swamp sparrows occasionally.

The Saunders-Monticello Trail was designed to reflect how Thomas Jefferson wanted his home to be administered.

Wander the Historic Downtown Mall

Shops at Downtown Mall

ImagineerInc /

When you go to Charlottesville, do not miss dropping by the historic Downtown Mall on 5th St. NE.

You’ll find a mixed bag of restored and renovated structures where visitors can enjoy shopping, eating, and watching live entertainment in the brick-paved pedestrian area.

Visitors strolling around the Downtown Mall

Andriy Blokhin /

There are over 120 shops and 30 restaurants inside the historic buildings where you can enjoy fine dining.

You can watch a play or live music at one of the many performance venues.

The Historic Downtown Mall is one of the longest pedestrian malls in the city, which is also child-friendly and handicapped accessible.

Restaurants at Downtown Mall

ImagineerInc /

Visit the Albemarle County Courthouse

If you want to see how the early settlers lived in Charlottesville, visit the Albemarle County Courthouse.

Established in 1762, Dr. Thomas Walker donated the courthouse to the early community.

On its grounds were a whipping post and pillory stocks, typically used during that time.

Cannon at Albemarle County Courthouse

Andrew Cline /

The courthouse was also a place for residents to vote in Albemarle County.

It also held religious services for Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist worshippers.

Former US Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe frequented the building, especially after Jefferson’s retirement in 1809.

Located on East Jefferson Street, Albemarle County Courthouse offers free admission.

Visit Market Street Park

Market Street Park is in Downtown Charlottesville, comprising the land bordered by First Street N.E., Second Street N.E., Jefferson Street, and Market Street.

In 1917, Paul Goodloe McIntire donated the land to the city in memory of his parents.

He wanted the city to use it as a park.

The park has expanded to 1.04 acres and offers an excellent lunchtime venue in the downtown area, with several seats, tables, flowers, and vegetation.

Robert Lee statue at Market Street Park

Andrew Cline /

The statue of Robert Edward Lee riding his horse, Traveler, was sculpted by Henry Merwin Shrady and unveiled in the park on May 21, 1924.

Check out the ornamental trees and xeriscape garden plantings at the park’s perimeter.

The City of Charlottesville owns the park, and the Department of Parks and Recreation regulates it.

Market Street Park is a square park located on East Market Street, traversed by a formal and informal concrete pathways network.

See the Art at Second Street Gallery

Second Street Gallery was founded in 1973 and is the oldest nonprofit modern art space in Central Virginia.

As a pioneer in the historic district’s revitalization, the gallery offers Charlottesville and the state’s central region with cutting-edge new art in outlook and context.

It also champions an active and open gratefulness for the art by directly engaging with the concerns raised by the works of the finest artists in the field.

Each gallery showcases ten to 14 expos and a full calendar of relative outreach activities, complementing its exhibition season.

Located on 2nd St SE, Second Street Gallery encourages art appreciation through exhibits, workshops, tours, classes, publications, and lectures.

Walk along the University of Virginia Rotunda and Central Grounds

View of University of Virginia Rotunda and Central Grounds

ss9ug /

Thomas Jefferson designed the original grounds of the University of Virginia, including the Rotunda and the Central Ground, and called it the “Academical Village.”

It consists of a rectangular, tiered green area called the Lawn, two side-by-side rows of buildings joined by colonnaded walkways and student rooms known as the Pavilions, and the Rotunda, which encloses the Lawn’s northern end.

Chapel at the University of Virginia

Melinda Fawver /

The Rotunda is a half-scale depiction of the Pantheon in Rome and is the university’s signature landmark, with its Dome Room housing the university’s library.

On the other hand, the Pavilions are constructed in the Federal style, where no two are the same.

The top floors were professors’ living quarters, while the ground level was used for classrooms and offices.

Rotunda-conducted tours offer no admission fee.

Night view of University of Virginia Rotunda and Central Grounds

Felix Lipov /

Landmarks on the Grounds include the rustic stone Chapel, Edgar Allan Poe’s room, the Pratt Gingko, and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers.

Located on University Avenue, the University of Virginia Rotunda and Central Grounds is one of the only college campuses on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Beautiful walkway at the University of Virginia

Steve Heap /

Check Out the McGuffey Art Center

McGuffey Art Center is one of the country’s oldest artist-operated cooperative art centers.

Established in 1975, it became a society of artists committed to practicing arts and passing on the creative spirit to the greater Charlottesville community by creating opportunities to increase access to art.

You can join various ways to uphold McGuffey Art Center and the greater community’s growth.

Facade of McGuffey Art Center

Nickmorgan2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The center teaches classes and workshops that highlight works in exhibits and participates in hosting events and encourages community outreach.

You can visit the McGuffey Art Center with no admission fee, but donations are welcome.

Final Thoughts

Doing what you and your family love and enjoy doing doesn’t mean you need to spend money.

What are you waiting for?

Start packing your things and take advantage of the free things to do in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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