Visiting James Madison’s Montpelier: What to See and Do
Tour James Madison’s home in Virginia
You don’t just have to read about history – you can experience it. Visiting James Madison’s Montpelier allows travelers not only to learn more about America’s fourth president but also the impact his ideas had on the formation of the United States.
Visitors to Montpelier can tour Madison’s home in Orange County, Virginia, and have the chance to uncover some unique stories about those who lived on the property.
If you are thinking about visiting Montpelier, this article will give you all the information you need to make the most of your trip.
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What is Montpelier?
Montpelier was the lifelong home of James Madison and his wife Dolley. James Madison was the fourth president of the United States and Dolley was the First Lady.
He has been called the Father of the Constitution and was a chief architect of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. He also wrote many of the Federalist Papers (not as many as Alexander Hamilton, but still a lot).
Madison served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and took meticulous notes covering every moment of that important event.
Montpelier was established in 1723 (though called Mount Pleasant at first), and the property was the home of James Madison from the time he was a young man until he died in 1836. The heart of what is the mansion we see today was started in the early 1760s.
The estate was heavily restored to look as it did during Madison’s lifetime and contains some original artifacts, including furniture, books, and other treasures from the Madisons’ lives. Sadly many of their personal possessions were sold off during Dolley’s lifetime.
The house was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation by the last private owner, the DuPont family. Governance of the property is shared between the Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee.
The Committee is made of those who are descended from the enslaved at Montpelier.
Montpelier welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually, offering a variety of activities and exhibits for guests to enjoy.
Where is James Madison’s Montpelier?
Montpelier is located in Orange County in Virginia’s picturesque Piedmont region.
The estate is just about six miles west of the town of Orange. It can be reached by car via U.S. Route 15 or state route 20, and there is a free parking lot available for visitors.
Distance from Richmond: 77 miles
Distance from Charlottesville: 26 miles
Distance from Culpeper: 25 miles
Below are listed several airports in the region along with their distance from Montpelier:
Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport: 20 miles
Washington Dulles International Airport: 82 miles
Richmond International Airport: 85 miles
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport: 93 miles
How to visit Montpelier
Montpelier is a great day trip in Virginia and there are a few ways to visit the estate, including a guided tour of the mansion.
The beautiful grounds of Montpelier are open to Orange County residents for free admission. Others can purchase a Property Pass, but that doesn’t include admission to the house.
Guests with a Property Pass still have access to the hiking trails, special exhibits, gardens (like the Annie DuPont Formal Garden) and grounds, and more.
I strongly recommend taking a guided tour as long as you’re making the trip to Montpelier anyway. And book your tour in advance. You never know when a tour might sell out.
We loved the Highlights of Montpelier tour and getting to see inside James Madison’s house with an expert guide. Our tour guide was absolutely stellar. She was kind and knowledgeable and patiently answered all of my many questions.
The tour also included a few other locations right around the house. We then had access to guide ourselves through the special exhibits under the mansion and other areas that are included in the Property Pass.
Is James Madison’s home worth visiting?
Absolutely! Montpelier is a fascinating place to explore.
Not only can you learn about the life of James Madison and his wife, Dolley, but you can also experience the beauty of Virginia’s rural countryside. The estate offers something for everyone, from interactive exhibits in the visitor center to outdoor activities on the grounds.
Of all the historic homes, presidential sites and historic sites we’ve visited, Montpelier is one of Hubby’s favorites.
Guests should be aware that a visit to Montpelier involves a good amount of walking and standing.
What to see and do at Montpelier
As the site of major events in American history and the family home of statesman James Madison and his wife Dolley Todd Madison, there is plenty to see and do when visiting Montpelier.
From exploring its historic grounds and touring the house to participating in educational programs or engaging talks from historians, there are lots of ways to connect with the rich history at Montpelier during your visit.
Please note that food options on the property may be quite limited. If you want to eat there it’s a good idea to check first to make sure they have what you’re looking for.
Otherwise, the nearest best dining will be in Orange, Virginia, about 6 miles away.
The David M. Rubenstein visitor center at James Madison’s Montpelier is a great place to start your visit. And yes, this is the same David M. Rubenstein whose name adorns the visitor center at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
The center provides information on the history of James and Dolley Madison, as well as interactive exhibits and a theater that shows short and informative films.
This is where you will check in for your guided tour, use the restrooms, get your questions about the property answered, and browse the museum shop / gift shop (of course!).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I would not take the time to visit Montpelier and not do a guided tour.
The tours offer insight into Madison’s life and contributions to the shaping of American life, as well as stories about Dolley and other members of the family.
During the house tour, you’ll get to see parts of the historic home like the dining room, drawing room and Madison’s personal study. And then you’ll also
learn about the history of the estate as well as learn more about the lives of the enslaved men and women who lived on the property.
There are several small buildings near the house that you can explore. They’ll provide more context about the lives of those who lived on the estate during Madison’s lifetime.
After you tour the house and the historic core of the estate, you’ll have the opportunity to experience special exhibits.
“The Mere Distinction of Colour” is set up in the House Cellars and the South Yard. You can also visit exhibits in the Visitor Center.
You can even find special interactive and educational exhibits for families and children.
Montpelier is home to two separate cemeteries. There is a family cemetery for the Madison family and a cemetery for those who were enslaved on the estate.
The slave cemetery is a lovely, quiet, and somber spot that contains many unmarked graves, where both adults and children are buried.
Guests can enjoy more than 8 miles of walking trails through the property including the Old Growth Landmark Forest.
Montpelier Loop Trail: 3.55 miles, starts at the Visitor Center
Landmark Forest Trails: 2.5 miles of interlocking loops; interpretive signs provide information about the forests
Montpelier-Grelen Trail: 3.9 miles
Montpelier Civil War Trail: 1 mile walk through an old Civil War encampment site
Where to stay when visiting Montpelier
Visiting James Madison’s Montpelier estate is an unforgettable experience. It makes for a great day or half-day trip, or you might want to spend more time exploring more of Virginia’s Piedmont region.
After we visited Montpelier, we continued our road trip into Charlottesville, Virginia, as we were touring Monticello the next day. Charlottesville is just about 25 miles from Montpelier and takes about 40 – 45 minutes to drive.
We stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Charlottesville Downtown. It was a comfortable hotel in a good location with a free breakfast. We don’t usually ask for much more than that!
Here are a couple of other highly rated options for places to stay in downtown Charlottesville:
- Inn at Court Square: charming inn just steps from dining and shops at the Downtown Mall. Just a few miles from Monticello and only 10 miles from Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport.
- Omni Charlottesville Hotel: guests enjoy this lovely hotel near the Downtown Mall and only a few minutes’ drive from the University of Virginia campus.
If you’d prefer to stay closer to the estate, you could book a stay at one of the local inns or bed and breakfasts in Orange, Virginia.
Mayhurst Inn is just 7 miles from Montpelier and offers beautifully appointed rooms in a classic B&B setting. You can even book a book bedroom cottage separate from the rest of the inn.
Round Hill Inn offers classic rooms in a beautiful setting. It’s about 8 miles from Montpelier.
Final thoughts on visiting Montpelier, James Madison’s home
Montpelier is a fascinating place to visit, and I would encourage anyone interested in American history or politics to make the trip. Take your children. It’s educational! You can add it to your family vacation.
Montpelier is a beautiful estate, and it was great to be able to walk through the home where James Madison spent his childhood, young adulthood, and retired life.
The home has been beautifully restored, and we truly enjoyed our expertly guided tour.
If you are looking for a fun day trip, I would highly recommend visiting Montpelier. There is plenty to see and do on the property and you could spend hours exploring everything.
Are you planning a visit to James Madison’s home? What are you most looking forward to?
More articles related to your trip to Montpelier
- The best day trips in Virginia
- Day trips from Washington, DC
- Guide to visiting Monticello
- Tips for visiting George Washington’s Mount Vernon
- Day trip bag packing list essentials
- Delightful day trips from Richmond, Virginia
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