This post is in collaboration with Amtrak Virginia.
Family travel is stressful, especially when you start to think about packing the car for a quick weekend getaway around Washington, D.C. The Beltway (AKA 495, the ring road around DC) backs up before 3pm, tempers start to rise and somewhere a kid is already puking because he is carsick (that would be my kid by the way). Amtrak with kids is a great alternative to the headache that can come from driving to some of Virginia’s most scenic destinations.
When my family and I decided it was high time we explored the home of Thomas Jefferson, I wasn’t sure how we could pull it off. My husband didn’t have vacation time available. We really didn’t need more than a full day to explore, but the drive down and back would take up most the day. There was no way we were leaving on a Friday after work and coming back on Sunday in all of that traffic though.
Amtrak was our answer.
Tickets were booked and two small bags were packed. By 5:30pm Friday we were on a DC Metro train down to Union Station to catch our 6:30pm Amtrak train. We arrived at the station in time to grab coffee, settle into our Business Class seats, and start our vacation.
FIVE THINGS I LEARNED ON AMTRAK WITH KIDS
- My oldest son didn’t get motion sick on the train! There would be no need for a dose of Dramamine for my oldest son. He didn’t get car sick on trains. Phew!
- Family time starts immediately. When my husband and I weren’t distracted by traffic, we could start chatting with each other and our kids right away.
- Explore more of a city. When the option to drive was taken away, my children were forced to walk more places and see more than they normally would in a new town where driving was the norm.
- Free Wi-Fi onboard. This means I can get some work done, my kids can upload one more game to their Kindles, and I can download a book we can all read together.
- Kids ride for 50% off. In case you think traveling with your kids on the train will break the bank, it won’t. Your kids are always half price (ages 2-12), and you can save 25% off your own ticket when you book 14 days in advance.
We had packed a picnic dinner to eat on the train since we wouldn’t arrive until after 9pm, well past my youngest son’s bedtime. By the way, you can drink wine of the train! You sure can’t do that if you are driving. I wandered down to the Café car, bought a small bottle of wine. My husband and I made a little toast to our first stress-free weekend getaway in a very long time.
VEER LEFT TO THE GRADUATE CHARLOTTESVILLE HOTEL
When you arrive into Charlottesville, the Amtrak train station almost splits the town in half. If you go right, you head towards the historic Downtown Mall. If you go left, you head towards the University of Virginia.
We were on a quest to meet Thomas Jefferson through his architecture. I had booked a room at the very photogenic Graduate Charlottesville Hotel, just down the street from UVA where Jefferson’s Rotunda is located, but still within walking distance of the Downtown Mall. There were plenty of restaurants, coffee spots, parks and shops to explore within a block or two of the hotel, thanks to the college campus being so close. We could have walked to the hotel, but given the late hour we opted to Uber to the hotel with the kids. There was no way I could carry a five year old and bags after nine o’clock at night.
Getting around Charlottesville sans car
Now I’ll admit, I like my car. I love to walk around a city, but I think of walking cities in Europe and major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Charlottesville did not fall into that category in my mind when we first embarked on this trip. I was up for the challenge though. We were going to explore the city AND get out to Monticello without a car. How’d we do it?
- Free Trolley
If our kids were teenagers we could have also used the bike share program in town. Sadly, the boys were a bit too short to use the adult bikes though. If we had been in town longer, I would have looked into bike rentals from a shop.
CHARLOTTESVILLE HISTORICAL WEEKEND
Charlottesville has more than enough to keep a family busy for the weekend without overwhelming you. We decided to focus on the historical sites, which helped me plan out our Charlottesville with kids itinerary. Since this was our first visit, we stuck to the major sites most people know about.
Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, is only a 10-15-minute drive from the Graduate Hotel, making it a cheap Uber ride out and back. Buy your tickets as soon as you arrive. You will be given a timed entry to tour the house.
You are free to explore the visitor’s center, kid’s Discovery center and grounds of Monticello as much as you like with your ticket. There are a few grounds tours that leave on the hour that are also included in the price of your ticket. Check the map given with your tickets for tour meeting points.
After touring the home make sure you visit the Discovery Center with your kids. This is where they can touch and play with everything. After being so good inside Monticello, it is a nice reward for them to really get hands on.
After touring Monticello, you will be hungry. Don’t head back to town quite yet. Call an Uber. Sadly, there is no path to safely walk from Monticello down to Michie Tavern, even though it is only a few minutes’ drive away. The buffet at Michie Tavern is worth the price for the experience alone. The fried chicken, biscuits and mashed potatoes are hailed as some of the best in the region, and rightly so.
Since we weren’t driving, my husband and I each indulged in a beer and a hard cider. Why not, right? You can also tour the original Michie Tavern, which is connected to the restaurant. There are several shops on the Michie Tavern property to explore and buy antiques, but the General Store is where kids will want to spend their vacation allowance. The massive display of old-fashion candy will even make adults with a sweet tooth pay attention and pull out their pocket change.
THE ROTUNDA AT UVA
The U.S. may be lacking in UNESCO World Heritage sites, but Charlottesville has two of them. Monticello is one and the Rotunda, also designed by Thomas Jefferson, is another. One of the original buildings on the University of Virginia campus (founded by Jefferson), the Rotunda is free to enter, and a great place to explore. Climb to the top floor, where there is a podium set up for lecturers. Visitors like to pretend to give their own presidential speech if no one else is around (at least we did).
HISTORIC DOWNTOWN MALL
Shops, restaurants, hotels, and outdoor entertainment are what make this pedestrian zone such a fun place. Take a stroll after a long day of exploring. Sit down on a bench with an ice cream cone. Grab a table at one of the outdoor seating areas for the numerous restaurants lining the promenade.
We loved that we could just let our boys wander, discover the public art, and not stress about any cars coming since this throughway was cars free (for the most part) until we hit a few crossroad intersections. We took the free Trolley back up to the Graduate Hotel since we had done a lot of walking that day. The Trolley runs from downtown up through the UVA campus, which made it easy to cheaply get around town from our hotel.
Quick, Stress-free Weekend Getaway
Sunday rolled around all too soon. Instead of rushing to pack up the car and beat traffic, we threw our clothes in our suitcase. We walked down through the hospital campus to have brunch at the Oakhurst Inn Cafe and Espresso Bar (read full reviews here). We knew we had plenty of time to linger over a great meal before we had to board our train. Our sons could take their time walking. By this point they didn’t even ask where the car was or if we could carry them.
There were no ticket counters, security lines, or stroller gate checks to deal with at the station. We showed up about 15 minutes before our train would depart. The train arrived right on schedule, we all boarded and five minutes later we were on our way.
About three hours, an Amtrak train and a metro train ride later we were home. We had the rest of the afternoon to relax, do some laundry and get ready for the week ahead. No one was fussy or wrecked from being in a hot car stuck in traffic. It was just a little bit of unexpected bliss following a beautiful weekend in Virginia exploring some of America’s historical buildings with our kids.
This post is part of a paid partnership with Amtrak Virginia. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t, you will be the first to know.