25 more essential experiences for real Charlottesville locals


There’s a difference between being a resident and being a local. To be a resident, you need an address and a “434” area code. To be a local, you need time.

How much? Well, that depends. You can’t grab Charlottesville’s classic milkshake (No. 9) at a drive-thru; rather, you need to claim a spot at the lunch counter and wait. Time needs to be set aside for the area’s most regal sheepdog event (No. 6), as well as for deciding which side of the Meadowcreek Parkway (No. 2) you’re truly on. The must-have local portrait could take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. And how long before West Main’s hippest diner takes you on as an employee (No. 4), or our local bluegrass legends bless you with a nickname? (No. 11)

In your pursuit of these 25 C-VILLE verified experiences, consider all your minutes, hours and days to be time well-spent. So set your watches and, while you’re at it…



1. Live on someone else’s giant farm

Why own when you can rent? More accurately, why own when someone else already pays the taxes on a gorgeous chunk of Albemarle land, yours to enjoy for a nominal monthly fee? In case you haven’t noticed, a lot of people around here live on big, beautiful farms, many of which include small cottages and carriage houses in addition to a grand manse. It’s a tradition among local small fry—especially of the writer/artist/musician variety—to rent these dependencies. You keep your own floor swept and your own garden tended, and meanwhile, huge tracts of woods, fields and ponds surround you, making the outside world feel wonderfully far away. Warning: When you finally grow up and buy your own place, it may seem a little…proletarian by comparison.


2. Let a heated exchange of views on the Meadowcreek Parkway destroy a longstanding friendship

There’s a little trouble in paradise, and if you haven’t noticed, then you’re not a full-scale local yet. For forty-plus years and running, the Meadowcreek Parkway (MCP, to some) has surfaced in local debate. Only lately has it come anywhere close to being built. Albemarle County broke ground on its portion of the two mile road in February 2009. City leaders are still hassling over their segment. Meanwhile, citizens have taken sides on the road that all agree will take a slice out of McIntire Park. The disputes concern, in no particular order, whether a road is needed (the people who cannot get out of their driveways on Park Street/Rio Road see it one way, suffice to say), whether the government has authority to use the parkland for that purpose, and whether the public good will be served. While Southern civility is often a hallmark of Charlottesville discourse, this thing has gotten Hatfield and McCoy ugly in some parts. If you’ve gotten a blast in the course of the feud, you know you’ve been here a while.  


3. Buy back your own books at the Gordon Avenue Book Sale

You head over to the Gordon Avenue branch of the local library in March to up your nerdy-wordy game in this lit-happy town. You look for bargains and rare first editions. And then you have that crazy “have we met somewhere before?” moment when you realize that you’re about to take home the very same copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that you donated the last time you went on a downsizing spree. 


4. Spend so much time at the Blue Moon Diner, people start giving you their lunch orders

You know you’re local when your butt is permanently dented from the counter stools at the West Main Street hipster hangout. Mere mortals can be forgiven for succumbing to the bottomless cup of coffee and the Hogwaller Hash. But when it gets to the point that even the other regulars, to say nothing of the staff, can’t tell whether you’re on a paid or unpaid eight-hour shift, you’re past local. You’ve become downright foundational.


5. Catch a flick at the Paramount

There was a big to-do among local cinephiles last year when the Paramount Theater tossed its 35mm reels, switching to digital HD projectors. But the new format restores to the theater the flexibility it had when celluloid was the undisputed king of the reels. Regular screenings, hosted by the theater and the Virginia Film Society, offer the iPad vanguard the chance to do something that Charlottesvillians have been doing since the 1930s: Watch great movies in a big golden room.

Lest you think that only the classics are shown in the big house, among the most essential screenings this year were two local documentaries—World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements and The Parking Lot Movie. They packed the house and brought a healthy dose of homespun glitz. Potential essential Charlottesville experience for next year’s list? Show your original flick at the Paramount.



6. Attend the Montpelier Sheepdog Trials

By the end of the annual Fall Fiber Festival & Montpelier Sheepdog Trials, you know just about everything a person can know about sheep—how to hold them, shear them, spin their wool into yarn. You can spot an American Cormo from 50 yards off, and distinguish it from a Leicester Longwool or a Rambouillet. But for reasons known only to Lassie, you can’t get ’em into a pen. That requires a dog.

For two barking, bleating days, the picturesque home of James Madison turns over part of its 2,650 acres to dogs like “Spot,” “Crash” and, last year’s novice champion, “Kat.” At the annual sheepdog trials, crowds can watch canines literally intimidate a group of sheep through a few tasks and into a pen—which, truth be told, is a downright supernatural thing to behold. And on a former president’s front lawn, no less!


7. Work for Coran Capshaw

Some Americans take pride in being able to trace their lineage to ancestors who sailed on the Mayflower. Charlottesvillians get a similar pride in being able to trace their paychecks to the Dave Matthews Band. That’s one of the many benefits that comes with working for Coran Capshaw, the band’s longtime manager-cum-benevolent overlord of Charlottesville. Others include deep discounts at all of the mogul’s restaurants. Dine at Ten and enjoy a drink at Enoteca (The “Eurasia Special”); tapascise at Mas (like exercise, only different) and descend into margarita madness at Mono Loco—all at a prices you can afford. But that’s not all, folks! Work for Red Light Management and keep watch over the Mall that’s owned by your boss, drink the Starr Hill beer that’s backed by your boss, and watch shows that were booked by your boss in a building that’s owned by your boss. A good boss and a big brother, all rolled into one. What could be better?


8. Make your rounds on the First Fridays circuit

When the dinner bell rings on Friday, there’s no better way to feel like a true Charlottesvillian than by taking in the wide range of art openings at galleries across town. Rub elbows with Charlottesville’s crème de la creme—not too hard; that’s an expensive blouse she’s wearing—or feign interest in art while indulging your interest in free wine and cheese. True, variations on the First Friday theme are a timeworn tradition in quasi-cosmopolitan hamlets nationwide, but arts treasures abound here: The Garage may be the world’s smallest art venue, concerts at the Pavilion or from Downtown buskers provide a shifting soundtrack for gallery hoppers, and the free wine (did I mention free wine?) often comes from one of our many area wineries. 

To say nothing of the quality of the art—aye, it is high—the essential Charlottesville experience comes in standing tall amid the masses on the Downtown Mall, knowing that, while it may take an hour to get a slice of pizza, the experience alone is worth the hassle.  


9. Get a milkshake at Timberlake’s while you wait to fill your prescription

If Diddy invented the remix, Timberlake’s invented extra care, and it doesn’t need a red plastic key tag chain to prove it. John Plantz runs the pharmacy, giving him a perch from which to watch the daily comings and goings in the corner business that has anchored East Main and Fourth streets for 93 years, but Billie Midthun, Connie Mays, Debbie Kirby and Dot Marturano are the aproned ladies who run the soda fountain. And it’s there that the personal touches get even sweeter—like, vanilla sweet. Three gigantic scoops of ice cream, a jigger of milk and chocolate syrup (or, during the summer, blackberries), popped up under the Hamilton Beach-brand blender right before your very eyes.  Voila, that’s how you spell “milkshake,” Timberlake’s style. We call it local dining at its finest. 



10. Visit the Corner, May through August 

Living locally means living territorially. If you live in Charlottesville, this means avoiding Bodo’s at 9am on a Sunday, Mas at 10pm on a Friday, and The Corner from September through April.

Just like those other fine establishments, however, the Corner has its own peak season—a three-month banquet for the seasonal resident who shuns the balcony seats at Michael’s Bistro or the sales at Finch during the academic year, but gratefully returns each summer. All is forgiven, and all is new.

Once more, each restaurant along University Avenue offers the best seats and eats, and each store offers the best deal—at least, until the next one. Side streets like Elliewood Avenue hold new treasures for you to hopelessly fall for. Fall semester will end your summer fling, but for four idyllic months, the Corner is the place where real locals come together.



11. Join the Hackensaw Boys long enough to get a nickname like See-Saw or Tri-diddle

Snow White had seven dwarves, and Santa Claus had nine reindeer. But they pale in comparison, in both number and nombre, to the roster of Charlottesville’s most distinctive string band, the Hackensaw Boys. 

On Pee Paw! On Baby J! On Plantain, on Spits, on Plang Tang and Uncle Blind Bobby! Hackensaw Boy names are drawled slang, jailhouse handles, hobo dog tags. To be a Hackensaw Boy is to assume the identity of your blistered, bellowing, banjo-loving alter ego at the drop of a weathered porkpie hat. It’s not enough to simply hum along—you have to hack it, dig?

In 10 years time, the Boys have seen a dirty dozen members or so, each essential in his time, each sorely missed after his departure. Should you become one of the lucky few, be proud of your name, be it “Kooky-Eyed Fox” or “Saw Zaw.” (Although, those are both taken.) When you’re in, you all share the same last name—Hackensaw.



12. Write on the Free Speech Wall

Five years ago, the 54’ slate monument at the east end of the Downtown Mall was but a twinkle in the eye of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Now, it’s the city’s personal public forum for issues that really need discussing. There’s the romantic (“This is where we fell in love”) and the uplifting (“Just breathe, you’re already here”). Some people use it to campaign (“Keep women’s wombs out of government control!”) and, well, so do others (“I hate steak”). A word of advice, though: Exercise your right to punctuate. We’re talking to you, writer of “KICKASS BANGLADESH.” Is that a command? Or are you asserting that Bangladesh is more kick-ass than, say, Charlottesville? Not possible.



13. Start your local art collection with works by Steve Keene, Edward Thomas and Eliza Evans

A true local’s home is appointed with works of at least one of these prolific artists, whether it’s a muted landscape or street scene by Thomas, a whimsically exaggerated portrait by Evans, or a messy rock album knock-off by Keene. The latter is now a Brooklyn boy (see last year’s list of Essential Charlottesville Experiences), but still the King of Volume Painting. He reliably answers online orders from this region he once called home with a surfeit of quick-dash paintings on plywood.


14. Try to unload your Steve Keene paintings

Hint: Find another wannabe local and convince him that every Charlottesville painting collection begins with four-dozen works by Keene.


15. Confuse C-VILLE and The Hook

How to break an editor’s heart in six easy words: “I know I read it somewhere.” For the record, you are holding C-VILLE in your hands or reading it online right now, and that, yessirreebob, is an essential Charlottesville experience.



16. Being late for a meeting/child care pickup/gym class/lunch date because you were stuck waiting for a train to pass

You haven’t tasted the full Charlottesville experience until you have waited (and waited and waited) at a railroad crossing for the miles-long train to pass. Once we sat  on the street curb at Second Street, on a warm spring evening, for about 45 minutes, hoping a stalled train would either vaporize or move along. Only later did we learn that Buckingham Branch Railroad (BBR) would have had us covered: “To report stalled vehicle blocking crossings or other emergency, call 1-866-244-4529.” And if you are at Second Street, mention Mile Post CA 181.62. Other option, known to proven locals:  Walk over to Fourth Street and take the underpass.  


17. Listen to a Pavilion show from the Belmont Bridge

Sure, the Pavilion looks like a party spot, with that carnivalesque design and those throngs of people shaking their booties underneath. But don’t be fooled: The real action is ever so slightly to the south, where savvy music lovers congregate on the Belmont Bridge to take in shows for free. The sound is almost as good as it is when you spend the money on an actual ticket, and the occasional “move it along” from your friendly local constable just adds to the fun. As for the visuals, let’s call them “minimal but compelling.” Personally, we’re thrilled that we got to see James Brown’s lower legs before he died. 



18. See The Homecoming at the Hamner  

Just as Minnesota has Garrison Keillor, Nelson County has Earl Hamner, Jr. Although the Schuyler writer’s beloved TV series, “The Waltons,” said goodnight to John-Boy in 1981 after nine seasons, the Hamner Theater honors its namesake each winter with a production of the show’s pilot episode, “The Homecoming.”

In our opinion, the writers, directors and actors at Hamner Theater set a high bar for community theater, and make most shows at the former Rockfish Valley Community Center a must-see. (Your next opportunity, the Nelson County Shakespeare Festival’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opens June 17, so hop to.) The Homecoming, however, is nearly Rockwellian in its feel. Hamner’s play is a Christmas story with a schmaltz-free heart, steeped in its local environment and penned by a man who knew what it meant to raise a family in Virginia. Why see it anywhere else?



19. Hike to the overlook at Humpback Rocks

If you want to be a local, there’s one outdoor activity you absolutely have to be able to say you’ve done. (No, it’s not “stroll the Downtown Mall.”) We speak of Humpback Rocks, which just may be our area’s most perfect hike. Why? 1. It’s ridiculously accessible—a pleasant drive up to Rockfish Gap, then an easy six miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway. 2. It’s short but intense, climbing 800 feet in a mile, so you’ll feel you really accomplished something when you complete it. 3. It rewards you with a stellar view framed by an interesting geologic formation—the eponymous whale-like stones, which make ideal backdrops for photos. No wonder every local’s been to Humpback. Have you? (Bonus points if you got engaged there!) 


20. Pledge allegiance to your favorite WTJU show

Nothing says Charlottesville like surrendering an hour of your listening time in a vain effort to discover whether the DJ on 91.1 is who you think it is, only to realize that it isn’t—though it is someone else you know. (I didn’t know he had such a good radio voice!) It’s best to leave the uncertainty to knob fiddlers and pledge allegiance to your favorite show, whether the DJ is friend or foe.

Or simply pick your day. A day of WTJU programming can map the emotional trajectory of your everyday life. Start Mondays with the hopeful sounds of Dawn’s Early Light; after a few cups of coffee, ramp things up with the Funhouse, and blast Democracy Now! as the 4pm glaze envelops your mind. Fridays begin with Classical Comfort; listen through Sunset Road at five, keep things going with Professor Bebop and, by 3am, salve your weary mind with Old Vinyl. Ultimate respite from the daily grind comes Saturday in the form of Sunshine Daydream, the Dead-heavy joyride. 


21. Gorge on funnel cakes at the Albemarle County Fair

There’s going to Albemarle County Fair, and there’s going to the Albemarle County Fair. Behold the prize-winning vegetables, now wilting in their death throes. A man in a cage full of bees. That weird horse. Such fair attractions are standard fare for most Charlottesvillians. But seen with a slight sugar headache, and a sick feeling in the pit of your gut as your digestive system wrestles with a deep-fried cocktail of sugar, egg, milk, sugar, flour, salt, sugar and sugar—now that’s the county fair true locals know. We’re looking at you, funnel cake.



22. Get in line at 8am at the City Market—in time to have lunch at the taco stand

Get in line early. It’s the only reasonable response to the overwhelming popularity of Ignacio and Maria Beccera’s Saturday morning taco stand. These local delicacies are in such high demand there’s often a line—literally—around the block to get just one. Why? Two words: homemade tortilla. The hand-pressed wheat cake comes topped with marinated pork, queso fresco, onions and cilantro. And if you happen to get there early enough to miss the line, don’t be squeamish about the hour. It’s not every day you eat an authentic Mexican taco for breakfast…though we wish it were. 


23. Develop a theory about “what they should do with the Landmark Hotel”

When tragedy strikes, five stages of grief often follow. Construction on the Landmark quote-unquote Hotel ceased at the end of 2008, and in the ensuing months many in Charlottesville have passed through Denial (“Whaaa the hell? The city/builder/bank won’t let that thing just stand there like some Baghdad reject, will they?”) to Anger (“Whaa the hell? Is the city/etc./etc. really gonna let that thing just stand there….?”) to Bargaining (“I will never mock Halsey Minor’s mullet again if he would just pay his bills, negotiate with his lenders and finish that ugly sore of steel”) and eventually to Depression (“How can this happen to us…? We were Number One! We may as well move to Waynesboro”). But if you’re a true local, you’ve made your way to Acceptance—and with it, creativity. If you’re full of ideas about what to do with the monument to hubris and bad finances, if you’ve imagined it wrapped in muslin like an art project or wonder if it could be an answer to the overcrowding at the regional jail, then you’re having what’s become an essential Charlottesville experience.



24. Star gaze at UVA Observatory

Nothing beats holding your sweetie’s hand while staring into the universe. Folks in these parts have been doing it for 125 years. That’s the age of UVA’s McCormick Observatory. They say ol’ Thomas Jefferson himself considered the necessity of an observatory to promote and advance the study of the cosmos. In 1823, he equipped an empty room on Monroe Hill with astronomy apparatus, including a Parkinson & Frodsham clock, likely making it the first observatory in the United States. 

During McCormick Public Nights, the observatory is open on the first and third Friday night of every month for two hours. And it’s free. There’s no excuse not to do it.


25. Watch the tiny ghouls and goblins trick or treat on the UVA Lawn

Sure, we locals make a lot of jokes about UVA students. But when it comes time to pony up, our neighborhood undergrads are as enthusiastic as the rest of us about the year’s spookiest holiday. It’s the one time of year when students open their Pavilion doors and dole out handfuls of candy to local kiddos. Bonus: Like the little ladybugs and Iron Men flooding the Lawn with their parents, many of the Wahoos dress up too. Turns out, they’re not so scary after all. 

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