Free Things to Do in Charlottesville
Charlottesville is one of Virginia’s best places for solo female travel. It’s within easy driving distance of Washington DC (it can even be a great day trip from DC) and full of history, natural beauty and a surprising art scene. Even if you’re on a shoestring budget, there are tons of free things to do in Charlottesville. You’ll be able to enjoy the arts, the outdoors and even some of the city’s most iconic attractions without spending a dime.
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Top 3 Free Things to Do in Charlottesville
The historic Downtown Mall is a brick-laid pedestrian Main Street and it’s probably one of the first places you’ll go in Charlottesville. There are lots of local restaurants and boutiques, art galleries and historic theaters, and many offices and residential apartments. Even if you’re just window shopping and people watching, this is a must-do.
The University of Virginia is so beautiful, it is one of the only college campuses in the world to be on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Some top landmarks of the Grounds (not the campus!) are the iconic Rotunda building, the rustic stone Chapel, the gorgeous Pavilion Gardens bracketed by serpentine brick walls, Edgar Allan Poe’s room, the Pratt Gingko which erupts into golden leaves each fall, and the new Memorial to Enslaved Laborers honoring the African-Americans who built the University.
Carter Mountain Orchard
Carter Mountain boasts one of the best sunset views in Charlottesville and their free Sunset Series on Thursdays in the summer capitalizes on it. Admission is free, but you should plan on spending a little money on warm apple cider donuts, hard cider tastings and apple picking while you’re here. You also may need reservations during busy times of year or for events.
Experience the Arts
Charlottesville has a surprisingly rich arts and culture scene for a town of its size, and many of its arts attractions are free.
The Fralin Museum of Art
For a traditional museum experience, The Fralin at the University of Virginia will fit the bill. Exhibitions rotate seasonally and cover a wide range of artists and topics, with an eye to the classics. (Side note: Did you know Georgia O’Keeffe used to live in Charlottesville? She attended classes at UVA before women were allowed to officially enroll! You can drive by her house near UVA Grounds on Wertland Street.)
Second Street Gallery
Located just off the Downtown Mall, on the corner of Second Street SE and Water Street, Second Street Gallery has a very upscale, contemporary vibe. You’ll see high end works from national level artists here.
Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection
This is the only museum of Aboriginal Australian art in the United States! Though it is also part of the University of Virginia, it is not located on Grounds; it is a 10 to 15 minute drive away, on Pantops near the Martha Jefferson Hospital.
The Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center
The Jefferson School is a must visit with many exhibits critical to understanding Charlottesville’s history. The building, once a segregated high school for Black students, is about a 15 minute walk from the Downtown Mall.
McGuffey Art Center
To enjoy not just art to getting to know the artists themselves, pop into the McGuffey Art Center, just off the Downtown Mall. Several artists keep open studio hours here where you can see them at work.
Ix Art Park
My personal favorite arts attraction and free thing to do in Charlottesville is the Ix Art Park, which is just a 10 minute walk from the Downtown Mall. It’s a street art lover’s fever dream come true. This mural festooned wonderland fills the shell of a former textile factory with colorful paintings, large sculptures and immersive exhibits. There is a ticketed exhibit, the Looking Glass, indoors, but the outdoor park is free and open to the public seven days a week. Add your bucket list dreams to the “Before I Die” chalk wall, step inside the serene green of “The Nest” and snap a selfie with the Love Butt.
There is a free farmers market every Saturday morning and there are other free events periodically throughout the year. In 2022, Fridays in June, July and early August will play host to a free outdoor film series “Ix Flix.” Keep an eye on ixartpark.org for a lineup!
Disclaimer: I am a full-time employee of the IX Art Park, so this post is not sponsored, but I do technically get paid by them.
Mural Mile Hike
Want more murals? (Why wouldn’t you?) The Charlottesville Mural Project has an amazing, interactive map showing all the beautiful murals in and around Charlottesville. (Or you can use this self-guided walking tour itinerary.) Hopping in the car or on your bike to see how many you can spot is definitely one of the most entertaining free things to do in Charlottesville.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Saunders Trail, which is part of Monticello, is probably the best easy hike near Charlottesville. It’s very convenient to town, it’s not physically strenuous – it’s perfect if you just want to take a nice walk outdoors. The trail can get crowded pretty quickly and parking is even more limited, so try to visit early in the morning.
Another accessible free hike near Charlottesville is the Rivanna Trail, which makes a loop around the city limits. There are several entry and exit points breaking the trail up into sections of varying lengths. Quarry Park, Fontaine Research Park and Riverview Park are the entrances that have the best parking.
Ivy Creek Natural Area
For top notch wildlife sightings without leaving town, head to Ivy Creek. The birdwatching here is excellent, and you might also spot some white-tailed deer.
Fee Free Days at Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive typically have an admission fee, but the National Park Service has a few fee-free days each year. The dates for 2022 are January 17, April 16, August 4, September 24 and November 11.
Preddy Creek Park
This trail park just north of town offers 16 miles of gently rolling trails for hiking, running, biking and horseback riding. It’s one of my favorite spots for a simple walk in the woods.
Humpback Rocks is possibly the best hike near Charlottesville, period. It’s not difficult, can easily fit into an afternoon, and offers excellent views at the top. It’s just over a 30 minute drive from Charlottesville on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Grelen & Montpelier Trail Systems
Two of Orange County, Virginia’s biggest attractions are connected by a massive network of free walking trails! James Madison’s Montpelier has a trail system over 8 miles in total, where you’ll see meadows of wildflowers, horse pastures, an impressive Old Growth forest, and the archaeological remains of a Civil War camp. An additional 4 miles of trail lead to the Market at Grelen, a beautiful nursery, garden shop and cafe.
Quarry Gardens at Schuyler
This is a botanical garden like you’ve never seen before! Located a little over 30 minutes south of Charlottesville in Nelson County, this former soapstone quarry has been transformed into a sanctuary for native Virginia plants. Navigate giant cut rock staircases and learn to the notice the little things in nature. Free tours are available by appointment only.
Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail
Also located in Nelson County is this 7-mile out-and-back trail. The entrance at Piney River trailhead is marked by a historic train depot and along the way you’ll see old rail cars and a cute covered bridge.
Sugar Hollow Trail
The best hike to a swimming hole near Charlottesville is at Sugar Hollow. Be prepared for difficult river crossings on the way to Blue Hole.
Other Free Things to Do in Charlottesville
Fridays After Five
Charlottesville is positively packed with live music venues. (The local music industry boomed after Dave Matthews hit it big in the ’90s.) You can find a huge range of acts almost every night downtown. The large outdoor Pavilion at the end of the Downtown Mall holds free concerts after 5pm on Fridays from April to October. This is far and away the most popular free thing to do in Charlottesville, especially with locals.
Stargazing at McCormick Observatory
UVA’s observatory offers public nights on the first and third Friday of each month. Take a peek through their telescopes and listen to a lecture from a member of the astronomy department. (Note: These have been suspended until further notice due to the pandemic, but keep an eye on the department’s website for updates.)
Free Wine Tasting in Charlottesville
Charlottesville is the center point for a burgeoning wine industry with dozens of vineyards throughout its surrounding counties. If you don’t have time to leave the downtown area or don’t want to spend on a tasting, Market Street Wine Shop hosts free weekly tastings of a few featured bottles. (Note: These were suspended due to the pandemic. Keep an eye on their website for updates.)
About 30 minutes north of town, a former governor’s mansion burned to the ground on Christmas Day 1884. The octagonal brick ruins now sit on the grounds of one of Virginia’s biggest wineries (Barboursville Vineyards) and are one of the coolest sights in the region. Pack a picnic for a free lunch with a great view, but maybe budget a little cash for a bottle of wine.
Exploring Charlottesville and its surrounding counties can be budget friendly if you know where to look. Enjoying these free things to do in Charlottesville will help you save your budget for accommodations and meals out.
Read my full guide to an art-filled weekend in Charlottesville.