Set on a 2,700-acre estate, facing the Blue Ridge Mountains 25 miles northeast of Charlottesville, Montpelier was home to President James Madison and his equally famous wife, Dolley. Madison was just 26 in 1776 when he ensured that religious freedom would be included in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and his efforts at the federal Constitutional Convention in 1787 earned him the title "Father of the Constitution." Madison became secretary of state under his good friend Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809. He and Dolley fled the White House in the face of advancing British troops during the War of 1812.
Two structures remain here from their time: the manor house and the Ice House Temple (built over a well and used to store ice). William du Pont, Sr., bought the estate in 1901 and enlarged the mansion to 55 rooms (thereby almost engulfing the Madison original) and added barns, staff houses, a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, a train station, a dairy, and greenhouses. His wife created a 2-acre formal garden, and daughter Marion du Pont Scott later built the steeplechase course in front of the mansion and initiated the Montpelier Hunt Races, which are still held here on the first Saturday in November.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation now owns the property and is in the process of a meticulous, multiyear restoration, which has stripped away the du Ponts' additions to the mansion, reducing it to the 22-room brick version the Madisons occupied in 1820s. The house is open to the public during the project. You can see the Constitution Exhibit in the south wing and explore the basement rooms on your own, but upstairs you must take a 30-minute tour explaining the near-archaeological aspects of the restoration.
Meanwhile, the Madison's furnishings and many personal belongings (including a lock of James' hair and a bust of Dolley rendered in 1818 by John William Coffee) are on display in the visitor center's "Treasures of Montpelier" exhibit. The Madisons are buried in the family graveyard.
The visitor center also shows what the house looked like during its du Pont incarnation. There's a snack bar, too, plus special children's programs during summer. Audio tours, included in the price of admission, guide you through the property.
You'll need at least 2 hours to see everything, and you'll do a bit of walking, so wear comfortable shoes. Also call ahead for a schedule of special events, such as the races in November, birthday celebrations for James (Mar 16) and Dolley (May 20), the Montpelier Wine Festival in May, and Constitution Day (Sept 17).
Take the Scenic Route to Montpelier -- I go between Montpelier and Charlottesville via Va. 20, one of the state's most scenic drives. This 25-mile-long Presidents Route more or less follows the same winding road Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison took when they visited each other. You'll pass near Barboursville Vineyards and Burnley Vineyards on the way.