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Charlottesville named among top family-friendly travel destinations in the US

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While locals may have always known that Charlottesville is “a booming southern gem that’s rich in history and fun to discover,” it is now in black and white.

Charlottesville has been named one of the top 10 family-friendly travel destinations in the U.S. by Yelp, the online review site and travel advisory service. The city was ranked No. 3 for its rich history, wealth of outdoor recreational options and abundance of good eats — specifically its cider and soul food.

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The news comes nearly a year after another online travel service, Booking.com, named the city among its “Top 20 Most Welcoming Cities and Towns in the U.S.A.”

“This latest recognition means that families are feeling included and recognized too,” Courtney Cacatian, executive director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau, told The Daily Progress. “Positive press recognition in such a well-known source for visitor information is a boon to our community and to our visitors.”

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Charlottesville has long been popular as a tourist destination thanks to the area’s connection to American history, proximity to a countryside rich in wineries, breweries and cideries, dining scene, theaters and museums. 

In addition to calling attention to the city’s various attractions, such honors may also signal the end of what Cacatian described as a “turbulent few years.”

“When COVID happened, many hospitality and tourism businesses shuttered their doors — some never to reopen. Food and labor costs rose immensely, and all of this under a shadow of the events of 2017,” she said.

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The deadly Unite the Right rally-turned-riot in 2017, when White supremacists mobbed downtown Charlottesville and killed an anti-racist counterprotester, left a stain on the city. Charlottesville became a hashtag online and shorthand in conversation for racial violence. Confronting the roots of what transpired, coming to terms with its new reputation and countering waves of negative press has been a challenge, not just for the visitors bureau but for the businesses that rely on travelers’ dollars and the residents who regularly see their city’s name trending for all the wrong reasons.

But the work that those people, those residents and the visitors bureau have put in appears to be paying off. Some of the area’s apple cider doughnuts and fried chicken, didn’t hurt. 

Downtown Mall (copy)

Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Carter Mountain Orchard just south of the city and Mel’s Cafe on West Main Street were two Charlottesville staples featured in Yelp’s online post announcing the city’s new designation. Yelp also highlighted the city’s proximity to the Shenandoah National Park nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

In a city that has on occasion flaunted its foodie bona fides, many may be surprised that it was Mel’s, a homestyle soul food diner across the street from the train station, that claimed the limelight. 

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Owner and operator Melvin Walker wasn’t surprised. He took the news in stride, barely glancing up from his grill, where he was busy flipping burgers and sending another batch of potatoes into the fryer.

“We treat everybody like family, nice and friendly, and we have the best home-cooked food in the whole city,” Walker told The Daily Progress.

Melvin Walker

Melvin Walker opened the current iteration of Mel’s Cafe on West Main Street in Charlottesville in 1995.

Walker opened the diner in 1984, but had to close it five years later due to a lack of business. Since he reopened Mel’s in 1995, it has become a mainstay in the city. And Walker still works the kitchen from open to close.

His building, known for its wide windows and distinctive angular roofline that are hallmarks of the now-endangered Googie architectural style, received protected status from City Council in 2013.

This was the first year Yelp has released a list of the country’s top 10 family-friendly cities based on user data and feedback, the company said. The company reported an 88% increase in users searching “good for kids” from 2021 to 2023 and decided to delve further into what qualities comprise the perfect vacation destination for American families. Ahead of Charlottesville in the rankings were Fredericksburg, Texas, at No. 1 and Napa, California, at No. 2.

“Yelp is always trying to find different ways to highlight local communities and businesses, and after seeing the demand for family-friendly travel spots, they were inspired to compile this list based on feedback and data from users,” Yelp spokeswoman Noa Albilia told The Daily Progress.

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Tourist hot spots, such as Carter Mountain, check a lot of boxes for families: good food and drink, scenic vistas, plenty of space. 

“​​We’re certainly honored to be part of this tourism community,” Cynthia Chiles, part of the Chiles family that has owned Carter Mountain for years, told The Daily Progress in an email. “There continues to be an appetite for wholesome outdoor activities that folks can enjoy with family and friends. Our business remains steady. Anytime a ranking like this comes out the area as a whole will benefit from travelers who are now inspired to visit.”

apple picking

Garrett Briggs holds his son, Austin Briggs, while apple picking Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at Carter Mountain Orchard.

Mel’s and Carter Mountain are just a sampling of what the Charlottesville area has to offer, said Cacatian, who noted the area’s many historical sites, hiking and riding trails, museums, theaters, shops and fine dining options.

Despite the economic challenges of the past several years, the latest recognition from Yelp underscores what other data has been reporting recently: Business is back in Charlottesville. Retail vacancies are the lowest they’ve been since before the pandemic and the city’s sales tax revenue is trending upward. In addition, multiple new hotels are in the planning stages and the city’s downtown pedestrian mall was just named to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that could help preserve it for generations of families to come.

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“Our industry is resilient, hardworking, innovative and, above all, welcoming,” said Cacatian. “Most of the businesses that serve visitors are locally owned, including restaurants, wedding planners, shops, outdoor recreation outfitters and more. They heavily rely on a combination of loyal local customers and a steady stream of visitors. Driven by passion, many of these businesses have survived now that we have welcomed back visitors to our area.”

Emily Hemphill (540) 855-0362

[email protected]

@EmilyHemphill06 on Twitter


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