Sunny Side of the Mountain | Building in Charlottesville, Virginia

In the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Albemarle County, home to Charlottesville, is one perfect little world.

A view of the surrounding environment

Charlottesville, Virginia and surrounding Albemarle County is consistently ranked as one of the top places to live in the country. It certainly offers the best of both worlds: a thriving town and a rural outpost with a wonderful mix of urban, cultural, rural and rustic. The area also is amazingly gorgeous: rolling hills, vineyards, apple orchards, lakes, rivers and 30 miles of Shenendoah National Park's Skyline Drive are nearby. Thomas Jefferson had it right when he called the area and his hometown "the Eden of America."

Jefferson's contributions - his home Monticello and the University of Virginia - have played an enormous role in shaping the town. UVA is a major economic engine for the county as well as the cultural and activity center. The university also helps attract a diverse group of people who bring new perspectives and energy to the community. Still, Charlottesville isn't just another college town. The city has focused on a revitalization of the downtown pedestrian mall to serve as the community hub.

Restored buildings lining the brick walk are now home to locally owned boutiques, restaurants and even a vintage 1930s theater. The feel is eclectic and artsy with a Southern flair. Despite a little snowfall in winter, temperatures in Albemarle County are mild, and seasons are distinct and beautiful. Which means plenty of time to enjoy the bounty of recreation: 2,000 acres of parkland, man-made sand beaches fronting a fresh-water lake, and a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Given all of these factors, it's no wonder Albemarle is one of the fastest-growing counties in Virginia. And the county had the foresight to plan for growth: to maintain the area?s rural integrity, planners set aside 35 square miles for urban zones that contain both commercial and residential development. The rest of the county is left to open spaces. Around here, you can live in the backwoods amid a serene slice of countryside, but you're never too far from the cultural riches of a city or even a corner grocery. And that makes those consistently high rankings well earned and much deserved.