Learning by doing is way more fun than reading a book. That’s just one of the reasons why you should consider a trip to America’s historic triangle. The Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown settlements mark major events in the story of colonial America… and they are so close to one another that you can really explore all three in one fell swoop.
While people may think of Colonial Williamsburg as more of a school field trip locale, complete with actors in traditional garb, it’s important to remember what happened here remains so relevant today. For example, 2019 marks 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, as well as the convening of the first General Assembly, which lay the foundation for a democratic, independent United States. There’s many incredible stories to be gleaned, even if you arrive skeptical, you’ll leave with a greater appreciation for the United States.
Here are three ways to explore Williamsburg.
Good for everyone to know:
- It’s actually free to explore the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living museum in the world. However, if you want to go into most of the buildings, partake in tours, take a carriage ride or watch artisans hone their craft, you’ll need a ticket.
- Make it extra-easy on yourself by downloading the free Colonial Williamsburg’s mobile app. You may purchase admission tickets, reserve carriage rides and gain access to coupons.
- There’s a lot going on in Williamsburg—be sure to check out their weekly schedule prior to heading there.
- And if you’re looking for things to do on the cheap, check out the Yorktown Trolley and Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. Rides on both are free.
If you’re interested in American history, few places offer as much as Williamsburg. From the Governor’s Palace to the second-oldest university in the USA, you aren’t going to run out of things to do.
Where to stay:
There are many fabulous historic accommodations in Williamsburg, but why not go for the full experience by staying at an authentic colonial house? There’s plenty to choose from—ranging from single rooms to large houses.
Where to eat:
Christina Campbell’s Tavern was one of George Washington’s favorite haunts, and it hasn’t changed much since the 18th Century. The food is fine, but a meal here is really more about the experience. Please note it’s only open from 5-7:45pm Tuesday – Saturday.
For something more modern, visit the Amber Ox Ale House. This place really doesn’t have anything to do with history, but if you want me to reframe the narrative, let’s say that if our founding fathers were alive today, this is where they’d hang out. Great food, delicious beer, and the perfect place to solve all the world’s problems.
Where to shop:
When it comes to antiques, the east coast can’t be beat. Williamsburg offers lots of cool vintage and antique shops—perfect for bringing home a one of a kind souvenir.
What to do:
Looking to do a deep dive in Colonial Williamsburg history? Sign up for the behind the scenes tour. You’ll gain exclusive access to areas of Williamsburg typically not open to the public. This tour operated often, but not daily, so visit their calendar to time your trip accordingly.
Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center
See the remnants of colonial life in historic Jamestowne. Learn all about the area’s history, from prehistoric times to the present. Additionally, over 1,000 artifacts from Virginia Indian, European, and African cultures are on display. If you’re interested in archeology, check out their calendar to find a talk that piques your interest (or possibly watch a dig in action!).
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Learn all about the nation’s founding, spanning the twilight of the colonial period to the dawn of the Constitution and beyond. Galleries include artifacts, interactive exhibits (you can help with chores on a Revolution-era farm), and partake in “The Siege of Yorktown,” a film screened in 180-degrees, complete with surround-sound musket fire and smoke machines.
William & Mary
As the second-oldest college in the states, William & Mary is full of interesting history. Explore the people, places, and events of this campus through a self-guided walking tour. TribeTrek is free mobile app puts the history of this school in the palm of your hands. Learn about buildings, like the Wren (the oldest campus building in the USA), sculptures and other sites.
Fun Family Vacation
Who said an educational vacation has to be boring? With lots of immersive historical experiences aimed at kids (not to mention a big amusement and water park nearby), Williamsburg has something for everyone in your family.
Where to stay:
I used to spend way too much time researching interesting stylish, boutique hotels. Now that I’m a parent, I’m all about the convenience. Is it clean? Can I get a grilled cheese for the kids in a snap? Is there a pool? If you’re like me, check out the Kingsmill. There’s an indoor and outdoor pool; marina with access to pontoon, kayak, paddleboard rentals and more; a spa, golf and lots of food options. Staying here makes life easier.
Where to eat:
Who doesn’t love barbecue? Open since 1971, Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que remains a local favorite for smoked ribs and chicken, brisket sandwiches and more.
It’s not a vacation without a daily sugar rush. Visit Shoofly Dairy Bar for soft-serve ice cream, snowcones, homemade whoopie pies, and their namesake treat, shoofly pies (a molasses crumb cake). Why not try them all? No one ever goes on vacation to lose weight.
What to do:
Short and sweet tours
It’s so much more fun to explore a place with a knowledgeable guide. That said, good luck surviving a two-hour historical tour with kids in tow. As a part of your Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, you get access to two tours designed with kids in mind. The Governor’s Palace kids tour focuses on the governor’s family and their time at the Palace; and the Children’s Tour of the Capitol teaches all about seats of power in this government building. The best part? Both tours run about 25 minutes—perfect for elementary school kids.
Older kids will love learning about Haunted Williamsburg. From authentic 18th-century colonial ghost stories to creepy modern-day tales, this candlelit experience is fun and a wee bit unnerving. It’s for ages eight and older; if you’re with littler kids, check out the Ghost Walk Junior tour.
Colonial times meet modern innovation
These days, your teenager probably doesn’t think of you as “cool.” Book a Segway tour of historic Yorktown and change that for an hour. This informative tour is so much fun, you won’t even realize you’re learning. Please note, the minimum age for the Segway tour is 14.
Horse-drawn carriages are to Williamsburg what double-decker buses are to London: Super-touristy, but way fun. Close your eyes and listen to the horse hooves clopping down the street, wind rustling though the trees. You’ll find yourself transported to 18th-century America… until you get a text notification on your phone.
Carriage rides operate daily, weather permitting. Tickets may be purchased at the Lumber House Ticket Office, or the William Pitt Store, or the mobile app on the day of use. Rides are a popular experience and often sell out. Book your reservation as early in the day as possible.
Fresh air alert:
If you have kids, finding a great park is key to vacation success. Those ankle biters need to burn off some steam. Kidsburg is the kind of park that will make a lasting impression on your little ones. This 30,000 square-foot lighted playground is housed within a public park—yep, that means it’s not only fun, but free! There’s areas for both little kids and older ones, plus a zipline and swing areas.
Relaxing Romantic Getaway
Rarely does one find “popular school field trip” and “romantic getaway” used to describe the same place. But it’s true in Williamsburg. From delicious wine to one-of-a-kind spa experiences, it’s a great spot for two.
Where to stay:
Drop your bags at Wedmore Place, the hotel at Williamburg Winery. Your room (ahem, most have fireplaces!) comes with breakfast and wine tasting for two. There’s many packages available, and if you’re really interested in the local beer, wine and distillery scene, you can select an option that includes off-site tastings as well.
Where to eat:
Located in Merchant Square, Fat Canary serves food that’s decidedly more modern than what you’ll find in the old school colonial taverns. Think seared ahi tuna, Caprese salad, and braised short ribs. Yummy cocktails and a nice wine list round out the experience. If it’s nice, grab a seat on the patio.
What to do:
Hit the spa like it’s 1699
Who doesn’t love partaking in a little self-care? For something a little out of the ordinary, check out the offerings at the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg. This spa draws inspiration from treatments stretching as far as 400 years back (don’t worry, no leeches involved!). From a detoxifying herbal wrap and hot stone massage influenced by 17th Century healing rituals, to a traditional African bath, dry brush exfoliation and strengthening massage, it’s the most relaxing way to learn about the past that I’ve ever heard of.
Drink to your health!
It’s said that early American settlers believed drinking healed the body, and boosted energy for the weak and elderly. Hmmm, not sure if that’s true, but why not see if you’re feeling extra strong after exploring Williamsburg Tasting Trail. Learn about the numerous wineries, breweries and distilleries around Williamsburg here. Tick a few off your list, but please note that Ubers, Lyfts and transportations services are plentiful, so do the right thing and let a pro do the driving.
Get out on the Water
Whenever I’m near a body of water, I want to get on it. Check into a three-hour tour (cue Gilligan’s Island theme song!) on the York River from Williamsburg Charter Sales. Bring your own wine, beer, and snacks to enjoy as the wind whips through your hair.
Have you been to Williamsburg? What are some of your favorite spots?
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Images from Colonial Williamsburg