Yorktown 1781 – where the world turned upside down. If you are a “Hamilton” fan, you will recognize that line from the musical but did you know that you can actually visit the place where the world turned upside down? The Yorktown Battlefield is a must-do while visiting the Historic Triangle of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown with your family.
There are several different areas of Yorktown to see, from the battlefield to the historical downtown to the state-of-the art museum. I encourage you to see as much as you can!
The Yorktown Battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historical Park. This park extends on the Colonial Parkway from Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement, to Yorktown, the site of the British defeat in the American War for Independence. Each of these parks will have their own review on The History Mom and today, I am focusing on Yorktown.
We all know that Yorktown is considered the place where America emerged victorious in the Revolutionary War but seeing the sites and hearing the stories in person really brings home just how tenuous this fight for freedom truly was. Your kids will love standing in the same spot as American heroes such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, where their courage and bravery was tested and proven.
The battlefield itself is a drivable tour and easy to do with kids. You should stop at the Visitor Center to begin your tour and pay your park entrance fee of $10/car (free if you have a 4th grader and have downloaded the Every Kid in a Park pass).
The Visitor Center has a 15-minute movie to watch about the battle and siege of the town that is replayed on the hour and the half hour. It’s a bit dated but is worthwhile to watch.
There is also a small museum at the Visitor Center with a replica of a large ship and several hands-on activities for children.
My kids loved playing with the building blocks to make a redoubt and fort.
The museum also has one of George Washington’s field tents and you can see how the tent was set up for Washington during the siege. It is really fascinating!
Before you head out for your tour, check out the gift shop where you can purchase toys, books, and water. Don’t forget to ask for the Junior Ranger activity booklet! Be sure to also get a copy of the Yorktown driving map from a ranger as the drive is a little confusing. You can also inquire about guided tours provided by the park rangers throughout the day.
As you leave the Visitor Center, you will begin the 7-mile battlefield tour. Note that portions of this tour are one-way so be sure to plot your trip before you begin. I recommend taking a left out of the parking lot and continuing straight to the Redoubts 9 and 10 stop (ignoring the historical tour right turn sign). This is the most notable stop for any “Hamilton” enthusiast. In the musical, when Hamilton is singing, “Take the bullets out your gun,” this is where it happened! Redoubt 10 was captured by American troops, led by Alexander Hamilton, while Redoubt 9 was taken by French forces led by Lafayette. It is hard not to sing the lyrics when you view the site where it actually happened!
Take a left upon leaving the redoubts to continue the driving tour to the Moore House, where the terms of surrender were negotiated. The house is only open occasionally so we did not have a chance to see inside. This house was also heavily damaged by the Civil War and the second siege of Yorktown that occurred during that war. The view of the York River is worth a stop even if you can’t see the inside!
You can then continue on the Battlefield loop road, which becomes one-way after the Moore house. This part of the drive is beautiful, with places to pull over and read about what you are seeing. This road will lead you to Surrender field, where the British army laid down their weapons.
From the parking area at Surrender field, you can decide to add on the Allied Encampment Tour route which takes you to Washington’s headquarters, an evocative French cemetery, and the French encampment area. While this is a beautiful, 9-mile drive, if you are short on time (or your children’s attention spans are waning!), I would skip this part of the trip. There are no buildings to see, only fields, woods, and pullouts with interpretive signs.
After you leave Surrender Field, you will head back towards the town and will finish up the driving tour. Don’t miss the Second Allied Siege Line stop and the Yorktown National Cemetery.
After leaving the Battlefield tour, take a right after the road to the Visitor Center to view the Yorktown Victory Monument and its beautiful location on the York River.
Don’t miss the ruins of Gen. Cornwallis’ headquarters on your left before you get to the monument. All that is left is the outline of the foundation but it is very interesting to see how close he was to the front line.
This area is a good place to get out of the car and explore the historical town on foot. There are several colonial houses to see, including the Nelson house which still has artillery scars on its exterior. Several of the homes are open to the public while others remain private homes. This is a pedestrian-only zone so it is a good place to allow the kids to get some energy out.
After you are done with the historic town, a good place to stop for lunch is the Riverwalk area. This makes a great stop after the battlefield and before the museum (described below). There are several shops and restaurants in a small, walkable riverfront area, all with amazing views of the river! There is even a cute little beach here but be on the lookout for jellyfish!
American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
The relatively new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is one of my favorite museums! It has tons of great historical artifacts, all displayed in an easy-to-understand and interactive way. The movies in the museum and the hands-on activities are some of the best I have seen and do a great job at keeping the interest of children. This museum is a must-do while in the Historical Triangle.
The museum is just west of the Riverwalk area and has a huge parking lot. Your kids will want to get a picture with George Washington on the walk from the parking lot!
Upon entering, the first movie you encounter is in the lobby area about the history of Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg and the activities you can find there today. This video is not essential so skip it and head directly into the museum.
Check with your ticket agent about the time of the next showing of the “Liberty Fever” movie in the main theater. You don’t want to miss this excellent movie that tells the stories of the people who fought for independence, from soldiers to women on the homefront. If the movie has already started, go ahead to the special exhibition gallery and make a note of the time to come back to see the movie. My children still talk about the innovative way that the movie tells the story of the Revolution through a shadow puppet technique.
Exit the theater and begin the tour of the museum. The special exhibition gallery will be first, and the current exhibit, Forgotten Soldier, is about free and enslaved African Americans’ contributions to the Revolution. There are some hands-on activities to help children understand what a hard situation the enslaved population was in during the war – should they flee to British lines and hope for protection or should they fight for their freedom with the colonists?
After leaving this gallery, you will enter the main gallery of the museum, which is beautiful and educational. All of the galleries are linked by the Grand Corridor which also has many personal stories from the Revolution displayed.
There are statues of famous revolutionaries like Patrick Henry and several videos to see, all of which are worthwhile. The showstopper theater experience, however, is in the Siege Theater near the end of the gallery. This is a not-to-be missed fully immersive experience to put you and your children in the shoes of those in Yorktown during the battle. The seats rumble and lights flash as smoke enters the theater to make this experience unique. If you have younger children (under 6) or those who are sensitive to loud sounds, you might want to skip this experience. However this movie alone is worth the trip to the museum!
Let your kids linger at the interactive exhibits at the museum – lots of touchscreen activities and ways for kids to learn more about the people behind the Revolution.
There are swords for kids to hold and costumes to try on. Don’t forget to get your map stamped as part of the Stamp Act gallery!
Your kids will be amazed at seeing an original broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. They also will enjoy seeing the different houses in the galleries, from a poor farmer’s home to a wealthy plantation home. The galleries do a great job at explaining the differing points of view, from the well-known founders to women to enslaved persons.
One of my favorite exhibits is the Liberty Tree where you kids can write and display what liberty means to them.
After you are finished with galleries, head outside to the Continential Army encampment.
Seeing the tents set up, it really impresses upon you how hard the conditions for the army actually were.
Your kids can take part in camp life, interacting with the reenactors and learning about how they cooked, lived, and prepared for war in the camp. My kids’ favorite thing to do was learning how to fire a musket!
Kids can also help with cannon demonstrations so be sure to get a schedule of events when you enter the museum so you don’t miss this opportunity.
There is also an 18th century farm at the museum along with a replica of a slave cabin. Kids can participate in farm activities and learn about 18th century life from the reenactors.
As you can see, there is enough to do at the museum to fill a whole day! The must-do items are the 2 movies (“Liberty Fever” and in the Siege Theater), the galleries, and the musket/cannon firing in the army encampment.
To help you plan your visit and to enhance it while you are there, be sure to download the gallery tour app from the museum. It is very interactive and has a special spy tour just for kids!
Visiting Yorktown is something that every American needs to do to honor those who won our country’s freedom on this land. The battlefield, historical town, and museum are all easy to see with kids and are places that your kids won’t forget. With the upcoming 238th anniversary of the Yorktown victory in October, the town will host its annual Yorktown Victory Day with a parade and many special events. It is a great time to plan a fall trip to Yorktown!
- National Battlefield Historical Park (includes homes in the historical town): $10/car; free with Every Kid in a Park pass
- Riverwalk: free
- American Revolution Museum at Yorktown: $15/adult; $7.50/children 6-13; special options and combination tickets available online; Virginia residents can come back free for a year with American Heritage Annual Pass
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour times: There is so much to see and do that you can spend a whole day in Yorktown!
- National Battlefield Historical Park: 1 hour including Visitor Center
- American Revolution Museum at Yorktown: 2-3 hours
- Gift shop located at the NPS Visitor Center and the museum; cafe located at museum
- Transportation: Yorktown is best seen by car, particularly the battlefield drives. Parking is available at each point of interest. There is a free trolley that runs every day through November that will take you to the main tourist destinations. However, it does not do the battlefield driving tour.
- Dining options nearby: The Riverwalk area has many restaurants, including several that have beautiful water views. We ate at Carrot Tree on our last trip and it was yummy! The museum has a great cafe as well.
- Nearby hotels: Williamsburg (10 minute drive from Yorktown) is a huge tourist destination so there are many hotels to explore. See the Williamsburg Visitor site here for all of the options. If you plan to be in the Historic Triangle for several days with your family, I recommend making the Kingsmill Resort your home base. You can stay in a 1-3 bedroom condo, and it is centrally located for all of the tourist destinations. There is also a Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg that is popular with families.
- Nearby attractions include: The Watermen’s Museum, Historic Yorktown Cruises, Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement, Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens, Go Ape! Treetop Adventure, Virginia Living Museum, and The Mariners’ Museum
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- At the Battle of Yorktown: An Interactive Battlefield Adventure
- Susanna’s Midnight Ride: The Girl Who Won the Revolutionary War
- Lafayette! (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #8): A Revolutionary War Tale
- Give Me Liberty
- Young Patriots: Inspiring Stories of the American Revolution
- The American Revolution for Kids: A History with 21 Activities
- A Kids’ Guide to the American Revolution (Kids’ Guide to American History)
- Guts & Glory: The American Revolution
- DK Eyewitness American Revolution
- American Revolution: A Nonfiction Companion (Magic Treehouse)
- 6 and up:
Have you seen the place where the world turned upside down? Comment below!
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