Colonial Williamsburg (Virginia)

https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.com

 

The Historic Triangle in Virginia is one of the most important places in American history.  I have already reviewed two of the three sites in the Triangle (Yorktown and Jamestown) and today I am reviewing the last site in the triangle, Colonial Williamsburg.  There is enough to see and do in Colonial Williamsburg to justify spending several days there.  It is a great place to bring the whole family to learn about life in America during colonial times.  From seeing a fife and drum marching band to playing colonial games, your kids will have a fun time in the place “where history never gets old!”

Colonial Williamsburg was saved from becoming just something we can see in the history books by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the 1920s.  Thankfully his interest and money preserved the buildings and rebuilt the town to reflect how it looked when it served as Virginia’s colonial capital from 1699-1780.  Many of the buildings are reproductions but are historically accurate.  

Colonial Williamsburg covers dozens of buildings, museums, and locations all within walking distance from each other, mostly along Duke of Gloucester Street.  This stroller-friendly street is a mile long and takes you from the College of William and Mary on one end to the Capitol at the other end.  

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On busy summer days or weekends, the main colonial area gets very crowded so try to visit on an off day if possible.  I encourage you to purchase your tickets online and to make reservations for taverns, hotels, and carriage rides well in advance. 

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There are several ticket options to choose from, and I encourage anyone living within driving distance to purchase an annual pass so you can see the sites during multiple visits.  

Begin your tour at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, located directly off of the Colonial Parkway that links the 3 Historic Triangle sites. 

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This enormous visitor center has gifts shops, a cafe, a theater, tour information, and a place for the whole family to rent a colonial costume!  

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If you buy tickets online, you still have to come here to exchange the online voucher for your daily ticket.  You will also want to be sure to get a copy of the extensive daily programs and map while here.  The daily program marks the events that are family-friendly.  Also download the Colonial Williamsburg app before your visit to get a copy of the program schedule as well as a listing of the costumed interpreters’ schedules.  The Colonial Williamsburg interpreters are trained actors portraying real citizens from Williamsburg’s past.

The movie, shown in the visitor center theater every 30 minutes, is a bit dated so feel free to skip.  Head to the back of the center, where you can either walk or take a free shuttle bus to Colonial Williamsburg.  If you choose to walk, don’t miss the “walk back in time signs” along the way. 

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You will want to briefly walk through the Great Hopes Plantation if it is open.  This site explores what life was like in Williamsburg for small farmers and the enslaved population.  It can be found immediately after the windmill.

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As you begin your Colonial Williamsburg experience, you might be overwhelmed with all of the options.  There is a lot to do!  For your first visit, I recommend focusing on the 2 main historic buildings, the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol, while mixing in a few of the smaller sites along the way.  The tours of those two sites plus the walk between can take up a majority of the day!  

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The Governor’s Palace will be your first stop whether walking or taking the shuttle.  Be sure to check-in with the interpreter at the left gate to get counted for the next 30-minute guided tour (usually every 20-25 minutes).  I recommend the guided tour for children ages 6 and up.  If you have younger children, ask the interpreter when the palace will be open for self-guided tours, typically the last hour before closing.  You can also look at the program to see if a special children’s tour of the palace is coming up, which is good for 4-6 year olds.

As you are waiting for the guided tour to begin, you can explore the palace kitchen and other outbuildings. 

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10 minutes before your tour, you will be ushered into a waiting room in the palace where you can explore maps and photos.  Your interpreter will explain more about the palace and its role in colonial life.  

Then you will line up to enter the palace.  Your kids will be fascinated with the entry hall and its massive display of weaponry!  

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Your tour will take you upstairs where you will learn about the colonial governor and see the Royal Governor’s bedrooms, including his wife’s red damask dressing room/parlor.

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The last room on the tour was my favorite, a grand ballroom where men and women, boys and girls, will line up opposite each other as if at a dance!  Don’t miss exploring the lovely gardens of the palace as you leave.

As you leave the palace, check to see when the next fife and drums march will be.  It is fun to see it end right on the palace green.

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As you walk away from the palace, I recommend stopping in the Wythe house, which is one of the few original homes still standing and was where Thomas Jefferson studied law with George Wythe.  It’s self-guided so you can make it a quick stop.  

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Walk towards Duke of Gloucester Street and pop into Bruton Parish Church. 

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This beautiful building is where our founding fathers worshipped while serving in the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg. 

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Make sure to look at the student balcony, which is over the entrance.  This is where a young Thomas Jefferson would have sat as a student at William and Mary.  The church still has an active congregation that provides tours with fascinating stories, including one about the church’s baptismal font.  This font was brought to Jamestown in the early 1600s and is still used for baptisms today!  A $1 donation per person is suggested to visit the church.

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Head down the street towards the Capitol.  If open, you will definitely want to take your kids in the Geddy House Foundry, which is now the site of Colonial Williamsburg seasonal family activities.  

As you begin to walk into the Market Square area, you will pass several trade shops, including a shoemaker and weaver.  These trade shops are staffed by skilled workers showing you how their trade was made in colonial times.  There are over a dozen of these various shops and each one is unique.  Enter the ones that look most interesting to you (or don’t have a line!) and see how many you can see along your walk to the Capitol. You can know if the trade shop is open by the flag out front.

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I was fascinated with my visit to the printing office.  It is amazing to see the intricate work that goes into printing an 18th century newspaper or book.  

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You will also want to see the inside of the Magazine building. 

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There is a small spiral staircase to the main floor so avoid this if you have young children or strollers. 

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The magazine housed the colonial town’s weapons and gunpowder and was the site of a tense situation between the colonists and the Royal Governor in April of 1775, which lit a spark in Virginia to join the Patriot cause.

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Across the street from the Magazine is the original Courthouse dating to 1770. 

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This was the location of the county court proceedings (more serious crimes were handled at the courthouse in the Capitol).  Ask the interpreter to describe how the commonly used legal phrases, passing the bar and approaching the bench, were created in courtrooms just like this.  Don’t miss letting your kids try out the stocks outside!

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Continue the walk towards the Capitol and you will see more trade shops – blacksmith, silversmith, and wigmaker.  You will also past several of the historic taverns and the Raleigh Bakery where you can get an authentic Colonial Williamsburg ginger cake.

As you near the Capitol, take a right at its fence to enter on the southern side. 

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Check in with the interpreter for the next 30-minute guided tour, recommended for ages 6 and up.  Inquire about a “Seats of Power” tour for younger children.  As you wait, you can explore the gunsmith shop and Presbyterian Meetinghouse nearby.

At your designated time, you will enter the courtyard to hear about the Capitol.  While the building is not the original, it was built on the site of the original Capitol and is historically accurate. 

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Once inside, you will at first enter the House of Burgesses, which contains the original Speaker chair from colonial times.  

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As you sit on the benches, you can just imagine the amazing speeches and impassioned debates held in this room!  The interpreter for our tour did a great job engaging the kids and having them act as delegates.

Your tour will then head upstairs to the committee room and finally back downstairs to the courtroom.  Your children can sit as part of the jury or stand as the accused pig thief in the interpreter’s description of what took place here.  

After the tour ends, visit the nearby public goal (jail) or head to the nearest shuttle stop to take you back to the visitor center.  Between the two guided tours and the walk down Duke of Gloucester Street, your children will likely be exhausted!

If you still have energy or have a multi-day pass, there is a lot more of Colonial Williamsburg to see:

  • visit the art museums, housed in the public hospital of 1773 (these are currently under renovation but are still open)
  • take a carriage ride 
  • attend a special evening event, such as a family-friendly dance at the Governor’s Palace (next on my list!) or ghost tour
  • spend time in Merchant’s Square, filled with quaint shops, restaurants, and even an ice skating rink in the winter! 
  • visit the Wren building at the College of William and Mary, the second-oldest college in America 

I have been coming to Williamsburg multiple times a year since 1995, and I still haven’t seen it all!  This is a wonderful place to bring your family to learn more about history while having fun.  It is one of those destinations that every American should visit, and now is the perfect time to begin planning a spring break vacation to Colonial Williamsburg!

 

Helpful hints:

  • Cost: 
    • 1-day pass: $45/adult; $25/children 
    • Other options can be found here
  • Recommended: all ages
  • Tour times:
    • 1-2 days recommended
    • To tour Governor’s Palace, Capitol, and walk down Duke of Gloucester Street, allot 4-5 hours
  • Multiple gift shops, located at the Visitor Center and along Duke of Gloucester Street.  Kids will love the William Pitt store that has children’s colonial clothing, toys, and books.
  • Transportation: Parking is free at the Visitor Center, which provides a shuttle bus to all sites.  Paid parking can be found in Colonial Williamsburg (my favorite parking garage is located at 230 N. Henry Street).  The Amtrak train station is within walking distance.  
  • Dining options nearby: You have so many options!  The historic taverns are a fun way to bring history into your meal.  There are also a couple of grab and go dining options in Colonial Williamsburg (seasonal).  Near the Visitor Center is Huzzah’s, a fun family-friendly restaurant, along with a cafe in the visitor center itself.  There’s also a cafe at the art museum.  Merchant’s Square has many restaurants, including my favorites The Cheese Shop and Dog Street Pub.  Don’t miss Wythe’s Candy Shop!  Outside of the colonial area, there are two amazing BBQ options, the award-winning Pierce’s Pitt BBQ and Old City Barbeque, and a quaint Virginia-themed restaurant, the Old Chickahominy House.
  • Hotel options: Think of the hotels like those at Disney – you can stay on property with enhanced access or off property.  On property, Colonial Williamsburg has several hotels, including some rooms in historic houses!  For other options, see the Williamsburg Visitor site here.  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: Yorktown, Jamestown, Busch Gardens, Go Ape! Treetop Adventure, the amazing Kidsburg playground, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Virginia Living Museum, and The Mariners’ Museum
  • Other resources for your visit:

 

Books to Read:

 

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