Colonial Williamsburg: Family Vacation Planning
Time Travel to Colonial Williamsburg
Retrace U.S. colonial history on your next vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia.
Williamsburg dates back to 1699, when Virginia designated it the capital of the colony. This compact, surprisingly lush city brimming with tidy Southern gardens full of azaleas and magnolias came to be home to many Founding Fathers, and the city and its citizens played a vital role in the American Revolution. After the capital was moved to Richmond in 1779, however, Williamsburg faded from prominence, and by the early 20th century, it was a sleepy college town, home to the venerable College of William and Mary—the alma mater of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, and the second oldest university in the nation.
In 1926, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. rediscovered the city, and was appalled to find many of its historically important buildings all but falling down. To honor the Williamsburg patriots—and to preserve a vital piece of U.S. history for future generations—Rockefeller financed an all-encompassing restoration and reconstruction of buildings across more than 300 acres of the city. The result of these efforts is the living historical park of Colonial Williamsburg, a recreation of colonial life in the United States, which has become one of the most visited tourist attractions in the nation. Guests will find 88 original buildings and more than 450 reconstructed public buildings, private homes and shops, as well as acres of historically accurate gardens and bucolic pastures full of grazing animals.
This delightful park is one of my favorite places on the East Coast because it offers a true peek into the past—and when paired with a day trip to Jamestown (see accompanying article) it offers children a deep understanding of the founding of the United States. When we visit Williamsburg, my husband, daughter, and I love to stroll down the Duke of Gloucester Street (the main drag) at the crack of dawn; in these early, quiet hours, it isn’t hard to pretend we’ve been transported to the 18th century. A cupful of steaming Starbucks on a chilly morning hardly breaks the spell.
Founding Fathers and Friends
In this mindset, Colonial Williamsburg lets us indulge in a longtime fantasy: We get to meet great people from history. My husband once had a spirited debate about slavery in a Williamsburg store with Thomas Jefferson, and we both had the opportunity to see Patrick Henry arguing the merits of the Virginia Stamp Act outside the Capitol. A young cousin of Jefferson’s taught our daughter how to play ‘quoits,’ a precursor to horseshoes, in the shadows of the Governor’s Mansion.
It’s important to suspend disbelief in these encounters, because—of course—these luminaries were actually costumed actors, known in Williamsburg as “historical re-enactors.” There are hundreds of re-enactors throughout town, depicting Founding Fathers and everyday citizens alike, working in kitchens, stores, restaurants and acting as guides through area attractions. These dedicated, well-informed folks converse on all matters having to do with 18th century life and wear traditional fashions: women brave restrictive undergarments and bulky dresses even in the sweltering tidewater summers and men don stockings and wigs.
Artisans and Historic Exhibition Sites
History comes alive for children visiting Colonial Williamsburg in the several beautifully restored historic homes on site, where they can experience for themselves how their colonial counterparts were educated, how they played and how they contributed to family life. Children’s rooms within these homes are recreated down to the smallest detail, including toys scattered on the floor, a partially completed needlework sampler abandoned on a window seat and even chamber pots set conveniently near beds.
The Geddy House—once home to prosperous businessman James Geddy—is a particular favorite with my daughter, who loves to play on the big rope swing in the back garden, roll wooden hoops with youth re-enactors and try her hand at a game of ninepins (an outdoor version of bowling). The Peyton Randolph House offers insight into the lives of less fortunate colonial children. After touring the fashionable home—one of the grandest in Colonial Williamsburg—head to the backyard and outbuildings to see how children born to slaves and indentured servants lived. Kids can pitch in and help re-enactors here with such chores as washing laundry by hand or churning butter.
Other buildings offer a glimpse into public life during the 1700s. The Governor’s Mansion (the lavish home of Lord Dunmore, the last British governor of the colony) offers an impressive display of weaponry, regal furnishings, and a formal garden (kids will not want to miss the hedge maze in the back). At the Courthouse, visitors can witness—and even participate in—a variety of re-created colonial trials. My daughter likes the wooden stocks just outside, where children (and parents) can pose for photographs with their head and arms “locked” in.
Throughout the city there are workshops where costumed artisans and craftsmen demonstrate skills like spinning and weaving wool, fine woodworking, printing and bookbinding, jewelry making, millinery, wig making, blacksmithing, basket-weaving, open-hearth cooking and shoe making. There are numerous hands-on opportunities for children in these shops: My daughter has played a tune on the pianoforte at the Cabinet Maker’s shop, ground spices with a mortar and pestle in the Governor’s Kitchen, and proofread a broadside hot off the presses in the Printer and Bookbindery.