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.
Special Programs, Day and Night
Throughout the historic area you’ll find daytime presentations that combine history and drama. For example, Revolutionary City, a two-hour theatrical performance that illuminates the political thinking of the time, is staged outdoors at the east end of the historic area. This program offers viewers a chance to learn about how everyday citizens built the new nation and provides insight into the struggles they experienced in the midst of the Revolution. New this year is an auxiliary program for kids called, Get Revved, in which a Revolutionary City actor discusses the events of the day, and then engages children in an interactive question-and-answer session.
Most of the historic buildings close their doors at 5 p.m., but there are plenty of evening programs throughout the city. My daughter particularly enjoyed Cry Witch, a mock trial held at the Capitol in which colonial citizens testify against an alleged witch and those in attendance serve as members of the jury. In Legends, Myths, Mysteries, and Ghosts, guests walk through the streets with candles and lanterns to hear scary tales that date to colonial times. (Some of these stories are too intense for young children. Save this activity for kids 10 and older.) A recent edition to the nighttime lineup is From Ear to Ear, a concert celebrating the contributions of African and Caribbean rhythms to American colonial music.
My favorite place to overnight in Williamsburg is in a colonial house (see accompanying article for details), but there are plenty of other options:
- Patrick Henry Inn (tel. 800-456-0009). Just across the street from the historic area of Colonial Williamsburg, this no-frills option is an easy walk to attractions. Note that this was formerly a Best Western and is in the process of being converted into a time-share facility. Rooms will continue to be offered to customers who don’t have a time-share. Prices start at $64.
- Williamsburg Inn (tel. 757-220-7978). This elegant inn is the finest accommodation in Williamsburg, with reproduction English Regency furnishings and linens, spacious rooms and luxurious baths. For a real indulgence, stay in one of two Royal Suites, both of which have been occupied by Queen Elizabeth II. (Her Majesty spent the night here in May 2007, when she toured Williamsburg and Jamestown as part of the 400th anniversary of the first English colony in North America.) Prices start at $369.
- Williamsburg Lodge (tel. 800-447-8679). Recently remodeled, this understated, quiet lodge offers special tours and ticket deals just for its patrons, along with preferential tee times at the nearby Golden Horseshoe Golf Club. Prices start at $189.
- Woodlands Hotel and Suites (tel. 800-447-8679). This slightly worn yet family-friendly hotel has large suites, with spacious bedrooms and separate sitting areas. There’s plenty of recreation for kids onsite, including a playground, volleyball court and miniature golf.
There are a handful of eateries that offer colonial-style food in a historical atmosphere (see accompanying article for details), but there’s more to Williamsburg dining. Check out these local favorites, which offer good value and high quality:
- Berret’s Seafood Restaurant and Taphouse Grill (1999 South Boundary St., tel. 757-253-1847). Berret’s specializes in regional Chesapeake Bay seafood like soft-shell blue crabs and shad roe; there’s also a microbrewery onsite. Children’s menu options are fresh and fun, like the flash-fried buffalo shrimp served with tater tots and the Sponge Bobs Don’t Float (an ice cream concoction with pineapple and gummy worms.
- Colonial Pancake House (100 Page St., tel. 757-253-5852). Central Virginia has a thing for pancakes and waffles, and you’ll find restaurants specializing in these breakfast treats on just about every corner. Colonial Pancake House is one of the best, and offers an extensive kids’ menu for breakfast and lunch.
- Pierce’s Pit Barbeque (447 East Rochambeau, tel. 757-565-2955). This homey local institution has been serving up Tennessee-style BBQ for lunch and dinner since the early 1970s. Don’t miss the pork ribs, baked in a honey-sweet sauce. A full meal will set you back about $10.
- Trellis (403 Duke of Gloucester St., tel. 757-229-8610). In Merchants’ Square, adjacent to the historic area, the elegant Trellis offers unusual southern dishes like rabbit and mushroom pie with a crispy grits crust and deep-fried catfish filets served with Virginia ham and pecan rice. The real attractions, though, are the desserts: Don’t miss the famous Death by Chocolate, a seven-layer cake oozing with mousse and cocoa meringue.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
If you’re traveling with teenagers—or thrill-seekers of any age—you won’t want to miss Busch Gardens Williamsburg, a beautifully landscaped, European-themed amusement park just a few minutes’ drive from the historic area. Roller-coaster lovers will flip over the Griffon, claimed to be the tallest dive coaster in the world; this floorless ride drops 205 feet at speeds of 75 mph, with two inversion loops and plenty of twists and turns along the way. For those of us who prefer tamer thrills, the slightly less frightening Loch Ness Monster coaster is a park favorite, too, propelling its riders across 3,240 feet of double-looping track. There are also kiddie rides for younger children and live music throughout the park. Open March through October. Ticket prices: adults, $56.95; children, $49.95. Tel. 800-343-7946. www.buschgardens.com/BGW
Water Country USA
Water Country USA is a 1960s surf-themed water park featuring hair-raising, plunging water slides and expansive wave pools. Families with young children can enjoy the Rambling River, a slow-moving lazy-river ride, as well as a dedicated children’s area that offers pint-sized water slides and spray jets. Thanks to Virginia’s ubiquitous summer heat and humidity, this park is packed, and it can be hard to grab a lounge chair. Plan ahead and reserve a cabana, the rental of which includes lounge and beach chairs and a picnic table. Open May through September. Tickets: Adults, $39.95; children, $32.95. Tel. 800-343-7946. www.watercountryusa.com
(Read our Travel Deals column for a discount offer on joint admission to both parks.)
Five Tips for Visiting Colonial Williamsburg with Children
- Begin your visit with a stop at the Visitor Center to watch The Story of a Patriot, a good introduction (for children and adults) to the historical relevance of the city.
- Rent historical costumes for boys and girls at the Visitor Center and at booths on Market Square. Rentals are $20 per day, with a $50 refundable deposit.
- Encourage children to participate with historical re-enactors in such activities as harvesting vegetables, doing simple chores like grating lemon peels or grinding ginger in a historical kitchen, and learning dance steps from the 18th century.
- Take a carriage or wagon ride through the historic part of town. Purchase your tickets early in the day (they sell out quickly) at the Visitor Center, the Merchant’s Square Information Station, or the Lumber House Ticket Office.
- Exchange some 21st century currency for replicas of colonial money, which can then be used for purchases in the historic area.
The first time I visited Colonial Williamsburg, I just showed up, ready to be entertained—with little forethought and no advanced planning. I wasted too much time in lines, and missed out on several activities altogether because I didn’t have reservations. Take these tips and learn from my mistakes:
- Pre-purchase attraction passes online, to avoid what can be long lines at the Visitor Center. This will also save you 10 percent. Day passes start at $33 for adults, $16 for children; considerable discounts apply when buying multiple-day passes.
- Call at least two weeks in advance for dinner reservations at Colonial taverns; likewise, purchase tickets for evening entertainment at least a week ahead.
- Check the daily printed guide available in Colonial Williamsburg for event schedules or call 1-800-HISTORY (447-8679) for exact times and locations of special performances.
- Prepare for extreme weather. Williamsburg is hot and sticky in the summer and can be damp and bitterly cold in the late fall and winter. Bring sunscreen, hats and breathable clothing in the warm months and waterproof outerwear, gloves and hats in the cold months.
- Carry an umbrella all year long, just in case.
- Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking all day, and there are frustratingly few places to sit in the historic area, especially when the city is crowded.