Visiting Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is simply an awesome experience. Colonial Williamsburg is the largest outdoor living history museum in the U.S. Restored in meticulous detail to its state in the 1700s, this village of houses, shops, and elegant community buildings takes you back in time to just before the American Revolution.
The Historic Area contains 88 original buildings as well as rebuilt structures. It’s a neighborhood that bustles with activities. Reenactors in Colonial dress saunter down the lanes and chat with visitors about their lives. Horse-drawn carriages clip-clop along the streets. Fife and drum corps march down the Palace Green.
Plan to spend at least a full day here to take in the varied sights and experiences. To guide you in your planning, here’s information on how you can spend a day or two at fascinating historic Colonial Williamsburg.
Take a Look at the Map Before Your Visit
The Historic Area is a mile long and a half-mile wide, so it is all walkable. Not all the historic buildings are open every day. Check the day’s online schedule or look for the Grand Union Flag to show that a building is open. Also, you are free to stroll around the historic area without a ticket. You will need a ticket to enter any buildings.
First Head to the Visitors Center at Colonial Williamsburg
Park at the large lot and go into the Visitors Center. You can buy tickets here if you haven’t bought them online. You’ll find a gift shop and restrooms, along with an information desk. Get oriented, then walk outside to catch the shuttle to the Historic Area. The shuttle runs from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. in a loop through several stops in the Historic Area. Save your feet by taking the shuttle to your first stop. Hop on and off as you wish through the day.
Interact with the Reenactors
A fun part of visiting Colonial Williamsburg will be interacting with those in Colonial garb. These reenactors represent people who lived in Williamsburg. They will talk to you about their lives, their frustrations, and their dreams.
I met Thomas Jefferson’s cousin during my last visit. He demanded to know why I was pointing my camera at him. Then he introduced himself and told me he was worried about his cousin. The home at Monticello was still not finished. Thomas is not being responsible, with all the additions and delays to construction. As I had visited Monticello a few days earlier, this was funny (and true to life).
I also met a teacher from the College of William and Mary, which is adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg. He wears the alphabet around his neck to show he is a scholar. I asked if any women went to the college. His reaction was incredulous. That will never happen! Women should learn to cook and sew and nothing else. He had the arrogant attitude down perfectly.
So, talk to people and you will have memorable discussions!
Scope Out the Special Programs
Look at the programs available on the day you will visit. The offerings have been pared down in the last couple of years. But there is still going to be something of interest to you. The talks by historic figures such as Patrick Henry and President George Washington are popular and well worth your time. Hear about the personal concerns of these iconic figures. Listen as Washington talks about the trials of the first presidency of the U.S. You can also ask questions at the end of the presentations.
One of my favorite demonstrations is the musket shooting. Find out the time and show up about 10 minutes early to get your viewing place along the split rail fence.Check the schedule for presentations on slavery in Williamsburg. A current offering is Slavery and the Law. A program called Freedom’s Paradox is also available. I went on this walking program and heard about slavery at the Randolph House and other places in Williamsburg. My opinion is that the true nature of slavery is glossed over. But take the tour and decide for yourself. It will certainly give you food for thought.
Learn about Historic Trades
Experts in craftsmanship are at work in more than 20 shops and yards. Watch as a blacksmith forms horseshoes. Or a woodworker fashions a chair. Milliners make fancy hats. Coopers build barrels. All the craftspeople work with 18th century tools. You can interact with these folk and ask questions about what they are making. You’ll get a good picture of life in Colonial times.
Tour the Governor’s Palace
This is one building with a guided tour inside, included in the entry ticket. The guide tells about life here. The ballroom, where parties were held, is especially appealing. You exit out the back door into the beautiful formal gardens.
Observe Archeological Sites
The ongoing archeological digs are one reason I love to visit Colonial Williamsburg. Archaeologists combine what they find during excavation with lab work, research of documents, and oral histories to rebuild the town as it was immediately before the American Revolution.
On my last trip, I talked with the archeologists at the excavation site of the First Baptist Church. This is one of the earliest African American congregations in the U.S. It was founded by free and enslaved Black people. A piece of a bottle was unearthed as I stood there, and the archeologist let me hold in my hand this piece of history.
Wander the Tree-lined Streets
Spend time wandering the streets of Colonial Williamsburg. Enjoy being immersed in the world of the 1700s, with the restored homes and shops lined up for your viewing pleasure. Notice the gardens with their neat rows of growing produce. Keep an eye out for horses along split-rail fences and sheep pens. Venture into the gaol (the jail). Marvel at the elegant Governor’s Palace. Imagine what life was like here on the eve of the Revolution.
The Colonial Williamsburg entrance ticket includes admission to the Art Museums. Art from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries is on display at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.
While I didn’t have time to go to the Art Museums when visiting Colonial Williamsburg, I did grab a tasty lunch in the Museum Café. Choose from sandwiches, salads, and soups. This is a convenient place to eat inside the Historic Area. As the taverns were closed during my last visit, the Café was the perfect choice for a quick bite during a long day of sightseeing.
Dine at a Tavern When Visiting Colonial Williamsburg
Why not dine in a tavern and take in the Colonial atmosphere along with good food? Check online for seasonal opening dates of these three taverns.
Christiana Campbell’s Tavern
Dine where George Washington hung out. Featuring delicious seafood, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern’s specialty is the world-renowned crab cakes.
King’s Arms Tavern
Opened in 1722, the King’s Arms Tavern offers a chophouse menu featuring prime rib and pork chops, served in an elegant atmosphere with pewter candlesticks and servers in Colonial dress.
Chowning’s Tavern is an alehouse that serves traditional Colonial dishes such as Brunswick Stew and Shepherd’s Pye. And the local craft beer is a favorite.
And in the Merchant’s Square shopping area at the edge of the historic area you’ll find modern restaurants. La Piazza specializes in Northern Italian food, with hand-made pasta dishes and gelato desserts. I loved the warm atmosphere and delicious cuisine so much that I returned for dinner a second time during my stay.
Stay Close to the Historic Area
If you are coming to visit Colonial Williamsburg, please to stay close to the Historic Area to save on driving time. Here are a few options in various price ranges.
The Williamsburg Inn
If it’s luxury you want, the five-star Williamsburg Inn is perfect. The elegant Regency-style décor is welcoming, and a golf course is next door.
The Williamsburg Lodge
This more budget-friendly hotel comes with plenty of amenities such as a spa and three pools. Both the Williamsburg Lodge and the Williamsburg Inn are dog-friendly.
The Comfort Inn Williamsburg Gateway
Many chain hotels in the area will give you the best value for your money. I stayed at the Comfort Inn, which includes a hearty breakfast buffet and a pool. And it’s only about a 10-minute drive to the Historic Area.
With a little planning and research, you will have a wonderful day exploring Colonial Williamsburg. Your time spent stepping back into the 1700s will be rich and memorable. You’ll meet fascinating people. You’ll be able to imagine what it was like to live in a different era. And you’ll come home with a new understanding of the people who had a part in the birth of the United States.