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Top 10 things to do in Colonial Williamsburg

Melissa Burdick Harmon
June 5, 2013

This summer, forget Mickey and Minnie, and leave the beach behind. Instead, take the family through a lively, colorful, kid-friendly— yet also engaging for adults—journey through America’s beginnings. There is nothing stodgy or school-bookish about a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, America’s first capitol …  and to Jamestown, where it all began, and where Pocahontas married John Rolfe  ... and to Yorktown, the battlefield where America’s independence was won.

A stunning range of activities makes it all fun. Here is a guide to some of must-do attractions, among many options. 

1. Walk Through the Revolutionary City

Begin your visit at the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, as it was in the years leading up to, and during, the Revolutionary War. See where efforts to form one nation from a small group of colonies began. Let the kids interact with colonial soldiers, and stroll past homes, gardens and government buildings (88 original structures, plus many reconstructions). Hear an actor playing Patrick Henry pronounce the well-known words, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” or watch George Washington outline battle strategy. 

2. Explore the Buildings Made for a New Government

Williamsburg served as the Capitol of the Virginia Colony from 1699 to 1780. Here, some of the most prominent founding fathers debated the political future of the colony. Visit the not-to-be-missed Governor’s Palace, clearly built to reflect the importance of the job, as well as the House of Burgesses, a group of elected representatives who met there from 1643 to 1776, when the colonies declared independence.  Keep an eye out for scheduled re-enactments.  There are always many options.  

3. See 17th- and 18th-Century Tradespeople at Work

Williamsburg was anything but a museum in its heyday. It bustled with life, industry, and quite a bit of style. Modern visitors can hear the clangs of the hammer as a blacksmith prepares to shoe a horse; can watch a milliner creating lavish hats and gloves and even petticoats for important ladies; can see bookbinders creating  lovely leather-bound volumes; observe coopers making barrels and buckets; and visit wigmakers who created fabulous hair-styles for the gentlemen, not the ladies, of Williamsburg.

4. Visit Great Hopes Plantation

Life was quite different for the folks who lived on the “middling plantations” that surrounded the colonial Capitol.  Great Hopes Plantation, really a small farm owned by someone who was not part of the gentry, and who had only a few enslaved African Americans to help, offers a great opportunity to understand what plantation life was really like. See farm slaves dig wells, plow fields, harvest cotton, build barns, grow tobacco, and other bone-breaking work. Pitch in by picking seeds from cotton, or perhaps by milking a cow.

5. Check out Williamsburg’s Two Art Museums

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum are packed with lovely examples of the decorative arts. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Museum is more focused on the simple things of life—folk art, needlepoint, hand-carved toys, quilts, primitive hand-painted portraits. It offers a good look at everyday life. The DeWitt Wallace features portraits, textiles, ceramics, and also, oddly, has a major exhibit on mental illness and its treatments.

6. Take Afternoon Tea or a Stay at the Williamsburg Inn

Travel aficionados tout it as one of the world’s grandest hotels, and a major renovation 10 years ago has made it even better. Its Afternoon Royal Tea includes finger sandwiches, scones, perfect pastries, a glass of champagne, and of course, tea. Book dinner at the Regency Room, where major political figures dine, or treat yourself to Sunday brunch overlooking the Golf Course.  Slip into the Restoration Bar for cocktails after a busy day of sightseeing.

7. Take the Kids, or Just Feel Like Kids, on an Unforgettable Ghost Tour

The night is dark. The only illumination in pre-electricity Williamsburg comes from the candle you clutch in your hand. Your guide, dressed in proper colonial garb, will fill you in on the many eerie happenings that have taken place in the historic streets of Williamsburg. If you want something even a bit more terrifying, book the Extreme Ghost Tour, but if you’re going for extreme thrills, it might be best to leave the little ones with a sitter.    

8. Spend a Day in Historic Jamestowne

This is the authentic historic site of early Jamestowne, co-owned by Virginia and the National Park Service. Here, you can relive the romance of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and see the site of the 1608 church where they were married. Visitors can walk the grounds of the first permanent English settlement in North America; and interact with “original” colonists. An archeology walking tour reveals newly discovered artifacts, including signs of survival cannibalism, from the “starving” winter of 1609-10.

9. Also Visit the Recreated and Ships at Jamestown Settlement

If Historic Jamestowne is all about it-happened-here history, the recreated Jamestown Settlement gives a good picture of what the colony, a bit spiffied up, might have looked like. Start at the new $68 million Visitor Center, for a good introductory film. Tour the reconstructed James Fort, and don’t miss the re-created Powhatan Indian Village, to see how Pocahontas lived. Best for last, tour the full-sized replicas of the three tiny ships that brought the original English colonists over the ocean in 1607.   

10. Don’t Forget the Yorktown Battlefield and the Yorktown Victory Center

It was in Yorktown, in 1781, that General George Washington led a coalition of American and French forces to defeat  the British General Cornwallis and his army, forcing Cornwallis to surrender and making colonial independence a given.  Visit the battlefield where French and British soldiers fought for freedom. Walk through historic Yorktown, and save time for a visit to the Yorktown Victory Center, which will become the” American Revolution Museum at Yorktown” in 2016.