Colonial Williamsburg, VA
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Colonial Williamsburg, VA

Roll up your sleeves and get to work (and play) in this living history city.

Time Warp

Brush up on your American history. On a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, you could find yourself debating politics with Thomas Jefferson, discussing military strategies with General George Washington, or sipping tea with Martha. And the kids? They'll be practicing penmanship with quill pens, playing colonial games, and saluting young patriots in the Fife and Drum Corps.

Eating at a Tavern, copyright Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Indeed, this is not your average restoration village with token townsfolk and gift shops. It's a bustling, living history city. Just about everything in the Historic District -- the people, public buildings, shops, taverns, homes, and gardens -- looks and feels as it did 225 years ago, when Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia and the colonies were on the brink of war with England. It's like being in a time warp.

Plan to spend at least two days in Colonial Williamsburg. The town's 88 restored buildings are spread over one mile, but the best way to see it all is still on foot. (Cars aren't even allowed during the day.)

Colonial Hit Parade

Start your time-travel adventure by picking up a copy of the Visitor's Companion. This 12-page newspaper, available at the Visitors Center, lists loads of weekly tours, reenactments, character encounters, live demonstrations, and participatory events. Programs change daily and there's lots to do, so review the paper carefully before taking to the streets. It will help match your family's interests and attention spans to the right activities. Some of the top activities include:

Fife and Drum Corps,
copyright Colonial
Williamsburg Foundation

  • Family life "experiences" at historic homes. Your kids may gripe about taking out the trash at home, but they'll jump at the chance to grind spices, hoe the garden, cook victuals, air the bed linens, and perform other colonial chores at the many authentic homes scattered throughout town.
  • Colonial games on the Palace Green (and other locations).
    Whether it's a game of hoops, pick-up sticks, trapball (a precursor to baseball), or mastering the use of a bilbo catcher (getting a wooden ball on a string into the cup), colonial boys and girls can teach your kids how to have old-fashioned fun.
  • Order in the court! America was a litigious society, even in its early days. Be a judge, jury member, defendant, or plaintiff in a reenacted trial at the Courthouse. The script is based on a real "suit," as in "I'm not paying for that crop of tobacco you dropped in the water!"
  • The military encampment. Sign up for militia duty at the Guardhouse. Upon reporting to the sergeant, you'll receive a long-stick (instead of a musket) and be put through a series of drills. Fix your bayonet and fire!
  • Join the bucket brigade. Take one down, pass it around, and there will probably still be 99 more buckets of water needed to fill up the town's fire truck.

Traveling preacher,
copyright, Colonial
Williamsburg Foundation

  • Face-to-face with history-makers. There's a good chance you could bump into Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Martha Washington, or Patrick Henry around town. They're out and about. (History refresher course: Henry is famous for opposing the Stamp Act and saying, "Give me liberty or give me death!").
  • Costumed scavenger hunt. For a rental fee, your kids can dress up in colonial costume and run errands all over town -- to the post office to fetch a letter, the milliner's to buy ribbon, or the printer's to drop off an advertisement.
  • Learn a trade. Observe tradespeople in action (and ask them questions, too) at more than a dozen sites. Favorite stops: the wigmaker, dressmaker, printing office, silversmith, gunsmith, and foundry. Your kids will gain a new appreciation for making buildings after getting their hands and feet in clay at the brickmaker's yard.
  • Fife and Drum Corps. Salute fellow patriots as the Fife and Drum Corps marches down the Duke of Gloucester Street.
  • Grand medley of entertainment. Enjoy after-hours merriment at a show featuring circus, carnival, and vaudeville-type acts. Or check out the musical program highlighting 18th-century African-American culture in stories, song, and dance.

Up the Road

A trip to Williamsburg isn't complete without visiting two other cities in Virginia's Historic Triangle: Yorktown, where George Washington defeated Cornwallis and ended the Revolutionary War, and Jamestown, the first English-speaking settlement in the New World, founded in 1607.

Must-see stops in Yorktown include the Battlefield itself (the kids will be impressed with all the cannon artillery) and the re-created Continental Army camp at Yorktown Victory Center. In Jamestown, don't miss the Jamestown Settlement. This living history museum features James Fort (the kids can try on armor), Powhatan Indian Village, and replicas of three ships colonists used to cross the Atlantic -- Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery.

Back to the Present

After all the history lessons, it's time for some 21st-century fun. Several popular amusement parks are within three miles of Williamsburg.

At Busch Gardens, the theme is 17th-century Europe. The hamlets of England, Germany, Scotland, France, Italy, and Ireland each have their own thrill rides, restaurants, shows, and shops. A don't-miss for your daredevils: Apollo's Chariot, a roller coaster that climbs up 210 feet and plunges back down at 70 miles per hour.

Over at Water Country USA, a '50s and '60s surf motif is the backdrop for splish-splash fun. Zoom Flume is the latest rage, propelling passengers down a water slide at 20 feet per second. Chill out after a day of touring at Big Daddy Falls, an inner-tube river ride that twists and turns through 670 feet of flumes and tunnels.


Type of trip: Historic sightseeing and theme parks

Best ages: 8 and up

Ideal trip length: Five days

Distance: Richmond (50 miles), Washington, DC (150 miles), Baltimore (195 miles), Philadelphia (295 miles)

Best time to go: Spring and fall, for the most comfortable touring weather. Summer, for the greatest number of family events at Colonial Williamsburg and longest hours at theme parks.

Weather: 69/45 degrees in April, 86/63 in June, 71/48 in October, 60/37 in November

Lodging: More than 10,000 rooms in the town of Williamsburg (outside the historic village).

Squirm factor: Some, if you don't carefully choose activities.

If You Go...

The Grand Union
Flag, copyright
Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg Off I-64, Williamsburg Phone: 800-HISTORY or 757-220-7645


Yorktown Battlefield End of Colonial Parkway, Yorktown Phone: 757-898-2410


Yorktown Victory Center Old Route 238 near Colonial Parkway, Yorktown Phone: 888-593-4682


Market Square, copyright
Colonial Williamsburg

Jamestown Settlement Route 31 South at Colonial Parkway, Jamestown Phone: 888-593-4682


Busch Gardens Williamsburg 1 Busch Gardens Blvd. off Route 60, Williamsburg Phone: 757-253-3350


Water Country USA Route 199, Williamsburg Phone: 1-800-343-SWIM


Williamsburg Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 757-253-0192 or 800-368-6511


Williamsburg Hotel and Motel Association Phone: 800-999-4485


Virginia Tourism Corporation Phone: 800-VISIT-VA


Side Trips

Biking the Colonial Parkway

You can drive it. But it's more fun riding any or all of the 23-mile Colonial Parkway on two wheels.

Considered one of the most scenic bike routes in the state, the Colonial Parkway connects three towns in the Historic Triangle -- Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. You'll ride along the banks of the James and York Rivers, and through a tunnel under Colonial Williamsburg's Historic District.

Along the way, there are scenic turnouts with great views of the rivers and glimpses of wildlife. There are also picnic areas, but no restrooms or places to stop for food and drink.

The 10 miles between Williamsburg and Jamestown are relatively flat, but have the most traffic. The 13 miles to Yorktown are hillier and quieter. Cars must stay within speed limits of 25-45 mph and no commercial traffic is allowed. Colonial Parkway, Colonial National Historic Park, 757-898-2410. Bikes and helmets can be rented at several Colonial Williamsburg hotels (Call 800-HISTORY for more information).

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spot: Raleigh Tavern Bake Shop in Colonial Williamsburg for old-fashioned "pasties" and "cakes," now known as pastries and cookies. For kids, can't-go-wrong choices include gingerbread cakes, sugar cakes, apple turnovers, and sweet potato muffins. Best when eaten between sips of ginger ale, root beer, or English tea.

Local foods: Virginia ham and peanut soup.

Best souvenir: Three-corner hats and white linen "mob" caps for boys and girls, and bilbo catchers for everyone.

Annual events: For information, contact the Williamsburg Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-368-6511) or Colonial Williamsburg (800-HISTORY).

  • A Celebration of Presidents, Colonial Williamsburg.
  • Independence Day Celebrations, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg, July 4.
  • Yorktown Victory Celebration, late October.
  • Grand Illumination, Colonial Williamsburg, December.

Reviewed April 2004.