My biggest joy while traveling across the States, beyond experiencing a dude ranch daily life, was visiting Williamsburg, Virginia, also known as Colonial Williamsburg.
Williamsburg was the capital city of Virginia during American Revolution and today is the world largest history museum-town, offering to its visitors a stunning and touching full immersion into 18th-century Virginia.
A bit of history
Named in honor of the King of England William III, Williamsburg was the capital of the Crown most important colony, Virginia, and was essential during the whole process of American independence.
However, in 1780 Thomas Jefferson moved the local government to Richmond and the town got partially abandoned, becoming a quiet and pretty countryside living area.
In 1926, following Reverend Goodwin passion, Rockefeller Jr. planned and financed the Historic Area’s restoration, creating the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to preserve the city and develop its educational goal.
Visiting Colonial Williamsburg
The Historic Area is the heart of Williamsburg and is dotted by hundreds of restored original 18th-century buildings, going from public historical buildings to private amazing houses to shops and taverns and then horses and carriages and traditional gardens and plantations and passionate volunteers dressed up in accurate historical costumes. Magic. To me this is pure magic.
I took hundreds of pics and spent hours talking with each person willing to tell me the big history and the small peculiar local stories, learning from each craftsman and shop tender.
What struck me and intrigued me most in Colonial Williamsburg? The wig maker shop!
Anyway, time to give you some useful and practical info to plan your own visit.
Admission to the Historic Area
Colonial Williamsburg grounds and buildings opens every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but shops’ schedule might change according to the season.
Strolling around town and enter shops and restaurants is free, but I recommend you get the pass to access all the historical buildings and get to understand and feel local history.
The single day pass costs $ 44.99 and the three days pass $ 54.99. You can get them at the Visitor Center or, to avoid queuing, even online. If you stay in one of the accommodation run by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation you get a discount!
I enjoyed the walk from the Visitor Center to the Historic Area. The free shuttle is of course quicker, but the walk is really a nice one and offers you plenty of historical information all along the path, preparing you to this amazing trip into the past!
I told you, there are plenty of buildings and houses you can visit in Williamsburg, but I have my favorites…
The Governor’s Palace, seat of British authority in Virginia, is stunning, as the Capitol, seat of colonial power, where the vote for independence took place on May 15, 1776 and where the first Declaration of Human Rights was promoted and signed by Thomas Jefferson on June 12.
The Raleigh Tavern, meeting room of local patriots planning the independence strategies, is a very cool place and I recommend you take your time to fully absorb its atmosphere and all the details. Same thing in George Wythe House, private home of Thomas Jefferson’s teacher.
A touching visit is the one to the home of Peyton Randolph, where you get to see both a rich family daily routine and lifestyle and their slave’s one. Same thing when visiting the hospital or stopping by at the Indian delegation.
More on the happy side, I loved the printing office and the bindery (!) where I got some beautiful papers and a handbook. The shoemaker, the tailor and the wigmaker, where I spent almost a whole afternoon learning everything about fashion trends in the 18th century.
I also loved the James Geddy House and Foundry, the carpenter’s yard, the apothecary with all the tiny and big colonial medicine pots and the super interesting info regarding ancient surgery and the Courthouse, where you get engaged in trials and passionate discussions.
I also recommend a hot chocolate cup at R. Charleton’s coffeehouse! Prepared and served the ancient way, it’s a blessing.
There are many more buildings and trades to see and I really enjoyed them all, at different levels of course, but I stayed there two days. If you have less time in town, it’s better to get the map at the Visitor Center and plan your itinerary in order to see what you prefer.
Oh, you might also want to visit the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.
Guided tours and events
Daylight walking tours of all sort are planned both in the morning and in the afternoon and I heartily recommend to take at least one. Well, not “al least one”, I recommend the Behind the Scenes one…
Carriages rides are also very cool and you can book and pay for it at the Lumber House or in the William Pitt Store. If you have a day pass or stay in one of the Foundation accommodation you get a $5 discount.
If you stay overnight, I also recommend you check the evening program of tours and event and book the one or those you prefer ahead! I attended a witch trial and visited shops at night with the Lantern Trade Tour.
Sleeping in Williamsburg
As mentioned before, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation run several hotels and lodges in and right around the Historic Area and I booked with them, but a real colonial house!
I stayed at The Orlando Jones Kitchen, a tiny two floor house with a lovely sitting room with fireplace and room and bathroom on the top floor.
Very expensive, at least to me, but worth it! I really wanted to live a full immersion and the accommodation provided it.
There are also cheaper and modern options in town, going from cozy inns to hostels and of course Airbnbs.
Eating in Colonial Williamsburg
There are four dining taverns in the Historic Area: the King’s Arms Tavern serving meat based 18th century menus, the more casual Chowning’s Tavern, the more affordable Shields Tavern and the Christiana Campbell’s Tavern serving seafood (try their fried oysters if on the menu!).
I tried them all and loved the King’s Arms’ beef!
Same thing as with the accommodation, you have many other dining options in town beside the historic taverns.
Plus, if you like wine and beer, Williamsburg has several craft breweries and Virginia is also home to more than 275 wineries and 28 wine routes. If you have time, do visit the Williamsburg Winery, the state largest vineyard, and have their Trianon!
You can totally loose your mind watching the lutist crafting an harpsichord and decide to order one, same thing in the silver shop, or you can go for a cheap souvenir shopping while leaving the Visitor Center or in the “modern Williamsburg”.
Or you can follow my steps and buy all you can afford in John Greenhow general store! I got soap bars for family and friends, candles, pencils, kitchen accessories, chocolate bars, leather wallet… yes, I got crazy in there.
Getting to Williamsburg, Virginia
Colonial Williamsburg is just a few hours south of Washington, DC and not far from popular Virginia Beach.
I got there while on my cross country trip by train – an experience I deeply loved, enjoyed and recommend!
You can catch the Amtrak Northest Regional train in DC arriving in Williamsburg 3h45 later (I caught it in Quantico… too many FBI based TV shows in my life…), booking your ticket online or using the very convenient official Amtrak app.
The pretty train station is just a few blocks from the Historic Area, but you can also get a bus.
- spend at least two days in Colonial Williamsburg and, if you can afford it, book a room in a colonial house
- watch the 30-minute orientation film at the Visitor Center and walk from there to town
- get a pass to access all the buildings and historical trades
- book your table ahead if you want to experience 18th century meals in the Colonial Taverns
- plan guided tours and evening events to fully enjoy the experience
- take time to chat with volunteers and shop tenders
- wear comfortable shoes and casual clothes as the town is pretty dusty and you’ll walk really all day long!
Day trips from Colonial Williamsburg
If you have a few more days to spend in the area, you can rent a car and drive along the Colonial Parkway Scenic Byway, a 37km road that connects the Historic Triangle: Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
Jamestown is America’s first British colony, founded on April 26, 1607, when three English ships reached the shores and about 140 people from the Virginia Company of London erected a fort named Jamestown, in honor of the King of England.
Again, start from the local Visitor Center and visit the Jamestown Settlement Ships.
Visit also the Powhatan Indian Village, to learn the true story of Pocahontas, the daughter of the tribe chief who married John Rolfe for peace sake between English and Powhatans. In 1616, to promote colonization in Virginia, Pocahontas and John Rolfe moved to England, but she couldn’t adapt to life in London and died one year later, at 22, during the boat trip back to Virginia.
Yorktown where, in October 1781, the American Revolution culminated with the British surrender, thanks to Marquis de La Fayette and his 1200 fighters. The Yorktown Victory over the British troops brought to the independence of the United States just a few months later.
Once in town you can also enjoy the Continental Army encampment, at the living history center.
York River State Park
I also enjoyed a kayak guided tour along the river. A cool experience to learn more about local fauna and flora.
Williamsburg amusement parks
I haven’t been there, but you might want to have a family relaxing day at the Busch Gardens right outside Williamsburg, with its famous water rollercoaster in the Water Country USA area.
A Swiss family I shared a carriage tour with recommend it to me, but North Carolina was waiting for me…