Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia continues to move back toward the robust programming that made the world’s largest living history museum such a treat in years past. In the wake of Virginia’s lengthy lockdown, and the on-going staff shortages it produced, CW is re-opening most of its sites at least a few days a week.
I recently spent two fun and interesting days in Williamsburg with some family members visiting from out of state. Here are the best things we found to do:
Meet a Nation Builder
“Nation Builders” in Williamsburg are major historical figures portrayed by “interpreters”. As of this writing, a “Nation Builder” speaks daily from the stage behind Charlton Coffeehouse, near the Capitol, at 11:45 am and 2:45 pm. My family and I heard:
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The General’s wife explained that she was in Williamsburg to escort her nephews to her home at Mount Vernon, where they could complete their quarantine after smallpox inoculation.
After the (last) French and Indian War, the Colonel travelled often to Williamsburg as a Member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Virginia’s premier signer of America’s Declaration of Independence had taught its author, Thomas Jefferson, among many others.
The French nobleman helped America win the Battle of Yorktown, and so the Revolutionary War.
My family all agreed that these talks were one of the two best experiences of our visit.
Tour Historic Buildings
Williamsburg boasts more than 80 restored and more than 400 reconstructed buildings. You may tour many of the most interesting, including:
Virginia’s elected legislature, the House of Burgesses, met in the Capitol, as did the Governor’s Council. In addition, the General Court convened here. Earlier buildings burned in 1747 and 1842. The current reconstruction dates to the 1930s. As of this writing, tours take place daily every 15 minutes.
Nine governors of Virginia lived at the Governor’s Palace, including Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. Completed in 1722, the original was also the setting for balls, galas, and other elegant events. After Virginia’s capital had moved to Richmond in 1780, the building became a hospital for Continental soldiers wounded at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, before burning later that year. The reconstruction dates to the 1930s. As of this writing, the Palace is open daily for tours. You may also explore the English garden and boxwood maze behind the building.
After relations became testy with Britain, Burgesses met often at Raleigh Tavern to discuss how Virginia and the other colonies should move forward. The Tavern also hosted balls, banquets, and other events, as well as ordinary drinking and card-playing. The original burned down in 1859. Rebuilt during 1930–31, it was the first building to be reconstructed and opened at Colonial Williamsburg. Today it functions as a museum, rather than a working tavern, but it does have a small Bakery with drinks and light snacks like ginger cakes. As of this writing, Raleigh Tavern is open for tours every 20 minutes on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Richard Charlton opened his coffeehouse during the 1760s, and it became a popular spot for the connected and the climbing. Rebuilt in 2009, it is the most significant historic reconstruction in 50 years on Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg’s main road. As of this writing, it is open for tours every 15-20 minutes, three days per week. At the end of the tour, visitors receive complimentary samples of coffee or hot chocolate. My family loved the rich spicy chocolate.
The home of Peyton Randolph, first and third president of the Continental Congress, is one of the oldest in Williamsburg, with part of it dating back to 1715. The Randolphs were among the most socially prominent families in Virginia, and the house gives visitors a look at their lifestyle. As of this writing, it is open daily for guided tours.
Learn about Historic Trades
Skilled craftsmen and -women practice more than 20 trades, using 18th-century tools, at Colonial Williamsburg. The gunsmith kept the people armed with pistols, muskets, and rifles. The printer kept them informed with newspapers, pamphlets, and political notices. You may pop into their shops, watch them work, ask questions, and learn how they supported the cause of independence.
Watch Street Theatre
In the “Intersections” program, Williamsburg’s ordinary people discuss their different views on the extraordinary events that affect their everyday lives during the Revolutionary War. As of this writing, the event takes place Tuesday-Saturday at 11:15 am in front of Raleigh Tavern, near the Capitol. It’s the current performance most similar to the much-missed “Revolutionary City“. My family listened as citizens discussed moving Virginia’s capital from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780.
Enjoy Musical Performances
Music was a significant feature in 18th-century life. You may:
- Hear period tunes and songs at the Play House Stage, on the site of the American colonies’ first purpose-built theater, opened on the Palace Green before 1720. My family enjoyed the “Music of Queen Anne’s World“.
- Watch and listen as the Fifes and Drums corps march from Market Square down Duke of Gloucester Street.
Dine at a Tavern
Colonial Williamsburg has four operating taverns. As of this writing, two are open to the public:
- The King’s Arms Tavern offers “a refined chophouse experience” at dinner five nights per week.
- Chowning’s Tavern is a casual alehouse open 11:30-7:30 five days per week. The adults in my family enjoyed sharing the Fish House Punch Bowl (twice).
Attend a “Witch Trial”
My family’s other favorite event was “Cry Witch“, a participatory re-enactment of the trial of Grace Sherwood, a real woman from Virginia who was accused of witchcraft in the early 18th century. As of this writing, the program takes place on Mondays and Fridays, at 7:30 and 9 pm, in the General Court at the Capitol. (Tip: Line up early for a chance to sit in front as part of the Governor’s Council.)
Colonial Williamsburg is lovely, and one of the best things to do is simply stroll around. There are walking tours of areas like the stables and the gardens.
You may also poke around on your own. You never know what you might find. In the morning, my family stumbled upon recruiters for the Continental Army, and I ended up getting drafted into the Revolutionary War. (I survived.)
In the evening after a torrential thunderstorm, we savored the spectacular night amid the historic buildings.
And you might even run into a “Nation Builder” or two.
Do You Need Tickets to Visit
That depends on what you want to do. The Historic District is open to the public, and you are free to walk around. You may also enter the commercial shops and taverns without tickets.
But you do need admission tickets to enter the historic buildings and the trade shops, to attend the regular presentations, and to ride the shuttle. Several options are available, including single-, multi-day, and annual passes and complimentary length-of-stay tickets for hotel guests.
In addition, you need dedicated tickets for special events, such as the evening programs like “Cry Witch”.
For more information about Colonial Williamsburg tickets, click here.
I fell in love with travel on a trip to Mexico when I was nine years old. Since then, I’ve travelled the globe from Israel to El Salvador. I’ve skied the Swiss Alps and hiked national parks like Acadia, Zion, Shenandoah, and Virgin Islands. I’ve marvelled at masterpieces in the Prado, the Uffizi, the Huntington, and the National Gallery of Art. I’ve stayed in a cabin on a mountaintop in Norway and on a kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and been kicked out of the Ritz at the Place Vendôme. I’ve taken cooking classes from New England to the Caribbean, and watched a chef prepare traditional shakshuka in the kitchen of his restaurant in Tel Aviv. I weave historical research and my personal experiences together in writing this blog. I hope you find it helpful. Read more …