Williamsburg, Virginia, is a history lover’s paradise. I visit the Commonweath’s second capital several times a year. Nestled in the Tidewater region, about 150 miles from Washington, D.C., the city is one point on Virginia’s Historic Triangle, between the York and James Rivers, and a fabulous base from which to explore other historic spots:
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English settlers founded Jamestown in 1607 and named it for King James I, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was the first lasting settlement after several failures, including Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colony on Roanoke Island, now part of North Carolina. Jamestown served as Virginia’s first colonial capital during 1616-99. Today it’s another point on the Historic Triangle, seven miles from Williamsburg.
Visitors can join history and archaeology walking tours, learn about historic people and their trades, and explore what remains of James Fort at Historic Jamestowne.
Next door is Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum that brings 17th-century Virginia to life. You may explore a colonial fort, a Powhatan Indian village, and replicas of three English ships that carried settlers across the Atlantic.
Colonists founded Yorktown in 1691 and named it after the city of York, England. Ninety years later, it became the site of the last significant battle of the Revolutionary War, where General George Washington and the Continental Army, aided by French forces, defeated the British under General Charles Cornwallis. Today it’s the other point on the Historic Triangle, 13 miles from Williamsburg.
Visitors may explore Yorktown Battlefield, which is maintained by the National Park Service.
Nearby is the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which features a recreated Revolutionary-era farm and a Continental Army encampment.
Virginia Beach sits where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, about an hour’s drive from Williamsburg. It was incorporated as a town in 1906 and as a city in 1952. It is the largest city by population in Virginia.
Its First Landing State Park marks the spot where the English settlers arrived in 1607. Today the Park boasts 20 miles of hiking trails through terrain including cypress swamps and maritime forest and 1.5 miles of sandy beach along the Chesapeake Bay.
And if you want some modern waterfront fun, downtown is the three-mile Virginia Beach Boardwalk, which features live music, museums and parks, and lots of shops and restaurants.
Portsmouth sits on the Elizabeth River, named for Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I, about an hour’s drive from Williamsburg. It was established in 1752 and named after the city of Portsmouth, England.
Its Olde Town historic district features centuries-old Federal and Greek Revival architecture, modern shops and restaurants, and a 1.5-mile park along its seawall.
Portsmouth is also home to the Rivers Casino, which offers live entertainment and a range of restaurants, as well as slots and table games.
Norfolk sits at the Chesapeake Bay and the Elizabeth River, across from Portsmouth, about an hour’s drive from Williamsburg. The city was incorporated in 1752 and named for the county of Norfolk in England. It is home to the largest naval base in the world and a NATO Strategic Command headquarters. It is the third largest city in Virginia and offers a wide variety of sites for history and culture lovers to explore.
The Chrysler Museum of Art hosts 50 galleries, including major collections of Impressionist paintings, neoclassical sculpture, and glass works.
The 155-acre Norfolk Botanical Garden features 60 gardens blooming with roses, magnolias, hydrangeas, and many other flowers. You may tour them on foot or by tram or boat in the warmer seasons.
Nauticus is a maritime discovery center that features interactive exhibits, aquaria, and the USS Wisconsin, the last battleship built in the United States, which served during World War II and the Korean and Gulf Wars.
The Virginia Zoo houses 700 animals, including big cats, red pandas, and lots of reptiles and amphibians.
In 1775, Patrick Henry, Virginia’s first elected Governor, delivered his iconic “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech at St. John’s Church. Richmond replaced Williamsburg as Virginia’s capital in 1780. A year later, turncoat Benedict Arnold attacked the city, forcing Virginia’s second elected Governor, Thomas Jefferson, to flee first to Monticello and then to Poplar Forest.
Today, Richmond is the fourth-largest city in Virginia and hosts a number of museums.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts maintains a world-class collection ranging from pre-Columbian pottery to Fabergé eggs.
The city’s 600-acre James River Park features more than 40 miles of trails, wildlife, rapids, forests, and spectacular views.
Carytown is a quirky neighborhood full of boutiques and bookstores, galleries and restaurants. Richmond is considered an up-and-coming Southern foodie city.
Hanover County sits north of Richmond, a little less than a 90-minute drive from Williamsburg. It was created in 1720 and named in honor of George I, the first British king from the House of Hanover, Germany. Its highlight is Scotchtown, residence of Patrick Henry, and one of the largest surviving 18th-century homes in America, which offers docent-led tours.
Fredericksburg hugs the Rappahannock River, named for the local native tribe, about a 90-minute drive from Williamsburg. The city was founded in 1728 and named for Prince Frederick, son of King George II.
While geographically the South begins below the Mason-Dixon line between Maryland and Pennsylvania, culturally it begins in Fredericksburg, where life slows to a pleasant and polite pace. It’s primarily thought of as a Civil War city, but there is also a lot of colonial and Revolutionary history in Fredericksburg.
Chatham Manor links the history of the South from colonial times to the Civil War; it is located in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, which also includes the Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House battlefields.
Charlottesville sits approximately 20 miles east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about a two-hour drive from Williamsburg. The city was founded in 1762 and named after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. It is home to lots of wineries and the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson and attended by Edgar Allan Poe.
Just outside the city is Monticello, Jefferson’s magnificent mountain-top home. You may take a docent-led tour the house and wonder at the third president’s inventions, like the copy machine, the swivel chair, and the dumb waiter. You may also tour the gardens.
Also near Charlottesville is Highland, home of James Monroe, which too is open for tours and offers trails you may hike.
Orange County is nestled near the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about a two-hour drive from Williamsburg. The County was founded in 1734 and named for King William III, also known as William of Orange.
Its highlight is Montpelier, the home of James Madison. You may take a docent-led tour of the house. You may also explore the grounds and the gardens and hike its more than eight miles of trails.
From a temporary base in Williamsburg, you can explore American history and Virginia’s role in it from the 17th century on.
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 …