Stepping into Colonial Williamsburg, you are transported to the 18th century, where woman wore bonnets, the men wore 3 corner hats, and the air was filled with the spark of revolution. Before the capital was moved, Williamsburg was the main city in colonial Virginia. In the 1920s, Reverend Goodwin realized that several buildings in the town were original to the colonial era and convinced the Rockefellers to provide a grant to build what would become the largest living history exhibit in the United States. See how you can enjoy a perfect day learning history in Colonial Williamsburg.
Starting Point – Visitors Center
The Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center is a bit of a distance from the historic district of Colonial Williamsburg, but it is still where you want to start. First off, this is where you can buy your tickets. We purchased the Single Day Ticket ($44.99 for adults, $24.99 for children) which gave us access to all the open historical buildings, the tours inside, and the art museum. You also get a map, and a little run down on what you are about to see. The kids looked a little and learned a bit about the period represented, and we all took a chance to catch a quick (modern) bathroom break. Then from here, we could jump on the free Colonial Williamsburg bus, which takes you form the visitors center to the popular stops in town. While most people got off at the first stop for the Governor’s Palace, we decided to stay onboard and go to the Capitol, where there were less people.
Colonial Williamsburg is a living history museum. Recreated to look like Williamsburg in the 18th century, intended to teach visitors about Williamsburg, and the part it played in the building of America. All the tour guides and volunteers dressed in time appropriate garb (except for masks, as we went during the summer of 2021). Any day there are a number of different buildings and homes that are open to the public and provide tours.
The Capital: Rebuilt as it was on the foundations of the original, this is an accurate recreation of the Capital building from the 18th century. Here you can see what a courtroom at that time would have looked like, as well as the room where the government met to make laws. There was a fun exercise where the audience participated, where a townsperson got to write the government to suggest a law (my son suggested free ice cream for all), an elected legislator got to introduce it, it was debated on, voted on (passed), sent to the governor, and then the king.
Wig Maker: Along Duke of Gloucester Street, there are a number of little shops, and one was a recreation of a shop for a Wig Maker. Inside a wig maker talked about how he measured heads, made the cap, sewed in the hair for the wigs, and how long the entire process took (surprisingly fast!).
The Armory: Here you can walk back and see the blacksmiths in action. They talked through how a blacksmith in that town would have worked, what it created, and we got to see them work on knives, pots, horseshoes and more.
Governor’s Palace: One of the more popular visits is the Governor’s Palace. It is quite a beautiful tour. Your tour guide takes you through the history of the house, the impressive entry of the home, and then the impressive ball room. (My son really wanted to play the harpsicord and was sad to learn it is an old artifact and he could not touch it). Then after the Palace, you can wander the grounds of the Governor’s Palace.
Each child was supposed to pick what they wanted to see in the historic triangle and my daughter picked the art museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Ok, honestly, I was surprised by her choice, but it was included in the ticket price, so I agreed. After lunch, we walked down from the historical area to the Art Museums of Williamsburg. It is two smaller art museums in one building, but it has a few excellent features. First off, it had a children’s scavenger hunt, which made exploring the museum more interesting. They had to look for art pieces in specific rooms. There was also an extensive area with textiles (something I always love), fine china, and furniture from the colonial time period. Everyone’s favorite was the doll house. There is a doll house meticulously set up with old doll furniture and dolls from different time periods. The kids absolutely loved lighting up the house and checking out different rooms and pieces in the house. My daughter wanted one in our house. No child, we do not have the room for one that big…
We had been hoping to eat lunch at one of the old-fashioned taverns in the historic district, but due to COVID capacity restrictions, they were full and had an over 2 hours wait. We were hungry with kids, there was no 2-hour waiting. We walked off the historic district to Merchants Square where there were a number of restaurants available. We choose the Dog Street Pub. It had a nice beer list, and some good options for lunch as well as a kid’s menu. Took about an hour, but it was nice to get out of the heat and into the air conditioning to cool off for a bit. Note, there is outdoor seating, but my group had had enough of the sun at that point.
- Carriage Rides: Carriage Rides are a lot of fun, but also hugely popular and sell out really quickly. If you want to take advantage of this, go to the ticket office on Duke of Gloucester Street and reserve your spot as soon as you arrive. They will be sold out within the first hour or two.
- Planning Your Visit: Visiting both the historical buildings and the Art Museum in one day is a bit much. I am glad we did both, but I wish we had had more time to see other buildings that were open.
- COVID Restrictions: Check the website for the latest COVID restrictions. At the time of our visit, those who were fully vaccinated were allowed to be mask-less, but they did not check vaccination status and they were not strict with the rules. I saw many children too young to be vaccinated unmasked indoors. We choose to stay masked indoors at all times.
- Summertime Tips: If going in the summer, understand that the heat is real. Those of you who live in the south or other humid climates may be ok. My California raised children (and my California acclimated Indian Husband) really struggled with the heat and humidity. Lots of water, lots of sunscreen, and lots of shade and air conditioning breaks are key.
- Ending the Day: At the end of the day, when headed back to the visitor’s center, try to catch the bus much further away from the Visitors Center. We made the mistake of trying to catch the buss at the end of the day by the Governor’s Manson, the last stop before the Visitors Center. After two full busses passed, my husband and I ended up walking to the Visitor’s Center and driving the car back to my children and mother who waited at the bus stop. It was a 10-minute walk, and we made it back just as a third full bus was pulling up.
- One Town a Day: Most everything of interest in the Historic Triangle opens at 10am and closes at 5pm. There is not really enough time to go see another of the cities in the historic triangle (such as Yorktown or Jamestown). There are still outdoor things you can do but plan accordingly. We ended up going to Battle of Yorktown, but after the Visitor’s Center closed, so we walked the battlefield ourselves.
- History Lessons: Talk to your kids about the history of the colonies BEFORE you go to Colonial Williamsburg. I forget that California tends to have a different schedule for teaching history, and I realized after one of the houses that they did not understand the time period. For older girls, reading the Felicity Series from American Girl might be a fantastic way to prep them for the trip.
Colonial Williamsburg is a unique place set up specifically to teach people about a period of time in a unique and interesting way. From the knowledgeable tour guides, to even the actors who walk down the street, you are immediately immersed in the time period. There is so much to learn and witness, and it is a fun way to teach the kids history of that time in a fun way. Families in the area would do well to dedicate at least one day to checking out Colonial Williamsburg and learning about what life was really like when we were trying to find this great nation.
* Photos taken by Atma Photography