Given the proximity, my penchant for adventures that recall the past, and the small fact that I publish a blog all about family activities, you’d think we would have visited Colonial Williamsburg ages ago. But, no. It wasn’t until the recent Spring Break that the kids and I finally took a little time trip south to explore 18th-century life at the living history museum (the largest in the world!). And I would say it was worth the wait, but we had such a great time, I’m actually a little mad at myself for not getting there sooner.
Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just a museum, but a living history experience — essentially, a whole town that recreates life almost exactly the way it was 300 years ago. Structures from that time have been preserved and restored, people work in trades and engage in activities they did back then, products and food from the era are available to view and purchase, and visitors are welcome to enjoy, observe, and be a part of it all.
The kids and I spent two days there (Levi had to stay back for work), though our whole trip to Williamsburg was longer. I booked a package that included a stay at one of several official CW properties and seven-consecutive-day passes to both Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens (even though we only used them for three days, it was still a good deal). We stayed at the Woodlands Hotel & Suites, which offered the lowest rate, breakfast daily, and came recommended as a good resort for families.
We arrived late afternoon on Monday, just in time to pick up our passes at the Visitors Center, which took about 30 minutes even though I reserved in advance. Most of the buildings in the historic zone close at 5pm, but the area is open 24/7, so after a dip in the hotel pool, we took the free shuttle over to get the lay of the land and book a Haunted Williamsburg tour for the next evening. (We lucked out and got the last three spots, so I recommend doing this in advance of your trip!) There are other evening programs available, including the Official Ghost Walk Junior geared toward families with kids ages 4-7. From there we walked to Berret’s Seafood Restaurant & Taphouse Grill for dinner, which was quite good. We were able to get a table outside easily since it was a chilly night, but indoor seating there and most other places was a long wait, so I recommend making reservations.
The next day (as well as the third; we went to Busch Gardens in between) was all about exploring Colonial Williamsburg. The weather was great, so we opted for the 10-minute walk there over the shuttle — a good choice, as some interesting sights along the way included in-ground plaques with dates and historical facts, an old windmill; and a reconstructed 18th-century farm.
Once we arrived at the historic zone, it was almost hard to choose where to begin — looking at the map, there were interesting sights and activities everywhere. But that’s also what I loved about it. You can go at your pace, just wander around, and see what you happen upon. It’s free-flowing and relaxed, no fast passes or structured agendas (essentially, it’s totally up my alley). We explored the grounds of the Governor’s Palace, then stopped in shops to watch demonstrations by cabinetmakers, printers, tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, bookbinders, and so many more trades people.
The best part of this is that the folks who do this work are as authentically colonial as you can get in this modern time. They are skilled in the labor and create products in the colonial environment, using the same tools and techniques as they did three centuries ago, even sourcing many materials the same ways. Even more, the people you meet in these roles aren’t just employees; they’re enthusiasts and historians who are very knowledgable and zealous about their work — and about colonial times in Williamsburg. And they are more than happy to talk about their trades and life during the 1700’s. We found that most didn’t act like they were from the past (think, Ren Fest), rather they described that time from a modern POV.
Other historic sights included the Capitol, Courthouse, Burton Parish Church, several taverns, and homes of notable people. Tours are offered at just about all of them and some also have special programs like talks, concerts, and tours for children — daily schedules are available with details. We really enjoyed tours of Wetherburn’s Tavern and Randolph House (especially the latter after spending part of our Haunted Williamsburg tour there). The enthusiasm of our guides was evident as we got more than a look at the places, but also a glimpse into society and domestic life of that time, too.
The kids also had an opportunity to be part of the festivities as they joined the ranks of soldiers enlisting in the army and got into formation with other young visitors. We also spent time at the Market Square checking out colonial-style games and products for sale.
Colonial inspired dining is available, too. We had one meal at Shields Tavern, though I think we all enjoyed the “reconstructed 18th-century tavern” part more than the fare. There are several other family-friendly eateries right next to the historic zone — we really enjoyed Berret’s (noted above), Mellow Mushroom, and The Hound’s Tale. I recommend making reservations, especially during busy travel seasons when there could be long waits for walk-ins.
For a close-to-home getaway for DC families, Colonial Williamsburg is kind of perfect. Not only is it an easy 2.5-hour drive away, it’s fun, educational (in a fun way), and thoroughly enjoyable for all ages. Two full days wasn’t enough to experience it all, and we’ll definitely be going back. (Plus, Levi needs to check it out, too.)
Ready for a time trip to Colonial Williamsburg? Here are some KFDC tips:
* Look for special packages and promos
* Book special tours, such as Haunted Williamsburg, in advance as they fill up
* Pick up a schedule of daily programs to help plan your days
* Consider pairing it with a Great Wolf Lodge getaway (a couple of days at each)
* Throw in a day at Busch Gardens like we did (another post on that soon)
* Extend your historic explorations with a visit to Jamestown