AOL Travel
Print

Best Things To Do in Williamsburg

AOL PICK from our Editors

We once heard a pinch-faced woman wandering around Market Square in Colonial Williamsburg say to her husband, “Is it just history stuff around here?” Well, not exactly, ma’am, but you are in the Historic Triangle. So traveler, please understand: the main reason for coming here is to see history. How you see history is another question: It can be preserved with varying degrees of authenticity, academically explained or re-created into a theme park that even the most history-averse traveler can love. Have a read through and decide which approach appeals to you. There are a variety of tickets on offer at most of the attractions below, many of which offer multiple-attraction passes and family discounts; see the ticketing section of the Williamsburg website for details.

Colonial Williamsburg

Neighborhood: Historic Area

Spread over 301 acres concealed from the modern world by thick woods is one of the largest living museums in the world, the largest outdoor living history in the U.S. and the main attraction in Williamsburg. Indeed, for many people Colonial Williamsburg is Williamsburg, such that the two terms are synonymous. Also known by locals as CW or just the Historic Area, Colonial Williamsburg consists of some approximately 500 preserved or restored buildings that once stood here, in Virginia’s former capital. Taken together, these buildings are meant to realize the experience of an 18th-century Colonial city, inhabited by interpreters who speak, for lack of a better word, "Colonialese." Visitors enter through a visitor center and, depending on the tickets they purchase, have access to preserved buildings, including the restored Virginia’s Governor’s Palace; Bruton Parish Church (where George Washington and Thomas Jefferson attended services); stalls where folks weave, hammer pig iron, etc.; and the former Virginia Capitol, where immigrants are naturalized in a yearly ceremony meant to preserve the American civic ideal that, in so many ways, began here. Liberties have been taken with history—Colonial cities were never so clean and well ordered—but CW takes admirable steps to explain controversial issues like slavery. In the end, despite some issues of accuracy, Colonial Williamsburg is a place where the historical roots of America are extremely accessible, and for that, we nod our tri-cornered hat in approval.

More Details on

Colonial Williamsburg »

Historic Jamestowne

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

The site of the first permanent English settlement in North America—the place from which our nation and its frenetic culture emerged—is a supremely peaceful, borderline silent marshy island. Ah, irony. That marshiness actually speaks to why Jamestown was avoided by Native Americans—it was an inhospitable swamp where food and drinking water were scarce. Now the area is just gently pretty and preserved. There are two parks for Jamestown; Historic Jamestowne is run by the National Park Service and is the better choice for those wanting a more cerebral experience. The bare remains of the foundations of the first settlement are plunked over the green, a small museum displays artifacts and gives insight into the many hardships, self-inflicted and otherwise, that the first colonists endured, and knowledgeable rangers answer any questions. (“No, John Smith and Pocahontas were never married.") A lovely hiking/biking/driving trail runs around the small island, if you need a natural escape. Jamestown is about 8 miles south of Williamsburg.

More Details on

Historic Jamestowne »

Jamestown Settlement

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Operated by the Commonwealth of Virginia and just up the road from Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Settlement is a more kid-friendly/I’m-not-as-into-history-friendly spot to learn about America’s origins. The settlement re-creates both the original colony and a Powhatan village, making for a more interactive and activity-oriented way of learning about the site. Great pains have been made to explain the cultural folkways and economic means of the disparate groups that inhabited the settlement: Native Americans, Europeans and Africans. It’s an admirable effort that comes off as appropriately inclusive, rather than forced. Most impressive is the Susan Constant, a re-creation of the original ship that brought colonists to Virginia’s shores.

More Details on

Jamestown Settlement »

Yorktown Battlefield

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Jamestown was where British North America was first settled by Europeans, Williamsburg was where the seeds of the American Revolution were planted, and this site, managed by the National Park Service, was where American independence was won. As at the Jamestowne Settlement, this is a quiet, contemplative site where you can wander and, with some imagination (or the help of a ranger-led tour), re-create in your mind the last battle of the Revolutionary War. An on-site museum explains the course of the battle, which wasn’t the climactic clash many visitors expect. The British surrendered after a long siege, wherein defeat was all but assured, and the key to American victory were the blockading efforts of the allied French Navy. The battlefield is about 13 miles east of Williamsburg.

More Details on

Yorktown Battlefield »

Yorktown Victory Center

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Virginia’s complement to the National Park Service battlefield site is the Yorktown Victory Center. Much like the Jamestown Settlement and Williamsburg, the Victory Center is geared toward making history accessible via costumed interpreters, re-created buildings and hands-on, activity-style learning. Where the layout of the battlefield site is open, the Victory Center takes you through a well-plotted exhibition that includes an 18th-century newspaper copy of the Declaration of Independence. You’re then spit into a Continental Army camp that re-creates life for soldiers and civilians in the late-Colonial period. Tickets can be bought here that also provide access to Jamestown Settlement, and vice versa.

More Details on

Yorktown Victory Center »

Busch Gardens

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Had enough of history? OK, let’s just ride some roller coasters. Wait, that’s historical, too? Well, sort of. Busch Gardens is a beautiful amusement park just 7 miles southeast of Williamsburg proper. The theme is Europe…or at least a very clichéd idea of what Europe is, with accordion music in "France," opera pumped throughout "Italy" and one hell of an Oktoberfest hall in "Germany." The grounds are meant to blend into the woods and the effect is awesome; even on hot days, you benefit from lots of shade, and the whole feel is green and gorgeous. Also, in case we didn’t make it clear: the roller coasters kick butt, especially the Loch Ness Monster. Two miles north of here is Water Country USA, an enormous water park where you can cool off after a few days of browsing Colonial antiques.

More Details on

Busch Gardens »

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum/DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum

Neighborhood: Historic Area

These two museums are hidden gems within the Historic Triangle, despite existing smack in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg. The DeWitt is a small but thorough collection of American and British antiques and interior design products. The Rockeller is, for our money, the more interesting institution. It’s filled to the brim with outsider and folk art—gorgeous creations self-made by artists who eschew conventional painting to follow their own visions. The collection ranges from folk instruments to random sculptures to the story of a wooden dog…a weird, charming and excellent museum in an unexpected location. Tickets can be bought as part of the Colonial Williamsburg entrance fees or separately at the CW visitor center.

More Details on

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum/DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum »

Williamsburg Winery

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Here’s a novel way of appreciating the Colonial chic the Historic Triangle is so deeply steeped in: drunk. Or, at least, pleasantly buzzed. Set on over 50 acres of rolling Virginia countryside and an almost medieval village dominated by the manor house—esque main building, the winery is Virginia’s largest, producing some 60,000 cases a year. Tours are fun and buzz-inducing. Coming here is a sort of full service experience; you’ll want to book tables to enjoy some rural French-style cuisine at the Gabriel Archer Tavern, and you can doss in Wedmore Place, a huge country house built in European style, the sort of place where kids disappear into furniture and end up in Narnia. The winery is three miles south of Williamsburg.

More Details on

Williamsburg Winery »

Shirley Plantation

Neighborhood: Williamsburg

Eastern Virginia is one of the oldest European-settled areas in the U.S. A different breed of Englishman came here, compared to the mercantile traders of New York and small plot farmers of New England. Virginia attracted landed gentlemen who re-created the imposing manor-style houses of their home counties across the pond. The "neck," or peninsula that Williamsburg is on, contains quite a few of these plantations, but the most impressive is Shirley, about 30 miles west of Williamsburg proper. Shirley is the oldest plantation in Virginia, and claims to be the oldest family-run business in North America, dating from 1638 and having passed through 11 generations from founder Edward Hill to the current day owners. Tours are pleasant, the grounds are beautiful, and all in all, a visit to Shirley makes for a lovely historical experience with no theme park pretensions, yet real connections to the 21st century.

More Details on

Shirley Plantation »

College of William & Mary

Neighborhood: William & Mary

William & Mary is the second-oldest institute of higher education in the U.S.; whether or not it is the oldest university is up for tweedy debate, and should you be interested in the topic, we direct you to Wikipedia. Whatever else it is, William & Mary, commonly known as W&M, is one of the cornerstones of the Williamsburg experience, even though most visitors miss it on their way to the historic area. That’s a shame, as W&M has a pretty campus, all red brick and long lawns and shaded alleyways. Considered one of the eight original Public Ivies, the school has its own historic area, dominated by Brafferton, built in 1723, the President’s House, the oldest official residence for a college president in the U.S., and the elegant Wren Building, the oldest college building in the country, period.

More Details on

College of William & Mary »
See All Williamsburg Things To Do »
ADVERTISEMENT