Where: The Historic Triangle in Virginia, close to Jamestown. One hour from Richmond.
Mom score: 4/5
Kid score: 4.5/5
Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the “world’s largest outdoor museum”, is located in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia. Williamsburg itself is a small town; Colonial Williamsburg refers to the restored colonial town which is staffed with historical reenactors and tradespeople. Additionally, two art museums are under the umbrella of CW but are also accessible through separate specific tickets.
When I was at Williamsburg during the fall of 2020, I felt unprepared and didn’t really know what to expect despite searching several times online for visitor information. Hopefully, this will clear up some questions other people might have.
Williamsburg for Free
Visiting CW does not necessarily require a ticket. If I had only a few hours driving through the area and tickets were full price, I would walk around and just see the free portion. This also would be good for families with littles who wouldn’t be interested in going inside buildings… or have the patience to sit and listen.
The streets of Colonial Williamsburg are open to the public except for when they have big events or the usual evening parade. The Duke of Gloucester Street (the main street) and the surrounding areas are open all day and even has private homes. Without buying tickets, you can see the outside of all the buildings, take a carriage ride with a separate ticket, and talk to the historical interpreters who will be roaming the area. Outside many of the buildings, gardens, and activities there will be an American flag at the entrance; this signifies a purchased ticket from Williamsburg is required to go inside.
If you wish to get an overall view of the area, start with the free bus which goes around the perimeter with stops throughout. This round trip lasts about 15 minutes, and you can hop on anywhere along the route. The route is marked on the CW App. Just for clarification, there is also a Williamsburg bus marked WATA. That’s not what you’re looking for.
Additionally, the Visitor Center has a few shops, a small museum, and restrooms. This is the place to start your visit: watch the video about Williamsburg, buy your carriage ride, and grab a ride on the bus into CW. On the far opposite end of CW, the area closest to the college is Merchant’s Square. This several block section has both chain and locally owned restaurants, shops, and souvenirs with paid parking garages and hourly parking lots. During non-Covid times, visiting a tavern in CW is a fun option which does not require admission.
Another option is to head to the end of the street opposite the Capitol building to the college of William and Mary. The university is the second oldest institute of higher education in the US, was started in 1693, and was named after King William and Queen Mary of England. Go walk around the historic college where Thomas Jefferson once roamed. Take a tour of the grounds. Or just introduce your kids to a college campus. There is an app available to download and give you information about the buildings.
As a disclaimer, I would also point out that Williamsburg relies on tourism financial support, so I do strongly recommend this if you are going to be there for more time.
What is Williamsburg?
The capital of the Virginia Colony was moved to Williamsburg from Jamestown and would later move further inland to Richmond in 1780 during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson lived in Williamsburg for 20 years from his time as a student at William and Mary up to his time as Governor. For more than a hundred years, the structures were allowed to decay until historical preservation was undertaken. In 1926, the property was purchased to be restored and reconstructed based on historic records and archeological research through the funding of John D. Rockefeller.
Paid ticket: Adult $25.99, Kids $14.99, under 6 free (Fall 2020 one-day prices)
Check the website before your visit as the prices will change during regular seasons. There are also combination tickets, 3-day tickets, resident tickets, etc.
Next time we visit, I plan to get the three-day pass. It isn’t much more expensive and would decrease the desire to rush and “see everything”. Despite only one ticketed day during our visit, we ended back up in Williamsburg just roaming the free area several times, and I would have done more of the ticketed places if we had bought the longer ticket. It really does take more than a day to fully see everything.
Parking and Getting Around
Parking: free at the Visitor Center, paid hourly at the Merchant’s Square end
Bus: There is a free bus which makes a loop from the Visitor Center to the taverns to Merchant’s Square to the museums to the Palace and back to the Visitor’s Center. You can enter and exit the bus at any of these stops. This is not ticketed and runs until evening.
Walk: Prepare the kids and wear the good shoes. The main street is a mile long. When adding in the side roads and retracing your steps to see more places, it will add up. There is also a trail that takes from the VC to the Capitol if you don’t want to get on the bus.
How Much Time Do I Need to Stay?
One very full, busy day extending to up to three more relaxed days
Colonial Williamsburg should be approached as you would Disney World. Know that there is a lot to see and do, some on schedule and some walk-up. Understand you can’t see “everything” in one day. CW covers a large area, 300 acres to be exact.
If you plan on rushing from scheduled speaker to another, you will be skipping past all sorts of other activities on the way. At some of the houses, you will have to wait for your group’s turn. Not to mention, some areas like the Palace deserve more time than other locations. If you truly want to not miss anything, your visit will require several days and more planning as the schedule changes daily.
Our Favorite Places
- The Governor’s Palace – This building is behind the Palace Green, several blocks off the main street. Reconstructed after a fire, this was the official residence of the governors of the Virginia Colony including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. The bottom floor of the house is open for tours and has been meticulously researched and rebuilt. It is surrounded by formal gardens and has a hedge maze for the kids to explore.
- The Capitol Building – This is where the chief justice and other state justices heard major cases of the time. Historical presenters relate the history of the building and how the court system would have worked at the time.
- CW Courthouse – Don’t overlook this small building. The local justices heard cases here in the court room, juries debated in the jury room, and the clerk managed his many civic duties from his office. We learned a lot here from the presenter.
- Historic Trade – Watching the blacksmith, shoemaker, gunsmith, and wheelwright were my kids favorites. The artisans are actively involved in traditionally making tools and objects to be used in Colonial Williamsburg today.
- Historical reenactors – These costumed interpreters guide your location visits and educate while they speak, dress, and act as their colonial real life figures. Hear about the war from the French-accented LaFayette roaming the streets on his horse. Sit in the garden with George Wythe and hear about how Jefferson behaved as a student. Watch the farmhand guide the yoke of oxen through the streets.
- Carriage ride around the colonial town. According to the people in the visitor center, these are usually booked months in advance. During Covid, we were able to get same day tickets. These are purchased through the VC or at the ticket stand outside the carriage stand.
- Ghost tours at night – a kid-friendly version or the adult version
- Historical trials and performances
Changes in the Time of Corona
There are fewer tourists and tickets are cheaper. Enjoy it and support CW! However…
Masks are required in the buildings. There were people walking around the town without masks but masks are stressed in any of the ticketed areas.
Per government regulations, only small groups of 10 are allowed into buildings like the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol. However, this change doesn’t seem to be posted anywhere telling you what to do. There is a guide outside the buildings who will tell you where to go to wait. If you see a line, go to the front and ask what you need to do.
Many buildings, including the taverns, are closed temporarily. If open, some of the regular worker shops have been moved to different locations for space. Just because there is a sign on a shop it doesn’t mean that’s where they still are.
The usual fife and drum parade is not happening. Some days have gatherings at certain times but it’s not the pomp of the usual end of the day parade.
Williamsburg Explorer App
Do yourself a favor and learn how to use the app through the tutorial on the app. It is in the menu at the bottom. I didn’t see this until the end of our trip, and our experience would have been much better if I had seen this before. There is also a video tutorial on the CW website. Don’t forget to bring your external phone charger!
All the information you need to know for the day can be found here: an interactive map, restrooms, schedule, tram routes, and ticketing. If you aren’t sure which day you want to visit, scroll through the days on the app to see which day works best for your interests.
Tickets are currently digital and can be accessed through the Williamsburg app. For each ticketed place in town, you will have to pull this up on your phone so they can see it.
Best of Time and Worst of Times
Best part: History is truly alive in Williamsburg. The people are in character as the real historical characters and have a wealth of history to share. The buildings look as they would have in the time of Jefferson. My kids and I lived Williamsburg, learning and experiencing a ton.
Worst part: I had a very hard time finding out details about Williamsburg online and didn’t know what to expect. I felt like there was a lot of information I wanted, and it was assumed I knew.
Example: Nowhere online did it say they weren’t doing the drum and fife show. I asked the bus driver one night, and after consulting someone else via walkie talkie, he said it was the following night. At the visitor center the next day, I was told that they were doing nightly performances in the auditorium, and the employee was surprised when I showed her on my app that there wasn’t one listed that day. It seemed like I wasn’t the only one unsure of the current situation.
Parking at the visitor center is free but not close to Williamsburg proper. Riding the bus could probably get you back to your car in 15 minutes. If you will need to go back to your car, you might consider parking in a paid lot.
Food and drinks are allowed outside throughout the town. Don’t hesitate to pack a picnic and bring your water bottles. However, I didn’t find anywhere to fill up water bottles easily other than a bathroom sink.
There are signs for bathrooms scattered throughout. Look on the app.
All the roads are stroller friendly. Park it outside to go in some gardens and buildings.
Wear good shoes and prepare your family. There will be a lot of walking today.
A Learning Life
The Williamsburg website has lots of information! Colonialwilliamsburg.org
Dawn’s Early Light by Elswyth Thane
There aren’t many historical fiction books which take place in Williamsburg from what I could find other than this one which takes place in Williamsburg. An old-fashioned novel that covers the Revolutionary War as life revolves around a family in Williamsburg. And a sweet love story. This is the start of a series which goes up through the centuries. Highly recommended.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Southern family and slavery. I read it a few years ago and enjoyed it.
Podcast: On your podcast app, search for Williamsburg. This is how I do Mom learning on the way to locations. A good way to look like you know more than you did the day before!
Historical Williamsburg – nonfiction textbook style read; gives history, current activities, and changes through the years. Good for introduction before or review after the trip.
Give Me, Liberty – YA novel; on my to-read list
Felicity books from American Girl
Revolutionary War, Why did they choose to stay in Williamsburg
Founding Fathers, Why did so many come from Virginia?
Court system, clerk, justices, relationship to current structure of Supreme Court, who was allowed to hold these titles and vote
Slavery in the colonies
Tradesmen, apprentices, gunsmith, blacksmith, wheelwright
House of Burgesses, Colony of Virginia vs State of Virginia
College of William and Mary, Who was allowed in?
People: Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, George Washington, King William, King George III
Where should we go next?
- Go to Jamestown Settlement and see the original governor’s palace
- Compare the architecture of Williamsburg with that of Monticello; see what traditional Colonial style Jefferson was trying to get away from
- Drive to Richmond and see the current Capitol