Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the “world’s largest outdoor museum”, is located in the city of Williamsburg, Virginia. While Williamsburg itself is a small town, Colonial Williamsburg refers to the restored colonial town which is staffed with historical reenactors and tradespeople. Located in the Historic Triangle of Virginia close to Jamestown and Yorktown, Williamsburg is sure to be on every family’s vacation list- and it should be!
During our family visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I felt unprepared and didn’t really know what to expect despite searching several times online for visitor information. Here is all the information I learned first-hand, so hopefully you feel better prepared for your Williamsburg, Virginia family vacation. Make sure you continue the family learning at home with my recommended book lists.
What is Colonial Williamsburg?
Where is Williamsburg, Virginia?
What Type of Ticket Do I Need for Williamsburg?
What Can I See in Williamsburg for Free?
Where Do I Start My Visit in Williamsburg?
How Much Time Do I Need in Colonial Williamsburg?
What is There To Do in Williamsburg?
Williamsburg Tips for Families
Extra At-Home Williamsburg Education
What Should I See Near 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.
Colonial Williamsburg is located in what is known as the Historical Triangle in Virginia with Jamestown and Yorktown. About three hours south of Washington DC, this historic destination is often included on family trips to the capital. It’s location between the James River and York River made it an ideal early settlement location. Make sure you also take the time to look at a map to discuss proximity to Chesapeake Bay and the other larger towns of the Revolutionary Era like Baltimore and Annapolis.
Single Day ticket: Adult $49.99, Kids $28.99, under 6 free (2023 prices)
Multi Day ticket: Adult $59.99, Kids $33.99, under 6 free (2023 prices)
Check the Williamsburg website before your visit as the prices will change during regular seasons. There are also combination tickets, resident tickets, and discounted homeschool days.
Next time we visit, I plan to get the three-day pass if we have extra time in the area. 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.
Did you know you can see Williamsburg without a ticket? If you only have a few hours in the area but don’t want to get full-price tickets, walk around and just see the free portion. This is also a good options 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.
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.
Additionally, the Visitor Center has a few shops, a small museum, and restrooms. If you are planning a full-day in Williamsburg, I suggest the Williamsburg Visitor Center is the place to start your visit: watch the video about Williamsburg, buy your carriage ride, and grab a ride on the bus into Colonial Williamsburg.
If you return to Williamsburg for a shorter follow-up or short-term visit, consider starting on the far opposite end of CW, the area closest to the college at 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.
Colonial Williamsburg has two main entrances, one at each end. The western end where you will find William and Mary as well as Merchants Square has some free parking lots as well as paid lots. Pay attention to the signs as this is an actual neighborhood with private homes and businesses. The eastern end is where you will find the Visitor Center, its huge free parking lot, and the free shuttle that will take you to the historic area of Williamsburg. Cars are not allowed inside the historic area of Colonial Williamsburg.
Walking is by far the easiest way to get around Williamsburg. Prepare the kids for this and wear the good shoes. There is also a trail that takes you from the Williamsburg Visitor Center to the Capitol if you don’t want to get on the bus at the start of your day. The main street is a mile long. When adding in the side roads and retracing your steps to see more places, the distance will add up.
If you have mobility issues, the streets of Williamsburg are perfect for using a wheelchair as they are wide and hard-packed gravel. Folding wheelchairs are available a the Visitor Center on a first-come basis. They do not have motorized wheelchairs for rent unfortunately.
The age of the historic buildings may be difficult for those confined to a wheelchair as they may be several steps including those to the second floor. Don’t hesitate to ask for assistance!
If you have littles, I highly recommend you use a stroller. There will be a ton of walking, kids would love a quick nap, and you will love having a place to store all your stuff. The wide streets and trails of Williamsburg will be easily maneuvered and, though the historic buildings may not allow strollers, it would be easy to park them outside.
There is a free shuttle 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. Given the amount of walking around Williamsburg, families with little kids would benefit from familiarizing yourself with the bus system and planning to use it.
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.
To experience Colonial Williamsburg, I have two suggestions. Plan for one very full, busy day or stretch it out to up to three more relaxed days for only a smaller ticket cost
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. However, as this historic town covers three hundred acres, you need to understand that you can’t see “everything” in one day.
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.
- 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 Tradesmen – 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.
- and so much more!
What are Some Extra Experiences at Williamsburg?
- Hire a carriage ride to drive you around the colonial town. These are purchased through the Visitor Center and often sell out. Additionally, there are some private guides who offer them as well.
- Ghost tours at night – a kid-friendly version or the adult version
- Historical trials and performances
- Eat a meal at a historical tavern
Williamsburg Explorer App
When preparing for your family trip to Williamsburg, do yourself a favor and learn how to use the Williamsburg Explorer App through the in-app tutorial. 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. 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.
Best and Worst of Williamsburg
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 I didn’t have a way to find out what I wanted to know. And here we are with this post!
Example: During the time of our Williamsburg visit, online info said the drum and fife show was occurring that night. 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 for kid supplies, 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 the stroller outside to go in some gardens and buildings.
- Wear good shoes and prepare your family. There will be a lot of walking today.
- Make sure you bring a fully-charged cell phone for photos, maps, and digital tickets. The bright screen will drain your battery so plan ahead with a portable charger.
- Bring small toys for littles to stay busy. There will be times like during demonstrations or historical talks that you will wish they had something to keep their hands busy.
- The streets of Williamsburg are very sunny. Think sunglasses, sunhat, and sunscreen during the sunny days.
While there is plenty of learning that happens during a visit to Williamsburg, I know some of you – especially homeschoolers like me – will wan to keep adding to the experience at home. Make sure you check out the Colonial Williamsburg website which has lots of information regarding daily activities, online kid games, learning podcasts, and tons of planning information.
- 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 and who was allowed in?
- People: Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, George Washington, King William, King George III, Lewis and Clark
- Go to Jamestown Settlement and see the rebuilt governor’s palace – tons on info on my post! (30 minutes)
- Compare the current status of Historic Jamestowne with that of the rebuilt Jamestown Settlement (30 minutes)
- Compare the architecture of Williamsburg to Jefferson’s Monticello (2 hours)
- Drive to Richmond and see the current Capitol that Jefferson designed (1 hour)
- Headed to Washington DC, make sure you see these tips to make your DC trip easier
Tour the College of William and Mary
At the end of Duke of Gloucester Street opposite the Capitol building is 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 self-guided 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.
Reclaiming Wonders // Bobbie
With years of planning family road trips, Bobbie is an expert at incorporating amazing activities into her family travel plan which she shares on the blog, on Instagram, and through content creation for destinations and products. As a homeschool mom of four kids in Georgia, she strives to create a learning life full of adventures around the dinner table or throughout the United States. Learn Bobbie’s story to be encouraged to leave the busy life and reclaim the wonders of life.