Colonial Williamsburg faithfully portrays the days before the Revolutionary War through historic buildings and costumes, but it's the interpreters who bring history to life. Most play their parts so well that visitors leave better informed about U.S. history and wanting to learn even more.
Williamsburg is like a colonial time machine. Thomas Jefferson may tip his tricorn hat as you stroll the crushed-oyster-shell streets, and then he'll expound on the virtues of freedom and self-government. Patrick Henry will be glad to warn you of the evil ways of the British crown. Poke your head into a Williamsburg shop, and you might strike up a conversation with Martha Washington.
You can visit Williamsburg along with the nearby towns of Jamestown and Yorktown. Together, they form the Colonial National Historic Park. At a mile/kilometer long, it's the nation's largest outdoor living-history museum. For more modern diversions, there's Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Water Country USA and the newer parts of the city.
Situated on a narrow, wooded peninsula, the Historic Triangle that includes Williamsburg is bound by three rivers—the James, the York and the Chickahominy—that feed into Chesapeake Bay. Williamsburg is just a few miles/kilometers from the bay.
The main areas of interest to visitors are downtown around Colonial Williamsburg, the College of William and Mary, and Duke of Gloucester Street. Just west of town are several outlet malls. The ever-popular Busch Gardens is about 3 mi/5 km east of the city. If you're driving around the area, the Colonial Parkway is probably your best point of reference—it joins Williamsburg with Yorktown in the east and Jamestown in the south.
After three merchant ships from England reached the Virginia shoreline in 1607, the passengers began building the first permanent English colony in the New World along the banks of the James River. The colony, known as Jamestown, was set on a low, marshy island. Colonists soon cast their eyes 5 mi/8 km inland to another settlement, called Middle Plantation, which offered higher ground and a better defense. By 1633, plans were under way for a new city that would become Williamsburg.
With access to the James and York rivers, the new settlement was a natural choice to become the capital city when the Jamestown Statehouse burned in 1698. Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg, in honor of King William III. The settlers laid out the design for a thriving city that included a Capitol building, Market Square (as the town commons) and the College of William and Mary.
As the seat of the First Continental Congress and the site of stirring speeches by Patrick Henry, Williamsburg quickly became a major stage for the Revolutionary War in 1774. But after British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered in 1781 just a few miles/kilometers away in Yorktown, the capital was moved to Richmond, and Williamsburg entered a period of decline. The Civil War—which saw Union troops occupying the town—added to the downward spiral.
After years of neglect, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin sensed the value of the town, and in the 1920s they began to restore Williamsburg. Colonial buildings were ambitiously renovated and reconstructed, with careful attention paid to historic detail. Tourists began arriving in the 1950s, resulting in a gradual increase in lodging, dining and shopping options—many of which reflect the city's heritage. Today, this is a popular family road-trip destination that offers everything from history to entertainment for all ages.
History buffs may be tempted to begin exploring Williamsburg just as the first settlers did—charging in with wide-eyed naivete. However, it's recommended to start your experience by viewing the orientation film at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center—it will give you an idea of which sights you want to see most. Another option is to locate one of the city's roaming guides (clad in colonial attire) who can recommend the best way to get around. Take time to stroll the streets—it costs nothing to walk around the area, but you'll need to purchase tickets before entering the buildings and museums. One-, two- and multiple-day passes are available.
Along the historic streets of Colonial Williamsburg are more than 80 restored buildings, including a jail, an apothecary shop and the governor's palace. About 100 gardens and green areas add to the town's scenic beauty. Elaborate carriages, horse-drawn wagons and street theater—including military parades and musicians—fill the roads.
But save some time for related sights near the historic district. Bassett Hall, built in 1760, was the family home of John D. Rockefeller Jr. for 40 years. Items from his wife's American folk-art collection are on display at the house, as well as at the nearby Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
Other local attractions include the picturesque College of William and Mary campus. For thrill seekers, there's Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, which combined have roller coasters, water rides, space-flight simulators and high-tech entertainment.
If you didn't get enough of Colonial Williamsburg's patriotic theme during the day, you're in luck: Many of the local bars and taverns play up the 18th-century act—making for a rather distinctive scene. Most people won't want to miss the chance to hoist a brew in an authentically decorated alehouse, some of which were actually frequented by George Washington and Patrick Henry. Colonial tavern games (called gambols) often have participants blushing by night's end. But be prepared—the taverns are sometimes gimmicky and long lines are common.
If you've had your fill of colonial times and tavern sing-alongs, check out some live music. Keep in mind that Williamsburg is a college town and you may see crowds of students in the bars.
Williamsburg has plenty of dining options—you can devour some pulled-pork barbecue for lunch and savor haute cuisine meticulously prepared by an award-winning chef for dinner. You can also feast in one of Colonial Williamsburg's taverns, just as Washington and Jefferson once did.
Stopping for a meal at one of the numerous 18th-century-themed establishments is a must—for the ambience as much as for the hearty colonial-style dishes (think game, Brunswick stew and Welsh rarebit). But if you're in the mood for more modern fare, you'll find the menus at many area restaurants contain such local specialties as fresh crabs, oysters, clams and shrimp from the Chesapeake Bay.
Don't leave town without sampling southern spoon bread, and be sure to taste a local wine or two. Williamsburg (and Virginia as a whole) has emerged as an accomplished wine-making region.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$35; $$$ = US$36-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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