If you have even the tiniest bit of interest in early American history, I highly recommend a trip to Colonial Williamsburg and the Historic Triangle. Virginia’s Historic Triangle is made up of Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown—three cities each with special significance in early American history and all within about 23 miles of each other. You will have your eyes opened and your horizons broadened in unexpected ways. Here are my top tips for making the most of your Colonial Williamsburg itinerary.
The top visitor draw in the Historic Triangle is Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum and the capital of the Virginia Colony from 1699 to 1780 (when the capitol was moved to Richmond). In the early 20th Century, W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of Bruton Parish Church, pitched to John D. Rockefeller Jr. the idea of restoring and preserving (and even reconstructing) the historic center of Williamsburg, Virginia. Today, Colonial Williamsburg includes 85% of the area of the capital as it was in the 18th Century, including Bruton Parish Church.
I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to expect from a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Would it be cheesy? Would it just be a giant tourist trap? I was so happy to find that Williamsburg was beyond what I had even hoped. It’s a wonderful combination of fun and eye-opening education that is immersive and engaging.
Colonial Williamsburg tips
- Wear comfortable shoes. Even though there is a shuttle service that operates between the Visitor’s Center and a number of stops around the perimeter of the historic area, you will still do a lot of walking and standing.
- Do at least one special event or program.
- Enjoy at least one meal at a Colonial Williamsburg historic tavern (see below).
- The Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area is open to the public for free, but you do need a ticket to get into any of the historical sites or trade shops. Open sites have a flag posted out in front.
- Make sure to pick up a map and daily schedule at the Visitor’s Center to help you plan your day.
Colonial Williamsburg ticket options
Colonial Williamsburg offers several ticketing options, which you can review on their website. If you only want to see Colonial Williamsburg, I’d suggest going for the multi-day ticket since it’s only $10 more than the 1-day ticket and includes admission for three consecutive days. But if you’re in the area anyway, I do highly recommend taking the time to visit Jamestown and Yorktown as well as Colonial Williamsburg. Seeing all of the Historic Triangle sites together helps to paint a more complete picture of early American history in this area.
All of the typical Williamsburg sites and shops as well as some events and programs are included in your ticket. There are some programs and events that do require the purchase of a separate ticket, but those are clearly indicated on posted and printed schedules.
Where to stay in Colonial Williamsburg
There are many accommodation options all within easy distances of the Visitor’s Center or historic area, from the official Colonial Williamsburg hotels and resorts (Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg Lodge, Griffin Hotel, Woodlands) to colonial houses and budget motel chains.
We enjoy Marriott hotels and got a great rate at the Residence Inn Williamsburg for our trip. We also enjoyed having a free breakfast every day and a kitchen in our room.
What to do in Colonial Williamsburg
Make sure you visit the official Colonial Williamsburg website to check out the weekly schedule of open sites, trade shops, programs and activities. To help with those who like advanced planning, they also post the schedule for the week coming up as well as the current week. You can pick up printed copies of the daily schedule at the Visitor’s Center.
If you do purchase the Historic Triangle tickets (covering Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown), consider visiting the sites in this order as suggested by historyisfun.org:
- Jamestown Settlement
- Historic Jamestowne
- Colonial Williamsburg
- American Revolution Museum
- Yorktown Battlefield
I found that by visiting the sites in this order, the information presented at each one built upon the other. You can do both Jamestown sites in one full day, but I would recommend at least two days in Colonial Williamsburg. Both Yorktown sites can be done in one day, but we could have easily spent more time at both the museum and battlefield.
Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area
Your first stop at Colonial Williamsburg will be at the large Visitor’s Center. This is where you will park (for free), buy your tickets (or exchange your pre-purchase voucher for your tickets), and catch the shuttle to the Historic Area. You can also walk to the Historic Area. It’s a pleasant walk of about a third of a mile. The Visitor’s Center includes two gift shops (yay!) and restrooms.
Unless you are staying at one of the official Colonial Williamsburg accommodations, plan to allow 30 minutes to get from your hotel to the Visitor’s Center parking and then on to the Historic area on foot or by shuttle.
The Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg is approximately one mile long and about half to three-quarters of a mile wide. Make sure you pick up a map from the Visitor’s Center; it will help you tremendously in planning out your visit and also shows all of the shuttle stops.
Must-see/must-do sites in the Historic Area
There are literally dozens of sites and trade shops in the Historic Area and we were able to experience the bulk of them during our time at Colonial Williamsburg. Here are what we consider to be the “must-see” sites.
The Governor’s Palace is the first major building you’ll encounter once you hit the Historic Area if you walk from the Visitor’s Center. We encountered the palace while it was open for self-guided visits. It’s a beautiful building with lovely gardens and was home to several of the colony’s royal governors as well as a couple of elected Virginia governors.
Colonial Williamsburg’s impressive capitol is a replica building. All of the previous capitols burned down for one reason or another, but they were able to save some of the furnishings and artwork. Entry to the Capitol is by guided tour only, but don’t despair—it’s only 20 minutes long. We actually did the tour twice. The first time we ended up on the last tour of the day, which meant the light in the building was quite limited since the sun was going down. When we returned on Christmas Eve morning, we were the only ones there and ended up with a nice private tour. Both tour guides were excellent.
Peyton Randolph House
Entry to this house very near the palace is also by a short, guided tour. Our guide did an excellent job of outlining how the lovely Randolph house was different from the average Virginian’s home and also what life there may have been like for an enslaved person.
Our guided experience at Charlton’s coffeehouse included a chat with Colonel George Washington in the main room. While it was interesting, I do have to admit that since hubby and I were the only ones there it was a little awkward. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to engage in conversation with him or just let him talk. And what do you say to George Washington anyway?? We had a lovely, quick tour of the coffeehouse followed by a sample of drinking chocolate. Guests can also choose a coffee or tea.
Stop in as many of these shops as you can fit into your day. Not all of them are open every day, but shops that are open will have a flag out front and often a staff member to point you in the right direction. You don’t need to take long at each one, but you can learn a lot about 18th Century American life (colonial life?) just from asking a few questions. We highly recommend the armory, the blacksmith, the wig maker, the silversmith, the cabinet shop, the cobbler, the printing press, the bindery and the apothecary.
Also keep in mind that not all of the sites and shops are right on Duke of Gloucester Street that runs through the heart of the Historic Area. Refer to your map to make sure you don’t miss anything that’s a little off the main path.
Fifes and Drums
Make sure you don’t miss your chance to see the Williamsburg Fifes and Drums on your visit. We were fortunate enough to be there for the “Firing of the Christmas Guns” program just as the sun was going down on Christmas Eve. I don’t think you can experience anything more “colonial” in Williamsburg than those Fifes and Drums.
Colonial Williamsburg offers a variety of programs in the Courthouse that are definitely worth adding to your itinerary. At least some of the evening programs require the purchase of a separate ticket, but those are clearly marked on posted and printed schedules. If any of these had been on the schedule during the week we were there, I would have definitely wanted to do this.
The “Order in the Court” free program we attended on Christmas Eve did call for volunteer participation, but it became quite obvious that what they were looking for is for the participants to play along so everyone learns a little something about what the 18th Century Virgina justice system was like. It’s not a murder mystery dinner party. They don’t want you interrupting the proceedings to point out any “clues” you think you’ve uncovered or to render your own verdict.
Historic tavern dining
There are four “historic taverns” in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area: Chowning’s Tavern, King’s Arms Tavern, Christiana Campbell’s tavern and Shields Tavern. We did one lunch at Chowning’s Tavern and enjoyed a dinner at Christiana Campbell’s during our trip. Both had good vegetarian options and gladly helped hubby with gluten-free options. If you can, make a point to do at least one meal at one of these taverns.
Read More → Great Places to Eat in Colonial Williamsburg
Chowning’s Tavern does not take reservations and is a little less expensive than the others, so it’s a good lunch option. Plan to arrive as soon as it opens to be seated quickly. Otherwise you can do what we did and put your names in for a table and take a nice break from all the walking on a nearby bench while you wait for your table. Expect to wait 45 minutes to an hour on busy days.
Christiana Campbell’s, which apparently was once a favorite spot of George Washington, is only open for dinner, and I strongly recommend making reservations especially if you are planning your trip for during busy season. Christiana’s Campbell’s offers a three-course meal plus their delicious sweet potato loaf. The price of the meal is based on your entrée selection.
For the record, the sweet potato loaf was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth, and because my gluten-free hubby couldn’t have any I got it all to myself. Bliss.
Dear Christiana Campbell’s Sweet Potato Loaf,
I love you forever. Please be mine.
We enjoyed our meals at both taverns. Christiana Campbell’s was quite a bit more expensive, but you do get A LOT of food. We also enjoyed live music and “Christiana Campbell’s daughter” came around to chat and tell us a bit about tavern keeping. Overall it was really a great experience and perfect way to spend the last evening of our trip.
Shopping and Dining at Merchants Square
Just beyond the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area, the shopping and dining area called Merchants Square features more than 40 restaurants and retail shops. We enjoyed two lovely dinners at Merchants Square during our trip at Blue Talon Bistro and The Trellis.
There is A LOT to see and do at Colonial Williamsburg. We spent two and a half days in the historic area and still didn’t see everything. I would have gladly spent a third day there poking around into all of the corners we missed, not to mention to their two art museums. Bottom line, it’s well worth the time to make a trip there and to learn more about life was like during key formative years in U.S. history.
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