When visiting America’s Historic Triangle area, you really should consider adding a day visiting Yorktown, Virginia, to your itinerary. Historic Yorktown was the site of the last major battle of the American Revolution. It was also where General Lord Cornwallis’ forces surrendered to George Washington (Cornwallis couldn’t actually manage to drag himself to surrender field that day).
And as it goes in the musical Hamilton, the world turned upside down.
Visiting Historic Yorktown, Virginia
Historic Yorktown, VA, is located only 13 miles from Colonial Williamsburg and a little over 20 miles from Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne (at the opposite end of the scenic Colonial Parkway).
Read More → What to do With One Day in Colonial Williamsburg
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When visiting Yorktown, I recommend that you start your day at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown before you head to the battlefield, but you could easily spend nearly one full day at Yorktown Battlefield alone.
The American Revolution Museum does an excellent job of giving the full, big picture of the war (including some excellent outdoor, living history exhibits).
Yorktown ticket options
You can purchase tickets for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown ahead of time online or at the museum. There are a variety of multi-day and combination tickets available (some are “web only” specials) that offer seven consecutive days of admission to the museum plus other historical sites in the area.
Tickets for Yorktown battlefield are available at the Visitor’s Center and are good for seven consecutive days. Your pass also includes admission to the Glassblowing House on Jamestown Island and the island drive. Separate admission is required to see the historic townsite at Jamestown.
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Where to stay when visiting Yorktown, Virginia
There are a lot of great accommodation options all within easy distances of Jamestown and the Historic Triangle sites. We chose to base ourselves in Williamsburg for our trip since we were going to be spending more of our time at Colonial Williamsburg than either Jamestown or Yorktown.
We got a great rate at the Residence Inn Williamsburg and enjoyed having a free breakfast every day as well as a kitchen in our room.
American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
The first stop during your day in Yorktown should be the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. The excellent exhibits here do a wonderful job of taking you from the first rumblings of rebellion against the British Empire, through the declaration of independence, the war and into the creation of a new nation.
(Plus, the gift shop is great!)
Just past the ticketing area of the building is a theater where you can watch an award-winning film about the revolution called “Liberty Fever.” It isn’t very long, and runs every 30 minutes. You won’t miss anything important if you don’t watch the film or if you watch it on your way out for the day.
There are also other special video presentations throughout the museum galleries. We especially enjoyed the 4D presentation about the battle at Yorktown.
The museum discourages taking photos or videos within the exhibit space…which is kind of too bad, because the exhibits are stunning, and I’d love to share a few photos with you.
The gallery exhibits include many displays of military weapons and equipment, furniture, household items and personal effects, interactive and multimedia displays, and an early printed copy of the Declaration of Independence.
The museum also offers special events and programs as well as some very well-done temporary exhibits (all included in whatever ticket you purchase). The special exhibit (“Forgotten Soldier”) on display while we were there included some amazing pieces such as discharge papers from a black soldier.
Outdoor Living History Exhibits
Don’t pass over the outdoor living history exhibits at the American Revolution Museum. While we were there, they included musket firing demonstrations, a replica Continental Army encampment complete with “kitchen”, and a revolutionary war era farm. Living history interpreters on hand offer demonstrations and answer questions from museum guests.
I even tried my hand at dipping candles while hubby handled an American Revolution-era replica musket.
Because we needed to eat pretty quickly, we grabbed an easy lunch at the small museum café. The menu is quite similar to the one at Jamestown Settlement, with a good variety of vegetarian and gluten free options. There are also a good variety of restaurants in historic Yorktown near the river. This would have been our choice if we had the time.
Once you’ve completed your American Revolution Museum visit, it’s just a short drive over to the Yorktown battlefield. Yorktown battlefield is part of the Colonial National Historical Park and managed by the U.S. National Parks Service.
Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center
Begin your time at Yorktown Battlefield with a stop at the Visitor’s Center. You can speak with someone at the front desk to get a map of the battlefield and ask about any special programs. Yorktown Battlefield offers regular guided tours with their park rangers.
Also, in the Visitor’s Center you can watch the short film about the American Revolutionary War battle at Yorktown while you’re waiting for your guided tour to meet up. It’s quite dated and at one point the film was out of sync with the sound, but it did provide a good overview of the battle (in just about 16 minutes) before our tour.
Don’t overlook the small exhibits area there. They actually have one of George Washington’s battlefield tents (seriously) as well as one of the flags that the British army handed over to the colonial forces at the surrender ceremony. Surrender Field is one of the stops on the Yorktown Battlefield auto tour.
It’s also a good idea, while you’re in the Visitor’s Center, to check to see what other parts of the battlefield are open or closed and what the hours are. We were hoping to get into Moore House, the traditional site of where the terms of surrender were hammered out, but it did not open at the time I thought it was supposed to. A quick question to one of the staff in the Visitor’s Center could have probably saved me a little disappointment.
Yorktown battlefield guided tour
If you have time to do a Yorktown guided tour with a park ranger, please do so. They are friendly and knowledgeable…good tour guides. The Yorktown Battlefield tour gave us a more in-depth overview of the events of the battle than the Visitor’s Center film and provided important context for the parts of the battlefield we saw up close later during our driving tour.
And if you’re concerned about there being a lot of walking, don’t. There was some, but I don’t think we ever wandered more than 100 yards from the Visitor’s Center. And at the places we stopped there were often benches for those who wanted to rest a bit.
Allow an hour to about an hour and 15 minutes for the tour.
Yorktown battlefield auto tour
You can pick up a Battlefield Tour map at the Visitor’s Center and a CD copy of the audio narration to go with the tour at the gift shop for only $5. The CD covers the Battlefield Tour portion on the map. If you have the time you can also drive the Allied Encampment Tour loop of the battlefield as well.
PLEASE. I implore you. Follow the National Parks Service signs asking visitors to keep off of the battlefield earthworks. The effects of erosion and inconsiderate guests make them more difficult to maintain and preserve.
Stops along the auto tour route include important sites such as:
Redoubts 9 and 10
This is the spot where Marquis de LaFayette led American troops to storm the British position at redoubt 10, while the French took redoubt 9. The fall of these two positions allowed the Allies to complete their siege line and increase their bombardment of Yorktown. General Cornwallis requested a cease fire within only a few days.
This was the private home of Augustine Moore, where officers from both sides met to negotiate the terms of surrender. Make sure you check at the Visitor’s Center to find out if the house will be open during your visit, so you’re not disappointed if you want to go in.
This is the spot where Cornwallis’ forces laid down arms. Though the war still continued for a while, Yorktown was the last major battle of the American Revolution.
Both the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and Yorktown Battlefield are must-see sites for anyone interested in Revolutionary War history.
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