Ker & Downey’s Luxury Travel Experts share their top things to do in Williamsburg and the surrounding area, one of this year’s top cities in the United States in Travel and Leisure’s World’s Best Awards.
It’s not surprising to see Williamsburg on Travel Leisure’s World’s Best Awards as one of the best cities in America. The historic town is home to the restored Colonial Williamsburg, one of the largest living history museums in the world, and nearby Jamestown and Yorktown. Together, the three towns make up the Historic Triangle, all connected by 23 miles of parkway. Visiting all three makes for a well-rounded picture of early America through the Revolution.
There’s a vibrant youth culture in modern Williamsburg supported by the students and staff of the College of William & Mary, which was established in 1693 and is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Within the city, you’ll find a range of coffee shops, pubs, and fine eateries backing right up to the historic town. There are so many ways to experience the city. We’ve outlined just a few of the top things to do in Williamsburg.
1. Start your time in Williamsburg just down the Colonial Parkways in Historic Jamestowne, site of the first English settlement. It was assumed that most of the fort had been washed away by erosion, but in 1994 archaeologists began searching for and uncovering the footprint of the 1607 fort. Archaeologists are still making important discoveries today, as it is an active dig site. Continue from the historic fort to the nearby Jamestown Settlement where history comes alive with recreations of the colonist’s fort, a Powhatan village, and three ships that sailed from England to Virginia in 1607. On-site, there is also an expansive gallery that traces the steps of the colonists, Powhatan tribe, and African Americans in the 17th-century.
2. Take multiple days to explore Colonial Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia from 1699 – 1780. Colonial Williamsburg is a living museum. In addition to the historic buildings and those that have been rebuilt, it is filled with actors playing the parts of local townspeople and historical figures like George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Their depth of knowledge is incredible, so spend some time talking with them.
There are more than 20 guided and self-guided tours each day, shops, and residences to explore. Tour the Governor’s Palace and gardens, home to seven royal governors, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. Meant to project British authority and wealth, the palace was built during a time of increasing tension and questions on the British government’s authority. It later served as a hospital, and in 1781 was destroyed by a fire. The site passed onto the College of William and Mary before the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation acquired it in 1928 and began rebuilding it in 1929 according to plans and drawings which had been done by Thomas Jefferson. Today, it reflects the presence of Governor Dunmore and his family with an accurate replication of the arms arrangement in the front hall and 18th-century decor and furniture.
Take a tour of the Capital which housed the House of Burgesses from 1705 until 1779, when the capital was relocated to Richmond. During Williamsburg’s time as the capital two buildings occupied the site, both of which were destroyed by fires. The building that stands on the site now is a reconstruction of the first building that housed the House of Burgesses. Its construction was completed in the 1930’s.
3. The final stop on the Colonial Parkway is Yorktown. The newly built Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which opened earlier this year, traces our nation’s founding from the colonial period to the Constitution and beyond. There you’ll find indoor galleries and an outdoor living history area where you can see artillery demonstrations, a recreation of a Continental Army encampment, and a Revolution-era farm.
4. Stay at the Williamsburg Inn, located in Colonial Williamsburg. The elegant hotel was built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1937 and brings a touch of European-style opulence to the heart of American history.
5. Shop at Merchant’s Square, located at the end of the Duke of Gloucester Street near the College of William & Mary. As one of the first planned shopping districts in the United States, its architecture was meant to harmonize with the restoration of historic Williamsburg (which began around 1926) and accommodate the shops and small businesses that moved from the original colonial town in preparation for the restoration. Today, you’ll find stores like Barnes & Noble, Wythe’s Candy and Gourmet Shop, and apparel for everyone in the family.
Within Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll find many buildings open to the public selling a range of items from candles and lanterns to children’s games, colonial clothing, and pewter. At the Prentis Store, you’ll find wares like handcrafted leather goods, iron hardware, and pottery constructed by Williamsburg’s artisans using 18th-century techniques. For kids, head to the William Pitt Shop. It’s stocked with 18-century toys, games, and books your kids will love.
6. Eat. Some of our favorites within Merchant’s Square are Dog Street Pub, a gastropub serving casual cuisine; Fat Canary, an upscale bistro serving American fare and wines, with a cheese shop connected to it; and Trellis Bar & Grill, which serves seasonal American fare. Outside of Merchant’s Square, we recommend Le Yaca, serving traditional French cuisine and wine; and Waypoint Grill, serving locally sourced seafood, meat dishes, and wines with a menu that celebrates the Chesapeake. There are also a few historic taverns within Colonial Williamsburg that are worth checking out for the experience.
If you are looking for a place to spend the holidays this year, Williamsburg should be high on your list. Architectural Digest voted it one of the best towns in America for Christmas celebrations. In addition to the charming decorations, festivities, musical performances, and fireworks displays throughout the town, the plantations on Rt. 5 are open and decorated for the holidays.
For a more well-rounded picture of American history, consider Ker & Downey’s Mid-Atlantic History Tour. With it, you’ll have a private chauffeur that takes you from Philadelphia, the birthplace of America; to Washington D.C to visit our nation’s capital; through Virginia, with stops at Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Ash-Lawn Highland, and Montpelier; and finally to Williamsburg for a picture of the American Revolution.
What other things to do in Williamsburg would you add to the list? To start planning your journey, contact your Luxury Travel Expert.