A Family Vacation to Colonial Williamsburg
By Lisa Tucker McElroy
Interested in taking a family vacation, a trip back in time to the 18th century? Colonial Williamsburg has been restored to appear as it did during the Revolutionary War. This living history museum re-enacts daily life in detail with the clothing, homes, taverns and gardens. We thought it sounded so cool that, when my kids got out of school this summer, we decided to head south to this capital of colonial Virginia and a historical destination like none other.
But what’s so amazing about Williamsburg is that it’s not just for history lovers anymore. In fact, it’s a mecca for families that like a lot of choices when it comes to lodging, dining, and entertainment.
What To Do
We started our trip with the historical part of Williamsburg, even though my girls weren’t sure that it would be up their alley. They quickly changed their minds, though, as we worked our way from the Virginia Capitol down the main historical drag to check out old-timey bakeries, milliners, wig makers, jewelers – the list went on. My kids especially loved dressing up in historical costume and following the horses and buggies, even petting cows yoked in front of the storefront. My favorite part of the Revolutionary City? The colonial nursery and garden, with authentic colonial plants for sale and a cottage garden where the gardener invited the girls to help him water and hoe.
History is a bit more palatable when it’s in the form of a show. We laughed and sang our way through two. At the “Listen My Children” show, costumed storytellers, told stories passed down from the early English, African-American, and Native American Indian settlers. Afterwards, at dinner, we chatted for at least an hour about which story each of us liked best. At the onsite plantation, we learned about slave culture and early African-American music and dance in an interactive program with costumed actors. We sang, danced, and clapped as the talented performers drummed – a great time, and we learned a lot.
If your kids won’t sit still for a whole show, consider a tour, like the Ghost Tour or the Bits and Bridles walk, where they’ll see lots of farm animals and hear about how they live. Or stand on the sidelines and watch the Fifes and Drums, Williamsburg’s version of a parade with musicians in colonial costumes. You’ll also want to hit Powell House, where your kids can learn what life was like for 18th-century children. Activities can include “chores,” games, cooking and includes indoor and outdoor activities.In Revolutionary City, try out Pleasures of the Dance; get there early to spend some time with a dancing instructor and a musician and enjoy learning about one of the 18th-century Virginia's favorite leisure pastimes. Then Meet the Players at the Play Booth Theatre: You’ll visit with members of the Performing Arts Department and discover the importance of theater, music, and dance to the people of colonial Virginia. Your kids can learn a bit about what is involved in mastering the skills needed to perform to a full house.
Whatever you do, don’t miss Williamsburg’s amazing museums. In fact, some even have a kids’ audio tour; my girls felt grown up wandering around on their own and told me that these were their favorite museums ever! Their favorite exhibit? Down on the Farm, an exhibition that follows the story of Prince, a carved wooden dog, as he explores the countryside. This family-friendly exhibition features animals in paintings, sculpture and toys. And at A Child’s Eye View, you can see toys made to represent the adult world in miniature.
In addition to Colonial Williamsburg, check out Jamestown Settlement, a recreation of an Indian Village, the replicas of three ships and James Fort. Exhibits focus on the native Indians who lived here in 1607, when the colonists established Jamestown as the first permanent English colony in America. Yorktown is the site where America won her independence. The Yorktown Victory Center features Revolutionary War exhibits and an outdoor encampment with historic interpreters.
If you’re dying to take in some sights but the kids are tired out, Colonial Williamsburg offers families a mini vacation-within-a-vacation with its Colonial Kids Club. Children of Colonial Williamsburg hotel guests can participate in a variety of supervised age-appropriate activities such as arts and crafts, finger painting, drawing, scavenger hunts, hopscotch, and marbles. Parents can enjoy their free time knowing their children are with qualified activities coordinators.
Where To Stay
First, you’ll want to consider staying in one of the six official hotels of Colonial Williamsburg. Why? Because these hotels are closest to the historic area, they offer free shuttle bus service and concierge service, and you’ll be able to get priority dining and tee time reservations. All of the hotels are family friendly, but the Williamsburg Woodlands (next to the Visitors’ Center) is the traditional family resort. The Woodlands offers swimming, biking, horseshoes, badminton, play equipment, and miniature golf on its 44 wooded acres.
Perhaps most fun (and convenient!) for families are the colonial houses. We stayed in the Isham Goddin house near the Capitol and loved the cozy feel of the tiny two-bedroom, one bath house with its own fenced garden. My kids loved knowing that they were sleeping in a real Colonial building, and my husband and I enjoyed having our own dedicated space.
Where To Eat
Colonial Williamsburg offers traditional colonial eating in four authentically restored 18th-century taverns. They even serve a colonial menu! The servers wear the dress of the day and entertain with music, stories, or magic shows you while you eat.
Each of the taverns has its own unique history. The King's Arms Tavern serves 18th-Century food with some entertainment. The servers are wearing costumes, while the menu offers Southern specialties. There is a children's menu as well as today's popular fare. The Shield’s family has owned Shield’s Tavern since the 1740's. They serve specialties that the Early Americans enjoyed. There is an extensive fowl and seafood menu today. The colonial desserts are delicious too. Try the Indian pudding or syllabub-a whipping cream and lemon dessert.
Christina Campbell's Tavern was a favorite of George Washington. The menu serves specialties reflecting the tastes of the 13 colonies. The hot, homemade spoon bread was our favorite dish on the entire trip. And at Chowning’s Tavern in Revolutionary City, my kids practically floated away on the homemade root beer, and my husband and I enjoyed the prime rib. The colonial magician stumped us with his tricks – a fun activity that we wouldn’t get to see anywhere else!
There are also contemporary restaurants in the historic area. The menus range from cafeteria-style food to award winning culinary creations. Your tastebuds can come back to the present even as you’re visiting the 18th century. But the best meal we had on our trip was definitely the picnic basket we got from the Williamsburg Inn – full of crab cakes, fried chicken, Virginia ham sandwiches and roasted peanuts, and homemade pecan pie, it was the perfect way for our family to bond on one of the clover lawns in colonial Williamsburg.
If You Go:
- Wear walking shoes! Half the fun of colonial Williamsburg is wandering around and seeing everything, but that involves a fair bit of walking. My kids were good and tired by the end of the day.
- Pack swim gear. The colonial properties and many of the other area hotels have pools; if you’re traveling in summer, Williamsburg can get quite warm, so you’ll want to cool off with a dip at the end of the day.
- Pick up some of the American Girl books featuring Felicity. If your girls love American Girl as much as mine do, they’ll love knowing that Williamsburg was Felicity’s fictional home. Many little girls bring their Felicity dolls along on the trip.
- Rent costumes. My daughters got a huge kick out of the colonial dresses we rented for them at the Visitors’ Center, and I got some great photos. What’s more, the costumes made us feel like we were back in colonial times.
- Consider buying a Bounce Pass. These all-inclusive tickets will get you into Busch Gardens and Water Country as well as all of the historical sites.
- Ride the shuttle buses. The colonial area has a very well organized bus system and knowledgeable bus drivers; we found it much easier than driving our own car, especially when heading to Merchant’s Square, where there’s very little parking.
- Be aware that Colonial Williamsburg is not easily navigable for people using wheelchairs. While they do rent wheelchairs at the Visitor’s Center, the gravel and shell walkways make it difficult to get around, and many of the historical buildings understandably are not handicapped-accessible. Same thing with Busch Gardens: it’s very hilly, making it tough to navigate a wheelchair.
- Don’t miss Williamsburg’s non-colonial activities. When some families consider a Williamsburg family vacation, they think only about colonial history. The Williamsburg area offers so much more for families including Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, and other attractions. Learn more here: A Family Vacation To Williamsburg: The Non-Colonial Activities.
Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.
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