“Do you know the importance of the place where you’re standing?” asked a scraggly haired sailor with a thick British accent to my 12 year-old-daughter, who shook her head, eyes wide. “This is where the United States started. If it weren’t for Jamestown, there’d be no America.” We were onboard the Susan Constant, one of three ships docked in the Jamestown Settlement complex. That’s the draw of Williamsburg, Virginia. True to its tagline, history is fun here – and it comes alive with guides in period garb and streets, towns and ships that feel centuries old.
Williamsburg is dotted with three communities dubbed the Historic Triangle. Jamestown marks the first permanent settlement in the New World, established in 1607. This area now focuses on the tough, swampland life settlers faced back then. Besides their chat with the sailor, my kids tried out 16th century helmets in James Fort and ground corn in the Powhatan Indian village. Tales of the real Captain John Smith and Pocahontas were also intriguing – and very different than the Disney version (fees apply).
To visit the actual landing site, Historic Jamestowne, follow signs to this living-history museum and archeology site, managed by the U.S. National Park Service. Drive a five-mile island loop tour, too (fees apply).
Next, journey to the 1700s, when the American Revolution was brewing. Among Colonial Williamsburg‘s 301 acres there are numerous buildings and streets designed to look like a typical colonial town. On arrival you’ll get a handout listing the day’s events.
Don’t miss Revolution in the Streets, an outdoor theatrical production where costumed actors depict the feelings and opinions likely voiced as Williamsburg’s citizens debated whether they should split from England. My kids listened intently to discussions about slavery, the revolution and whether spies were in their ranks (there were). It helped that I’d bought just-baked ginger cookies from Raleigh Tavern Bakery nearby to eat as we listened.
Besides the historical programs, roam into the town’s apothecary, butcher shop, governor’s palace and more. Walk at night, too, when the streets are alight and crowds thinner. We stopped for fudge at the Wythe Candy & Gourmet Shop, which is part of Merchants Square (my kids were begging for the fist-sized caramel apples, too). Strolling is free, but fees apply to enter buildings.
Yorktown Victory Center
Your third stop is Yorktown Victory Center, which depicts the American forces readying for battle. Peek in their tents, hold your ears while they fire a cannon and listen to tales from the battlefield as told by costumed interpreters. The center, set near the actual ground where revolutionary forces defeated British, will be adding a museum set to open in March of 2016 as the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
Some advice on costs
Both the Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg have Thanksgiving dinners; see their websites for details. Pricing in the triangle can be confusing; you can buy combined tickets or pay at each destination – or decide what in advance and buy tickets online. A seven-day pass that includes all major attractions, plus a few more, is $89/adults and $41/ages 6-15. For other savings, combine tickets and hotel reservations with package deals.
6 Historic Triangle tips
Keep these insights in mind as you plan your visit to Williamsburg, Virginia.
- Early is better. Historic sites, especially Colonial Williamsburg, get busy. To avoid crowds, arrive as close to opening as possible (8:45 a.m. daily).
- Drive the Colonial Parkway. This tree-lined route is the most beautiful (and quickest) way to get around.
- Eat around town – and take a coupon. Historic restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg cost extra for the ambiance. Find family fare nearby that’s less expensive. Check local fliers at most hotels for discounts, too.
- Save on hotels. Keep that coupon book handy when checking into your hotel.
- Spread it out. Take your time at each site over several days. You may be surprised at what interests your kids.
- App it. Get the Colonial Williamsburg Explorer app to track the day’s schedules and area maps including dining, shopping, hotels; even restrooms.
Journey through history. Plan your trip to Williamsburg, Virginia at historyisfun.org.
Photos courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown-Yorktown foundations