Williamsburg with Teens: A Perfect Family Day
Few places in the United States are more jam-packed with history than Colonial Williamsburg. The capital of Virginia from 1699 until 1780, Williamsburg was a hotbed of the American Revolution. The legendary leader Patrick Henry gave some of his fieriest speeches there. And when you walk its streets, you'll retrace the footsteps of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
So for good reason, Colonial Williamsburg has been described as the largest living history museum in the United States. Once almost lost to the wear and tear of time, the town was restored to its quaint 18th-century glory during the early 20th century. My family has had marvelous time-travel adventures there, and so will yours. As you plan your visit, keep these thoughts in mind.
Many taverns, tours, and performances require reservations. You can't even get into the Historic Area without an admission pass. You can make reservations for passes and other tickets here. You can also get reservations and scads of useful information by calling this handy, easy-to remember, toll-free number: 1-800-HISTORY. And downloadable maps will show you where things are, including shuttle bus stops.
Insider tip: Don't try to see everything in one day - it will all become a blur. If it's a holiday season, scrap our suggestions and find out about special events.
Here's my guide to a perfect day in Colonial Williamsburg for you and your teens:
I'd spring for a really elegant breakfast at the Williamsburg Inn's Regency Room. Our teens love its Virginia Ham Biscuits. This salt-cured, smoked and aged, Southern-style ham has a very intense flavor. Other items on the menu include a variety of egg dishes, French toast, waffles, and excellent sweet-potato pancakes. Take note, however, that "appropriate dress" is required at the Regency Room. This means no sleeveless t-shirts, although you can wear denim at breakfast.
After breakfast, head for the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, with your teens. Some hotels provide transportation to the center, and there's plenty of parking for cars. There you can pick up tickets, make last-minute reservations, and catch a movie about Williamsburg's history. While you're at the center, grab the brochure "Colonial Williamsburg This Week" to make sure you've got up-to-date information on performances and presentations.
Now you're ready to step back in time. Take the shuttle bus or walk across the pedestrian bridge into the Historic Area.
You'll find yourself on Duke of Gloucester Street, which runs through the heart of the town. Once there, you can join one of the introductory walking tours that leave every 15 minutes and last 30 minutes. With a special ticket, you can take a different tour that focuses on African-American history. Yet another ticket will buy you a 90-minute tour of the trade shops. This is a good choice if you don't like wandering around on your own.
Or you can be more casual. Our teens enjoyed seeing how people made their living at the trade shops, and we found it comfortable to just drop into the places that interested us most. We especially liked the blacksmith shop and the wigmaker's shop – especially since those elegant wigs are still made from goat, horse, and human hair.
Insider tip: If you want to take a carriage ride, purchase tickets early in the morning.
As you walk along Duke of Gloucester Street, you'll see the long Palace Green on your left. At its far end is the Governor's Palace, a mansion where British colonial governors lived. Continuing straight ahead, on your left you'll see the Courthouse, and on your right the Powder Magazine. Both of these are worth visiting and are generally open only until 1:30. At the Courthouse, don't miss the opportunity to snap pictures of your teenagers with their heads and hands fastened in the pillories!
The Capitol building at the far end of Duke of Gloucester Street is where Virginia's colonial government, the House of Burgesses, met. You can also visit the rebuilt Raleigh Tavern, where Virginia lawmakers continued meeting after the British governor dissolved the House of Burgesses.
Insider tip: Since there will be unexpected performances and presentations along the way, budget your time to allow for your lunch plans!
By now, you're probably ready for lunch. Five 18th-century style taverns have been reproduced within the Historic Area. All have excellent fare, and many offer music or other entertainments. Four of these taverns require reservations in advance. The one that doesn't is my lunchtime favorite, Chowning's Tavern. The Brunswick Stew is hearty and delicious.
Insider tip: Be there when Chowning's opens at 11:30 AM. It fills up fast.
After lunch, you and the teens can continue visiting trade shops and open houses in Williamsburg. Check your schedule for special music, dance, and dramatic performances.
History shouldn't be sugarcoated. The dark side of colonial and early U.S. history is slavery. I recommend a visit to Great Hopes Plantation, a reproduction of an 18th-century "middling plantation." It's a working farm where you can get a disturbing look at the harsh lives of rural slaves.
George Washington's favorite dinner spot was Christiana Campbell's Tavern - and who am I to argue with the Father of Our Country? You'll need to make reservations in advance, though. The menu includes great crab cakes, a variety of other seafood, and roast beef. Chowning's Tavern is also fun for dinner, with games and other entertainments. If Chowning's is doing a special cookout/theater evening, make that your dinner choice. You'll need separate tickets and reservations.
The fact that Colonial Williamsburg has been "restored" doesn't mean that it's been put back exactly the way it once was. Back in its colonial and revolutionary heyday, carriages often got stuck in two feet of mud in its unpaved streets. Livestock wandered freely, and people had to build fences around their gardens to keep cattle out. I'm just as happy not to have to deal with such hassles. Still, it's important for you and your teens to visualize the Colonial Williamsburg of yore in your mind's eye. Along with sensible shoes, be sure to pack an active imagination!
Pat Perrin spent years training horses on a Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, farm. Her diverse books include the historical novel Anna's World, set in late 1840s America. Read her blog on Red Room.