To fully experience Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia you need about two to three days. With that, you can visit the all the shops, city sites and homes. Your kids can play the RevQuest spy game. You’ll even have time to take in the reenactments, enjoy a carriage ride, and possibly take a ghost tour or theater performance. But that is NOT to say that you can’t enjoy Colonial Williamsburg in a day, or even less.
Colonial Williamsburg in a Day
Just remember that most of the shops and historic attractions close up at 5 pm, so you’ll want to get an early start. You can start off at the Visitor’s Center, which offers free parking and a shuttle into town (or you can walk about 10 minutes.) If you want to really go at it hard, purchase the one-day pass, which provides access to all the sites. If you’d prefer to take things at a more leisurely pace and not feel pressure to “fit it all in,” I’d suggest the Sampler Ticket, which will provide access to two shops, the public gaol, and one 18th-century home. Especially if you have younger children with a limited attention span, this is a good way to go to get to peek inside a few places without inundating them with history. Plus, you can still extend your day with an evening ghost-tour, theater performance, or dinner at a historic tavern.
To get the most out of your day, be sure to pick up a “This Week at a Glance” flyer from the Visitor Center, or download and print it before you go.
Colonial Williamsburg in Less than a Day
Yes, believe it or not, it is possible to do Colonial Williamsburg in less than a day. You won’t see it all, but even if you just have a few hours, I’d still recommend a visit. We spent an afternoon in Williamsburg this summer, during our two-week road trip through Virginia. Since we spent most of our free day exploring Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne, we didn’t arrive in Colonial Williamsburg until around 3pm. We stopped and parked at the Visitor Center, but since we weren’t purchasing tickets, we could have parked anywhere in town and walked over to Colonial Williamsburg (but at least the Visitor Center is free and has restrooms!)
The walk from the Visitor Center brings you past the Governor’s Palace and Market Square, down to the Courthouse on the Duke of Gloucester Street, which is the main street through the preserved town. You can pick up a map at the Visitor Center, which clearly marks which attractions require an admission ticket, or download the Colonial Williamsburg Explorer app in your App Store. The map contains the hours of operation for each attraction as well, but most importantly, if you flip the map over you can find all the daily tours and programs. These are marked as either T – Additional Ticket Required, R- Free reservation required, or Family Program.
The fun part is — a lot of these re-enactments and programs are free and open to the public, you just need to know where you need to be and at what time. I’d recommend starting off near the courthouse and getting the obligatory photo opportunity in the stocks — because who doesn’t want to put their kid in stocks at some point?
If you then walk down the Duke of Gloucester Street, there are many Colonial-style shops to pop into including a grocer, silver shop, pottery and housewares, an apothecary, and a bakery, along with quite a few full-service tavern restaurants. As you walk along, you will see living history actors playing their parts of townspeople, soldiers, and rabble-rousers. When I would overhear snippets of conversations, I always wondered how much was scripted and how much was ad-libbed as they go.
If you have less than a day in Colonial Williamsburg, I’d recommend visiting in the afternoon to make the most of the re-enactments. On the day we visited, one of the “officers” addressed the citizens of town as if it was September of 1781, and they were recruiting a militia to fight the British. After a 15-minute address and training session, these new “recruits” (kids love this!) were marched up the road to the lawn behind the Courthouse.
If you can, get over to the Courthouse early to line up along the field’s perimeter to watch the militia review and the fife-and-drum cannon salute. This is definitely a visit highlight — and it is free.
Even if you aren’t participating in one of the evening ghost tours or theater performances, you can either have dinner in one of the colonial taverns, or walk up Duke of Gloucester Street to Merchant’s Square. Here you will find shopping, like the not-to-be-missed Wythe Candy and Gourmet Shop, enjoy sandwiches, wine and cheese at The Cheese Shop, or take advantage of happy hour oyster deals at the outside bar at Berret’s Restaurant & Taphouse Grill.
Read before you go
To get the most out of a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, it might help for kids to know a bit of history before you go. Here are some suggested books to read to prepare for your trip:
- D is for Drums: A Colonial Williamsburg ABC, by Kay Chorao
- Caesar’s Story: 1759: Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg, by Joan Lowery Nixon
- Ann’s Story: 1747: Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg, by Joan Lowery Nixon
- If you Lived in Williamsburg in Colonial Days, by Barbara Brenner
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