We went to Williamsburg, VA to take a walk through American history.
Within a few square miles, Williamsburg offers up a historic triangle: the first successful English colony in North America, the battlefield where we won the Revolution and the town that was Virginia’s capital until 1780.
We wondered if it would be too much education for our 7YO’s summer vacation. So we interspersed the historic points of interest with some modern playtime, too.
Williamsburg is a popular weekend destination, which is fine if you stick to one historic site and have some other fun besides. But there is moer than enough to sustain a family for a five-to-seven-day stay. And this gives you plenty of time to explore all the history and intersperse it with breaks for theme parks and mini-golf.
Here are the coolest and most fun things we found to do; some area likely already high on yur radar and some a bit off the beaten track.
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The 8 Best Things To Do On a Williamsburg Vacation With Kids
- The 8 Best Things To Do On a Williamsburg Vacation With Kids
- The Best 3 Places To Explore Living History
- Taking A Break From History
- 7. Enjoy Good Southern Food
- 8. Enjoy Downtown At a Resort Hotel For Families
- Pin it for later!
The Best 3 Places To Explore Living History
1. Colonial Williamsburg
We’d gotten lukewarm feedback on Williamsburg* from a few friends before leaving. But we enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. Here’s what I think made a difference for us:
Kids ages: Coming out of second grade, Tiny Traveler was finally old enough to understand and be interested in history. We brought with us a great book, If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution, which provided age-appropriate context for what she was seeing and hearing.
I wouldn’t recommend visiting Williamsburg with kids younger than 7; I think too much would go over their heads.
Tickets: You can walk around Williamsburg for free (and go into the stores and taverns), and quite a bit happens outside in public. But if you’re going to take the time and expense to visit with kids 7 or older, it’s worth making room in your budget for tickets.
Because we had tickets I had lengthy conversations with the bookbinder and silversmith and got a lesson in 18th century letters from the printer. And we had a very insightful tour of one of the bigger homes.
We also paid separately for a fun but slightly cheesy ghost tour one evening. All these activities helped us to appreciate Williamsburg as a real town and taught us about real people who lived, loved, quarreled, worked and died there (though not necessarily in that order, as far as the ghost-tour leader was concerned).
Not-to-miss: Every morning a local resident stands on his steps and reads the Declaration of Independence town-crier style.
This is how many people learned of it back in the day. And as with Shakespeare’s plays, having it read out loud by someone who has taken the time to get to know it helps you to understand and appreciate it.
I highly recommend seeking it out and staying for at least so of the hour-long drama that unfolds on the street after. A variety of local citizens and slaves drift in and out, conversing about how the impending war might help or hurt them.
2. Yorktown’s Revolutionary Museum
*The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown: This museum had a $50 million upgrade that more than doubled its space and produced a very modern history museum with indoor and outdoor exhibits and tons of interactive activities to draw in both parents and kids.
Again, I think it’s best to visit Yorktown with kids old enough to have the patience for the museum and who have had some history in school.
One of the curators told me that they wanted to the museum to tell a story. They developed a narrative and collected and organized artifacts that inform that narrative.
You start your visit with a 20-minute movie that takes you from the Boston massacre to the battle of Yorktown and introduces characters you’ll meet again in the exhibit halls, which are organized around the story laid out in the movie.
The highlights are the interactive spots. A tabletop screen lets you organize the strategy one of three key battles leading up to Yorktown then shows you how they actually played out.
Another screen offers a personality quiz that tells you which of several real-life characters you might have been in the war; then those those people tell their stories in their own words.
The highlight is a round, 4-D theater that dramatizes the battle of Yorktown from both sides. Smoke rises beneath your seats, which shake, along with General Cornwallis windows, with every canon shot.
Toward the end, add your thoughts on freedom and democracy to the digital lanterns on the liberty tree.
Heading outside you get a taste of historic Yorktown via a military camp and a good size farm. There are lively talks and demonstrations throughout the day on topics like 18th century medicine, colonial long guns, farming and cooking.
Even expanded it’s compact and less crowded than Williamsburg. It’s easy to see everything and talk as much as you like with the interpreters.
This space shows you what late 18th century farm life was like and rather than being redundant to Williamsburg it provides a rural counterpoint to bustling and sophisticated “city life” in Williamsburg.
Tip: Admission to Yorktown Battlefield is included in your Historic Jamestown ticket because both are National Park sites. There is a driving tour of the battlefields that will take you all over the area. For hardcore military history fans it’s a must. Most kids wouldn’t sit through it. There is also a small museum. It’s a a good size for kids who are too young to spend several hours at the bigger museums. But after all the sophisticated and digital experiences at those places it’s going to be underwhelming to anyone older than 8YO. Of all the historical sites around here I would say this is the most skippable.
3 & 4. Jamestown Historic Site and Museum
Jamestown also has two separate sites, one is the actual historic place and the other a recreation. Seeing them both properly will take most of a day but is worth it.
I think you can visit Jamestown with kids slightly younger than you can with the other two sites. The story of the colony is easier to understand and the outside exhibits draw in even the very young.
3. Historic Jamestown
Historic Jamestown, the actual colony, is an active archeological site managed by NPS and Preservation Virginia. They’ve learned most of what we know about Jamestown in the last ten years.
A 45-minute tour covers the archeologists’ work as well as the colony’s history. Rich and I were fascinated but I had to admit Tiny Traveler was hot and bored.
We made it up to her with a visit to the tiny “Ed Shed,” where kids can identify and sort tiny artifacts and handle recreations of the site’s artifacts made on a 3D printer right there. We stayed nearly 30 minutes as she examined every item, tried every tool and asked tons of questions.
4. Jamestown Settlement museum
Jamestown Settlement offers an excellent indoor exhibit, plus outdoor recreations of the walled-in colony, a Powhatan village and three period ships.
This museum has also had a bit of an overhaul, adding more screens and interactive features (top) and using the same narrative organization as the Yorktown museum.
This time a movie and the exhibits tell the story of how English, Native American and African cultures came together at Jamestown. One particular feature was a room full of artifacts with a big screen behind them. Each item would light up at the movie told about it. Others let you compare various aspects of the three cultures (above).
Moving outside, it’s very dusty but you can go everywhere and touch everything and kids love it. Tiny Traveler wanted to peek into every rudimentary house in the colony and every hut in the Indian village.
We marveled at how small the ships were that carried the colonists.
The interpreters here are also very good. One struck up a conversation with us about how women were introduced to Jamestown and how they fared there. (These women had more rights than they would have in England at the time and several did quite well).
The interpreters here and at Yorktown wear period clothes but don’t take on period personas as they do at Williamsburg. In some ways it works better because the conversation can be a little looser and wider ranging. And they can address things like common perceptions versus reality.
It was the one place we could have used more time than the afternoon we allotted to it.
Taking A Break From History
Get Wet at Water Country
We’re not roller-coaster people—we’re fairly chicken when it comes to theme park rides, in fact—so we skipped famous Busch Gardens.
We thought Water Country USA* would have more activities that a timid 7YO and her slightly less timid parents could do together. And it was the right choice.
Aside from letting Tiny Traveler play in the kids area while we made evening plans, we did everything together at this water park.
On a weekday in late August the crowds were manageable, but it still pays to get there a few minutes before the gates open at 10:00 am.
You have your choice of lockers for your valuables and dry clothes. And you can easily find a group of chairs by the wave pool to be your base for the day.
After that, we recommend hitting the slides early on, especially the bigger and more popular ones. The lines for those got longer as it got later but the lazy river and wave pool were always readily available.
We noticed shorter lines on the smaller slides, especially those where you had to carry your tube up yourself—and we were fine with that. They were fun and not scary and you could repeat them a few times with little effort.
Wild Thang, an older slide tucked away behind the Colossal Curl, is a good option with kids who are outgrowing the splash pads but too small for the big slides.
5. Check Out the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market
We love green markets. If there’s one happening in the place we’re vacationing we always visit.
Saturday mornings offer a good-size farmer’s market at Merchant’s Square, where you’ll no doubt head for dinner at some point.
Seasonal produce, coffee, baked goods, pork products and southern specialties like boiled peanuts are for sale. It offers good people-watching and sampling and is a good resource for picnic supplies.’
Tip: if you have time before or after your market visit, take a stroll around the nearby College of William & Mary campus. It’s leafy and beautiful with a handful of federalist buildings. And no one cares if your kids are a boisterous.
6. Take a Swim at Yorktown Beach
Yorktown Village is small but has an appealing riverfront shopping area and beach (above) called Yorktown Landing.
This public beach is free and offers calm water for kids to play in, a pier with dockside fishing and waterfront dining. It has bathrooms, outdoor shoewrs and a place to change.
We didn’t get a chance to swim, to our chagrin, but we visited more than once and enjoyed wading, walking and digging on the sand and watching th tour boats sail in and out.
7. Enjoy Good Southern Food
You can find lots of good local food and locally brewed beer in the restaurants around Williamsburg and Yorktown. We went out of our way to have lunch at the Old Chickahominy House anyway, and it was worth it.
Located halfway between Williamsburg and Jamestown, the house is divided between the restaurant and an antiques store. You can window shop in the latter while you wait for your table. Of course there’s pie. Whatever types they’ve baked that day ask for a slice of each. Neither the chocolate chiffon or buttermilk pies disappointed and the fruit pie looked awfully good.
If you make a visit to Yorktown Beach, time it so you can have lunch or dinner at the Yorktown Pub. I admit it looks like a hole-in-the-wall. But everything they do with crab, clams, oysters and shrimp is good. They have fried-seafood baskets and plenty of options for family members who don’t like fish. We went with crab dip, steamed clams and fried oysters and were pleased with the lot.
Chowning’s Tavern is right on Colonial Williamsburg’s main thorougfare, which might make you wonder if it’s too touristy to be good. Well, it is touristy but it also is very good. Look for items like Brunswick stew, Welsh rarebit, pasties and a low-country shrimp boil, which evoke the time and place Chowning’s is recreating. Also, reenactors come through the tavern to play music or act out brief scenes of Colonial tavern life. So if you don’t buy tickets to Colonial Williamsburg it’s a way to have a taste of that experience.
You’ll probably find yourself in Merchant’s Square at some point during your visit. I tried a few of the restaurants here and they were all solidly good. The standout for me was Berret’s Seafood Restaurant for its friendly service and outstanding she-crab soup is outstanding. The fried oysters, steamed shrimp and shrimp quesadillas (when they have them) are good, too. Plus, the kids’ menu offers a crab cake, shrimp and salmon along with the usual items.
if you are there on a chilly night, try the Dog Street Pub, which has a very satisfying ham-enriched split pea soup and reliable fish & chips.
If you need something easy and are staying at any of the Colonial Williamsburg collection of hotels, drop into Huzzah’s, the onsite restaurant at Williamsburg Woodlands. It has good pub food with some southern dishes mixed in and a nice selection of local beer. All the kids in the place seemed to be enjoying the make-your-own pizza option. We were among parents who were talking about their day and relaxing with a cocktail or regional ale while their kids made smiley faces with pepperoni.
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8. Enjoy Downtown At a Resort Hotel For Families
As you might expect, Williamsburg has its share of affordable chain hotels and quaint colonial inns. But you might expect hotels and condo communities with resort amenities. Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites is one such place.
It’s rare that I wish I had more time at the hotel, but I would have spent more time at the Williamsburg Woodlands if I could have. This says a lot about how much there was to do and how comfortable the property was.
The Williamsburg Woodlands is a family hotel. Expect splashing at the pool and a line for the waffle-maker at the complementaty breakfast. Its décor is functional with a colonial accent. It doesn’t have an upscale look and feel, but it was comfortable and had a lot of amenities and a helpful staff.
The roons are either doubles and suites. The double was fine for us— two adults and a child. We could leave suitcases around and hang bathing suits to dry without feeling like we were constantly stepping over things.
In the suites, the bathroom separate a sleeping area from a living area with a sleeper sofa. If you have older or younger kids who don’t sleep when you do this is a nice option.
The pool was nice and big and my then 7YO really liked the adjacent water playground. I liked that I could be in the regular pool or on a lounge chair and keep an eye on her.
There are a lot of grounds for wandering around. We didn’t get to try the shuffle board or the mini-golf course with (of course) a colonial theme, but we did see other families using them. Tiny Traveler sampled the small playground set and approved. There was family entertainment every night around 7:00. We often wound up eating a late dinner and so missed it. We managed to catch a very funny mistake-prone magician one night and we all thought he was great.
The Woodlands Hotel is “on property” at historic Williamsburg. It’s next to the large visitors’ center, which is convenient on your first day. The historic streets are a 10 to 15-minute walk on a wooded path.
There’s also a shuttle bus at the visitors’ center that runs in a loop to the colonial town, the art museum, Merchants Square and other places. it was easy to use we took it a few times when we didn’t want to be bothered parking our car.
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* Visit Williamsburg provided provided me with a ticket to Williamsburg. They provided my family with tickets to WaterCountry USA and the Yorktown and Jamestown museums. On a later visit, the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation provided me with tickets and curator tours at those two sites. We received a discounted rate at the Woodlands Hotel. We don’t guarantee coverage or particular POV in exchange for access and our opinions are always our own.