Colonial Williamsburg is one of the best known attractions in the state of Virginia. Whether it was on a school field trip, on a family vacation or just for a day trip to see the sites, chances are you’ve been to Williamsburg at least once. But just in case you haven’t, or you slept through middle school history class…
Williamsburg served as the political, cultural and educational center of colonial life in the 17th and 18th centuries. Although Jamestown was the first colonial capital of Virginia, the capital moved to Williamsburg at the start of the 18th century, and it was here that for the next 81 years men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Monroe, James Madison, George Wythe and many other founding fathers met, generated ideas and penned documents that would shape the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as the newly emerging nation. Its significance to America’s earliest days has remained relevant for centuries, and as result, Williamsburg serves as a prominent site for international conferences and visits by world leaders and heads of state.
So if, for some reason, you haven’t been to Williamsburg, or you didn’t realize just how much there is to see and do there, the following list provides some of the most important reasons that a trip to Williamsburg should be on EVERYONE’S bucket list…not just Virginians’.
1. You can experience the world’s largest living history museum.
Just to give you some perspective, The Louvre, in Paris, is the world's largest museum. The Louvre could fit in Colonial Williamsburg 20 times over…with room to spare.
Covering 301 acres, the Historic Area of Williamsburg includes hundreds of restored, replicated and rebuilt structures, including homes, businesses and political buildings. Staff members from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation work as guides and costumed interpreters to bring us the tales of men and women, including black, white, Native American, slave, indentured, and free, in both historical and modern day contexts.
2. You can see what life was like before America was born.
At the Governor’s Palace, you have the chance to see Virginia from a different perspective, namely that of British rule. The palace was home to seven royal governors and the first two elected governors in Virginia. The palace shows the wealth and power inherent to British rule through exhibits of period swords and guns, elegant décor, a grand ballroom, elaborate gardens and every luxury that could be afforded during this time in Virginia’s earliest written history.
3. You can witness the daily activities of the colonial wealthy, middle-class and enslaved.
The beauty of Colonial Williamsburg is its authenticity. The colonial times were not easy and wealth was not always evenly distributed. Today, you have the chance to see how prominent citizens like George Wythe lived, as well as replications of the daily life of the working class, such as bakers, innkeepers, blacksmiths and tanners. And as we know, much of America’s early growth was created through slave labor. Williamsburg shows the humble quarters and lives of these people in juxtaposition to other members of colonial society,
4. You can explore the Public Hospital – the nation’s first “insane asylum.”
The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds is the oldest psychiatric hospital in the nation and the first hospital specifically purposed for treatment of the mentally ill. Founded in 1773, the Public Hospital was built at a time when mental illness was not diagnosed by a doctor, but rather by a jury-like group of 12 citizens who gave a verdict of “criminal, lunatic or idiot.” As with most institutions of its kind, conditions were barbaric by modern standards. Today, the hospital serves as a museum where visitors can see examples of patient cells and learn about early treatment of the mentally ill.
5. You can see world-class art.
We just mentioned the Public Hospital. Well, once you’ve taken a look at early psychiatric treatment, you can stop by the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, located in the hospital building. Featuring art, antiques and folk art from early America, the museum is only a block away from Bassett Hall, an 18th-century house that was once the home of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Named The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum after Rockefeller’s wife, the museum displays paintings and artifacts from colonial times, donated from the couple’s private collection. In addition to donating art, Rockefeller played a key role in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg and was a significant benefactor to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
6. You can do more than just walk in the colonists’ footsteps - you can sleep in their beds.
Hotels are wonderful – and Williamsburg offers more than a few elegant choices. But, if you really want to wrap your mind around the colonial experience, stay in a reproduction colonial home, right in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. Enjoy exquisitely crafted canopy beds, chairs and tables and a crackling fire by a warm brick hearth. While you’ll still have it better than most colonial folks ever did, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not just walk in the footsteps of history, but to sleep there, as well.
7. You can experience history in a hands-on learning environment.
It’s not just kids that get bored at museums. I know plenty of adults that can only take so many plaques and static displays. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t enjoy the live, interactive shows, re-enactments and hands-on learning experiences of Williamsburg. Get your hands dirty in a colonial garden, touch the wares at a working blacksmith shop, participate in colonial furniture making workshops or learn to dance like the belle of the ball. In short, Colonial Williamsburg doesn’t just teach you about history, it allows you to be a part of it.
8. You can travel in style with a carriage ride.
To get a real taste of how colonists got from point A to point B, hop on board a colonial carriage. Featuring costumed drivers and authentically replicated carriages, Williamsburg carriage tours provide a wealth of information and sightseeing – and all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
9. You can eat like a king.
Or at least, you can eat at the King’s Arm Tavern – one of the four authentic tavern-style restaurants available in Colonial Williamsburg. Featuring period-style southern fare, each of these meticulously replicated restaurants will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. Other taverns include Shield’s tavern, Chowning’s Tavern and Christina Campbell’s Tavern. For colonial snacks, sweets and “quick-eating” options, be sure to check out DuBois Grocer, McKenzie Apothecary and the Raleigh Tavern Bakery.
10. You can sit in the same church pew where George Washington once sat.
Bruton Parish Church was established in 1674 and traces its roots back to the church of England. Throughout the tumultuous years of revolution, later times of civil war and through countless political and social changes, the church has kept its door open to worshippers. After 300 years of active service, Bruton Parish Church is the most active most active parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia with nearly 2,000 members. The church has been restored to reflect its colonial origins and features box pews and name plates honoring famous worshippers, including George Washington, James Madison, John Tyler, Benjamin Harrison,Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. Bruton Parish still holds four regular Sunday services. The same bell that rang the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 adorns the church’s bell tower today.
11. You can visit the the second oldest college in the nation – and, no bias here, but it’s still one of the best.
Founded in 1693 through a grant (or “letters patent”) from King William III and Queen Mary II, William and Mary College became the first institution of higher learning in the south, second only in the nation to Harvard. Now more than 300 years later, William and Mary is regarded as one of the finest colleges in America and is home to the Wren Building (pictured here), which serves as the oldest college building in the United States still standing today.
12. You can participate in a mock trial at the original Williamsburg Courthouse.
The Courthouse, built in 1771, is one of Colonial Williamsburg’s original buildings. It once served as the county court and held trials ranging from petty theft to church absences. Today, you can participate in a mock trial that demonstrates the judicial system of Revolutionary-era America. An example of one such trial is that of Grace Sherwood, known as “The Witch of Pungo.” The trial, entitled “Cry Witch,” will be held in March and consists of a live re-enactment in which the audience serves as the jury and, ultimately, determines Sherwood’s guilt or innocence. Visit the
Colonial Williamsburg Courthouse
to see upcoming events and scheduled “trials.”
13. You can get up close and personal with the ghosts of Williamsburg. And there are many, trust me.
As a center of social and political life for more than a century, Williamsburg has more than a few sordid secrets – and countless ghosts to prove it. Williamsburg’s ghost tours not only tell the tales of the haunted spaces, but tour guides actually take you inside many of the historic buildings where spirits are said to lurk centuries later. Tours are available through the
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
or other ghost tour operations like
The Original Ghosts of Williamsburg
To name only 13 things is probably an injustice to Williamsburg. But we’ve all got to start somewhere! I know that many of you have been to Williamsburg – most likely, many times. Please feel free to add your additions to the list in the comments below and be sure to share this article so that EVERYONE will know just how incredible Colonial Williamsburg really is.