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Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, Virginia are Revolutionary War and 17th century historic sites teens will enjoy. New museum exhibits focus on the three cultures of Jamestown – Native American, English, and West Central African. And the historic area is compact, so it’s easy to visit all three historic sites. Read on to see what makes Greater Williamsburg a destination for family fun.
The writer was hosted on this trip.
Things to do in Greater Williamsburg, VA
My husband and I road tripped from Philadelphia to discover the United States’ historic triangle of Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown, Virginia. In addition, we enjoyed a beach, toured a vineyard, and savored a wine tasting. Finally, we enjoyed a stay at a boutique inn.
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Read on for our take on some of the best things to do in Williamsburg VA and the surrounding area.
1. 18th Century Town
In Virginia’s historic triangle, the 18th century “living history” town of Williamsburg is the best known. Want to see history really come alive? Then try talking with the historical actors in colonial costumes.
Fun things to do in Williamsburg, VA, include watching live demonstrations by blacksmiths, silversmiths, and cabinetmakers. Also, visit the authentic colonial shops, taverns, and other Revolutionary War-era buildings lining the streets. Although we didn’t take a horse carriage ride or visit the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, we did try out that colonial punishment, the stocks.
2. Jamestown Settlement
Jamestown, Virginia, was the English colonists’ first permanent settlement in North America. Importantly, the Jamestown Settlement museum explains it as a story of three different cultures in early Virginia.
First, there’s the culture of the Native Americans living in the Jamestown area for thousands of years. Second, there were the English, who began arriving in 1607. Following that, we learned of the culture of the West Central Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved in Virginia. Tweens and teens will appreciate this more nuanced telling.
Wide variety of exhibits
Inside the museum, Jamestown Settlement uses video reenactments, real artifacts, short films, and interactive exhibits to tell stories of individuals. And it helps bring Jamestown to life for teens, some nearly the ages of colonists. For example, in 1621, the colony recruited 56 young English women to Jamestown as possible wives for the mostly male colonists. Another eye-opener: I didn’t know the real history of Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan Indian leader. Plus, I was amazed to learn about Elizabeth Key. An enslaved woman, Key successfully sued her owner for her freedom in 1656, prompting England to change its slavery laws. Finally, I didn’t realize Jamestown was a for-profit business, not a government plan.
Inside the museum, Jamestown Settlement uses life-sized dioramas to show a Powhatan Indian village, with grass woven huts and farms. Separately, we saw a Central West African village of mud houses and typical objects. Similarly, the museum recreated a typical British street and houses the Jamestown settlers might have left behind.
Why would settlers leave England for Jamestown?
Why did colonists leave England? The Jamestown Settlement museum lets the settlers explain, in short videos of live actors. There’s also a funny interactive exhibit that reminded me of Yelp reviews. It showed both good and bad “reviews” of Jamestown by its early settlers. Although only open until January 2020, a special exhibit focuses on Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia (TENACITY).
Living History at Jamestown Settlement
Outside the museum are acres devoted to a “living history museum.” For example, we climbed on a floating replica of a 17th-century ship the colonists sailed from England. Surprisingly, it’s an actual working ship. We also went inside replicas of Native American houses.
In addition, at the recreated Jamestown colonists’ fort, we saw live demonstrations of colonial crafts and firing real muskets. Kids were having fun practicing musket drills with wooden guns.
3. Historic Jamestown
I was curious to see the actual ruins of the Jamestown fort and settlement. While it’s an archeological site, we didn’t try sifting for archeological artifacts. However, we did enjoy strolling the pretty grounds and its views of the James River.
4. Colonial Parkway
We enjoyed driving the 23-mile route that connects the historic sites of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. And that was for three reasons:
- First, the Colonial Parkway has pretty views of the James River and York River.
- Second, it’s free.
- Third, pull-offs along the Colonial Parkway have signs explaining the historic triangle’s history. And good picnic spots.
5. Yorktown Battlefield
To get ready to visit the Yorktown Battlefield, we listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. But of course! And since Yorktown was the decisive battle, we paid special attention to the song Yorktown: The World Turned Upside Down.
So it was a thrill to enter the actual tent General George Washington used. Once inside, we imagined him strategizing with Alexander Hamilton. Also, we enjoyed the small museum and exploring the battlefield.
6. American Revolution Museum
I loved the focus on individual stories at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. For example, one interactive exhibit started with a personality quiz to find my “matches” among Revolutionary War loyalists, patriots, or neutrals. Then, I chose which historical character to learn more about, via a short video.
Similarly, another creative American Revolution Museum exhibit draws in teens and tweens by using interactive animated stories to make the Constitution accessible. Each animated story focuses on a different teenager and illustrates how our Constitution works. Why isn’t homework “cruel and unusual” punishment? What does the US Constitution say about that? A thoughtful way to make American history engaging and fun. By contrast, a different exhibit makes Revolutionary War battle history into a fun interactive video game.
African Americans in the American Revolution
A special exhibit focuses on African Americans who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Enslaved men fought with the British, who promised them freedom (and sometimes delivered). Freedmen fought for the revolution. And so did some enslaved men who were sent to the Continental army in place of their slaveholding owners. After the war, I was surprised to learn thousands of African Americans loyal to the British left for Nova Scotia. Forgotten Soldier runs until March 2020.
One interactive exhibit brings history to life by confronting us with tough decisions. For example, during the American Revolution, should a free African American join the patriots or be loyal to the English King? If an enslaved woman chooses to flee, should she take or leave her children? Then, the exhibit reveals the actual consequences for the real people who faced those decisions. Compelling history, especially for teens.
Living History in Yorktown
Outside the American Revolution museum, we saw a recreation of a Continental Army tent camp. A colonial family farm and an enslaved family’s quarters were also featured. Historical actors bring it all to life. We enjoyed live demonstrations of how to transform flax into linen and the cannon demonstration.
TravelingMom tip: Cover your ears – cannons are loud!
7. Yorktown Beach
And after a day of American history, it was a pleasure to dip our feet at Yorktown Beach, where lots of families were swimming. we also enjoyed the sunset over the York River.
TravelingMom tip: both the beach and riverfront view are free. And if like us, you want ice cream for dinner, there’s a convenient Ben & Jerry’s.
8. Williamsburg – Amusement Parks
While we didn’t visit this time, the historic triangle is close to fun theme parks, such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA.
TravelingMom tip: Busch Gardens offers military discounts.
9. Williamsburg Winery
My husband and I enjoyed a walking tour of the vineyards. The cool dark rooms where the Williamsburg Winery ages its red and white wines were amazing.
Plus, at the end of the walking tour, we got to taste the wines. While not for tweens or teens, a wine tasting is one of the fun things to do in Williamsburg VA for couples or a girlfriend getaway.
Where to stay in Williamsburg, VA: Wedmore Place
We checked in at the 28-room boutique inn on the grounds of the Williamsburg Winery, Wedmore Place. And we immediately appreciated the luxe antiques. Another plus – our elegant bedroom included a working fireplace. Later, we were delighted to be welcomed by the friendly staff with a wine and cheese tasting with other guests in the cozy library.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke to fresh baked croissants. In fact, the pastry dough is imported from France. Importantly, a continental breakfast at the pretty hotel restaurant, Cafe Provencal, is included with the room. Also, the cafe is open to the public for dinner. And at the end of a travel day exploring America’s historic triangle, it was a pleasure to wind down with a glass of wine in the European-feeling stone courtyard at Wedmore Place.
What would your family enjoy in the Williamsburg, Jamestown, Yorktown area? Tell us about it in the comments.