The largest living history museum in the United States, Colonial Williamsburg is a private not-for-profit foundation that operates the restored 18th-century capital of colonial Virginia. Anyone can walk the streets in the Historic Area and shop in the stores around Merchants Square.
To visit the buildings, craft shops, ride the shuttle buses, and enjoy the concerts and other attractions that make this a unique getaway, you need to purchase a ticket. The best value is a Multi-Day ticket (good for 3 consecutive days) which costs just a few dollars more than a one-day ticket. (You can save by buying a Multi-Day ticket online.) If you plan to visit several times during the year, an Annual Pass offers great value. For current ticket prices, and to learn more about attractions and special events, visit www.colonialwilliamsburg.com. (We will include details about the attractions, itineraries, and much more later in the article.)
My wife Karen and I recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, and loved wandering around the Historic Area. When we entered the Visitor Center, we were greeted by a visiting fiddler who played old-time unaccompanied fiddle tunes. (Even though he wasn’t an employee, he added authenticity and atmosphere of the period, and transported us into an earlier time.)
From the Visitor Center, it’s a short walk to Great Hopes Plantation: a restored small farm that is typical of the middling plantations that existed around the colonial capital. Those plantations were the homes of most of the rural middle class, the ones who weren’t shop and tavern keepers or trades people in town. When we think of “plantations,” most of us think about those owned by aristocrats and members of the upper classes. A visit to Great Hopes gives a more balanced view of what plantation and farming life was like.
We visited the corn house, smoke house, salt house, kitchen, garden, tobacco house, and slave house. A visit here is more like visiting a non-wealthy friend or relative than visiting a wealthy plantation owner.
Returning to the Visitor Center, we joined an orientation walking tour that introduces visitors to the buildings, gardens, and other parts of the Historic Area. We learned that Williamsburg (known as “Middle Plantation” in colonial times) became Virginia’s state capital in 1699.
We left the tour to visit the Governor’s Palace, the residence of the many British governors who presided over the colony of Virginia. The tour took us through public area, the ballroom (that is still used for concerts and special events), the bedrooms and private quarters of the ruling family, and ended at the palace gardens. The gardens are worth a visit. You may want to return—and visitors who just want to see the gardens don’t need to wait in the long lines of people waiting to enter the Palace. I wish we had more time to explore the mazes in the gardens, but we will be sure to return soon.
Our second day focused on shopping around Merchants Square. There are many distinctive small shops. The Crafts shop had a variety of items. I purchased a Pocket Guide to Colonial Williamsburg, and a book, Faith of Our Fathers: What Our Founders Really Believed.
My wife Karen loved visiting the Cheese shop (next to the Crafts Shop). The staff there was exceptionally friendly and Karen loved the variety of interesting cheeses.
I walked a block to Prince George Street, and walked down a flight of stairs to Mermaid Books (421 Prince George Street). I felt as if I were browsing through a friend’s cellar, and ended up buying a Classics Illustrated edition of Heidi for our grandchildren. The hospitable owner offered to gift wrap the book at no extra charge.
Being an ice cream addict, I crossed the street to visit the local Baskin Robbins—described by a Colonial Williamsburg guide at Merchants Square as being “the most popular and busiest Baskin Robbins in the country.” I couldn’t verify that, but I did appreciate the early opening hours (10 a.m.), wide selection, and friendly service.
I learned about a local privately-owned Bed and Breakfast near Merchants Square. While many of you will enjoy the convenience and special benefits of staying in one of the official Colonial Williamsburg hotels or cottages, another option is the Fife and Drum Inn (441 Prince George Street): a Bed and Breakfast with several distinctive rooms and just a short walk from Merchants Square and the Historic Area of Williamsburg.
Unfortunately, our short visit was just a start. I’m hoping that we will soon purchase the Annual Pass to Colonial Williamsburg ($59.95 apiece until March 16, then $61.95.) and return many times.
How to Get to Williamsburg
The best way to get is by train or bus. The Transportation Center (468 North Boundary Street, Williamsburg VA 23185) is just a short walk from the Historic Area, the Visitors Center, and Merchants Square.
Amtrak has 2-3 trains every day going to Richmond, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston (and of course stops in between). The one-way fare to Williamsburg (all with 14 days advance purchase) is: from Washington, D.C.: $29 each way, Baltimore: $36, Philadelphia: $46, New York Penn Station: $62, and Boston South Station: $71
Greyhound buses also stop at the Transportation Center. There is direct service from both Richmond and Norfolk, and connecting buses from many other communities.
At the train station, take a few minutes to view a picture of General (and later President) Dwight Eisenhower greeting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. A telephone customer service rep at Colonial Williamsburg’s telephone center told us that former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the train here to help dedicate Colonial Williamsburg when it first opened.
Getting here by air is more difficult. The nearest airport is Newport News/Williamsburg (Patrick Henry Field—PHF for short). Air Tran, Frontier, Delta, and U.S. Air serve the airport. The only way to get to Williamsburg is by taxi or airport shuttle. Tidewater Coach (www.tidewatercoach.com or-757/218-9539) charges $35 for one person, $45 for a couple, $15 apiece for large groups, and $25 apiece for individual readers who share a van. Marrow Transit (www.marrowtransit.com or 757/564-5644) charges $55 for one person, and $65 for 2 people. Both companies require advance reservations.
Getting Around After You Arrive
From the Transportation Center, Williamsburg Transport (www.williamsburgtransport.com or-757/220-5493) provides affordable hourly service to most hotels and attractions. Your best choice is a one-day pass for $2. The www.williamsburgtransport.com web site includes links to Hotels, Attractions, and Shopping.
You can also walk to the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center (3 blocks away), Merchants Square, and many other in-town shops and attractions. The Gray Line serves Busch Gardens. The Orange line serves the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center. The College of William and Mary is served by the Blue, Red, and Green Lines.
From the Transportation Center, it’s a three-block walk to the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, and a short walk to the shops at Merchants Square. Remember that after you purchase your tickets to Colonial Williamsburg (preferably online), you can ride the Historic Williamsburg shuttles free.
Two local taxicab companies with good customer reviews are: Historic Taxi (757/258-7755) and Taxi Williamsburg (757/907-5658. A new taxi company is Colonial Capital Cab (757/345-2224).
What To Do After You Arrive
There is so much to do in Colonial Williamsburg alone that you could spend an entire weekend—or even a week—exploring and coming back to revisit the gardens, historic sites, and shops here. There are programs most evenings. The Kimball Theatre (located in Merchants Square) offers films, live performances, and talks and debates relating to colonial issues.
Barbara Brown, Communications Manager for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation offers these suggestions:
- Garden Lovers could spend an entire visit enjoying some or all of the gardens here.
- Spa lovers can spend two days in the Spa of Colonial Williamsburg.
- Golfers might prefer to play all three of our championship courses.
- Foodies will enjoy dining in the taverns, sampling Chef Rhys Lewis’ ode to the bounty of Virginia at the Williamsburg Lodge restaurant and topping it off with an elegant meal in the Regency Room in the Williamsburg Inn.
- Art lovers will delight in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.
- There’s plenty of shopping in Williamsburg with the one-of-a-kind shops and Colonial Williamsburg shops in Merchants Square, the bookstore and gift shop at the Visitor Center and the Prime Outlets on Richmond Road (Route 60).
For 2 detailed itineraries (Suggestions for First Time Visitors, and Colonial Trades), go to:
From April 15 until October 31, free buses take visitors from the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center to Historic Jamestown, Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Victory Center and Yorktown Battlefield. For more information about Jamestown and Yorktown (including tickets), visit www.historyisfun.com.
Even though most sites, gardens, and attractions in Colonial Williamsburg close at 6 p.m., remember that there are many evening programs. Most require a separate ticket, in addition to your daily or multi-day ticket, or annual pass. (Annual pass holders and guests of official Colonial Williamsburg hotels receive a 25% discount.)
If you are looking for free entertainment, the historic Bruton Parish Church (www.brutonparish.org) has free Candlelight Concerts every Saturday evening at 8 p.m.
For More Information
For information about Colonial Williamsburg attractions, hotels, itineraries, buying tickets online, vacation packages, evening programs, and anything else relating to Colonial Williamsburg, visit www.colonialwilliamsburg.com, or call toll free (800) 447-8679
For information about other Williamsburg area attractions, shopping, and accommodations, visit www.visitwilliamsburg.com, or call toll-free (888) 882-4156.
For information about local bus and trolleys, visit www.williamsburgtransport.com, or call (757) 220-5493.
For information about Historic Jamestown, Jamestown Settlement, Yorktown Victory Center, and Yorktown Battlefield, visit www.historyisfun.com, or call (757) 253-4838.
Steve Atlas spotlights where to visit or live without depending on a private automobile. View past Car Free Journey columns, and special reports about good places to live without a car at www.pubtrantravel.com. E-mail Steve with your comments or ideas for future columns at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit Steve’s website: www.carfreeamerica.org for more articles and columns about car free living and travel.