Looking for an educational getaway that’s not too far from the Baltimore-Annapolis area for spring break? Head to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and your kids will be immersed in history.
During colonial times, many residents of Williamsburg had no hair. At least that’s what Carolyn Ciarrocchi learned at the Colonial Williamsburg wig maker’s shop during a family trip with her four kids. The townspeople shaved their heads to prevent lice.
Chatting about the small details of life – like lice – with someone dressed in 18th century garb is one of the attractions that makes Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg a terrific family destination. The historic area includes hundreds of buildings on more than 300 acres that have been carefully restored and reconstructed to create a “living museum” that accurately represents an 18th century colonial American town.
Hands-on activities, demonstrations and costumed interpreters — trained individuals who dress in historic clothing and play the roles of the townspeople — bring the historical period to life. And it’s all just a three-hour drive from the Annapolis area, close enough for a short family getaway, in Williamsburg, Va.
What to See
The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes activities that will keep kids of all ages entertained, from one-on-one interactions with interpreters to crowd-pleasing – and often interactive – demonstrations, like the revolutionary storming of the Palace Green and a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.
“For young children, there’s more than you might imagine,” says Barbara Brown, public affairs managers for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Some of the areas Brown recommends families visit include the Colonial Nursery, Public Armoury and the Governor’s Palace.
Colonial Nursery – At the nursery on Duke of Gloucester Street, kids can check out what is currently growing. “They’re fantastic with little kids,” says Brown. “They show how seeds are planted and coming up and what’s happening in the garden. They have kids carry buckets of water, so they can see what was involved in having to tend the plants,” she says.
Public Armoury – The armoury and blacksmith shop, where tools and weapons used in the Revolution were made, are some of the busiest spots in Colonial Williamsburg and a great spot to check out the wartime action up close.
“During the Revolutionary period, there was a blacksmith, tinsmith, cook, carpenter — this site is buzzing with activity,” says Brown, noting that kids of all ages love seeing the action. For older kids, it’s a fun way to learn while younger kids who might not pick up on what’s happening are still entertained by the sounds, fires and activity.
Governor’s Palace – While the Public Armoury offers a look at how colonial-era workmen operated, touring the Governor’s Palace gives visitors a glimpse of how the gentry lived, Brown says.
Ciarrocchi, who frequently visits Williamsburg from her home in Stafford, Va., says her children, who range in age from 5 to 12, are fascinated by their behind-the-scenes tour of the palace. “In the Governor’s Palace kitchen, the kids got to see how the cooking was done and how the gardens were used for food,” she says.
Other Favorite Stops – Ciarrocchi’s children also enjoyed their trips inside some of the 22 trade shops scattered throughout the area. “At the milliner, we learned how clothing was made. The colonials were very fashion-focused,” she says.
The family’s trips are inspiring, Ciarrocchi says. “My girls want to dress like the ladies there and my sons want to shoot a musket.”
Brown adds that families should plan to stop by the stocks. Though the wooden structure was used as punishment in the 18th century, in the 21st, it offers a don’t-miss photo opportunity and a lot of laughs.
Watch the video below for a few highlights of a visit to Colonial Williamsburg.
Where to Eat
For the true Colonial Williamsburg experience, nothing beats a meal at a tavern. Both the Ciarrocchi and Brown recommend Chowning’s Tavern, which has a charming outdoor area and serves sandwiches, salads and flatbreads alongside kid-friendly foods like chicken strip and mac and cheese.
The Cheese Shop, which is located in Merchant Square, is another popular spot. It carries a variety of casual gourmet food, wines and beers, plus great sandwiches. A local tip is to ask for extra house dressing with the sandwiches. But be warned: It’s very close to Wythe Candy & Gourmet Shop, which carries just about every type of candy imaginable.
Cookie lovers shouldn’t miss the gingerbread men at Raleigh Tavern Bakery, Brown says. “Go first thing in the morning, when they’re baking them right in the bakery in the oven,” she says. “There’s nothing like seeing them come out of the oven.”
Access and Tickets
The streets of Colonial Williamsburg and Merchants Square are open to everyone, so all visitors can enjoy the setting, shops, restaurants and occasional interaction with a costumed interpreter for free. However, most exhibits, activities, programs and building entrances require an admission ticket. Tickets include features such as guided tours; admission to certain buildings, like the Governor’s Palace; and to theatrical performances, such as lively re-enactments of trials held at the Courthouse, plus a closer look at the activities of the 18th century interpreters.
Purchase tickets in person at the Visitor Center (101 Visitor Center Dr.) or through the website, colonialwilliamsburg.com. Single day tickets start at $40.99 for adults and $20.49 for ages 6-12 (under 6 is free). Multi-day tickets ($25.49-$50.99) and annual passes ($33.49-$66.99) are also available. Ticket packages are available, including occasional seasonal deals.
Where to Stay
Dozens of hotels are located in and around Colonial Williamsburg, including several at different price points operated under the Colonial Williamsburg umbrella. From the value-priced Governor’s Inn (starting around $85 per night) to the elegant Williamsburg Inn (starting around $400 per night), there are options at every level.
With advance planning, some families even have the opportunity to stay in historic homes in the colonial area. “Those you can’t book online,” warns Barbara Brown., explaining that they must be reserved over the phone because they may have restrictions, like accessibility challenges, that families need to know about before making the decision to stay.
Still, the opportunity to stay in a restored historic home, right in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, is a special one and could be the 18th century cherry on top of an educational and fun spring break trip.
For more information about what to do, where to eat and where to stay in Colonial Williamsburg, visit colonialwilliamsburg.com.
By Kit Waskom Pollard
Click next below for 5 tips for visiting Colonial Williamsburg.