A trip to Colonial Williamsburg brings history to life

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.

Williamsburg FifesDrums2WDuring 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 lambs1WWilliamsburg 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.


5 Tips for Visiting Colonial WilliamsburgWillilamsburg JourneymanW cooper Marshall Scheetz

Keep the following tips in mind to get the most out of your visit to Colonial Williamsburg with kids.

1. Start at home.
Every trip is better with a little advance planning. Along with information about the site, the Colonial Williamsburg website (colonialwilliamsburg.com) includes a "kid zone" section with fun games for children of different ages, so kids can start to bone up on their early American knowledge — and get excited for the trip.

2. Buy the pass.
While you can walk around the streets of Colonial Williamsburg without an attraction ticket, to truly experience the site, Carolyn Ciarrocchi, a mother of four, recommends purchasing the pass. Group rates and discounts are frequently available and children under 6 years old are free.

3. Wander.
Make plans before you arrive, but build in some time to simply stroll around town, soaking up the history. Sometimes, the best finds are serendipitous Ciarrocchi says. "We've done five or six tours of the town, guided tours or events or self-guided, where we just looked at our map and wandered," she says. "And we always find new things to see."

4. Mix with the interpreters.
Interacting with the colonial-clothed interpreters in Williamsburg's historic district really helps bring history to life. In addition to casual conversations, interpreters participate in group re-enactments, says Ciarrocchi, who always tries to see a re-enactment of at least one historical event, such as a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

5. Make food part of the experience.
A fun way to experience colonial American culture is through food and meals. "Food is covered in a couple different places," says Barbara Brown, public affairs managers for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. "In the palace kitchen, food is prepared as it would've been for the gentry — it's pretty elegant. Then you've got the big kitchen for the armory, where the food prep is for the working class — stews and stuff of that nature."
After working up an appetite learning about meals, visit one of Colonial Williamsburg's four historic tavern restaurants or make your way to Dubois Grocer, McKenzie Apothecary or Raleigh Tavern Bakery for snacks.

Exploring the Williamsburg Area

Colonial Williamsburg isn't the only family-friendly attraction in the southeastern Virginia region. When Severna Park resident Caryn Rose travels to Williamsburg with her family this year, they may tour the colonial area — as they have done in the past — but they will also venture beyond the historic district.

"We are always looking for new and different things to see in the area," Rose says. "We have expanded our search to Newport News, which is very close [to Williamsburg], with great maritime history."

Consider some of these additional activities and destinations during your Williamsburg visit:

  • Busch Gardens, buschgardens.com
  • Great Wolf Lodge, greatwolf.com/williamsburg
  • Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown, historicjamestowne.org
  • Mariners' Museum and Park in Newport News, marinersmuseum.org
  • Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf, piratescove.net
  • Williamsburg Outlets, premiumoutlets.com/outlet/williamsburg
  • Yankee Candle Village Store, yankeecandle.com