As a huge history nerd, you can imagine my delight when Visit Williamsburg reached out to me for a visit. The timing was perfect. With the emotional weight of 2020 and the inability to spend Christmas with my family, I was not feeling very festive this holiday season. So, I jumped at the chance for a nearby getaway that promised history, Christmas festivities, and safe outdoor activities.
Despite my love of history, I had never actually visited Williamsburg. I have heard Colonial Williamsburg described as a history theme park and knew the architecture and colonial Christmas décor would be very charming, but other than that, I really did not know what to expect. I also did not realize how close Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown were, and I was happily surprised to discover that I enjoyed Jamestown and Yorktown just as much as Williamsburg. I highly recommend taking the time to see all three when you visit.
This trip definitely exceeded my expectations! Visit Williamsburg was fantastic to work with. Not only did they address all of my safety concerns, but they also created an incredible itinerary based on my interests and preferences. Here is what we did (Courtney, of course, joined as a fellow history/museum nerd and my photographer):
The highlight of Jamestown was the museum at the Jamestown Settlement (built near but not on the original site). I am telling you; this was one of the most enjoyable and well-done museums I have ever visited… and I have visited a lot of museums! There is plenty of free parking, lots of Covid safety protocols, and a very well-done historical narrative.
The museum tells the story of the three cultures—Native (Powhatan), English, and west-central African—that shaped the history of Jamestown, 17th-century Virginia, and this country. The narrative focused equally on the three cultures and often challenged the visitor to reconceptualize or question what they thought they knew about these cultures and their early encounters. Not only did the museum lead with the indigenous names of places (did you know Virginia’s original name was Tsenacommacah?), but it did also not shy away from the realities of the past—enslavement, physical and emotional turmoil, war, and early death. The museum was also transparent when it came to how these histories are reconstructed and interpreted and often asked thought-provoking questions rather than fill historical voids. Just outside the museum galleries are interactive history sites where you can explore replicas of the original Jamestown fort, a Powhatan village, and 17th-century ships (I still cannot believe people crossed the Atlantic Ocean in those ships!).
After spending the morning learning about Jamestown, we grabbed a Publix sub (we are both from Florida and can never resist a Pub Sub when we are in Publix country) and checked into our hotel – the Williamsburg Lodge and nearby Williamsburg Inn are sister hotels and part of the Autographic Collection. The Lodge is the perfect blend of historic charm and modern amenities. And the location cannot be beat! You are just a 5-minute walk from the heart of Colonial Williamsburg. After checking in, we visited Williamsburg’s charming botanical garden, which highlights native plants and offers a delightful place to stroll or picnic outside. We ended our first day with a delicious meal at the historic Chowning’s Tavern. I bet you did not know that “rarebit” (not rabbit, just beer cheese over toast) was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite snacks! I can now confirm that it is tasty.
Our second day focused on exploring the living history museum that is Colonial Williamsburg. The area is made up of three historic streets featuring restored or re-created buildings from the 18th century, complete with historical reenactors. It gives the visitor a glimpse of daily life in colonial America. Before visiting, I wondered if it would feel fake or cheesy, but honestly, the architecture is beautiful, and the actors—or costumed interpreters as they are called—are fun and very informative, adding to the feeling that you have slipped back in time. For the holidays, every home and building is dressed up for Christmas, and it is just so charming! While exploring, we toured the Governor’s Palace, the Wythe House (the wallpaper there is inspiring), stopped by the millinery (I wanted all the hats), and explored several charming colonial gardens.
After settling on which colonial Christmas decorations were the best, we headed to the nearby Culture Café for lunch. We shared some eclectic small plates and warmed ourselves with homemade soup before heading to Historic Jamestowne, the site of the original settlement. Here you see where the original fort once stood and the archeological remains of North America’s first permanent English colony. You can also watch archeologists at work as they continue to excavate and reconstruct the colony’s early days. We ended our day with dinner at Gabriel Archer Tavern, which is the restaurant of the Williamsburg Winery. The food was amazing, from the charcuterie to our entrees and our decadent desserts. Of course, we had to sample the wine, which was fantastic! After dinner, we headed back into the colonial section of town to walk off our dinner and enjoy some historic caroling. Courtney could not convince me to do the ghost tour.
We spent our third day exploring Yorktown, a city best known as the site of a decisive victory for the Continental Army in the American Revolution. We started at the cutest coffee shop with quite a history. The building that now hosts Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters was built in 1720 and was known as the Cole Digges House. By the 19th century, it was a woman-owned and operated tea house. So, it is fitting that today it is once more a woman-owned business serving coffee, tea, and pastries. And according to the current owner, the previous owner Anne is still around today. We filled up on delicious treats and caffeinated before meeting up with our local guides, Maureen and Michael, who took us through the historic streets and history of Yorktown from its inception to its role in the Revolutionary War was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. Having two local experts take us around and answer all of our questions was incredibly informative and fun!
After our tour, we headed down to the waterfront, where we stuffed our faces with lobster mac and cheese at Water Street Grille before exploring the charming boutiques and art shops along the Riverwalk Landing. We spent the rest of our afternoon at the American Revolution Museum.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown tells the story of the Revolutionary War and the founding of United States. The museum includes informative films, immersive gallery exhibits, and outdoor recreations of a Continental Army encampment and a Revolutionary-era farm. The narrative of the museum considers the meaning and impact of the American Revolution through diverse perspectives and on a global scale. The museum galleries move chronologically and give an excellent overview of the history of the Revolution and the early United States. Personally, I preferred the Jamestown museum slightly more because it was closer to my own historical interests and had a bit less of a celebratory narrative, but it is an excellent complement to the Jamestown museum and should definitely not be missed. We ended our day with brick oven pizzas and more wine in front of a crackling fireplace at Craft 31. After dinner, we returned to stroll the historic streets of Colonial Williamsburg to enjoy the performances and the warmth of the fires used to light the streets. Courtney was once again unsuccessful in convincing me to take the ghost tour.
The historian and academic in me could not leave Williamsburg without seeing this country’s second-oldest university – William and Mary, founded in 1693! (In case you were wondering, Harvard is the oldest.) We got up early Saturday and explored the historic campus and Sunken Garden, which is like their quadrangle (or quad). Afterward, we headed to the Old Chickahominy House for a down-home southern breakfast. It was caloric and delicious, and some of the best pancakes we have ever had! The restaurant, set in a historic home, is also an eclectic antique and gift shop.
Over breakfast, we reminisced about everything we had seen and learned over the past few days, promptly deciding on our favorite things to do and see when we return. We were so impressed by how many activities were outdoors as well as interactive and all of the precautions take for Covid (we basically had the historic homes and museum galleries to ourselves). And since it is only a 2.5-hour drive from DC, we will definitely be back!