11 Fun Things to See and Do in Williamsburg With Kids

Back in the day I spent a fair amount of time in Williamsburg, Virginia, the recreated colonial town and HUGE tourist attraction.  (I graduated from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg and worked at the Kings' Arms Tavern as a "serving wench" for a couple of years).  Every year I used to watch as hundreds of teachers bored thousands of students to near-distraction stopping outside each building to talk about its history and function. Here's a selection of activities and sites that I think a teen/preteens might find more intriguing:
  1. Governor's Palace.  Definitely take the tour through the Governor's Palace and gape at the pretentious display of "decorative weapons," the purpose of which was to cow us poor colonials into submission. This tour also provides a good overview of Williamsburg history from founding to independence. While you're there, take a brisk walk through the formal "grounds" and check out the stables, carriages, ice house, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and ornamental duck pond -- all very British, so that the English governors wouldn't pine for home.
  2. Capital Building.  Take the tour through the Capital building and learn more about Williamsburg's role in formenting civil disobedience and independence for the colonies. (Warning: the Capital can be somewhat underwhelming to view without benefit of a tour.)
  3. Bruton Parish. Walk through the graveyard at Bruton Parish Church and admire the gruesome grave art, heavy on skulls, crossed bones, angels and urns. Compete to see who can find the oldest grave, or take rubbings of some of the ancient inscriptions or artwork. (FYI, you'll have to bring your own supplies if you want to do rubbings.) This is a wonderfully creepy thing to do right around dusk ...!
  4. Other Colonial Destinations.  Other locations likely to be of interest to older kids: the armory, the goal (jail), the blacksmiths' shop, the printers shop, and the general store. The map they issue you at the Visitor's Center will show you where these are located.
  5. Chownings Tavern.  Stop by Chownings Tavern for lunch and play a round of The Most Royal Game of Goose, a colonial board game that the waiterstaff are pleased to provide upon request (they will explain the rules too). Or simply ask for a colonial deck of cards and play war as you sip apple cider from pewter tankards over your plank table.  (It's pronounced Choo-nings, by the way!)
  6. Colonial Muster. Check the schedule and try not to miss the colonial muster on the green behind the courthouse. Authentically dressed militiamen demonstrate marching and other maneuvers, accompanied by a fife and drum band. (The schedule may list other interesting seasonal and weekly events too, some of which may be well worth checking out.)
  7. College of William and Mary. Walk around the campus of William and Mary, taking in the historical buildings and especially the Wren Building, designed by Christopher Wren himself. Explore the downstairs rooms, and especially Wren Chapel, which retains a true "colonial" ambiance and is still used today for services, weddings and college debates. Your middle schoolers/high schoolers may be becoming curious about colleges - W&M is a small, academically oriented institution with tons of history and a beautiful campus. (It was founded in 1694, making it the oldest chartered college in the US; 8 U.S. presidents graduated from W&M.) So go ahead and peak into some of the academic buildings too ...!
  8. Jamestown. Drive another 5mls and take in the archeological excavation at Jamestown (your Patriot's Pass Williamsburg ticket should get you admitted here too). Fascinating opportunity to see archeology in action. Or, if your kids are more into reenactment than reality, take in the "restored Jamestown fort," built back when it was believed that the actual Jamestown site had been engulfed by the James River. Here they can learn more about what it was like to live in an armed fortification, living in constant fear of attack, starvation and disease.
  9. Fossil Hunting on the James River. Stop at a beach along the James River and look for fossils. The river passes through the highly fossiliferous Yorktown Formation in this area, so it is not uncommon to find fossilized seashell remains litering the river banks.
  10. Wythe's Candy Store. Stop by Wyeth's Candy Store in Merchant's Square (at the base of Duke of Gloucester Street) for freshly dipped caramel apples or chocolate covered rice crispy squares on a stick ... guaranteed to rot your teeth out!
  11. Ghost Tours! If you can stay a little late, sign up for an after-dark "ghost tour". See the town as the colonials would have experienced it ... by lantern-light! These tours are actually a very good way to learn more about everyday life in Williamsburg ... how folks *really* lived day to day back in colonial days, and they are especially fun & spooky at this time of year, when dead leaves skitter across the cobbled streets at every gust of wind. Just be sure to go with a private company -- don't get suckered into the so-called "ghost tour" sponsored by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which is watered down so much that it wouldn't even interest a toddler, much less a pre-teen.
Note that there are also a bunch of big theme parks in the Williamsburg area (Busch Gardens, Water Adventure World, Great Wolf Lodge) - not to mention tons of discount shopping - but have tried to confine my list to activities that are more in the spirit of a "colonial" family experience.

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