To say a visit to Williamsburg is a “step back in time” is an understatement. People there still churn their own butter. They still fire cannons. You can almost feel the ghosts looking over your shoulder when you peek around cobblestone corners. It’s almost surreal to think that people still live in the homes near one of the best-preserved historic sites in the entire country. One can only imagine what it is like to have fifes and drums parading past your porch every day.
An American treasure …
Living in Williamsburg is probably the same in the 21st century as it was in the 18th century. Very little in this area has changed since then. Or rather, the area has been revived—and reconstructed in some cases—to be as authentic as possible. The revival of this national treasure began in 1926, spearheaded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. Before that, the town had actually fallen into disrepair—a slow and steady decline from prosperity that began when the Virginia capital moved to Richmond in 1780. During the restoration, colonial foundations were uncovered and many buildings were rebuilt to original specs right on their original foundations. The restorations included 88 homes, shops, taverns and other public buildings, plus more than 40 other buildings were rebuilt to historic detail.
Even if you are into inspecting all the historical details, the real joy of visiting Williamsburg is the interactive experience. Costumed re-enactment of everyday life takes place around every corner. Wander into one of the many artisan shops and you’ll find blacksmiths, cabinetmakers, gunsmiths, wigmakers and wheelwrights practicing their colonial skills. Kind of makes you wonder where a young man can learn how to “wright a wheel” in this day and age. No matter, because the authenticity is genuine, believable and so much fun. There are few places in this country where you can drink a beer in the same taverns where the American Revolution was born and raised.
… Where history comes to life
The words “history lesson” generally evoke memories of stuffy professors and musty, old books. The historic programs and exhibits of Williamsburg replace the sleepiness of History 101 with exploding cannons, witch trials, militia marches and pints of brown ale. The daily re-enactments and activities are plentiful. At almost any point during the day or night there is something going on. Memorable activities include live talks with historic figures like George Washington, Patrick Henry, the Marquis De Lafayette, and fictitious characters who talk about life in 18th century Virginia. To see a re-enactment of a real witch trial, head to the Capital building for the “Cry Witch” program that takes place on selected evenings. You can also experience political debate re-enactments, militia training, period art, music, and colonial plays—all taking place at various locations around the 300-acre historic site.
The best part of Williamsburg is that you are encouraged to be part of the act. You can march with the militia, sample colonial fare, dance at a society ball and uncover artifacts at the Williamsburg archeological dig site. The kids can even rent colonial costumes for the day (weather permitting). But the actors and kids aren’t the only ones seen dressed in period attire. Williamsburg’s ghosts are well-known and big business. There are a variety of candlelight ghost tours through the historic areas of town, some include stories from the time, and some are just too frightening for the little ones. (So if you decide to take one, be sure to ask beforehand if the tour is appropriate for the kids.)
As you make your way down Duke of Gloucester Street, historic Williamsburg turns into the campus of The College of William & Mary, chartered in 1693. The college—now of course a university—is the second-oldest institute of higher education in the United States, behind only Harvard. Presidents Jefferson, Monroe and Tyler all attended this school, as did four Declaration of Independence signers. The streets near campus are dotted with quaint shops, colorful cafes and interesting architecture. One of the more interesting buildings, the Sir Christopher Wren Building, is the oldest academic structure in continuous use in America. According to historians, parts of the campus today look much as they did in the 1700s.
There are far too many activities (and schedules) to mention all the experiences of a visit to historic Colonial Williamsburg. This is not a one-day destination. Budget at least two or three days to participate in all the great programs, authentic restaurants and taverns, shopping, parades and of course, history lessons. Don’t worry, you won’t be tested on it, but you will remember it for a very long time.