What to do and see during a Williamsburg vacation

Though a major player in our nation’s history, Williamsburg is anything but outdated, offering an assortment of ways to entertain.

The Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. A brick Colonial house with a courtyard, and former home of Thomas Jefferson.
© Paul Hakimata / stock.adobe.com

You may have been to Colonial Williamsburg on a class trip. Or maybe you’ve jetted down for a weekend of thrills at Busch Gardens. While these two popular trips are great in their own right, making Williamsburg a second home or a weeklong vacation spot is something that comes easily: The area is a community hub filled with all the modern-day trappings in a historical setting.

Williamsburg is ripe with intrigue in any season, and the cultural and entertainment options fit into any type of activity one could desire. There are hiking and biking opportunities along the Colonial Parkway, beach destinations at Jamestown and Yorktown, cultural entertainment in the historic district and as part of the College of William and Mary, and then there are the community events like farmers markets, golf tournaments and more. And you don’t have to feel like an outsider if you are a new resident or one who pops in once or twice a year. “People from all over the world come here, and their whole attitude changes,” says Charlotte Turner, associate broker at Liz Moore and Associates. “It’s more relaxed. People wave at you. People talk to you at the grocery store … It’s just a happy place.”

What To Do

Historic District
Stroll the dirt paths and cobbled streets as they were in the 18th century. Visit local taverns with fare of the times and apothecary shops and stores housing goods. The streets are open for all to enjoy, but with the Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket you can also take in performances, gardens, museums and guided tours to get the full experience.

Busch Gardens
Travel to almost any land you desire at Busch Gardens with the many countries that are represented through dining, shopping and entertainment. You can also get an adrenaline rush with popular roller coasters like Griffon, Apollo’s Chariot, Verbolten and Alpengeist or animal playtime at Eagle Ridge, the Highland Stables or Wolf Haven. And during the holiday season you must check it out as Busch Gardens turns into Christmas Town decorated with lights, holiday performances and visits from winter-fond animals.

busch gardens
Photo courtesy of Percepture

Ghost tours
Visiting the historic district and museums will give you an understanding of how much of our nation’s past is held in Williamsburg. But to get insight into the personal side of what it was like living in the 18th century, take a trip with the paranormal through one of the many ghost tour options, where guides take you through the streets of the colonial downtown area by candlelight as they share folklore.

Water Country USA
Even though you aren’t shorefront in Williamsburg, there is plenty of water play to be had at Water Country USA, where there is a plethora of tube rides, slides, pools and spray grounds for a full day of refreshing thrills.

water country usa
Photo courtesy of Percepture

Veterans Park – Kidsburg
At Veterans Park, also known as Kidsburg, 19 acres of land await any child harboring a bounty of energy. Here they can romp around on the 30,000-square-foot lighted playground or enjoy the bocce, volleyball, tennis or basketball courts, walk along a multiuse trail or run through the open fields.

A pertinent part of both the Revolutionary and Civil War, the Yorktown Battlefield is a must-visit for any history buff. But for those who want to just play, this waterfront town also packs in the fun and relaxation with boutique shops and dining options at Riverwalk Landing and a stretch of beach.

Photo courtesy of Percepture

Governor’s Palace
Home to seven royal governors and the first two elected governors of Virginia, the Governor’s Palace is steeped in the wealth these leaders brought from Britain and is open for tours of the home that stood before the Revolutionary War. Take in the grand ballroom, appointed rooms and a display of period swords and weaponry.

Williamsburg Botanical Gardens
The serene setting of the Williamsburg Botanical Gardens is located at Freedom Park and hosts a bevy of native coastal plants. Pathways through the area bring visitors to butterfly, herb and native gardens, a native meadow and two wetlands.

Photo courtesy of Percepture

Historic Jamestown
Though the settlement of Jamestown failed, you can still get a firsthand look of what the first settlement was like. The replica does not sit on the actual spot as archaeologists are working in the original fort, but you can still experience Jamestown and see artifacts found from the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Dig. At the site, where you can walk through the habitats, you can also get live history through re-enactments and the on-site museum.

Merchants Square
Though not as imbued with history as Williamsburg, Merchants Square has its own historic note in the shopping industry. Recognized as one of the earliest planned shopping districts in the nation, it started in the late 1920s, and the square now boasts an 18th century-style retail village with more than 40 shops and restaurants plus Kimball Theatre and the Williamsburg Art Gallery.

powhatan indian village
Photo courtesy of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Powhatan Indian Village
Before the English arrived and forts were constructed, the Paspahegh Indians, part of the Powhatan tribe, called the area of Jamestown home. At this re-created village based off of archaeological findings, you can meander the grounds to see what one of their villages looked like and speak with interpreters to better understand their way of life.

Colonial Parkway
This 23-mile stretch of byway is a great way to relax and take in the history of Virginia. Either on a bike or in a vehicle, you are connected to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown on the scenic Colonial Parkway that has interpretive pull-offs and spots for fishing.

Culture and Entertainment

When you plan on traveling to Williamsburg, there are usually two things on the docket: visiting the colonial downtown to immerse yourself in the nation’s 18th-century culture, or getting your adrenaline rush at either Busch Gardens or Water Country USA. But there is so much more this area has to offer.

Museums here focus on not only history but also art. Visit The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, two of which are under one roof—the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum—that focus on art and artifacts from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as well as colonial and contemporary folk art. On the College of William and Mary’s campus, check out the Muscarelle Museum of Art, which showcases a collection from many cultures and eras.

American history buffs will delight in a trip to Archaearium Archaeology Museum, where there are more than 4,000 artifacts in the institution that holds the largest collection of colonial period American Indian artifacts in Virginia. And other exhibits bring you into the world of historic Jamestown both through items found during excavations and an in-depth look at how the process of excavation was conducted.

Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
Courtesy of the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum

Bassett Hall is a home that gives insight into how Williamsburg became what we see today, as it was the home of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was the financial powerhouse behind the restoration of the area. His former retreat is open for tours and displays his collection of art, antiques and furnishings.

Getting outdoors isn’t hard in this Virginia peninsula town. Waller Mill Park offers 2,705 acres and a 360-acre lake great for kayaks, canoes, pedal boats, jon boats and fishing. There are trails, playgrounds, disc golf and a dog park. And similar to that is New Quarter Park, adjacent to the Colonial Parkway, where patrons can make use of the trails, water sports, athletic fields and the 18-hole golf course. Golfing is also available at Kingsmill Resort’s two championship courses and the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club.

At Freedom Park there is opportunity for everything with 600 acres of forests that hold trails for hiking and mountain biking, the Williamsburg Botanical Gardens, a Go Ape treetop adventure course, an interpretive center filled with exhibits and artifacts and historically re-created cabins highlighting the original use of the land, which was one of the nation’s earliest free black settlements circa 1803-1850.

For a look at how everyday residents lived their lives during the founding days of Williamsburg, take a trip to Great Hopes Plantation. Here you can explore the re-creation of an 18th-century family farm. Buildings on the site include a kitchen, smokehouse, corn house, well, tobacco house and a log house that would have been used as a residence for the farm’s slaves. You can also meet the resident livestock that would have been a huge part of the farm.


The big shopping draw in Williamsburg is found at the Williamsburg Premium Outlets, home to more than 135 designer brand stores offering deep discounts. But for more unique finds head to the Williamsburg General Store to find a variety of home decor, candles, toys, apparel, souvenirs and gifts.

Photo courtesy of Percepture

Another must-visit: Yankee Candle Williamsburg. Set up as a village, this is 45,000 square feet of shopping with a Christmas theme that happens year-round; there are even daily snow showers. And it’s not just candles, though there are more than 250,000 options in over 200 scents. You can also shop for sweet treats at the on-site Hershey’s Ice Cream and Fudge or shop for accessories at Alex & Ani, Scout Bags, Vera Bradley and more.

There are three main shopping hubs in Williamsburg to schedule for a day of retail therapy. Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square is filled with boutiques carrying items like apparel, jewelry and accessories, books and home decor. And you can make an entire day of it with your pick from any of the handful of restaurants, cafes and specialty food shops. Then catch a show at the Kimball Theatre, or check the schedule for one of the daily events taking place. New Town shopping center has more than 40 shops and restaurants in an urban setting on a 365-acre mixed-use campus. If you find yourself in Yorktown, make sure to take some time at Riverwalk Landing. Set along the water bank is a stretch of boutiques, galleries and restaurants and an outdoor performance area with shows of all kinds. It is also the spot for the many concert series and the Yorktown Wine Festival.

Dining, Drinking and Desserts

When in Williamsburg, one must take a seat in at least one of the many colonial taverns along the historic main strip: King’s Arm Tavern, Shields Tavern, Josiah Chowning’s Tavern, Christiana Campbell’s Tavern or Old Chickahominy House.

Outside of the tourist places, Turner says of the area’s dining scene: “We don’t have mega five-star restaurants; we just have good food.”

Photo courtesy of Percepture

The local favorites, she says, are Paul’s Deli and Neighborhood Restaurant; Opus 9 Steakhouse; Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant; Food For Thought, a communal-style dining spot; and Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que, which was featured on the Food Channel.

Other top contenders to make room for are Traditions, Riverwalk Restaurant, The Hound’s Tale, Rockefeller Room, Café Provençal and Waypoint Seafood and Grill for fine dining options. For casual fare you can head to Yorktown Pub, County Grill, Center Street Grill or Cogan’s Deli & Sports Pub. Seafood-lovers will delight in a meal at Holy Mackerel Seafood & Smokehouse, the casual Oceans & Ale or Water Street Grille.

Liquid diets can be found in a day traveling the Williamsburg Tasting Trail or Colonial Wine Trail, where you can sip on brews and wines from Saudé Creek Vineyards, New Kent Winery, James River Cellars, Williamsburg Winery and Silver Hand Meadery. Also, beer aficionados should check out Alewerks Brewing Company, The Virginia Beer Company and Brass Cannon Brewing Co.

(November 2017)