Wondering how to avoid common tourist mistakes on your trip to Colonial Williamsburg? Check out these easy tips from someone lucky enough to have called Williamsburg home!
Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links. If you purchase a linked item, I will make a commission, at no extra charge to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I included stock images because I do not have access to the pictures I took when I lived there. I will replace them after my post-COVID visit to the 'Burg!
Taking a trip back in time to Colonial Williamsburg?
Lucky you! Colonial Williamsburg is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I had the absolute pleasure of living in Williamsburg during my four years as an undergraduate at The College of William & Mary, where I majored in Early American History (yes, you read that correctly!) I can't calculate how much time I spent in "the historic area," or "CW" over the years, strolling down Duke of Gloucester Street and exploring ever corner of this intriguing corner of the world.
Unique in my experience with historic destinations, Williamsburg is a massive, cohesive collection of exquisitely restored buildings, which effectively evoke the era in which they thrived. Walking mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street is immersive in a completely novel, and historically relevant, way that almost no other historic site can match.
Williamsburg's historic area gives a sense of the past, but Williamsburg's resorts, golf, and spas add a high-end aspect to the experience that makes a trip to Williamsburg more than you might expect. So let's explore my top mistakes tourists make in Colonial Williamsburg, so you can avoid them!
Not staying long enough
Let's start with the earliest phase of planning your trip to Colonial Williamsburg: selecting how long you'll be in "the Burg." An *extremely* common misconception about Williamsburg is that it can be "done in a day." We will parse this out throughout a few upcoming sections. But first I'll say it bluntly:
If you have *any* interest in history, you need at least two full days to explore Colonial Williamsburg.
I would strongly recommend extending your stay beyond that, particularly to give yourself time to explore this part of Virginia, which is gorgeous and historic beyond just Williamsburg.
Not buying an entrance ticket
Another common misconception is that you don't "need" a ticket to see Colonial Williamsburg. It is true that you can walk through the historic area without a ticket (there has always been talk of this policy changing).
However, you cannot enter any of the historic buildings or attend the numerous CW events without a ticket. Additionally, Colonial Williamsburg relies on ticket purchases for financial support (which, frankly, it desperately needs). Tickets come with special perks - the Colonial Williamsburg shuttle can be particularly helpful, depending on where you're staying.
If the ticket purchase presents a financial burden and you do not qualify for discounts, consider buying a ticket for only a portion of your stay, and arrange your ticket-required activities accordingly.
Love historic spots? Check out my guide to Boston's Freedom Trail!
Not learning the history
Williamsburg is a city that time left behind, a bit like Ostia Antica outside of Rome, to the benefit of modern day visitors. Williamsburg went, relatively quickly, from the capital of a thriving and populous colony, the richest in the original 13 colonies, to a rustic, somewhat provincial college town, when the colonial capital moved to Richmond before the end of the American Revolution. While the College of William & Mary remained, the colony, and later state, administration and politicians moved on, leaving Williamsburg with little industry.
Time continued on without it, and luckily for us, the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his wife, Abbey, realized Williamsburg's value, and along with local support, funded the restoration of the town to its former glory - and turned it into a preserved, now-300 acre historic area, complete with hotels and restaurants.
Williamsburg was (and is) a real town. The houses have been renovated and some fully reconstructed, but by and large, what you are visiting and seeing were peoples' homes and the sites in which actual events took place. It is not an amusement park.
You are in the room where it happened.
Recommended reading before visiting Williamsburg:
Staying too far away/not on site
Strolling in Colonial Williamsburg is one of the best parts of a stay in this area. It's particularly nice in the morning and evening, when the day trip crowds ebb, and the weather is a little more manageable. Staying close to the historic area is a huge advantage.
While there are a number of hotels in the area, if you are able to stay within walking distance, you'll thank me. If walking distance is not in the cards, there are shuttles and buses, in addition to parking near the historic district.
Where should I stay in Colonial Williamsburg?
If you can, I would stay in a Colonial-Williamsburg-run property (they include deals for tickets, and a number of other guest-only perks, so be sure to check on that!). Here are a few options that Colonial Williamsburg Resorts has to offer:
Taking a road trip? Here are my summer road trip essentials!
Thinking it's just for kids
While Colonial Williamsburg has plenty of kid-friendly attractions, the whole area has plenty for adults as well! From high-end restaurants and spas at the Williamsburg Inn, to some surprisingly nice (modern) shopping and erudite lectures, it's more than just "kid stuff."
Skipping the taverns
Dining at any tourist attraction can be expensive, and Colonial Williamsburg is no exception. Williamsburg boasts several historic taverns which offer uniquely 18th-century fare and entertainment. It's quite an experience, from the ambiance of being in the candle-lit building at night, to the history lesson from the waitstaff and the live entertainment offered table-side. It's not necessary for every night of your stay, but do try it at least once.
Tavern dining tips
It is much less expensive, and frankly less exciting, to visit the taverns for lunch. There's a lovely little watering hole behind the Raleigh Tavern where you can get cookies, drinks, etc., during the day (no indoor seating).
You'll definitely want to make reservations if you plan to visit for dinner, as the taverns can get quite crowded.
The Kings Arms is my personal favorite.
Pro tip: If you're looking to grab a quick and delicious lunch in Williamsburg's "non-historic" area (the section between CW and W&M) I highly recommend The Cheese Shop. Lines can be massive - call and place a take-out order.
Not visiting William & Mary
I can't tell you how many people have told me that they "didn't realize" The College of William & Mary is in Colonial Williamsburg. Founded in 1693, it's the second-oldest college in the US, behind Harvard. The College has many notable alumni, from Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, and Tyler, to the first president of the Continental Congress, Peyton Randolph (whose home you can tour in Williamsburg), and more recently Jon Stewart, Patton Oswalt, and Glen Close.
Not exploring the campus during your time in Williamsburg is a mistake for two reasons. First, William & Mary has a uniquely beautiful campus, which can be visited on foot from CW! It's so close that some people wander onto the campus not realizing they've left Williamsburg. Explore the historic Wren Building and meet the lovely Spotswood Society students who will give you a free tour (of course, I was one of these).
Second, visiting William & Mary is a quick and easy way to show your kid a college! It was one of the first colleges I ever visited. I have had people tell me they had to take a separate trip, just a few years later, to show their children the school - when you could have killed two birds with one stone when you were already so close!
Visiting in summer
Yikes!! It gets seriously hot in Williamsburg in the summer. Between the heat and the humidity, you're often looking at a heat index over 100. And there's no breeze. It's also the most crowded time of year to visit the 'Burg, with hot, over-tired families at every turn.
What's the best time of year to visit Colonial Williamsburg?
Ok, so I've slammed summer. Hands down, the best time to visit Colonial Williamsburg is in the spring. Starting in March, the weather is absolutely to die for, the flowers are blooming, and the humidity hasn't set in yet. Fall is less crowded (avoid W&M move-in days!!), and of course, Christmas time is lovely!
Forgetting about the surrounding
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