Best Attractions in Williamsburg, Jamestown & YorktownIn a destination with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your vacation time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”
On Dec. 20, 1606, Captain Christopher Newport and 107 fellow Englishmen set sail from London aboard the Godspeed, Discovery and Susan Constant, bound for Virginia. They reached the shores of the Chesapeake Bay nearly 5 months later. Landing at Jamestown Island on May 13, 1607, the men of the Virginia Company established North America's first permanent English colony—13 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth.
Faced with an unfamiliar climate, stagnant water, disease and starvation, nearly two-thirds of the Jamestown settlers died within the first year. Ships soon arrived from England with reinforcements. Food from the Powhatan Indians kept the colony alive, but relations deteriorated until Chief Worrosquoyacke broke off trade in 1609. Hundreds of colonists died that winter—the Starving Time—and the Jamestown site was nearly abandoned. John Rolfe's first crop of tobacco in 1614 saved the colony, finally producing the lucrative profit that had lured settlers to Virginia in the first place.
Jamestown served as the state seat of English government until 1699, when the capital moved to Williamsburg. The original settlement gradually fell into ruin; historians believed that the Jamestown fort had washed into the river—until 1994, when excavations revealed the footprint of the triangular palisades. Since then, additional structures and more than 1 million artifacts have been excavated at the 22.5-acre site. At Historic Jamestowne , a AAA GEM attraction, fun things to do include watching the archeological dig in progress and walking among the foundations of the fort and the 1609 church and cemetery, along with the houses, taverns and shops of New Towne, built after 1620.
Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center and Archaearium displays thousands of weapons, tools, ceramics and personal belongings unearthed from the site—everything from perfume bottles to suits of armor. A multimedia theater portrays the Jamestown colonists' struggle for survival. By looking at the landscape through special viewers, you can see a virtual re-creation of the 17th-century settlement. A short walk from the visitor center, the ruins of a glass furnace are all that remain of the colonists' original dream of a livelihood. Costumed interpreters demonstrate early glassblowing techniques at a reconstructed glasshouse, where you can buy a sample of Jamestown glass to take home.
Adjacent to the national park site at Historic Jamestown, Jamestown Settlement , another AAA GEM, re-creates the original colony in living color. (Ask for a combination ticket with the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.) After touring the vast museum, you can walk through a Powhatan Indian village and learn about early planting and tool-making techniques. From there, enter the Jamestown fort with its church, houses and armory—and talk to soldiers who guard the walls and blacksmiths who work the forge. Beyond the fort, you can climb aboard reproductions of the Godspeed, Discovery and Susan Constant and try to imagine 5 months aboard these cramped vessels during the transatlantic voyage from England.
The town of Williamsburg began as Middle Plantation, an outpost of Jamestown, in 1633. Because of its strategic location on the peninsula between the James and York rivers, the fortified settlement quickly became vital to the colony. After the statehouse in Jamestown burned in 1676, the House of Burgesses held its assembly at Williamsburg. Colonists proposed moving the capital, in part to escape the mosquitoes and malaria of the swampy Jamestown site. A planned city was laid out at Middle Plantation, renamed Williamsburg in honor of the ruling monarch, King William III. Williamsburg remained the social and cultural seat of Virginia until 1780, when Richmond became the permanent capital.
The old settlement at Williamsburg might have suffered the same fate as the ruins of Jamestown, had a local minister not persuaded John D. Rockefeller Jr. to finance an ambitious restoration in 1926. The two men joined league with architects, archeologists and historians to preserve some 90 original structures from the 1700s and rebuild more than 400 others. The result, the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area , is the largest living-history museum in the country.
Start your visit to this AAA GEM attraction at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center, just north of the historic area. You can buy tickets here or at the information station on North Henry Street (across from Merchants Square). The historic area is closed to street traffic; park at the visitor center and take the shuttle or walk across the pedestrian bridge. Transportation to and from the site, as well as to Jamestown and Yorktown, is free with most ticket packages.
Exploring the 301-acre site requires some advance planning—you won't see everything in a day. Along with tours of meticulously restored buildings and museums, there are daily-living demonstrations, fife and drum parades, shops at Merchants Square and outdoor theater performances at Revolutionary City, depicting the struggle for American independence. Events take place most afternoons between 2:30 and 4:30 in the east end of the historic area. The Williamsburg Farmers' Market, held on Saturdays from May to October in Merchants Square, offers a cornucopia of local produce, baked goods, handmade soaps, crafts and flowers, plants and herbs.
Guided 30-minute orientation walks, included with most Williamsburg ticket packages, leave from the visitor center every 15 minutes. For a dramatic lantern-lit visit to the village, sign up for The Original Ghosts of Williamsburg Candlelight Tour . Expeditions depart nightly from Duke of Gloucester Street, weaving tales of local folklore and history into descriptions of local landmarks.
The Capitol , at the east end of Duke of Gloucester Street, was built in 1705. Twice destroyed by fire, the reconstructed building stands on its original foundation and features period furnishings. The AAA GEM Governor's Palace faces the Palace Green. Completed in 1722, the residence for royal governors later served as the executive mansion for Virginia's first commonwealth governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
The 1715 Bruton Parish Episcopal Church is at the northwest corner of Duke of Gloucester Street and the Palace Green. Its tower bell has rung for important occasions since the Revolutionary War. The oldest tombstone in the churchyard dates to 1678. Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin, rector of the church in the early 1900s, approached John D. Rockefeller with the idea of preserving Colonial Williamsburg.
Rockefeller and his wife, Abby, purchased Bassett Hall as their home during visits to the restoration project. The two-story farmhouse once belonged to Martha Washington's nephew, Burwell Bassett, and is furnished to reflect the Rockefellers' residence during the 1930s. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum on Francis Street, bequeathed with Mrs. Rockefeller's original 400-piece collection, has since expanded to more than 2,000 paintings, drawings, toys, weather vanes and pieces of pottery and furniture made in America from the 18th century through the present.
The adjacent The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum , a AAA GEM attraction, is entered through the lobby of The Public Hospital . The museum's collection of more than 10,000 decorative objects includes furniture, ceramics, metalwork, paintings, textiles, maps and prints—a detailed reflection of life in Colonial Williamsburg.
The Muscarelle Museum of Art just west of Colonial Williamsburg on the scenic campus of William & Mary , houses a permanent collection of some 4,000 paintings, graphics and sculpture, including works by Picasso, Matisse, O'Keeffe and Copley.
Following the scenic Colonial Parkway east from Williamsburg, you'll reach the third historic area on the Virginia Peninsula, Yorktown . Founded in 1691, this busy tobacco port became the final battleground of the American Revolution. Here, Gen. Charles Cornwallis sought to establish a British naval port with 8,300 soldiers. Gen. George Washington, with the Comte de Rochambeau, moved allied American and French forces into Virginia to reinforce the Marquis de Lafayette's troops; the French fleet blockaded Chesapeake Bay. Under siege by 17,600 Continental troops, Cornwallis surrendered.
Ready for a driving tour of Yorktown Battlefield ? The 7-mile Battlefield Road encompasses earthworks, redoubts and siege lines. A handful of 18th-century buildings survived the battle; most are privately owned. Among those open to the public are the Swan Tavern Group ; Grace Episcopal Church ; Moore House, where officers met to negotiate terms of surrender; and Nelson House, a restored Georgian mansion. The Yorktown Battlefield Visitor Center (also headquarters for the Colonial National Historical Park , which administers the battlefield) is on the east end of the Colonial Parkway. Among the things to see at the center are an observation deck, a reconstructed section of a gun deck and a British frigate captain's cabin.
A century after the Revolutionary War, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan landed his troops at Yorktown to open the Union's Peninsula Campaign. On the grounds of the battlefield is the Civil War-era National Cemetery. The village streets of Historic Yorktown are lined with art galleries and antique and specialty shops. The Watermen's Museum portrays the history of those who worked on the Chesapeake Bay through ship models, paintings, dioramas, photographs and tools.
West of Yorktown and Williamsburg are Charles City and the elegant tobacco plantations lining the James River. Shirley Plantation , a AAA GEM attraction, has been owned by the Hill and Carter families since 1638. The present mansion was the birthplace of Anne Hill Carter and the setting for her marriage to Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Their son, Gen. Robert E. Lee, was a frequent visitor in later years.
Berkeley Plantation was the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and William Henry Harrison, ninth U.S. president. North Bend Plantation was built by John Minge in 1819 for his wife, Sarah Harrison, the president's sister.
Edgewood Plantation features a freestanding three-story staircase and 10 fireplaces; formal gardens, slave quarters and a 1725 gristmill are on the grounds. Piney Grove at Southall's Plantation includes a collection of buildings exemplifying regional architectural styles, from a 1790 log house and a modest 1835 plantation house to an 1857 post-and-beam residence. The lovely Georgian mansion at Westover Plantation is closed to the public, but if you’re looking for fun things to do outdoors, you can stroll the formal gardens overlooking the river.
When you're ready for a break from American history, head to Busch Gardens Williamsburg . This adventure park celebrates the cultures of England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy and Ireland. Dozens of thrill rides and attractions, 10 main stage shows, a children's adventure area, restaurants and shops cover 100 acres southeast of Williamsburg. Nearby is another AAA GEM attraction, Water Country USA , a 320-acre water park blending high-tech water rides and slides and an interactive children's play area with a 1960s surf theme.
See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.
Virginias Historic Triangle, VA
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