Carriage Rides -- A fun way to see the Historic Area is on horse-drawn carriage rides, which depart from a horse post in front of the magazine and guardhouse . Check with the visitor center or the Greenhow Lumber House on Duke of Gloucester Street for schedules and prices.
The Colonial Buildings
Bassett Hall -- Built between 1753 and 1766, Bassett Hall was the mid-1930s residence of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and it is restored and furnished to reflect their era. The name derives from the ownership of Martha Washington's nephew Burwell Bassett, who lived here from 1800 to 1839. In spite of changes the Rockefellers made, much of the interior is original, including woodwork, paneling, mantels, and yellow-pine flooring. Much of the furniture is 18th- and 19th-century American in the Chippendale, Federal, and Empire styles. There are beautifully executed needlework rugs made by Mrs. Rockefeller, and early-19th-century prayer rugs adorn the morning room. Hundreds of examples of ceramics and china are on display, as are collections of 18th- and 19th-century American and English glass, Canton enamelware, and folk art.
Brush-Everard House -- One of the oldest buildings in Williamsburg, the Brush-Everard House was built in 1717 as a residence-cum-shop by public armorer and master gunsmith John Brush. The most distinguished owner was Thomas Everard, two-time mayor of Williamsburg. Though not as wealthy as George Wythe and John Randolph, he was in their elite circle. He enlarged the house, adding the two wings that create a U shape. Today, the home is restored and furnished to its Everard-era appearance. The smokehouse and kitchen out back are original.
The Capitol -- Virginia legislators met in the H-shaped Capitol from 1704 to 1780. America's first representative assembly, it had an upper house, His Majesty's Council of State, of 12 members appointed for life by the king. Freeholders of each county elected members of the lower House of Burgesses (there were 128 burgesses by 1776). The Burgesses became a training ground for patriots such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. As 1776 approached, the Burgesses passed resolutions against Parliament's Stamp Act and levy on tea -- in Henry's immortal words, "taxation without representation," which became a motto of the Revolution.
The Capitol burned down in 1747, was rebuilt in 1753, and succumbed to fire again in 1832. This reconstruction is of the 1704 version, complete with Queen Anne's coat of arms adorning the tower and the Great Union flag flying overhead. The Secretary's Office next door is original. You must take a 30-minute tour to get inside the Capitol.
The Courthouse -- An intriguing window on Colonial life's criminal justice division is offered in the courthouse, which dominates Market Square. An original building, the courthouse was the scene of proceedings ranging from criminal trials to the issuance of licenses. Wife beating, pig stealing, and debtor and creditor disputes were among the cases tried here. You can participate in the administration of Colonial justice at the courthouse by sitting on a jury or acting as a defendant. In Colonial times, convicted offenders were usually punished immediately after the verdict. Punishments included public flogging at the whipping post (conveniently located just outside the courthouse) or being locked in the stocks or pillory, where the offenders were subjected to public ridicule. Jail sentences were very unusual -- punishment was swift and drastic, and the offenders then returned to the community, often bearing lifelong evidence of their conviction.
George Wythe House -- On the west side of the Palace Green is the elegant restored brick home of George Wythe (pronounced "with"), classics scholar, noted lawyer and teacher (Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, and John Marshall were his students), and member of the House of Burgesses. A close friend of royal governors, Wythe nevertheless was the first Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence. Wythe did not sign the Constitution, however, because it did not contain a Bill of Rights or antislavery provisions. His house was Washington's headquarters prior to the siege of Yorktown and Rochambeau's after the surrender of Cornwallis. Open-hearth cooking is demonstrated in the outbuilding.
Governor's Palace -- This meticulous reconstruction is of the Georgian mansion that was the residence and official headquarters of royal governors from 1714 until Lord Dunmore fled before dawn in the face of armed resistance in 1775, thus ending British rule in Virginia. The palace now portrays the final 5 years of British rule. Though the sumptuous surroundings, nobly proportioned halls and rooms, 10 acres of formal gardens and greens, and vast wine cellars all evoke splendor, the king's representative was, by that time, little more than a functionary of great prestige but limited power. He was more apt to behave like a diplomat in a foreign land than an autocratic Colonial ruler.
Tours, given continuously through the day, end in the gardens, where you can explore the elaborate geometric parterres, topiary work, bowling green, pleached allées, and a holly maze patterned after the one at Hampton Court. Plan at least 30 minutes to wander the stunning grounds and visit the kitchen and stable yards.
The College of William & Mary -- Standing at the western end of Duke of Gloucester Street, the stately Sir Christopher Wren Building may not be part of Colonial Williamsburg, but it is the oldest restored structure here. It's also America's oldest college building. Constructed between 1695 and 1699, even before there was a Williamsburg, it's the campus centerpiece of The College of William and Mary, the country's second-oldest college behind only Harvard University. King William III and Queen Mary II chartered the school in 1693, and over the next century it was the alma mater of many of the country's early leaders, including Thomas Jefferson. (Its most famous modern alumni are actresses Glenn Close and Linda Lavin and comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.) Fire gutted the Wren building in 1705, 1859, and 1862. Its exterior walls remained intact, and in 1928 John D. Rockefeller, Jr., restored it to its Colonial appearance. The college still uses its upstairs classrooms and offices, but the first-floor Grammar School, Great Hall, and Wren Chapel (site of many a campus marriage) are open to the public Monday through Friday from 10am to 5pm, Saturday 9am to 5pm, and Sunday from noon to 5pm. Admission is free. The college's visitor information office in the rear of the building (tel. 757/221-4000; www.wm.edu/visitors/index.php) has campus maps.
James Geddy House & Foundry -- This two-story L-shaped 1762 home (with attached shops) is an original building where you can see how a comfortably situated middle-class family lived in the 18th century. Unlike the fancier abodes, the Geddy House has no wallpaper or oil paintings; a mirror and spinet from England, however, indicate relative affluence.
James Geddy, Sr., was a gunsmith and brass founder who advertised in the Virginia Gazette of July 8, 1737, that he had "a great Choice of Guns and Fowling Pieces, of several Sorts and Sizes, true bored, which he will warrant to be good; and will sell them as cheap as they are usually sold in England." A younger son, James, Jr., became the town's foremost silversmith and was a member of the city's Common Council involved in furthering the patriot cause. Craftsmen cast silver, pewter, bronze, and brass items at a foundry here.
The Magazine & Guardhouse -- Another original building, this octagonal brick structure was constructed in 1715 to house ammunition and arms for the defense of the colony. In Colonial Williamsburg, every able-bodied freeman belonged to the militia from the ages of 16 to 60 and did his part in protecting hearth and home from attack by local tribes, riots, slave uprisings, and pirate raids. The high wall and guardhouse were built during the French and Indian War to protect the magazine's 60,000 pounds of gunpowder. Today the building is stocked with 18th-century equipment -- flintlock muskets, cannons, barrels of powder, bayonets, and drums, the latter for communication purposes. Children can join the militia here during the summer.
Peyton Randolph House -- The Randolphs were one of the most prominent and wealthy families in Colonial Virginia. Sir John Randolph was a respected lawyer, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, and Virginia's representative to London, where he was the only Colonial-born Virginian ever to be knighted. When he died he left his library to 16-year-old Peyton, "hoping he will betake himself to the study of law." When Peyton Randolph died in 1775, his cousin, Thomas Jefferson, purchased his books at auction; they eventually became the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Peyton Randolph followed in his father's footsteps, studying law in London after attending the College of William and Mary. Known as the great mediator, he was unanimously elected president of 1774's First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and though he believed in nonviolence and hoped the colonies could amicably settle their differences with England, he was a firm patriot.
The house (actually, two connected homes) dates to 1715. It is today restored to reflect the period around 1770. The house is open to the public for self-guided tours with period-costumed interpreters in selected rooms.
The Public Gaol -- As noted above, imprisonment was not the usual punishment for crime in Colonial times, but persons awaiting trial and runaway slaves sometimes spent months in the Public Gaol. In winter, the cells were bitterly cold; in summer, they were stifling. Beds were piles of straw; leg irons, shackles, and chains were used frequently; and the daily diet consisted of "salt beef damaged, and Indian meal." In its early days, the gaol doubled as a madhouse, and during the Revolution redcoats, spies, traitors, and deserters swelled its population.
The gaol opened in 1704. Debtors' cells were added in 1711 (though the imprisoning of debtors was virtually eliminated after a 1772 law made creditors responsible for their upkeep), and keeper's quarters were built in 1722. The thick-walled redbrick building served as the Williamsburg city jail through 1910. The building today is restored to its 1720s appearance.
The Public Hospital -- Opened in 1773, the "Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds" was America's first mental asylum. From 1773 to about 1820, "treatment" involved solitary confinement and a grisly course of action designed to "encourage" patients to "choose" rational behavior (it was assumed back then that patients willfully chose a life of insanity). So-called therapeutic techniques included the use of drugs, submersion in cold water for extended periods, bleeding, blistering salves, and an array of restraining devices. On a self-guided tour, you'll see a 1773 cell, with a straw-filled mattress on the floor, ragged blanket, and manacles. The hospital also is the entry for Colonial Williamsburg's museums .
Raleigh Tavern -- This most famous of Williamsburg taverns was named for Sir Walter Raleigh, who launched the "Lost Colony" that disappeared on Roanoke Island in North Carolina some 20 years before Jamestown was settled. After the Governor's Palace, it was the social and political hub of the town, especially during Publick Times. Regulars included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who met here in 1774 with Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Francis Lightfoot Lee to discuss revolution. Patrick Henry's troops gave their commander a farewell dinner here in 1776.
The original tavern was destroyed by fire in 1859. Reconstructed on the original site in 1932, its facilities include two dining rooms; the Apollo ballroom, scene of elegant soirees; a clubroom that could be rented for private meetings; and a bar where ale and hot rum punch were the favored drinks.
In the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, you can buy 18th-century confections like gingerbread and Shrewsbury cake as well as more modern soups and sandwiches from 9am to 5pm daily.
Wetherburn's Tavern -- Though less important than the Raleigh, Wetherburn's also played an important role in Colonial Williamsburg. George Washington occasionally favored the tavern with his patronage. And, like the Raleigh, it was mobbed during Publick Times and frequently served as a center of sedition and a rendezvous of Revolutionary patriots. The heart-of-yellow-pine floors are original, so you can actually walk in Washington's footsteps. Windows, trim, and weatherboarding are a mixture of old and new; and the outbuildings, except for the dairy, are reconstructions. Tours lasting 25 minutes are given throughout the day.
The Colonial Williamsburg Museums
From the central hallway of the Public Hospital, an elevator descends underground to Colonial Williamsburg's two fine museums.
The 62,000-square-foot DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum houses some 10,000 objects representing the highest achievement of American and English artisans from the 1640s to 1800. You'll see period furnishings, ceramics, textiles, paintings, prints, silver, pewter, clocks, scientific instruments, mechanical devices, and weapons. Don't miss Charles Willson Peale's 1780 portrait of George Washington, which he patterned after the coronation portrait of George III of England, in the Masterworks Gallery.
Go through the Weldon Gallery on the upper level to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum with more than 2,600 folk-art paintings, sculptures, and art objects. Mrs. Rockefeller was a pioneer in this branch of collecting in the 1920s and 1930s. Her collection includes household ornaments and useful wares (hand-stenciled bed covers, butter molds, pottery, utensils, painted furniture, boxes), mourning pictures (embroideries honoring departed relatives and national heroes), family and individual portraits, shop signs, carvings, whittled toys, calligraphic drawings, weavings, quilts, and paintings of scenes from daily life.
A cafe here offers light fare, beverages, and a limited luncheon menu.
Shops, Crafts & Trade Exhibits
Numerous 18th-century crafts demonstrations occur throughout the Historic Area. Such goings-on were a facet of everyday life in the preindustrial era. Dozens of crafts are practiced by more than 70 master craftspeople at 21 sites. They're an extremely skilled group, many having served up to 7-year apprenticeships. The program is part of Williamsburg's efforts to present an accurate picture of Colonial society, portraying the average man and woman as well as more illustrious citizens.
You can see a cabinetmaker, a wig maker, a silversmith, a printer and bookbinder, a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a gunsmith, a milliner, a wheelwright, and carpenters -- all carrying on, and explaining, their trades in the 18th-century fashion.
Especially for Kids
In addition to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, families can enjoy many hands-on activities in the Historic Area. A fun activity is at the Governor's Palace, where the dancing master gives lessons. During the summer kids can "enlist" in the militia and practice marching and drilling at the Magazine and Guardhouse (I still have a snapshot of myself holding a flintlock when I was a boy). If they get unruly, you can lock them in the stocks in front of the Courthouse. Inquire at the visitor center for special themed tours in areas of your children's specific interests.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.