Virginia is a treasure trove for history fans, but sifting through the vast number of options in this original colony can be overwhelming. Here is a list of favorite CB! spots that are well worth your valuable family vacation days and are sure to delight everyone with a memorable step back in time.
From a logistical perspective, you can easily stay in one spot to visit Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown, as they are in close proximity. Monticello and Montpelier are on opposite sides of Charlottesville, while Mt. Vernon is just outside Washington, D.C.
The Jamestown Settlement living history museum tells the story of America’s first permanent English colony, beginning with the colonists’ arrival in Jamestown in 1607. A combination of short film, artifacts, a re-created Powhatan Indian Village, two English ships and a colonial fort are perfect attractions for kids of all ages.
You can also visit Historic Jamestown, which is a park on the actual grounds of the original colony. Older children and teens will appreciate this archaeological site with the foundations of original buildings. If you were only to visit one, we suggest Jamestown Settlement, which truly brings to life this place and time through reenactments and re-created structures.
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Colonial Williamsburg is just about as good as it gets for bringing history to life. Here you will find an entire 18th-century city complete with costumed docents, 40 sites and trades, four historic taverns and even accommodations.
Highlights of Colonial Williamsburg include the Governor’s Palace, the Capitol, the fife and drum march, horse-drawn carriage rides and the coffeehouse where Williamsburg’s citizens met to share news (and where you can taste traditional drinking chocolate).
Be sure to consult the daily timetable for all the reenactments taking place, in addition to hours for trade shops such as the printer and milliner. We also suggest booking ahead for a traditional dinner in one of the taverns — King’s Arms is a favorite.
Older kids and teens may enjoy some of the evening experiences, including a re-created witch trial and ghost tours. Note, these are definitely meant to be immersive experiences and could be scary for young or sensitive children.
TIP: You can easily cover the entirety of Colonial Williamsburg on foot, but there is a fair amount of walking. Older kids may enjoy renting bicycles, which make it incredibly easy to get around. Biking within town is a breeze with only foot and horse traffic to navigate.
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is a fantastically curated walk through the period of our nation’s founding. The museum is full of recently fitted interactive exhibits and even a surround-screen movie with special effects. You could spend hours digesting all the information, and kids who have recently studied the American Revolution will be wowed by the breadth of it all. Outside the museum is a period garden and a re-created Continental Army camp complete with costumed guides who delve into what life would have been like during this time, both on the battlefield and at home.
If you are visiting Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, you can buy one combined ticket that allows entrance to both sites.
With more time, you can also visit the Yorktown Battlefield Colonial National Park to see the actual battle site where the British surrendered.
Located outside Washington, D.C., Mount Vernon is George and Martha Washington’s homesite. There is a tremendous amount to do beyond the tour of the main house, depending on ages and interests. Kids aged 3 to 7 will enjoy the scavenger hunt as well as the hands-on history center for crafts and games. Older kids and teens will enjoy the interactive Agent 711 Revolutionary Spy App and the newer augmented reality tour, which overlays digital content onto the actual landscape in real time.
Another popular area is the education center. The “Be Washington” interactive experience illuminates challenges that Washington faced and allows guests to make their own decisions about what they would have done. In addition, there is a 4D Revolutionary War film about the time period, complete with fog, cannon blasts and snow.
We also suggest making room in your schedule for the 45-minute narrated sightseeing cruise on the Potomac. This voyage allows you to experience Mount Vernon from a different perspective and hear stories of the people and animals who have inhabited this land over the years. Leave ample time to get to the wharf for your departure.
The Pioneer Farm and Gardens teach kids about period farming and will appeal to animal lovers with its hogs, sheep, chickens and cattle. George Washington also famously brought a camel to Mount Vernon to entertain his guests over the holidays, and that tradition continues today.
For a true taste of history, have a meal at Mount Vernon Inn restaurant, where you can sample the famous Virginia peanut soup or try grits that are stone-ground by water power onsite. If time allows, visit the Gristmill and Distillery to learn more about this process. The fully operational enterprise is guided by docents in historic dress and served by a shuttle bus from the main estate.
Don’t forget to check the calendar for special events and activities on days such as President’s Day, July 4, Fall Harvest days and over the Winter Holidays. Another popular event in the fall is Horses & Hounds, which pays tribute to George Washington’s prowess as a horseman with a simulated fox hunt.
South of Charlottesville lies Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home, Monticello. This 5,000-acre estate was home to the author of the Declaration of Independence, a key founding father, our third president and the founder of the University of Virginia, and was created using his own design.
Young children will particularly enjoy the Griffin Discovery Room in the Visitors’ Center, a hands-on space to get up close with replica toys, games and tools that Jefferson owned and even take a picture at his desk. There is also a 15-minute film about Jefferson’s life and a series of interactive exhibits.
From there, you can choose from a series of tours to see the main house as well as the north and south wings, which are connected by an underground passageway. We suggest taking the family-friendly tour of the house that’s designed for children aged 5 to 11. There are also specific tours on the topic of slavery that are included with admission. The Garden and Grounds tour may be a bit lengthy for most kids, but older kids and teens might appreciate the evening Behind the Scenes tour, offered for an additional fee.
Other places of note on the property are the newly excavated kitchen; the Gardens and Pavilion, which highlight the fact that the estate was almost completely self-sustaining; and Jefferson’s grave, with wording he chose to commemorate his focus on education and stance on religious freedom rather than his role as president.
Check the Monticello calendar for daily tours, hands-on activities like using a quill pen or cracking codes with a wheel cipher, and special events such as seasonal food tastings.
On the opposite side of Charlottesville, you will find the homesite of founding father and fourth president James Madison. There is a special family-friendly tour of Montpelier offered daily, where you can discover artifacts and paintings and learn about the house. In addition to the main tour, the property hosts a walking tour of significant sites connected to Montpelier’s enslaved community.
Montpelier is also a great place to get out and enjoy nature, with more than 8 miles of trails through wildflower fields, horse pastures and forests with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is also the slightly more approachable 3.5-mile Montpelier loop for walkers and hikers, which offers amenities including restrooms and a café.
Take note of special activities on the Montpelier calendar, including the Montpelier Steeplechase, Constitution Day, Veterans Day and days when Mr. Madison is “At Home” to greet guests.
The Exchange Café, run by the award-winning BBQ Exchange, is a great place to enjoy lunch onsite. In fact, for families who would like to add another layer to their Virginia travels, consider perusing the Virginia BBQ Trail for delicious barbecue stops throughout the state.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Andrews except where noted.
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