Traveling has never, ever been high on my list of favorite things. Heck, I generally do everything I can to avoid driving the 25 minutes into town, so the idea of traveling hours away is almost laughable. I really don’t mind admitting to being a homebody! I love what I love, and I love my routine and my space exactly as it is. I “travel” by reading books, and watching movies, and listening to my sister tell her own stories about flying off to Paris, New Zealand, and Hawaii.
There are only three exceptions to my avoidance of traveling: Hilton Head Island, New York City, and Colonial Williamsburg. I love these three places with all my heart, and have been so often that they sort of feel like an extension of home to me. Today, I thought I’d take a deep dive into Colonial Williamsburg. My mom and I have made a recurring seasonal habit of taking the two-and-a-half-hour drive to this destination together, and, over the years, we’ve gotten extra familiar with everything there is to do. Below, I’m going to talk through our favorite to-dos while visiting this historically restored colonial town.
The historic area of Colonial Williamsburg is, of course, the main destination. Admission passes aren’t very expensive, and give you the opportunity to take a closer look at all that the property has to offer. With a pass, you can tour restored buildings, talk to tradespeople as they work on their historical crafts (think dress-making, cabinetry, gardening, print-making, etc.), and you can also attend stage programs.
Now that we have decades worth of visits under our belt, we tend to use the historic area more as a picturesque place for walking. I’m a little too antsy for tours and standing to listen to tradespeople, personally, but I love, love, love walking along the historic streets (Nicholson is my favorite, but Duke of Gloucester is a must, too) looking at houses and nodding happily to the interpreters as they walk by in their full colonial costumes.
I always stop to linger under the 97-feet-wide Compton oak tree, pause by the brook near the Public Gaol, and wander past all of the tiny historic homes that my sister lived in while she worked in the development department for the foundation. Taking carriage rides is another favorite thing to do, although tickets sell out quickly, so if you want to do it, make sure you’re in line at the box office (middle of Duke of Gloucester across from the Governor’s Palace) before it opens.
Governor’s Palace Gardens
This favorite spot is part of the historic area, but I felt like it needed its own section in my post. These palace grounds are enormous, and have always felt like a breath of fresh air to me—whether it’s the dead of winter, or the middle of spring. There’s this perfect balance of manicured lawns alongside plants that are given (gentle) free rein, and it really does feel like a work of art. The two parallel tree tunnels are something I have to walk through whenever we visit. It’s especially cool to see these in the winter when you can look up and study how the branches have been trained to grow into each other to form the covered path. I enjoy looking at the initials carved into the tree trunks, and peering through to see the more controlled shrubs and plants in the center of the garden.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is just how happy animals are who live in CW. There are squirrels everywhere, and the most energetic, sing-song-y birds. When my sister lived in the historic area, I would often get there for a weekend visit while she was still at work. I’d wander over to the Governor’s Palace gardens by myself, find a bench to sit on, and just relax there listening to the birds. I swear my deepest breaths are always experienced in Williamsburg. It’s magical.
Okay, okay. I’m getting carried away. Just make sure you take full advantage of the historic area. Even if you do nothing but walk around and look at the historically restored houses, I think you’ll get so much out of it. Make sure you go down a random side path or two, though! Almost everything is fair game for visitors to wander through, so don’t just stick to the main roads. You could find your very favorite garden or house by opening a gate and following an unplanned lopsided brick path. Oh, but before you leave the Governor’s Palace Gardens, make sure you visit the hedgerow maze beyond the back fence. It’s lots of fun, no matter how old you are.
Merchant’s Square Shopping & Dining
After you’ve gotten your fill of the historic area, make your way over to Merchants Square. This is a walkable spot off the end of the historic area (the end opposite from the Capitol building), and features all sorts of great dining and shopping. Mom and I always wonder through Talbots and Scotland House, Ltd., but my personal favorite is Brick & Vine. It has really pretty décor, books, packaged food, glassware, and a whole furniture gallery upstairs. I love it, and always come away feeling inspired.
As for dining, there are so many options. The very first thing mom and I do when we get to town for a visit is order lunch from The Cheese Shop. It’s a local hot spot, so be prepared for long lines, but it moves fast. Order at the back counter (give your first name and last initial when you order if you want to do like the locals do!), and wait by the drink machine until your name is called, then grab your food and pay up front. A more recent routine of ours is taking our food down the stairs to The Wine Cellar. Tables and booths down there are available until about 3:00p.m. so we love to eat our lunch down there with a glass of chilled wine. We used to get our fill of wine at The Williamsburg Winery Merchants Square Wine Bar across from The Cheese Shop, but the wine isn’t as good as the selection available at The Wine Cellar (also known as Downstairs at Fat Canary). We do love the atmosphere of The Williamsburg Winery location, though, if that’s what you’re after!
Other foodie-type places to try include The Peanut Shop for yummy snacks and treats, Aromas for a quick breakfast or lunch and coffee or tea, and The Blue Talon for breakfast. We visit the latter every single morning we’re staying at CW because the food is always impeccable and easily shared if you don’t want leftovers. The Blue Talon is a lot less hectic/crowded compared to Aromas, too, which is why it’s now our go-to.
Another big reason to get a pass to Colonial Williamsburg is to be able to visit the recently expanded/renovated art museum. We don’t go every single time we visit, but we try to go every third or fourth time to see what’s new. It’s a big space but not so oversized that it feels overwhelming. There are ceramics exhibits, paintings, maps, furniture, and so much more. I really enjoyed the doll house exhibition and clocks aisle this most recent trip we made last month. There’s also a spot for live performances inside the art museum where you can listen to interpreters talk.
“Off Campus” Shopping & Dining
Yes, you can absolutely spend your entire CW visit on the historic property, but we’ve learned to expand our footprint just a bit over the years to include things like antiquing, clothes shopping, and eating “off campus.” Our favorite spot for a quick Mexican lunch is La Tolteca, which is right near Premium Outlets, our go-to spot for clothes shopping if that’s on the docket for our visit.
We also enjoy wandering through the Williamsburg Antique Mall, just a short drive down the road from the outlets. This antique mall is big (it’s 45,000 square feet), so make sure you wear good shoes, and plan to stay for a sizable portion of your day. I’ve found some of my very best vintage pieces at this store, so, if you’re an antique hunter like me, do yourself a favor and make time for this stop-in. Tip: Go all the way to the lefthand side of the building after entering to start in row A, then wander your way up and down each aisle from there. You’ll inevitably say, “We’ll just do one more row, then leave,” but I guarantee you won’t be able to stop until you get all the way through.
When we have time, mom and I book some kind of treatment at The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg. We’ve gotten facials, massages, haircuts, and manicures/pedicures, and always come away feeling so pampered and relaxed. It’s a bit of an investment, but is such a treat that it’s worth it. I think a spa treatment gives you access to their pool during the summer, too, which is so fun! There’s an adults-only pool and a kids pool, which you know I very much appreciate. Stock up on the lavender lemongrass spa lotion while you’re there, by the way. It’s the best scent in the world.
Gosh, I haven’t even talked about hotels yet! We used to stay at the Williamsburg Lodge, but ever since it was bought out, we haven’t found the hotel to be nearly as nice and the service at the lodge front desk is kind of abysmal. Instead, we now stay at The Griffin Hotel, which is part of the Williamsburg Inn. If you can’t afford the Inn (like us), then the Griffin is the perfect alternative. The rooms are very 1960s in style, and maybe a little less decorated/refined, but they’re big, and you have great access to beautiful walking trails, ponds, and tennis courts.
The terrace patio off the back of the Williamsburg Inn is a super relaxing place to sit and enjoy the sunshine and views of golfers hard at work at their game. We also really enjoy sitting in the Williamsburg Inn lobby by the fireplaces. It’s the perfect place to catch your breath if you’ve been hoofing it through the historic area.
Our favorite thing about the Inn, though, is The Terrace Room. We generally make dinner reservations there well in advance of our visit, and always dress up the night of to make it more of an event. This past visit there was a live band playing, and mom and I split their Beef Brisket and Short Rib Burger—yum! Their wine list is wonderful, and we also love hopping over to The Restoration Bar just next to the main dining room for a night cap. It sounds so fancy…I guess that’s because it is! You only live once, folks.
How about a handful of bonus rapid fire tips? Get dinner at Sweet Tea & Barley (one of the few remaining good things about the Williamsburg Lodge), visit the John Greenhow historic area gift shop, and take the Bits and Bridals stables tour if you’re into animals. I’m sure I’m leaving out so many things that you fellow seasoned travels like to do while visiting Colonial Williamsburg, so please comment and share your own insight. Maybe mom and I somehow missed a gem, so I’d love to hear your recommendations!