This is a post I’ve been itching to write. Over the course of about 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make sense of visiting Colonial Williamsburg. It’s a museum like Central Park is a town green. I’ve made my share of mistakes, and I’ve seen a lot more. Since I love this place, and I want all our guests to share that appreciation, I’d like to offer my observations about what sometimes goes wrong, and how to make it right.
Here are my top ten mistakes visitors to our little town make, in descending order:
#10 They under-plan
A little planning goes a long way in a city a mile long and a half-mile wide. A small investment of time to decide what you most want to see can pay huge dividends. Explore the website. Download our free app for digital planning.
Then download and print a map, and mark your can’t-miss sites. Note that it is color-coded into different zones, which is simply intended to make it easier to break your visit into manageable chunks. You don’t want to spend all your time backtracking. Be aware that some sites are closed on certain days; others are only open for half the day. (The Printer, for example, is open daily 9-1.)
Check the events calendar for day or evening programs. Make any necessary reservations, including dinner at a tavern, in advance. And check the schedule to make sure your destination is open: some shops are open for only half the day, and others are closed on certain days.
#9 They over-plan
You want to be organized, but beware of over-scheduling your time. If you end up hurrying through town trying to keep to a schedule, you’ll miss the serendipitous moments that make this place magical. You might find yourself playing a game in front of a shop, listening to musicians at the Market House, or debating politics with the local printer. Make time for that, and don’t worry if you “miss” something on your itinerary. There are so many things you just can’t plan for, so slow down, take it all in, and enjoy whatever chance encounters come your way.
#8 They get off at the first bus stop
I made this mistake when I first visited. I just hopped off at the first stop, near the Governor’s Palace, figuring we’d just casually explore. With a two-year old. Oops. Our first steps into the city proved to be too tentative, too cautious, and it took too long to get our bearings.
If the Governor’s Palace is the first site you want to visit, then by all means get off at the first bus stop. But if you want to immerse yourself in the city, you should take the new express shuttle to Market Square. (It’s also the fourth stop on the shuttle that makes all the stops.)
But my main point is that there is no one “entrance” to the Historic Area. You get to choose where to begin.
#7 They’re unprepared for the weather
Sure, this seems obvious. But remember you’ll be doing a lot of walking, which means you’ll be out in the elements. So that means wear comfortable shoes and drink plenty of water. The app (and the map) will help you find the nearest restrooms and water fountains.
Williamsburg has more than its share of beautiful weather, but it can be scorching hot in the summer, and the rain can fall by the bucket. So check the forecast and bring sunscreen, an umbrella, and whatever else you might need. You can always pick up a straw hat or cocked hat in one of the shops. Apply sunscreen and stay hydrated on a hot day. And leave the heels in the car.
#6 They walk around with their nose in a phone
Oh, the kids these days.
You’re going to want to have your phone for pictures and wayfinding, of course. Colonial Williamsburg also has a wireless network that just requires you to register with a hotel room number or email address.
But don’t experience Williamsburg from behind a screen. Put it down, at least for a little bit, and settle in to a different, less distracted, time. You’ll see things you would have missed, meet people who would have passed by wordlessly, and relax just a little bit more.
#5 They walk into any–and all–buildings
The Grand Union flags flying in front of many buildings indicate that a site is open, so feel free to come in. But there are hundreds of buildings in the Historic Area, and the majority are not actually open to the public. Some are offices or storage spaces, others are rented out to employees.
If you look closely, you’ll notice small tags that say “Private residence. Not open to the public.” And you’ll end up wandering into someone’s living room. Please don’t do that. It’s very awkward for everyone.
#4 They get shy around famous people
For many folks having a conversation with someone who may or may not be deep inside an 18th-century character can be, well, weird. I understand. To be honest, I’m still better at watching than really engaging. But weird is normal around here, and if you can take the first step—just say hello—then you stand a better chance of having a truly memorable visit.
So take a deep breath and jump in. Embrace the unfamiliar, and have fun.
#3 They aren’t shy enough with the animals
People have been known to pick up some of our admittedly too-comfortable-for-their-own-good squirrels. While they may seem to be acting like pets, they are not. They bite.
And while we’re on the subject of animals, it’s ok to say hello to the animals, but be careful. You can touch the wool of a sheep, but don’t pat them on the head—they don’t like it. Don’t try to pet working animals. And by all means, please don’t feed any of them.
#2 They skip the ticket
Yes, Duke of Gloucester is a public street that anyone is free to stroll. It’s a lovely walk, but if you’ve made the effort to come, don’t cheat yourself. The buildings do not speak for themselves.
If it helps, remember that Colonial Williamsburg is a private non-profit foundation that relies on sales of tickets, souvenirs, meals, and hotel rooms. If you’re asked if you want to “round up” at our ticket and retail locations, please remember we can only keep the doors open with the support of our very loyal and generous donors.
#1 They come for a day
Repeat after me: Colonial Williamsburg is a city. Seriously, it’s huge.
If all you can spare is a day, that’s great. We’ll welcome you for an hour, a week, or a month.
But if you’re here for a day, please don’t leave and think you’ve done anything other than dip your toe in the water. There are iconic buildings like the Capitol and Governor’s Palace, four historic working taverns, twenty-something trade shops, carriage rides, walking tours, art museums, and dramatic programs. And that’s before you include 12 Nation Builders—people like Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Martha Washington—and scores of other interpreters portraying 18th-century people and life. You see my point. It’s YUUUGE.
I’ve worked for Colonial Williamsburg for a decade, and I still find new sources of music, mischief, wonder, and inspiration every day. I hope my unsolicited advice will help you find it too.
Thanks to our intern, Joaquin (a.k.a. Abe), who with his customary willingness to be our guinea pig agreed to pose for all the “please don’t do this” pictures. His year with us is drawing to a close, as he’ll return home this week. We will miss him greatly, but at least got lots of good pictures.