History and Family Fun in Greater Williamsburg

This post is sponsored by Visit Williamsburg

Greater Williamsburg, Virginia is a fantastic vacation spot for families with school-aged kids because there’s so much to learn about American history, but there’s plenty of non-historical fun to be had, too! What starts out as a field trip of sorts is sure to leave your family with lasting, fun memories. Here’s what we did with four, short days there.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Day 1: The Adventure Begins

We were fortunate enough to stay at the Moody House, one of the Colonial Houses in Colonial Williamsburg. (You won’t find it listed on the Colonial Williamsburg website, though. It’s reserved for VIPs and special guests, so it was a treat to be able to stay there!) It bears the name of Josias Moody, a blacksmith who owned the property from 1794 until his death around 1810, so right away, we were immersed in history. The home was plenty spacious for our family of four, complete with two bedrooms, three bathrooms, a formal living room, a dining room, a den, and a large kitchen. Back in those days, kitchens were detached from the main houses due to the threat of fire, as well as the heat and odors generated from cooking. The old Moody kitchen has been converted into a one-bedroom suite that you can rent by the night.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

After checking into our accommodations, we headed out for a little fun. The Pirate’s Cove Golf Adventure is an 18-hole miniature golf course that’s- you guessed it- pirate themed. But even this place offered history lessons! Along the course, the signage tells the story of different 18th-century buccaneers. The landscaping is very cute with lots of waterfalls, caves and pirates peeking out at visitors. And bonus: the nature of miniature golf, where each party waits till the previous one is done with that hole, made it the perfect socially distanced activity.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

When it was time for dinner, we went to Blue Talon Bistro, an inviting French eatery in the quaint Merchants Square district. The service was very warm and personable. We started off with fried oysters with cucumber and tomato relish and spicy mayo, plus traditional escargots à la bourguignonne. Serge and I both had steak frites, while the girls had mac & cheese and Caesar salad. Whatever you order, don’t skip dessert! We loved both the crème brûlée and the chocolate noisette.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Day 2: History & Play All Day

No trip to Greater Williamsburg is complete without a visit to Jamestown Settlement, but we did a little homework before seeing it for ourselves. If your kids are fans of the Disney movie Pocahontas, they’ll know Jamestown as the place where Pocahontas and her Powhatan people, and John Smith and his English settlers met. Before our trip, we watched some videos with the girls (this one from the Smithsonian Channel is particularly good) that broke down just how historically inaccurate the Disney movie was, and explained the real story of what happened. The movie was largely based on John Smith’s own writings, and he is now known to be a bit of a fabulist, to put it charitably.

Here’s an abbreviated version of how things really went down: Pocahontas was only 10 or 12 when John Smith arrived in what would become Jamestown, so they were never romantically involved. Bubble = burst! The dramatic story of Pocahontas laying her body over his to prevent him from being killed by her Powhatan people was also most likely made up, though it became a deeply entrenched part of America’s creation myth. So much so that it’s depicted in the frieze in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. After being kidnapped by English settlers, made to convert to Christianity and learn English ways, Pocahontas married an Englishman named John Rolfe. The couple, with their young child, traveled to England in 1616, their expenses paid by the Virginia Company of London, which sought to recruit more colonists by using the couple as a symbol of how viable the Virginia colony was, as the Rolfes were evidence that the English and the Native Americans could live in harmony. Sadly, right before she was to sail back to Virginia, Pocahontas died of disease at the young age of 21, and she never saw her home or Powhatan family again.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s so depressing! But we can’t gloss over or completely reimagine history when trying to teach our children. Otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat it, right?

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Now back to visiting Jamestown Settlement… It’s a living history museum that tells the story of what would become America’s first permanent English colony, and the mix of English, Powhatan and Angolan cultures that existed in the area from the very beginning. In the early 1600s, there were about 14,000–21,000 Powhatan people living in eastern Virginia. Unlike the tribes of the Great Plains, the Powhatans were not a nomadic tribe. They built permanent homes, and in addition to hunting and fishing, also planted crops. The English colonists arrived in 1607, and Jamestown served as the colonial capital from 1616 until 1699. The first Africans arrived in Virginia as early as 1619, when an English warship called the White Lion arrived carrying about 20 enslaved Africans from Angola who had been forcibly removed from a Portuguese slave ship. These Africans were promptly put to work in the tobacco fields, as that quickly became Virginia’s primary cash crop. Not long after, the culture of slavery became a part of this colony.

Note that Jamestown Settlement is a separate attraction from Historic Jamestowne. It was built before the actual historic site was discovered in the mid-1990s. So if you’d like to see the original site of the first permanent English settlement in America, where Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married, and where James Fort stood, Historic Jamestowne is your best bet.

That said, I highly recommend a visit to Jamestown Settlement. Being able to walk through a re-created Powhatan village really brought this era to life. The girls loved chatting with the historic interpreters, dressed in traditional Powhatan clothes, about what daily life was like; what foods they ate and how they cooked; what materials they used to make face paint and tattoo ink; and so much more you’ll have to hear about for yourself!

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Visitors to Jamestown Settlement can also see James Fort, a re-creation of the military outpost at the time, as well as re-creations of the three ships that brought the English colonists to Virginia in 1607: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery.

At lunchtime, we went to Gabriel Archer Tavern, a casual, rustic restaurant in a former farm shed on the property of the Williamsburg Winery. Some of our favorite items on the menu were the cheese and charcuterie board, the Wessex Hundred salad, and the tuna carpaccio. In addition to wine, they’ve got a wide variety of unique cocktails. The blackberry mojito and the lavender lemonade were perfect to quench our thirst on a hot, humid day.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Afterward, we decided it was time to play, so we went to Go-Karts Plus! (The amusement park Busch Gardens is also a fan favorite in this region, but was closed at the time due to Covid-19.) This smaller family entertainment center has go-carts, bumper cars, blaster boats, miniature golf, and an indoor arcade. Our girls had so much fun here! It was the very first time Ella was tall enough to drive her own go-kart, so she was extra excited!

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Cochon on 2nd is a new American restaurant that offers delicious fine dining in a comfortable, inviting atmosphere. The girls shared ribs and fries from the bar menu, while Serge and I started with the tuna tartare and warm goat cheese salad. Our entrees were excellent, so I would highly recommend you add Cochon on 2nd to your itinerary. Serge’s ribeye and my pan-seared scallops were the best things we ate during the entire trip!

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Day 3: A Trip Back in Time

Usually ghost stories are reserved for nighttime, but when we went to Mobjack Coffee Roasters and Petite Café for breakfast, we started the day with a haunted history lesson! Owner Celeste Gucanac gave us a personal tour of the building during our visit. Family-owned Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters and Petite Café is located inside the Cole Digges House, a historic Yorktown building managed by the National Parks Service. They roast their own beans and have a successful wholesale business, selling their coffees in local groceries and large retailers like Whole Foods. They also operate a sit-down cafe out of this location.

Celeste told us that when she first started inquiring about leasing the building, many old-timers in the area discouraged her, saying the building was haunted. And sure enough, once she moved in, she heard running water or footsteps on the stairs even when there was no one but her there! She originally referred to the ghost as “Miss Elizabeth,” as when she dug through the records she found out that the building was Elizabeth Cooper’s Coffee and Teahouse in the 1880s. That changed one day when Celeste hosted a group of visitors. After she told them about the haunting, a medium in the group told her the whole time Celeste was talking about the ghost it was talking to the medium, urging her to let Celeste know that “she’s not Miss Elizabeth. She’s Miss Anne!” And ever since, Miss Anne has been the ghost’s name.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Walking around Yorktown was an experience unto itself. The girls were fascinated by the Nelson House, home of Thomas Nelson, Jr. who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Why? Because if you walk around, you’ll see that cannonballs from the Revolutionary War period still pepper the sides of the building.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

After breakfast, we took a quick detour to Yorktown Beach, one of several small beaches along the York River, feeding into the Chesapeake Bay. The girls loved catching little crabs and searching for seashells in the sand. There are no real waves in the water, but you do need to be careful of jellyfish, since they’re pretty abundant in this area.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Next up, we headed to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. If Jamestown Settlement tells the story of the very beginnings of the United States, this museum is a sort of sequel, tracing the evolution of this territory from the colonial period to the Declaration of Independence, to the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Yorktown is important because it was the last battle of the Revolutionary War, after which British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and his army surrendered to General George Washington’s American force and its French allies.

Like Jamestown Settlement, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown combines indoor exhibits with outdoor living history recreations. The girls loved exploring the re-created Continental Army encampment. We chatted with historical interpreters who taught us about how muskets were fired, what types of medical conditions the soldiers faced and what treatments were available, and how and what they cooked. There’s also a Revolution-era farm where historic interpreters explain the types of crops that were grown, what typical farm families ate, and how tobacco was grown and processed.

We were particularly impressed by the “The Siege of Yorktown” film. I have to admit that I typically find military history quite dull, but this interactive film, shown on a 180-degree surround screen with smoke machines and other dramatic special effects, was incredibly immersive. We really felt transported to the front lines of the revolutionary war. I also appreciated how the film wove in stories of white women, as well as black and Native American men who fought alongside the rebels.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

After Yorktown, we explored Colonial Williamsburg, often referred to as the world’s largest living history museum. The scale of this place is pretty incredible. There are over 300 acres with more than 40 historic sites and trades, four historic taverns, and two world-class art museums. We enjoyed strolling down Duke of Gloucester Street, and the Governor’s Palace is a must-see, so add these to your plans.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

When it was time to eat, we checked out Amber Ox Public House. It’s a casual gastro pub that serves farm-to-table dishes. We particularly enjoyed our starters, which were the biscuit board, shucked oysters and a grilled peach salad. The girls ordered mac & cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches from the kids menu. For entrees we had the smoked beef rib and the steelhead over summer vegetable salad. The blush sangria is excellent! It’s crisp and refreshing, which is perfect for the hot and humid, summer weather in Virginia.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

Day 4: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

On our way out, we had breakfast at Illy Caffe Williamsburg, which is also owned by Adam Steely, who operates the Blue Talon Bistro just a few blocks away, where we had dinner the first night. This is a great spot to grab a simple breakfast. The coffee is excellent, of course, as they serve the famous Italian coffee brand’s beans, but the pastries are worth stopping in for. In addition to Colonial Williamsburg, this area is also home to William and Mary, America’s second-oldest college. So it has that quaint college town feel.

Photo: Carmen Sognonvi
Photo: Carmen Sognonvi

History With Plenty of Family Fun

I am amazed that we were able to do and learn so much in such a short amount of time! We weren’t even in Greater Williamsburg for a full four days yet we had such a fabulous time. The food was delicious, the beach was beautiful, the city is steeped in history and we made so many great memories. The girls were really sad to leave! This trip is the perfect combination of history, learning and fun for any family considering it, so if you get the chance to go, definitely spend some time in Greater Williamsburg.

Start planning your Greater Williamsburg trip today!

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About Carmen Sognonvi

Carmen Sognonvi is a luxury family travel content creator at Top Flight Family, named a top 10 family travel Instagram account by Time Out New York and Brit + Co. Her insights on travel have been featured in The Washington Post, INSIDER, Huffington Post, Wanderlust Travel Magazine, TravelPulse, HOTELS Magazine, and more. Carmen firmly believes that you can (and should) travel with your kids from a young age. She offers families practical solutions for travel, as well as tips on how to travel in luxury for less. She lives in New York City with her multiracial and multicultural family of four. Follow her on Instagram, FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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Greater Williamsburg, Virginia is a fantastic vacation spot for families with school-aged kids because there’s so much to learn about American history, but there's plenty of non-historical fun to be had, too

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