The Scenic Route: Consider a trip to Williamsburg

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The Scenic Route: Consider a trip to Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg is a great day trip for history buffs. (Photo/ Aaron Kopp)
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By Aaron Kopp

Before Richmond was the seat of the Virginia government, long before the United States even declared independence, Williamsburg was the capital of the then-colony of Virginia. Established in 1699, Williamsburg bore witness to some of the most pivotal moments in American history.

Today, Williamsburg is the world’s largest U.S. history museum, featuring a recreation of the 18th century city filled with scholars who portray the people of revolutionary Williamsburg in an impressive display of living history.

Also in Williamsburg is the College of William & Mary. The college is known as “The Alma Mater of the Nation” with alumni including former President Thomas Jefferson, former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and visionary of the revolution Patrick Henry. The school, the second oldest in the nation, brings a vibrant college town feel to Williamsburg.

Williamsburg is also situated in the Virginia Peninsula, between the York and James Rivers, giving visitors access to aquatic recreation. Williamsburg forms, along with Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia’s “Historic Triangle.” These sites also feature programming centered around the history of early America. Visitors to Williamsburg often enjoy day trips to one or more of these sites.

How to get there

There are three main ways to the Historic Triangle from Alexandria. The first option is to drive south on Interstate 95, then take I-295 around Richmond and finally switch to I-64 for the last leg of the journey. This takes 2 ½ to three hours, depending on the traffic around Dumfries.

A far nicer drive, though slightly longer, takes you down Maryland Route 210, then onto U.S. Route 301, which turns into U.S. Route 17 at Port Royal and carries you all the way through the Tidewater to the Historic Triangle. This route takes around three hours and fifteen minutes, and rarely contains traffic. While it does take longer, it’s significantly more scenic, passing through forests and fields and by quirky small town antique stores.

Another option is to take the train. Two trains leave the Alexandria Amtrak station for Williamsburg each day. Tickets can go for as low as $12, depending on the day. The earlier you purchase tickets, the cheaper they tend to be. Going by train can provide a stress-free travel experience. I find the trains tend to run on time, provide spacious seating and a smooth ride.

Taking the train means you won’t have a car available in Williamsburg, but this is no problem for a shorter stay. The Williamsburg Amtrak station is just blocks away from Colonial Williamsburg, the shops at market square and hotels, including the 5-star Williamsburg Inn.

Where to eat and stay

The most luxurious hotel option in Williamsburg is the Williamsburg Inn. This hotel features multiple restaurants, a spa and a golf course. Just a couple minutes walk from Colonial Williamsburg, this is where Queen Elizabeth II chose to stay on her trips to the historic triangle.

There are also several more reasonably priced hotel options around Williamsburg as well as a couple of charming bed and breakfasts such as “A Williamsburg White House.” For travelers who want an unusual chance to immerse themselves in the culture of early America, the Colonial Houses are a great option. Four restored colonial houses throughout the historic area can now be booked directly from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Williamsburg has many excellent dining options. For breakfasts near the historic area, I recommend Aromas Coffeehouse. In addition to offering standard coffee shop fare at reasonable prices, Aromas serves a full breakfast menu, with omelets, french toast and more.

For dinner, Williamsburg has a wide range of options. Amiraj, just north of the William & Mary campus, serves flavorful Indian cuisine for lunch and dinner. Casa Peral serves seafood favorites with a great selection of raw bar items.

The greatest food destination in Williamsburg, however, is The Cheese Shop. The Cheese Shop is a gourmet market, selling charcuteries, jams, smoked fish, cheese and much more. But what really makes The Cheese Shop special is its sandwich counter, which is built upon a foundation of fresh baked bread. To try the unofficial snack of William & Mary, purchase a container of The Cheese Shop’s house dressing and a bag of bread ends, then dip the bread ends in the dressing.

Another charming Williamsburg option is the historic King’s Arms Tavern. The King’s Arms Tavern, located in the heart of the historic area, serves 18th century cuisine updated with modern sensibilities. The menu includes dishes inspired by real period recipes, and the wait staff are dressed in period costume.

Another WIlliamsburg experience is the weekly farmers market. The market runs every Saturday, March 4 through October 28. It features farm and food vendors, as well as a rotating cast of local musicians.

History

Williamsburg is the perfect destination for history lovers. The historic area, called Colonial WIlliamsburg features living history performers in period costume. Some of the performers represent tradespeople and artisans, and some represent actual historical figures, like Geroge Mason and The Marquis de Lafayette.

Colonial Williamsburg is often experienced as a self-guided walking tour around the 301-acre historic area. Two spots I recommend checking out are the original Virginia Capital and the Wren Building. The Wren building is the oldest continuously used school building in America, and tours are given by knowledgeable William & Mary students.

Colonial Williamsburg also has great walking tours. Two I recommend are the Paradox of Freedom tour or the evening Ghost Tour. I recommend you spend around two days exploring the historic area. Tickets to Colonial Williamsburg can be bought online at colonial williamsburg.org.

Your Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket also grants you access to the Folk Art museum, located next to the historic area. There, you can explore one of the largest collections of American folk art in the world and learn the stories behind the artifacts.

Outdoor recreation

The Virginia peninsula is a wonderful location for lovers of the outdoors. Situated between the York and James rivers, Williamsburg offers access to boating and paddling on these historic waterways. Williamsburg is also just a 10-minute drive from Busch Gardens amusement park, a great option for roller coaster lovers. For those who want thrill in a more natural setting, Go Ape Williamsburg is a rope course and zip line park where guests can explore the forest canopy.

On the second Sunday of every month, Williamsburg is home to the Second Sundays Street Fair, where local musicians and artisans perform and sell their crafts. Second Sundays are the best way to experience the charming small college town feel of Williamsburg.

The writer is a senior at the College of William & Mary and was a summer 2023 Alexandria Times intern.

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