In Colonial Williamsburg, tourists are not just outsiders looking in -- they are temporary citizens experiencing the Revolutionary City as it was in the 18th century. Savvy tourists start with the orientation film featuring Jack Lord before his Hawaii Five-O heyday at the Colonial Williamsburg Regional Visitor Center, and then follow the Footbridge to the Past, lined with informative timeline plaques. The visitor center also sells one-day, multi-day, or tri-city passes that allow admission to most attractions in Jamestown and Yorktown as well, with passage on the free Historic Triangle shuttle. Here are the top 10 attractions you can't miss in Colonial Williamsburg and beyond.
1. Experience Colonial Williamsburg
At 301 acres, Colonial Williamsburg isn’t as compact as it looks: it includes more than 100 gardens, 3-dozen exhibition sites, several museums, and a variety of taverns and coffeehouses still serving 18th-century staples like peanut soup.
The mile-long Duke of Gloucester Street is devoid of cars but has plenty of points of interest, from historic churches to the wooden stocks where petty criminals were publicly humiliated. It’s no surprise that visitors delight in posing there. Colonial Williamsburg still has a blacksmith, silversmith, brickmaker, and almost 100 other avocations, who provide regular demonstrations of cooking, farming, shoemaking, and more.
Another popular pastime is the “Ghosts of Williamsburg” candlelight tour, offered nightly at 8 p.m. from March through December. Guides are full of local folklore and trivia not found on any other tour through the historic district. The original Ghost Tour is family friendly and based on the book The Ghosts of Williamsburg by L.B. Taylor. Visitors hoping for a ghostly encounter (or 2) can opt for the Extreme Tour (not recommended for children).
3. Explore the Public Hospital
One-time residents of the 1773 Public Hospital, the first colonial facility for mental patients, could be responsible for some ghostly encounters. Officially named the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane or Disordered Minds, the building still stands complete with its display of early mental health treatments. Also inside the structure is the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, with art, antiques, and folk art from early America. A block away, at Bassett Hall, are paintings and artifacts from colonial times collected by Colonial Williamsburg benefactor John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who lived in the 18th-century house with his wife Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.
4. Have Your Day in Court
More than 80 buildings have survived from colonial times, while another 400 have been carefully reconstructed. Don’t miss the Capitol (constructed in 1701), the Governor’s Palace (1722), or the Courthouse (1770). It was in the Capitol -- 2 months before the Declaration of Independence -- that Virginians authorized their delegates in Philadelphia to support the separation of the colonies from England. In the courthouse, guests not only learn about 18th-century jurisprudence, but also get to participate in the reenactment of a trial. Their decision just might sentence a cowering offender to a stay in the stocks or worse … a jail built in 1704 once held 15 of Blackbeard’s pirates.
5. Admire Colonial Williamsburg’s Residences
A visit to Colonial Williamsburg would not be complete without a visit to handsome, brick Wythe House on Palace Green, where George Wythe mentored Thomas Jefferson and served as the first law professor at the College of William & Mary. Wythe, considered to be a leader of the Patriot movement, was the first Virginia’s first signer of the Declaration of Independence. The house also served as General George Washington’s headquarters just before the British seize of Yorktown.
Another equally beautiful residence is the dark red Peyton Randolf House, built in 1715. Just off Market Square, it is one of the oldest and most historic of Colonial Williamsburg’s original 18th-century homes. Also an activist, Peyton Randolph, later became the first president of the Continental Congress.
6. Trace John Smith’s Footsteps in Jamestown
While Colonial Williamsburg is the anchor of the Historic Triangle, nearby Jamestown should not be overlooked. Founded by Captain John Smith -- and 100 fellow travelers -- 13 years before the Pilgrims stepped on Plymouth Rock, Jamestown was the first English settlement in the New World. While in Jamestown, tour replicas of Smith’s 3-vessel fleet, a Powhatan Indian village and a 17th-century English fort.
7. Tour a Continental Army Encampment in Yorktown
Historic Yorktown and Yorktown Battlefield still celebrate George Washington’s 1781 victory over Lord Charles Cornwallis, ending the Revolutionary War. Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution, includes recreations of a Continental Army encampment and 1780s farm. Now a prominent part of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown is also home to the Schooner Alliance, a sailing ship that makes several 2-hour day sails (including a popular sunset cruise) on the Chesapeake Bay.
8. Grab a Bike and Hit the Trail
These 3 historic communities are linked by the Colonial Parkway, which stretches 23 miles from the James River to the York River and actually tunnels under Williamsburg. The National Park Service, which maintains both the road and the surrounding historic areas, is adding an adjacent paved path, the Virginia Capital Trail, to be shared by pedestrians and bicyclists in Fall 2014. The area already has 48 miles of bike trails.
9. Play on a PGA-Caliber Golf Course
Williamsburg’s calm climate translates into a long golf season, attracting golfers as both participants and spectators. For decades, both the PGA and LPGA held major tournaments at Kingsmill Golf Club. Its River Course, recently revamped by original architect Pete Dye, offers 18 holes of championship golf along the James River.
10. Get an Adrenaline Rush at Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens and Water Country USA are must-visits for families and amusement-park enthusiasts alike. The former is a 100-acre theme park with 50 thrill rides and 9 stage shows celebrating the region’s European heritage, while the latter claims to be the largest water park anywhere in the mid-Atlantic. Spanning 43 acres, Water Country USA boasts pools, water rides and Rock ‘n’ Roll Island, a tribute to ‘50s and ‘60s music.