Travel: Experience history just outside Washington, D.C.
Special to the Daily
Once you begin exploring the ornately lined streets of Washington, D.C., it’s clear that one site (say, the Capitol tour) leads to another (like the Library of Congress). With so many monumental sites screaming for attention, visitors might overlook some of the lesser-known highlights outside D.C., but so many are worth the extra effort to experience.
America’s Historic Triangle
Though Williamsburg is a bit of a drive — about 150 miles — it’s well worth the trek. In fact, America’s Historic Triangle is the most logical place to begin any tour of our nation’s history. The area includes Jamestown, York and Colonial Williamsburg, which take visitors through the struggles of the first, pre-Pilgrim colonies in 1607 to the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Start at the national park’s historic Jamestown, with a short, informational drive, and then walk to the Memorial Church and the remaining foundations of homes, taverns and businesses.
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Don’t miss the original Jamestown Glasshouse and the adjacent, modern building in which apprentices spend four years learning the art of glassblowing, and demonstrate their talent every day for visitors; purchases of the one-of-a-kind vases, oil lamps, glasses, pitchers, vials, candlesticks, wine decanters, inkwells and other decor support the national park.
Afterward, visit the neighboring Jamestown Settlement and immerse yourself in its 17th-century living museum. Two distinct elements bring history to life: The first consists of a film depicting the early colonists’ struggles, lending a greater context for artifacts and gallery exhibits, which highlight England, pre-17th-century Virginia, colonists, Powhatans and Africans. The second aspect of Jamestown Settlement re-creates the colonial era with a Powhatan village, replicas of three ships and a colonist settlement.
In each, costumed interpreters explain daily life activities, including Powhatan games, blacksmithing and carpentry. Walking into cabins, ships and Powhatan homes made of sapling frames covered with reed mats gives both kids and adults a tactile experience of the nation’s early history.
To keep visitors going, Jamestown Settlement Cafe offers a surprisingly tasty and affordable variety, from freshly made pulled pork sandwiches, subs, burgers and pizzas to garden salads and stew, as well as ice cream and baked sweets.
Orient yourself with the 16-minute film “Siege of Yorktown” at Yorktown Battlefield’s visitor center. The national park offers guided tours with excellent storytelling rangers, as well as a self-guided, 7-mile battlefield tour, which includes the surrender field and a home that hosted surrender negotiations.
Then, stroll through the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s nearly 500 artifacts and interactive exhibits, including personal stories of enslaved and free African-Americans who fought on both sides of the American Revolution in the exhibit “Forgotten Soldier.”
Yorktown’s National Cemetery Lodge also depicts the Civil War through exhibits.
Before you leave Yorktown’s historic Main Street, enjoy fine dining along the riverside at the Riverwalk Restaurant or Water Street Grille. Both restaurants’ award-winning chefs use local, gourmet ingredients in their dishes, which range from salads, burgers and pizza to steak and seafood.
To fully explore Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll need at least two days. The living, 18th-century town animates colonial life through historic buildings, re-enactments, museums and tours.
Standout tours include the Governor’s Palace, the Courthouse, the Magazine and personal homes of elite citizens. The Governor’s Palace is a must-see, with its elaborate gardens and interior décor, while the Courthouse enacts legal proceedings, and the Magazine houses historic arms and ammunition.
All in all, 46 buildings offer personal insight into the time period, from wigmakers who demonstrate and describe their work, to weavers, tailors, silversmiths, shoemakers, printers, carpenters, apothecaries and more.
A host of interpreters act out stories of prominent people, from George Washington to Ann Wager (a widowed teacher), while the legendary fife and drum corps fills the streets with its patriotic tunes, as horses and carriages escort guests from one side of Colonial Williamsburg to another. Along the way, art museums showcase quirky toys, backwoods banjos and other antiques.
Stay for at least one evening to walk on ghost tours, watch magicians, listen to concerts, judge court trials of pirates, patriots and witches, and even drop in on a spinning class (as in, spindle, not cycling) or test your wits in the escape room.
Several Colonial Williamsburg taverns feature a variety of items, from colonial favorites like shepherd’s “pye” to seafood, steaks and world cuisine. A few cafes offer sandwiches, wraps, salads, soups and other lunch items.
For a family meal outside of Colonial Williamsburg, check out pizza, pasta, chicken, veal and seafood dishes at the locals’ favorite Italian restaurant: Anna’s Brick Oven.
A trip to America’s Historic Triangle places the monuments of Washington, D.C., monuments in context; it’s almost like absorbing a year of academic history in a few days — only, it’s much more fun. And early July is one of the area’s biggest celebration times, with readings of the Declaration of Independence and fife and drum corps performances beyond the usual holiday performances. In addition, November marks the 400th anniversary of the first English-speaking Thanksgiving in the New World — making it another great time to tour the nation’s Historic Triangle.