When you first set eyes on George Washington — standing front and center in a quiet field in Williamsburg, Virginia — you can tell he’s seen some things.
His steely, stoic gaze can’t hide the scars of a tumultuous life etched across his face, but he’s also grown quite a bit since those days of battle and bloodshed. Over triple his original size, in fact; much like the presidential predecessors standing alongside him: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for starters.
They’ve all seen some things, actually. Wilson’s forehead is in shambles, as is Jackson’s chin, and “Honest Abe” can’t catch a break — the back of his head has a hole in it.
I guess history can still repeat itself, even if you’re a 20-foot sculpture.
An Apocalyptic First Impression
It’s not a scene one may think of as “presidential,” but that’s what makes the ruins of Presidents Park the beginning of an epic itinerary in Williamsburg.
Walking through rows of 20,000-pound decaying heads depicting the country’s most powerful figures is a far echo from when the sculptures were pristinely maintained during the era of Presidents Park. The eerie atmosphere created from this collection is intentional, though, which you can learn about on a 2-hour tour led by photographer John Plashal. (You can come and go as you please within the 2-hour window, but only visit once you’ve purchased tickets to a tour. The ruins are on private property.)
If you think the Presidents’ Heads are wild, just wait until you see what’s being unearthed at Historic Jamestowne.
A military fort, burial shafts, and evidence of cannibalism are just some of the discoveries you’ll learn about on a 1-hour Archaeology Tour with a Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologist. Since the area is an active archaeological project, you’ll likely witness the layers of history being peeled back in real-time as digs are an often-daily occurrence. Just be sure to step inside the Archaearium after the tour to admire the amazing artifacts that have been uncovered here over the years.
Once you’ve seen the surprises found below ground, it’s time to soar into the sky to plot out your next pit stop in Williamsburg. The Historic Triangle Air Tour from Williamsburg Flight Center lays out all the options as you coast above major landmarks, starting with Colonial Williamsburg before passing by Busch Gardens on your way to Yorktown and its expansive Naval Weapons Station.
Along the way, you’ll get to witness the beauty of the region’s winding rivers, which create a serpentine pattern that cuts through sections of untamed wilderness. Tons of country clubs and golf courses also dot the landscape, and if you’re lucky there’s a ghost fleet of ships that will be in sight at some point during the 1-hour flight. (Ask the pilot beforehand, and they will be able to point it out.)
Prefer to stay closer to the ground? Go Ape may just be the adventure for you.
An elevated obstacle course suspended in the trees of Freedom Park is what awaits during the Treetop Adventure option. The 2- to 3-hour journey is packed with fun challenges, from teetering ladders to zipping through the forest to taking a leap of faith on the Tarzan swing. To up the ante even more, check out the Nights At Height Treetop Journey and tackle a course with only little glimmers of light to guide you through the darkness.
Speaking of Darkness …
A nighttime ghost tour with Colonial Ghosts is the perfect one-two punch that could ever follow Go Ape.
You’ll walk into the epicenter of paranormal activity contained within Colonial Williamsburg, as a guide gives you the chilling backstory behind the landmarks where spirits are said to roam. The Bruton Parish Episcopal Church and Peyton Randolph House are two such places, the latter of which is known as one of the most haunted sites in America. Go inside, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear mysterious boots stomping around — evidence of one of the many permanent paranormal residents living there.
Of course, not all of Williamsburg’s history is haunting. Colonial Ghosts also offers a daytime Secrets and Untold Stories of Williamsburg Tour that covers other intriguing topics that will give you the chills in a good way. Harrowing and heroic stories of the area’s enslaved people, the town’s connection to pirates and active reconstruction efforts are all on tap when you take the 90-minute tour.
While you’re out and about, spending more time in Colonial Williamsburg is a must to truly get a sense of place. The two best ways to do that? Shop … and eat.
Dine Your Way Back in Time
I can’t think of a better way to enjoy history than by taking it one bite at a time. Luckily, King’s Arms Tavern allows you to do just that, literally within an arm’s reach of all the Williamsburg sites.
The reproduced public house promises “The Best Foods” on its sign, with a menu that more than backs up its lofty statement. Onion Pye, Beef Steak, and Pork Shank — all sourced from 18th-century recipes — offer an iconic Colonial meal made complete with a side of Peanut Soupe (pictured below). While borderline impossible to accurately describe, it’s safe to say you shouldn’t knock it until you try it. C’mon: When in Williamsburg, right?
The same can be said in the drinking department, though not at King’s Arms Tavern. It’s time to head over to Eight Shires Coloniale Distillery, where they use water from a well found in Jamestown that dates back to 1608 to create an aptly named Jamestown 1608 Single Malt Whiskey. The limited edition release goes for about $1,200 a bottle, but you can get a sip of history for $75 a tasting.
No matter when you choose to drink or dine, a walk around Merchants Square is equally essential. The retail square is as quaint as they come, thanks to 40-plus small shops and restaurants flaunting anything from confectionery creations (Wythe Candy & Gourmet Shop) to crazy cool accessories (The Shoe Attic) to international art, like the Turkish treasures found in Kiln Kingdom. Don’t leave without trying a cup of coffee!
Yorktown: A Strong Blend of Community and History
You’d be hard-pressed to find a family who loves coffee more than the Gucanacs, but if there’s anything they love more, it’s Yorktown. So, naturally, they combined the two. The result? Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters, which now operates out of the Historic Cole Digges House at the corner of Main and Read streets.
The adorable cafe serves coffee, tea, desserts, and baked goods about as diverse as the stories contained within the walls of the nearly 300-year-old structure. Husband and wife owner-duo Jo and Celeste have countless ghost stories to share if you have some extra time to spare, but if not you can hang out in the backyard and admire the ghost-free scenery.
Trish Thomas has also accumulated quite a few stories of Yorktown, although not of the spooky variety. She’s spent over 30 years studying the history of the area down to every last detail, and it shows through the entertaining examples she illustrates on a walk around town. You can book a 90-minute journey with her through Williamsburg Walking Tours, and she’ll share all the tragedies and triumphs of Yorktown’s colorful characters across the centuries.
Ready to Find a Treasure of Your Own?
Now that you’ve been led around to the region’s wildest discoveries, it’s time to make some of your own at Williamsburg Antique Mall.
The 45,000-square-foot building houses an overwhelming amount of items ranging from intricate glasswork to “Harry Potter”-esque props to a labyrinth of books, and beyond. Roam the alphabetized aisles, and there’s no doubt you’ll uncover things you forgot existed, along with things you’ve never seen before.
Once you’ve completed that quest, I’d say you definitely deserve some rest.
Timberline Glamping is the go-to option if you’re looking for that wilderness experience without sacrificing comfort. Stay in a safari tent outfitted with all the modern amenities: air conditioning, heating, electrical outlets, a fridge, Keurig, comfortable bed. Of course, the view of the Chickahominy River is a nice bonus as well, especially at sunrise and sunset.
It’s a fitting end to your walk on Williamsburg’s wild side.