One of the strangest things about long-term travel is spending special occasions like birthdays and holidays away from home. I admittedly had an excellent time over my solo Christmas during my RTW trip – I took a weaving class in Laos and treated myself to a nicer than usual dinner at a fusion tapas place in Luang Prabang. My favored work cafe in the city went out of their way to be welcoming to expats by playing Christmas carols. (This was a particularly humbling experience as it’s not common in my own country to do the reverse.) And yet, this first year after my grand adventure, I find my mind just as drawn to how I spent December the year before. My boyfriend and I spent Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg, a few hours away from our hometown. Most familiar to me as an elementary school field trip, I didn’t quite understand the appeal of seeing the erstwhile capital of Virginia as an adult. Really, though, Colonial Williamsburg is a vibrant living history museum and there is no better time to visit than December, when the preserved town is decked out in seasonal decor.
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Explore the exhibits
While there are some more traditional museums in the area, the main attraction of Colonial Williamsburg is its historic town, a collection of 45 shops, houses, and other buildings where experts and actors attempt to recreate 18th century life. It’s practically impossible to see everything in one day, and because of the high price of tickets, you’re best off selecting top priorities for what to visit and passing on other exhibits. Tradesmen’s shops are typically the most popular, ranging from the apothecary to the weavers to the blacksmith. A garden sits at the center of town, open even in December.
Wander through the gardens
In addition to the main Colonial Garden, there are smaller gardens open to visitors. Annual pass holders can book a tour of private gardens in the town, each restored in the 18th century style. Other outdoor areas in Colonial Williamsburg include the Palace Green, where you might camp out for a view of the fireworks during the Grand Illumination, and an ice skating rink set up each winter on Duke of Gloucester Street. You might also choose to explore by carriage. There are a variety of horse-drawn carriages offering rides daily, some of which can seat up to nine passengers.
Tour the buildings
In addition to the trade shops, there are a number of governmental buildings open for tours. The iconic Governor’s Palace, the Magazine, and the Courthouse are all common destinations within the historic town. There are also attractions focused on illuminating the experiences of enslaved people in Colonial Williamsburg. One self-guided tour describes the religious heritage of African-Americans, and the Peyton Randolph House highlights the stories of the household’s enslaved members.
Check out the decorations
The most special part of spending Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg is seeing the seasonal decor outside each of the houses and shops. There are many seasonal activities planned throughout the holidays, and time and budget permitting, you might watch a demonstration of how women dressed for cold weather in Colonial times, catch a concert of Yuletide tunes, or learn how the enslaved African-Americans celebrated at the time. But even if you miss all these, you’ll see the unique hand-crafted wreaths on nearly every door you pass. There are guided tours available a few times each day, but you can just as easily enjoy finding these decorations on your own.
Dine at Chowning’s
There are a handful of dining options in and around the historic town, some of which offer special holiday event dinners, but the best is almost undoubtedly Chowning’s. I’m admittedly not one for the costumes and cheesy “period” dialogue, but their hot buttered rum alone is worth the sacrifice. Warming up with a mug of hot buttered rum is easily a highlight of spending Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg. The 18th century style menu is perfect cold December fare, with soups, trenchers, and shepherd’s pie.
More tips for Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg
- There are a number of more luxurious properties near the historic town, including authentic Colonial houses, but if you’re on a budget, more affordable hotels line route 60.
- While Chowning’s is the best of the historic taverns for dinner, you should take your lunch break at the Cheese Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street. Though it will inevitably be crowded (and the line likely confusing), the shop’s sandwiches are practically legendary.
- Most of the historic sites close by 5pm, so time your visit accordingly and be prepared to not hit absolutely every exhibit. If you need to cover the museum thoroughly, make sure you have room in your budget for a multi-day pass.
- The Visitor Center offers free parking with a shuttle bus to reach main sites in the historic town.
- The William & Mary campus is adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg and also quite beautiful. Weather permitting, enjoy a walk here as well — just don’t be disruptive.
Fancy a warmer Christmas? Read my complete guide to planning a trip to Southeast Asia.
Where is your favorite place to spend the holidays if you can’t be at home? Tell me in the comments!
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