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What To Do In Williamsburg VA: Explore Black History, The Outdoors, And Great Food

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

This post is sponsored by Visit Williamsburg


Over 1.5 million visitors made their way to Williamsburg, VA in 2021 and for good reason. The Williamsburg area, which sits between the James and York Rivers, is a popular destination for people interested in exploring U.S. history. It’s home to colonial sites in Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown all within a short drive of each other. Though many don’t think of colonial history as Black history, the experiences of early African Americans in North America are deeply entwined with the story of the development of the United States. Visitors can, and I would say should, explore the richness of Black history during their time in Williamsburg.

In addition, the Williamsburg area is a great base to explore the outdoors as nearby rivers and trails offer a multitude of activities. Visitors shouldn’t ignore the area’s food offerings either. On my trip I found everything from casual lunch offerings to fabulous brunch and the kind of seafood spots where dinner just melts in your mouth, all within this region that’s just a few hours drive from Washington, D.C. As a former DC resident, I can now admit that I missed out when I lived in the area. I should have made a trip to Williamsburg much sooner!

How To Get To Williamsburg

Williamsburg, Virginia is an easy drive from the greater Washington D.C. metro area, taking about two and a half to three hours with minimal traffic. Williamsburg is also served by three airports within a short drive. Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF) is 17 miles away from downtown Williamsburg and both Norfolk International Airport (ORF) and Richmond International Airport (RIC) are 45 miles away.

What To Do In Williamsburg

a hand holding a short brand with little red berries
Exploring the Sankofa Garden at Colonial Williamsburg, a replica of the gardens kept by enslaved peoples

Explore Black history at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum and has been exploring the African American experience through its programming for more than forty years. There, you can explore the gardens, trade shops, and historic sites, meet costumed interpreters sharing the lives of the diverse population of 18th-century Williamsburg, which was 52% African American. Use the African American experience section on the Colonial Williamsburg site to help you plan your visit.

Anela stands at the top of the steps in front of this historic Black church in Williamsburg, VA. The cloudy sky is in the background and the church tower stands tall in the sky.
Anela in front of First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church was organized in 1776, one of the nation’s earliest congregations founded by enslaved and free Black people. The church was home to some of the wealthiest African Americans in the early republic and has been called a “stopping point” on the way to make history. Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is among many activists and leaders who have spoken there.

Contact First Baptist Church to arrange a tour if possible. While you’re there, ring the Freedom Bell if you have the chance. Local women raised money for its purchase in 1886 and former President Barack Obama rang that same bell at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. You can also visit the First Baptist Church Excavation Site nearby at Colonial Williamsburg. The ongoing archaeological project focuses on the second site of the congregation before it moved to its current location and promises to enrich our understanding of the lives of early members of the congregation and Black community.

Anela stands in a helmet on the side of the path, with two ebikes next to her, with a blue sky and water visible in the background
Anela takes a break on the River to River E-Bike Tour

The VA Capital Trail offers 51+ miles of paved pathway running all the way from historic Jamestowne to Richmond, Virginia past numerous parks, restaurants, and attractions. I took a River To River E-Bike Tour with Williamsburg on Wheels, a local Black-owned tour company and loved it! The views of the James and Chickahominy Rivers were stunning and it was a great way to get outside during my time in Williamsburg. I also love that when I wanted a break I could use the throttle to zip along and I could also work up a sweat when I felt like it. It was just the right mix.

Anela stands looking up at a tall thin stone monument reminiscent of the Washington Monument
Anela in front of the Tercentennial Monument at Historic Jamestowne

Explore the first permanent English settlement in America on Jamestown Island, a stunning backdrop for a historical outing.

Historic Jamestowne has excavated 3.5 million artifacts since 1994, so be sure to stop into their archaeology museum exhibits and galleries. Archaeologists are on site Monday through Friday and you can stop to ask them questions as you explore. Be sure to plan a visit on Friday so you can catch the First Africans tour, a regular tour held Fridays at 2 pm that will challenge what you thought you knew about the first Africans in the colonies. Tours are included in the cost of entry at Historic Jamestowne.

Anela sits in a kayak on the river, paddle in hand and life vest on, while she paddles the York River in VA
Anela paddles the York River

Take advantage of area waterways

With the York and James Rivers nearby, ample marinas and islands and beaches to explore, Williamsburg offers a host of activities on and near the water. I rented kayaks from Patriot Tours and Provisions and paddled on the York River during my trip for an idyllic afternoon. Dolphins even played just a few feet away in the water while I paddled! There’s also plenty to explore in nearby Yorktown as well.

Where To Eat And Drink In Williamsburg

Anela sits holding the latte in a large cup, looking down at it smiling, while sitting at an indoor table at Tipsy Beans, a Black-owned cafe in Williamsburg, VA
Anela enjoys a signature latte at Tipsy Beans

This Black-owned cafe is known for its long list of flavored lattes and delicious breakfast!

Located in the shops at High Street, the cafe also offers a full bar and happy hour from 3 pm-6 pm daily. Don’t miss the shrimp and grits or the stuffed french toast!

Anela stands in front of the brightly colored sign at Pierce's, both hands up and spread as if framing the sign to show it off
Anela in front of Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Q

This local institution has been operating for more than 50 years!

At Pierce’s everything is made from scratch, including the incredible desserts, pie crusts, sauces, and more. The restaurant has been featured in numerous publications such as National Geographic, Eater Washington, DC, and more. Don’t miss the ribs or the pecan pie!

A single hand holds up the oatmeal cream pie in front of the Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters sign in Yorktown
A house-made oatmeal cream pie, one of the best sellers at Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters

Mobjack Bay Coffee Roasters is located in historic Yorktown in a building originally built in 1726 that was once a woman-owned coffee and tea house in the late 1800s.

The quaint cafe roast their own coffees, has a full menu of excellent sandwiches and smaller bites, and bakes all day to ensure their house made pastries are always fresh. Enjoy their large back patio and don’t miss out on the freshly baked oatmeal cream pies.

Anela stands in front of Berret's, with a hand on her hip and one foot cocked out, smiling
Anela in front of Berret's

Close to Colonial Williamsburg, Berret's Seafood is another popular local restaurant focusing on fresh seafood.

Everything I tried at Berret’s was cooked to perfection, with tender melt-in-your-mouth salmon and outstanding no-filler crab cakes as standouts. Don’t miss the cobbler of the day either! It’s a local favorite and has been voted “Best in Williamsburg” for over ten years.

a single hand holds up a half sandwich, cut so you can see the cross section, in front of the sign at The Cheese Shop in Williamsburg, VA
The smoked turkey sandwich, add sprouts and roasted peppers, at The Cheese Shop

Originally founded in 1971 in Newport News, the Cheese Shop moved to Williamsburg in 1973.

The widely celebrated Cheese Shop bakes its bread daily and uses high-quality ingredients for sandwiches I would describe as simple perfection. Order from their menu and customize your sandwich as you like. And don’t be intimidated if there’s a line. It moves quickly and it's worth the short wait.

Anela sits at a table at the bistro, elbows on the table holding up a cup with her latte, smiling
Anela at Blue Talon Bistro

This gorgeous French Bistro screams casual chic and is a great stop for breakfast during your time in Williamsburg.

The simple breakfast menu is perfectly executed and the french toast in particular is a standout. Think sweet, hearty, and comforting. Blue Talon Bistro also has covered patio seating.

a bowl sits on the table filled with crispy fried cheese curds topped with diced green onion
The cheese curds at Culture Cafe

I can only describe this eclectic cafe as homey but also fun. The decor is a draw but thankfully the food is also worth staying for. There are vegan and vegetarian menu options, mocktails for those who don’t drink alcohol, and even a space upstairs that would be perfect to set up with a snack and get a bit of work done. Don’t skip the fried cheese curds here. They’re some of the best I’ve ever had and rival any I tried when I was in Wisconsin!

A single hand holds up the sandwich, cut in half and stacked, in front of the side of the food truck with the sign visible.
A specialty melt from The Hungry Pug

Find the Hungry Pug food truck at Billsburg Brewery, close to Historic Jamestowne, seven days a week.

The menu focuses on cheesy comfort items, like the loaded grilled sandwiches called “grillers” on the menu. Grab a bite, pop over to the brewery if you’d like, and enjoy the gorgeous atmosphere as the Hungry Pug and Billsburg are located right on Jamestown marina.

Where To Stay In Williamsburg, VA

The front of the lodge, with entryway doors visible in the red brick siding and a balcony along the top of the building
Williamsburg Lodge

I stayed at the Williamsburg Lodge during my time in the area and loved it! Located in Colonial Williamsburg’s historic area, this modern hotel is actually part of the Autograph Collection of the Marriott Family of hotels.

The rooms are comfortable, the grounds beautiful, there’s a coffee shop to keep you going, and you can walk to many local sites and restaurants!

Williamsburg really surprised me in the best way. I loved that there are so many options to explore history that include a thoughtful exploration of Black history throughout the area. In addition, the natural beauty of Williamsburg begs for an extended visit. And while people may immediately think of history when they consider Williamsburg, the food deserves attention as well. Especially for folks nearby who can make the drive from areas like DC or Virginia Beach, I highly recommend planning a visit to Williamsburg.

If you have any questions about the activities noted here, drop them in the comments! I’m happy to provide as much insight as I can based on my experience.

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