Each year, throngs of families flock to the 301-acre educational museum known as The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to experience a taste of 18th-century American life. Open year-round, and with an enviable climate that straddles the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the East Coast, there’s never a bad time to visit here. But those who venture to this sprawling outdoor playground during the fall months are in for a particularly sweet sensory experience.
Scents of apple cider and cinnamon fill the crisp autumn air, mulling with fragrant firewood and smoke that wafts from the town hearths. Leaves of vibrant crimson and saffron cling to the trees and line the pathways throughout the city. And all around, the hustle and bustle of life in this Revolutionary War-era city continues—with a touch more vim than usual since now, the notion of winter is right around the corner. Fall combines some of the region’s best weather with a wide selection of seasonal delights. Here are five reasons why it just may be the perfect time to experience all that historic Williamsburg has to offer.
Virginia may have been designed as a Commonwealth in order to promote the common good, but it shares its wealth in more ways than one—particularly when it comes to its rich natural landscape. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation occupies an especially exquisite swath of land in the state, composed of hundreds of acres of abundant woodland, with a one-mile by one-half-mile parcel of land forming the historic city center. All around, rows of stately old oak trees line the sidewalks, and in autumn, they ignite at once in fiery shades of red, yellow and orange.
Among the best places to leaf-peep here, the Palace Gardens and the Arboretum are certainly at the top. The Governor’s Palace was an important landmark in Virginia’s early settlement era, and it was once home to seven royal governors and two elected governors. Today, it’s simply a must-visit for anyone traveling to historic Williamsburg—and fall is one of the best times of the entire year to stroll through the meticulously manicured 10-acre gardens and boxwood maze.
In fact, the Arboretum of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is a Level 2 Certified Arboretum that’s home to a variety of 18th-century tree and shrub varieties. In an effort to preserve the natural landscape as it would have appeared during the city's founding, the collection is home to 25 period species of oak trees, along with 20 Virginia state champion trees and two national champion trees, the Ziziphus Jujube and the Broussonetia papyrifera. Visitors can experience the spectacular fall foliage up close by signing up for a walking tour of the Arboretum, or simply strolling through historic Williamsburg at leisure. For a more romantic experience, you can also book a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Historic Area.
The Bassett Trace Nature Trail is another excellent way to explore the natural landscape. The 1.4-mile trail is an ideal length for hikers of any level, and it’s home to a wide array of native plant and animal life—in particular, it’s known as a favorite birding spot thanks to over 40 known bird species that traverse the park. While it’s generally open from dawn till dusk, check local trail maps on your arrival to avoid any temporary closures or seasonal surprises in hours.
While you’re likely to want to spend every minute outside enjoying the crisp fall air, the time may come when you’ll want to venture inside for a bit. When this mood strikes, head to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg featuring the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum—two well-trafficked local favorites. There, you can spot colorful works of art along with crafts inspired by the hues of the season.
Historic Trades & Crafts
As the day turns to dusk and the autumn chill begins to take hold, there’s no reason to end the adventure just yet. Stay near warm hearths with a visit to one of the more than 20 trade shops in the Historic Area. Historic Williamsburg is truly alive with artisans and tradespeople working their crafts each day, and the fall affords an ideal time to observe them up close.
Another seasonal highlight is the Firing of the Brick Kiln. In this trade ritual, visitors can watch as an astounding 20,000 hand-molded bricks are fired at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The brickmakers who hone their craft here work around the clock for five days to keep these mega-hot kiln fires burning to a sufficient temperature. And while general admission to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation gives you access to observe, you’ll want to arrive early to find the best vantage—close enough to spot the intricacy of their hard work (and even chat with the brickmakers to ask them questions about their craft), but removed enough from the fires that you can still escape easily to enjoy the light autumn breeze beyond the kiln.
Come nightfall, the adventure is only just beginning in historic Williamsburg. And you’ll soon see that the fall season is about more than the arrival of cooling air and changing leaves. It’s also the countdown to Halloween, and here, that means it’s the ideal time to experience Haunted Williamsburg. As the only official ghost tour experience in historic Williamsburg, this one-hour guided walk takes you through the city's iconic buildings, gardens and squares to uncover the lore of local hauntings. From 18th-century ghost stories that have persisted over time, to more modern-day tales of ghostly encounters, this tour is conducted entirely by candlelight, and it’s sure to leave you with a different kind of chill.
For the adults in your travel crew, this season is also an excellent opportunity to catch a showing of Cry Witch. While it isn’t appropriate for young children due to the nature of its subject matter and performances, this interactive show will leave you haunted long after the curtain falls.
Afterward, head to Revel at Chowning’s Tavern for a decidedly more light-hearted experience. Here, you and your traveling partners (of legal drinking age) can raise a glass to the nation’s colonial history and join in the revelry of this authentic 18th-century style of merrymaking. On your way out, don’t miss the Lighting of the Cressets—the spirited special event that fills historic Duke of Gloucester Street with light, laughter and music.
To make the most of your evenings in historic Williamsburg, book a stay at one of the official resorts so you’ll never be far from the action. With options that range from intimate 18th-century homes to family-friendly lodges, to the Forbes Travel Guide five-star Williamsburg Inn, there's a comfortable accommodation for every visitor here. And to maximize your experience, don’t miss booking a rejuvenating session at The Spa, as well as a brisk end-of-season round at the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club. There are 45 walkable holes on 3 courses that help you take in a little more fresh air and spectacular leaf-peeping during your stay.
No trip to historic Williamsburg would be complete without taking in a show. And visitors this fall can experience a brand new performance for 2022—My Story, My Voice - Joseph Martin, Indian Agent. As part of the museum theatre series, this performance features 18th-century agent of Indian Affairs, Joseph Lynch Martin, as he faces questions at home about his Cherokee wife. As November is Native American History Month, this timely show features a compelling historical drama, along with commentary from the actor/interpreter who brings the story to life.
The fall is also an opportune time to catch the American Indian Life Series, a topical journey presented by a few of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's American Indian interpreters. The series explores aspects of the American Indian experience, past and present, such as their struggle for independence over centuries, or the ways in which their fashion and certain practices have evolved along with that of the European settlers.
Visitors this fall can also experience a range of other new performances, including the comedic Draw Thy Sword, which explores the history of swordcraft and weaponry in Williamsburg, and Isaac Bickerstaff: The Deed Without a Name, a portrait of this real-life 18th-century musician and composer. Whatever your preferred style of play, there’s something new and noteworthy on stage this season.
As if there weren’t enough reasons to visit historic Williamsburg in the autumn, there are a few things that only occur in these months. For one thing, October is Archaeology Month in Virginia, and where better to pay tribute than in one of the state’s earliest living settlements? Experience Archaeology Behind the Scenes, a guided tour that takes visitors on a journey to understand the historic buildings of the town (like Custis Square and the First Baptist Church site), and the many people who have inspired and inhabited them. Guides will also walk you through the Archaeology lab, where you can engage with objects from the settlement’s past, and learn about ongoing excavations that continue to shed new light, informing the stories told at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the present and future.
The fall is also the perfect time to sample seasonal food and drinks. Start with a visit to Chowning’s Cider Stand for a true taste of autumn. Then wander through the Historic Area, sampling your way through a variety of special tastes and treats, some of which are offered only during these few fleeting months of fall. And if your dates allow, book a ticket to Ales Through the Ages, an educational conference taking place November 11-13 that is set to explore the ancient and more recent history of beers and brews. It’s a experience you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s waiting for you at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation this fall.