Destinations often call to mind other locales. Quebec City has a whiff of Paris to it, Laguna Beach can feel vaguely Italian, and the horse farms of New York’s Hudson Valley offer whispers of the English countryside.
Williamsburg–founded in 1632 as Middle Plantation–is so completely American, with history presented by such an animated community, that it’s difficult to compare it with anywhere else.
Today the city can be amusingly typecast as a place for field trips, costumes, and Revolutionary War reenactments. But on a recent trip there, I ventured outside the historic colonial district to discover a vibrant college town, a burgeoning foodie scene, and landscapes that brought out my inner adventurer.
Here are some of the things I loved most about Williamsburg:
> Food & Wine
Hogarth’s: A single visit to Hogarth’s Bar and Bistro feels like you’ve found your neighborhood Cheers bar, thanks to the gracious, witty hospitality of its owners, Cathie Upton and Chris Hogarth. The food is equally comforting. You can’t go wrong with the brussels sprouts, pizzas, or seafood.
Adagio Wine at Williamsburg Winery: The grounds and restaurants at Williamsburg Winery lend a European elegance to the Virginia countryside, but it was the award-winning Adagio that hooked me. This bold, rich red varietal, made from the perfect blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot grapes, is something you’ll want to share with friends and family back home.
The Cheese Shop: This prime spot on Merchants Square is beloved by William and Mary students, locals, and tourists alike. Lines snake out the door at peak hours making it tough to snag a seat, but the Cheese Shop‘s custom-made sandwiches will hook you in no time flat (top yours with their secret housemade dressing). Plus, the place is stocked with perfectly browsable epicurean delights that make the wait worthwhile.
Jamestowne Archaeologists: The site of America’s first permanent English settlement (established in 1607) and its first representative government (in 1619), Historic Jamestowne can easily lay claim to the title of “America’s Birthplace.” When I think of this country’s gleaming modern cities–from NYC to L.A., Chicago to Dallas–and the trials and glories of our history, it amazes me that it can all be traced back to this tiny island. Compared with other archaeological sites around the world, Jamestowne grants visitors exceptionally intimate access to the team that has been working to solve the lingering mysteries of this newly rediscovered relic for the past 20 years.
> Natural Landscapes
Jamestown Discovery Tours: Take a short excursion on the James River with Captain Cory in a cozy boat built especially for this tour to get a better sense of the area’s natural assets. While the scenic beauty is something to write home about, the real highlight is getting to see Historic Jamestowne from the river–just as Captain John Smith and the first settlers saw it for the first time after their long voyage across the Atlantic from England.
Historic Yorktown: Just minutes from the Yorktown Battlefield, this tiny town has a few cute shops, a great pub (Yorktown Pub), and waterfront restaurants that are great for Sunday brunch. Walk up the small hill to see the swanky homes, some of them relics of an 18th-century tobacco boom which made local residents very wealthy.
> Arts & Culture
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum: Filled with lavishly beautiful British and American art and antiques, these pieces also tell a story about the tastes and values of the people who lived in Williamsburg in the colonial era. Aside from collections of silver, tableware, and furniture, an exhibit on the London Foundling Hospital tells a rarely told story about a charity that took in thousands of “illegitimate” or unwanted babies with no questions asked.
Muscarelle Museum of Art Lecture Series: If you want to go where the locals go, look up the latest slate of lectures at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, located on the William Mary campus. When I was in town, the line up included speakers that covered topics as diverse as library architecture and modernism in Paris. But, perhaps best of all, is the fun, curious group of locals you’ll get to meet after the Q&A session concludes.
> Stays & Shopping
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Local Shopping: Not surprisingly, my two favorite spots were outside the historic district. You’ll absolutely find something to love at family-owned A Touch of Earth Gallery, housing an impressive collection of regional pottery, paintings, and jewelry. I bought two beautiful serving platters by a local artist. Stopping into Quirks of Art, a mood-lifting, colorful party of a store that’s great for finding gifts, will brighten your day.
The Williamsburg Lodge: Despite its casually rustic moniker, the Williamsburg Lodge is elegant, wonderfully cozy and is an easy walk to everything in the historic district. The inn’s in-house restaurant, Traditions, is one of the city’s great restaurants even if you’re not a guest.
> See for yourself the best Williamsburg has to offer: