Three Nearby Destinations that Make History Come Alive
Within two hours of Northern Virginia are three destinations that cater to history buffs. The recently renovated museums at Jamestown and Yorktown feature the English settlements in Virginia and the time period surrounding the American Revolution. St. Mary’s County in Maryland begins as Indian Territory, and transitions to English settlers who came to America to escape religious discrimination. Lastly, we head to Montpelier Estate, the home of James and Dolley Madison, located in scenic Orange, Virginia. This pivotal couple lived with and entertained the founders of the United States, including fellow Virginian’s George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The beautiful estate is lesser known than Jefferson’s Monticello, but equally inspiring. Vineyards and farmer’s markets surround these three destinations, so, you can enjoy the countryside and learn at the same time!
Yorktown and Jamestown
The two living history museums near Williamsburg, Virginia region are refreshed, with modern interactive experiences families love.
What to See
Start your day at Historic Jamestown for a fully immersive understanding of how the English settlers made their home in the Powhatan Indian territory back in 1607. Led by Captain John Smith, three rickety ships crossed the Atlantic. These English immigrants landed on the shores of tidewater Virginia and set up a fortress and homestead. The Museum has a variety of exhibits, from recreations of those ships, to exhibits dedicated to Pocohontas. The famous Native American woman played an integral role in the survival of Jamestown Settlement and helped negotiate the release of John Smith when warring tribes captured him. The year 2017 is the 400th anniversary of her death.
Outside the expansive museum is a recreation of Jamestown Settlement, as well as a Powhatan village where actors demonstrate their crafts and tools. Enter the Longhouse where Indians lived, cooked, slept, and cared for their families. Tour a re-creation of the settlement where visitors can observe firing weapons, don armor, visit the chapel, and imagine the difficult life of our first British Colonial settlement.
Next, allot several hours to visit a truly revolutionary museum: The American Revolution Museum in Yorktown. Yorktown Battlefield was the scene of the final and deciding battle during the American Revolutionary War against Britain. Learn about life for Colonists, including the women, children, Native Americans and the large population of enslaved individuals as they navigated the harsh life in the colonies before the War for Independence. Then see how each member of society played a role in helping to gain their liberty from the British Crown. Experience a 4-D movie showcasing the sounds, smells, and sights of this bloody war. Learn how Alexander Hamilton played an integral role in this battle using their interactive app.
Where to Stay
Wyndham Garden Williamsburg has modern, spacious rooms with a microwave, fridge, and coffee machine, and serves a daily breakfast buffet. The location provides easy access to both of the museums.
Where to Eat
Riverwalk Restaurant in downtown Yorktown has panoramic views of the James River and some stellar crab cakes, local beers on tap, and a lovely outdoor patio.
St. Mary’s County, Maryland
St Mary’s County is a hidden gem. Located on the remote peninsula between the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll encounter unique attractions history buffs will find fascinating.
What to See
On the way to St. Mary’s County, you’ll pass the charming historic city of Leonardtown. With a few vintage boutiques, Leonardtown City Hall, and five family-owned restaurants, it’s tiny, but entertaining. A little further south on Route 5 is St. Mary’s College campus. Known for their museum studies program, students here are involved in the archeological, educational and historical attractions that have existed in this region since the 16th century.
Built in the 1600’s, Historic St. Mary’s City represents one of the oldest settlements in the United States. British colonists made their way to St. Mary’s on a rickety tall ship called The Dove. Those who survived the crossing found a thriving American Indian population with which they traded and lived side-by-side. Settlers who braved the rough Atlantic Ocean came to practice their Catholic religion. Today, visitors tour replicas of the Dove and the once thriving town. Don’t miss the printing press.
Just twenty minutes north is Sotterley Plantation, an expansive homestead honoring America’s first president, George Washington. A mini-Mount Vernon, the furnishings and décor are Colonial-era. Built in 1703, the beautifully preserved Tidewater Plantation offers panoramic views of the Patuxent River. A unique attraction on the site is the original slave cabin that once accommodated up to ten people. Descendants of the plantation, including those of Sotterley’s enslaved population, play an active role in preserving the estate’s history. Tours offer insights into the many families who lived here from the early 1700’s until 1961.
For military and technology fans, tour the brand new Patuxent River Naval Air Museum which houses a slew of original planes used since the first days of flight continuing to current day. Some highlights include the Phantom II and Skyhawk. Try out the flight simulators and shop at the entertaining gift shop. This is must-stop shop for aviation and military enthusiasts.
Where to Stay
The Inn at Broome Howard is a historic Bed & Breakfast/Inn located on the Patuxent River. Adjacent to the entrance of Historic St. Mary’s City, it’s an ideal location to begin your explorations. The charming guest rooms are spacious and decorated in Early American furnishings. On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way in this remote part of Maryland.
Where to Eat
The Front Porch in downtown Leonardtown is a historic Victorian house turned into a popular bistro featuring Mid-atlantic cuisine and local seafood.
James Madison developed the American Bill of Rights and United States Constitution here in the library of this gracious historic mansion. He and wife Dolley Madison entertained world leaders here before and after his presidency.
What to See
James and Dolley Madison were central players in the founding of the United States, and Montpelier operated as a think tank for political strategy. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette were regular guests. Dolley, the consummate American hostess, is quoted in a letter writing, “Tonight we hosted 100 people for dinner, but fortunately, only 25 stayed the night.”
The first stop is Montpelier’s new Visitors Center. An introductory film is followed by a walking tour of the Mansion and grounds with local historians. They explain how archeologists uncovered artifacts, including excavating the buried slave quarters. Surrounded by 2,650 acres of horse pastures and gardens, check out the Gilmore House, a restored cabin that was home to a freed African American family after emancipation.
Don’t miss the Market at Grelen, a farm featuring the harvest from their fruit orchards, a nursery, and garden center. The small cafe serves vegan quiche and fig jam and toast. Consider a visit to Picker’s Paradise (reclaimed craft and furniture fair), Octoberfest, and glamping for visitors attending the Hunt Races at Montpelier.
Central Virginia has a concentrated collection of vineyards and wineries, including Barboursville, which allows guests to sample 21 different wines. The region is a scenic two hour drive from Washington DC.
Where to Stay
Holladay House Bed & Breakfast is located in heart of downtown Orange, Virginia. Built in 1830, the décor is inspired by America’s important landmarks. Some of the rooms have whirlpool baths and fireplaces. There’s a full breakfast every morning for guests.
Where to Eat
The Light Well (across the street from Holladay House) is an upscale tavern that brews its own craft beer and showcases cuisine from the Virginia Piedmont region. The restaurant hosts live music on Friday evenings, including acoustic, jazz, rock, and country musicians.