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What You Can Do in Colonial Williamsburg for Free

  • Post last modified:May 16, 2022
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If you’ve looked into the costs of Colonial Williamsburg, you may be debating if it’s even worth visiting. Funny thing is, Colonial Williamsburg is actually free, it’s just not advertised that way.

Having an attraction ticket gets you into the historic buildings and access to special presentations. However, Colonial Williamsburg’s historic center is open to the public. With a surprising number of things to see and do, many visitors don’t need a ticket to enjoy their visit.

In this article we discuss all the things you can do in Colonial Williamsburg without a full access ticket.

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Colonial Williamsburg does not sponsor us, we just enjoyed our time and felt you would too.

Why is Colonial Williamsburg Famous?

Brick facade and gate of the Capitol Building, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Ninety-two years after Jamestown’s historic founding, North America’s first permanent English colony relocated their capital to Middle Plantation, today known as Williamsburg.

Immediately we noticed how wide Williamsburg’s streets were. In stark contrast to typical English towns, everything felt organized and well-spaced. Designed in 1699, Governor Francis Nicholson insisted Williamsburg was to be a “new and well-ordered city.” He envisioned Virginia’s new capital as the largest and most populous of the British colonies.

Williamsburg remained the capital for less than a hundred years. In 1780, Virginia’s capital moved up the James River again, to Richmond, where it stands today. 

In 1926, John D. Rockefeller funded a massive restoration of Williamsburg’s historic 18-century buildings. The project catapulted Williamsburg into national attention. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt visited in 1934, where he declared Williamsburg’s Duke of Gloucester Street, “the most historic avenue in America.”

What You Can Do in Colonial Williamsburg Without a Ticket

Hunt for Souvenirs in Merchants Square

Merchants Square is the newer section of Williamsburg. Basically, it’s a shopping district with a range of adorable boutiques. You’ll find everything from clothing shops to a candy store, to a cheese shop, to a British gift shop with some lovely coats, might I add. This is also where you’ll find many of the restaurants.

Busy streets of Markets Square, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Parking for Free in Colonial Williamsburg

Merchants Square has several parking areas. Some are free, but often full. Either get there early or use the Passport App lots for two hours free parking. Free parking is also available around the Visitors Center. Colonial Williamsburg has a good map on parking in the area.

Wander the Streets of Colonial Williamsburg

Despite the town resembling an old-world theme park, it’s completely free to stroll through Colonial Williamsburg. The town’s main attraction are the 18th-century buildings.

Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Old home with moss and ladder on roof, Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Many of the buildings in Colonial Williamsburg are original. How do we know? Well, even without a ticket we could read the little plaques on the buildings. They don’t deep dive into the property’s history, but most include the year and a short snippet about the owners or the building’s original purpose.

Historical description signage on original building, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Browse the Old-World Shops

Without paying for a ticket, most buildings within Colonial Williamsburg are off-limits. However, they make an exception if goods are on offer. In other words, most shops will still happily take your money.

These shops are within the old town district. They look identical to the other buildings, so you’ll need to read the signs. Shopkeepers are even in period costume and try to stay in character as they engage with you.

Here are a few of the shops open to the public.

  • Prentis Store – Souvenir shop
  • Market House – Outdoor souvenir shop
  • John Greenhouse Store – Souvenir shop
  • William Pitt Store – Children’s old-world toy and book shop
  • Tarpley, Thompson & Company – 18th century dress shop
  • McKenzie Apothecary – Snacks and Drinks
  • Raleigh Town Bakery – Bakery goods
  • Dubois Grocer – Small grocery shop with sweets and treats
  • Christiana Campbell’s Tavern – Noted as George Washington’s favorite seafood restaurant, today they still specialize in 18th century cooking.
*Note: Some buildings are seasonal and are not open year-round.
Raleigh Tavern Bakery sign on white picket fence, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Large brick ovens of the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

How to Know When a Building in Colonial Williamsburg is Open and Free

As we explored the town, we found it challenging to know what we could go into and what we couldn’t. This was until we realized two things.

  1. All open buildings have a little Grand Union flag in front. It looks just like a US flag with the red and white stripes, but it has the British Union Jack in the upper left corner. Don’t go trying doors without a flag out front, there are private residences in Colonial Williamsburg.
  2. Typically, if entrance requires a ticket, you’ll notice one or two people in period clothing hanging around out front. Like bouncers, they make sure you’ve paid to be in the club.

However, we use the word “typically,” on #2 because we found both the Public Gaol and Presbyterian Meetinghouse unguarded. Later, we learned these buildings do require a ticket, but they are considered self-guided.

Grand Union Flag flying on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Two women in period clothing standing on courthouse steps , Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Attend a Street Performance

Another completely free aspect of Colonial Williamsburg are the street performances.

As we walked down the town’s main street, Duke of Gloucester, a crowd seemed to appear from nowhere. Confused, we waited to see what was happening. Next thing we knew, we were part of an interactive town meeting. A period actor literally jumped on his soap box to declare we needed to push back on the King’s overreach.

Other Colonial Williamsburg events that are free and open to the public include Public Auctions and the 18th-Century Field Music with Fifes & Drums.

Check the Event Calendar or watch for forming crowds. Some events are open to the public but require separate event tickets.

Performer in period clothing with crowd gathered, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Transform into Character

It wasn’t just the actors modeling 18th century clothes. Pop into the Tarpley, Thompson & Company to pick out your own outfit. No ticket needed to rent or purchase a costume.

Though we mostly saw kids joining in the fun, we passed several elegant ladies enjoying their day.

Old fashined hats with colorful ribbons hanging for sale, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Play a Little Game

Have a keen eye? Love scavenger hunts? Make visiting Colonial Williamsburg into a little game and notice details you would have missed.

The book Locate IT Games: Colonial Williamsburg turns visiting Colonial Williamsburg into a little adventure.

  • In the first section of the book, you’ll encounter a list of items to find throughout your day.
  • The second section uses cropped photos to put your investigative senses to work as you match up images with real life places.

The best part, all the items are in public view. There’s no need to purchase a Colonial Williamsburg ticket. 

Climb Aboard a Horse and Carriage

Private horse and carriage rides are a popular way to see Colonial Williamsburg, especially since the town requires so much walking.

Rides are not free, but tickets are separate from the main attraction. Though, having a Colonial Williamsburg ticket supplies a discount towards the carriage rides. Purchase tickets at the Colonial Williamsburg ticketing window. They sell out fast, so it’s best to reserve your spot early.

Horse drawn carriage touring through Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Explore Colonial Williamsburg's Haunted Side

Like the horse and carriage rides, Colonial Williamsburg ghost tours are not free. However, they do not require a main attraction ticket to book.

Haunted Williamsburg’s one-hour candlelit walking ghost tour strolls through town to chat with costumed storytellers who share their unnerving tales.

When It Makes Sense to Buy a Ticket for Colonial Williamsburg

Obviously, visitors can still enjoy Colonial Williamsburg without a full access ticket, but sometimes it makes sense to buy one. Buying a ticket might make sense if you…

  • have at least one full day, ideally two, dedicated to Colonial Williamsburg. There’s so much to do.
  • enjoy living history museums, engaging with actors, and learning about life in the colonial days.
  • want to see inside the buildings. 

For us, we couldn’t rationalize the steep ticket prices for the time we dedicated to visiting the site, a half-day, plus an evening. Though we had four days in the area, we used those days for other attractions we prioritized, like Jamestown, Yorktown, and going to the coast for Fort Monroe.

We weren’t interested in the living history aspect of Colonial Williamsburg, but it would have been nice to see the inside of the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol Building. If there were less expensive individual tickets for just those sites, we would have toured one of them.

Even though we didn’t buy tickets, we still had a wonderful time at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lumber yard tourist attraction, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Where to Eat in Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg’s historic city center has plenty of places to eat. Most restaurants felt very touristy to us, which are the types of places we avoid, but we did find a few gems worth mentioning.

Second Street Bistro Burger with fries, Williamsburg, Virginia
Second Street Bistro Pimento Cheese Chicken Sandwich with fries, Williamsburg, Virginia
  • Rick’s Cheese Steaks – Following the recommendation of local William & Mary college kids, we grabbed a sub from Rick’s. Not only was it delicious, but both the sub and the fries were huge. Luckily, we were warned. Either come super hungry or plan to share.
  • Second Street American Bistro – Just off the Colonial Parkway, Second Street was one of our favorite finds in the area. Jeremy was happy with his Smokehouse Burger and fries. I went out of my comfort zone but was heavily rewarded by the pimento cheese and collards fried chicken sandwich. I know, it sounds a mess, but it was really good. If you like trying new things, you must give it a go.
  • Lanna Thai – We enjoyed their Pad Thai with satay chicken. Portions were big enough to share on a takeaway order.
  • Dale House Cafe – You’ll likely end up at Historic Jamestowne National Park during your visit to the area. Typically, we don’t recommend eating onsite at attractions, but Dale House is an exception. Not only is their location convenient, but it’s also beautifully serene. Be sure to grab a table outside overlooking the James River. Plus, we really enjoyed our sandwiches. I have to recommend the turkey and brie on cinnamon swirl bread – Yum! All the way around it was a win. 

Where to Stay in Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg’s central location makes it easy to visit Colonial Williamsburg, but also Jamestown and Yorktown.

  • Patriots Inn – We stayed here and felt it was good value. The location was superb, and the large one bedroom included a full kitchen. Oddly, we even had two full bathrooms.
  • A Williamsburg White House Inn – Perfect for anyone looking for a Bed and Breakfast experience with tons of character. The rooms in this century-old estate are clean, large, and tastefully decorated.
  • Marriott’s Manor Club at Ford’s Colony – A little further out of town, this luxury manor has everything you need to make it a special trip. They have three pools, a hot tub, and a 54-hole golf course. Plus, all the Villas have full kitchens.
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