The splendid re-creation of Colonial Williamsburg is an essential tourist experience for anyone with a flair for American history. While you have to buy a pricey ticket to look inside the restored buildings, the grounds are open all the time, and you can wander freely down the cobblestone streets and across the green commons.
From the Wren Building on the William and Mary campus, separated from Colonial Williamsburg by a mock-historic shopping centre, Duke of Gloucester Street runs east through the historic area to the old Capitol. The first of its eighteenth-century buildings is the Episcopalian Bruton Parish Church, where all the big names of the Revolutionary period were known to visit, and which has served as a house of worship for nearly three hundred years. Behind the church, the broad Palace Green spreads north to the Governor’s Palace. West of the church, the 1771 courthouse and the octagonal powder magazine, protected by a guardhouse, face each other in the midst of Market Square. Further along, Chowning’s Tavern, a reconstruction of an alehouse that stood here in 1766, is a functioning pub with lively entertainment.
The real architectural highlight is the Capitol, a monumental edifice at the east end of Duke of Gloucester Street. The current building, a 1945 reconstruction of the 1705 original, has an open-air ground-floor arcade linking two keyhole-shaped wings. One wing housed the elected, legislative body of the Colonial government, the House of Burgesses, while the other held the chambers of the General Court – where alleged felons, including thirteen of Blackbeard’s pirates, were tried.
The “merchants” of Duke of Gloucester Street have been done up as eighteenth-century apothecaries, cobblers and silversmiths, and the docents inside are an excellent source of historical information on their respective crafts; taking part in a casual conversation or working demonstration can be an excellent way to get into the spirit of things – learning about anything from making bullets and saddles to printing presses and wigs. The Raleigh Tavern along Gloucester Street was where the Independence-minded colonial government reconvened after being dissolved by the loyalist governors in 1769 and again in 1774; the original burned down in 1859.
The imposing two-storey Governor’s Palace, at the north end of Palace Green, has a grand ballroom and opulent furnishings, and must have served as a telling declaration of royal power, no doubt enforced by the startling display of swords, muskets and other deadly weaponry interlaced on the walls of the foyer.