Even though today, Williamsburg is a relatively small town of 15,000 residents, it’s one of the most important historical centers of the USA. Williamsburg is a city that breaths history and is a premier center for the preservation of American colonial history. History lovers will find a lot of exciting things to do in Williamsburg, including exploring the first English settlements in America, one of the oldest universities in the US, and much more. However, in this post, we’ll focus on the museums in Williamsburg VA. We’ll cover all of the museums you can visit during your trip to Williamsburg, tell you some must-see exhibits, and share a lot of useful tips and tricks.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum
The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is the world’s first museum dedicated to American folk art. In case you’re not familiar with the term, American folk art represents paintings created by self-taught artists (without formal art education), mostly consisting of old family portraits, scenes of the rural landscape, or paintings of everyday utilitarian ware. This genre has grown in popularity throughout the years and today presents a big part of American culture and history.
Inside The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, you can expect to find a lot of American folk art related to the lives of the first Europeans who inhabited Williamsburg in the 17th century. The museum has an impressive collection of exhibitions, including iron objects from the 18th century, American shop paintings, outdoor sculptures, and a quirky collection of old German toys. Personally, my favorite part of the museum are the rotating displays that showcase important parts of the history of the first settlers.
This list of the best museums in Williamsburg VA couldn’t be complete without (arguably) the largest outdoor living museum in the USA. Colonial Williamsburg is a setting that consists of over 100 original and reconstructed buildings that date back to the late 1600 and early 1700s. In Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll also find many costumed interpreters who try to recreate the atmosphere of Colonial Williamsburg in the era before the American Revolution.
This part of the town is home to the Capitol Building which was the political center of Virginia (at the time, the largest and wealthiest colony of England), and the Duke of Gloucester Street, arguably the most charming (and best-preserved) colonial street in the whole country. In addition to this, you can also find a lot of still functional colonial-style taverns, shops, well-decorated gardens, and many other colonial architectural gems.
Visitors can also enjoy carriage rides, candlelight tours, and other group tours or activities. Just make sure to check the daily schedule to see which tours/activities are available on which date.
Dating back to 1722, the legendary Governor’s Palace served as the social center of Williamsburg for years. During its heyday, the palace hosted some of the most glamorous gala dinners and balls in the country. In other words, it was a place built to showcase Royal authority but things changed after the Revolution when the building became home to the first two governors of Virginia (Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson).
Most of the building was burned down in 1781 but the construction of an identical replica was completed in 1934. After this, the palace was opened to visitors and it quickly became one of the most popular museums in Williamsburg VA.
Inside the building, you can still see the beautifully appointed room and charming colonial interior, and fascinating Medieval decorations. Outside, you can find a beautiful garden with beautifully decorated patios and a Victorian-style hedge maze.
The Presidents Park was a sculpture park/museum that featured giant sculptures of the heads of all presidents starting from George Washington and ending with George W. Bush. All sculptures were designed by a single artist, David Adickes, and the park was opened in 2004. However, back in the days, the park didn’t attract much attention and because of this, it got into financial troubles that ultimately lead to its closure in September of 2010.
However, the statues were bought at a foreclosure auction by Howard Hankins from Croaker, Virginia. The statues can be seen at his property, roughly 10 miles away from its old location. The place is open to visitors and it seems to attract much more attention today than it did back in the day.
Bassett Hall is one of the 88 original surviving buildings of Colonial Williamsburg. According to estimates, it was built somewhere between 1753 and 1766 by House of Burgesses’ member Philip Johnson. The house comes with 585 acres of lawn, gardens, and woodlands and is also known for being home to the Rockefellers from 1936 to 1948. In case you’re not aware, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had the vision to make Williamsburg great again by restoring some of the town’s most important historical landmarks and monuments.
They started by buying Bassett Hall in 1927 and continued with restoring the colonial part of the town and by opening the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. The interior is very well-preserved and decorated in the same way that the Rockefellers left it. Inside you’ll find a lot of vintage decorations and fascinating samples of American folk art.
Today, Bassett Hall is one of the most prominent examples of colonial architecture in Williamsburg and it also serves as a tribute to the Rockefellers and their contribution to the restoration of the city.
Muscarelle Museum of Art
A part of the Lamberson Hall on the William & Mary University Campus, the Muscarelle Museum of Art is one of the finest art museums in Williamsburg VA. They have a wide range of displays and seasonal exhibitions on many different topics, from historical artifacts to modern art exhibits. The museum also has a permanent collection that permanently grows funded by generous donations to the museum’s gallery.
Some of my favorite collections include the Colonial American collection and the collection of English portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries that gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of America’s first settlers.
Virginia Musical Museum
If you’re a music lover, this is one museum in Williamsburg VA that you don’t want to miss. Opened in 2013, this museum is one of the most recent additions to Williamsburg’s museum scene but its origins go way back to the 1960s. It was around this time when Jesse and Peggy Parker started collecting all instruments from Virginia (but other parts of the USA too). The collection grew larger with time until they decided that it’s big enough for them to open their own museum.
Some of the most interesting instruments you can see here include a 1770 Joshua Shudi harpsichord, nickelodeons dating back to 1905, phonographs made by Thomas Edison, a rich music box collection, and a very rare Wurlitzer Caliola band organ.
In addition to rare instruments, you can also expect to find a collection of music-related memorabilia, including Wayne Newton’s 1978 roadster, Patsy Cline’s hand-made scarf, Ella Fitzgerald’s performing dress, The Statler Brothers performing outfits, Ralph Stanley’s golden banjo, and much more!
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Gallery is another museum dedicated to British and American fine arts that focuses on the period between the 17th and 19th centuries. The museum was open after a $12 million donation by DeWitt Wallace and his wife Lila Bell Acheson Wallace. Today, this museum is co-located with the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum with both of them retaining their respective names.
The museum is primarily famous for its fascinating samples of colonial art but there are also some quirky collections that attract a lot of visitors. Some examples include the largest collection of English porcelain outside of the UK, the largest collection of furniture in the American south, and one of the largest collections of English silver in the US.
Peyton Randolph House
The Peyton Randolph House is another historic house-museum located in Colonial Williamsburg. The house was home to Peyton Randolph who was the first president of the Continental Congress. Most of the house has been restored/reconstructed but its oldest portion that dates back to 1715 remains intact to this day. Considering the great condition that the house is in, it should come as no surprise that it has been designated a National Historic Landmark since 1973.
And if you like visiting houses that used to belong to important historic figures, you should also check out the Wythe House. Built in the mid-1750s, this house was home to George Wythe, father of American jurisprudence and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Similar to the Peyton Randolph House, the Wythe House is also listed as a National Historic Landmark.
Fun fact: prior to the Siege of Yorktown, the house was also the headquarters of General George Washington in September of 1781.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not
Personally, not my favorite choice but since we’re covering all museums in Williamsburg, we should definitely give it a mention. I mean, sure, Ripley’s Believe It or Not has no shortage of amazing stories, but there are also many other Ripley’s museums around the US, and most of the exhibits are not related to Williamsburg. The museum has more than 350 exhibits, 11 rotating galleries, and a rare 4d theater that shows 3d movies with added effects.
In the end, we’ll share a few more museums that are in near proximity to Williamsburg. The next three museums are located in Jamestown and Yorktown respectively but they are no more than 15 miles away from Williamsburg.
If you’re in a big city like Los Angeles or New York, you can pass this distance without even getting to downtown (depending on where you are). We also decided to add these three important museums to our list of museums in Williamsburg VA because no trip to Williamsburg and Virginia is complete without visiting them.
Historic Jamestowne is an archaeological site/open-air museum that displays more than 1,000 artifacts that were discovered on-site since excavations started. Most artifacts on display tell the history of the area surrounding Jamestown, going back to as early as prehistoric times. The largest collection in Historic Jamestowne consists of the Archaearium (the Archaeological Museum) which houses more than 4,000 artifacts.
Here, you can learn not only about the lives of the first settlers but also about the indigenous tribes that inhabited the area prior to the arrival of the settlers. You can also explore most of the 33 digging sites, the remains of old buildings, and the artisan shops in the area. The admission is also accompanied by a free walking tour guided by one of their knowledgeable archaeologists.
Located next to Historic Jamestowne lies the first successful English settlement on North American soil, the Jamestown Settlement. Through series of artifacts and remains, this historical site brings to life the story of the first settlers. Some of the most notable attractions feature a recreation of the original James Fort, replicas of the settlers’ ships, and a replica of Powhatan, the local Native American village.
You’ll also see many costumed interpreters doing their best in trying to give you a glimpse of how the lives of the first settlers looked like, as well as how the Powhatan people prepared food and made tools necessary for survival. These recreations are based on archaeological evidence, written sources, and artifacts that have been found on-site throughout the years.
American Revolution Museum
Last but not least, in neighboring Yorktown, we round up this list of the best museums in Williamsburg VA with The American Revolution Museum. As its name suggests, this museum tells the story of America’s founding through its interactive indoor exhibitions that feature galleries, films, and outdoor living experiences.
The museum’s amazing galleries will show the process of colonial status to nationhood and how the American Revolution unfolded while the living history re-creations of the Continental Army camp and Revolution-era farm will take you back in time. This museum also has irregular events in its program as well as rotating exhibitions that offer an in-depth look at topics during the Revolutionary War.
If you’re planning to devote a few days exploring the old Jamestown settlement and the American Revolution Museum, I recommend you pre-book your 7-day ticket (applies for both sites) for only $28 by using this special offer.
Tours to take in Williamsburg VA
Helpful resources for visiting Williamsburg
To save on accommodation, you can use my Booking code and save up to 20% on all accommodation properties in town.
If you want to rent a car in Williamsburg, you can use AutoEurope to compare the prices of all car rental agencies in the area. This way, you can always make sure you’re getting the best deal possible.
If you’re traveling to the US for the first time, make sure to check out our list of things to know before visiting America and this list of hidden gems in the US if you’re looking for a different experience.
Last but not least, don’t forget about travel insurance. You can always buy cheap plan but when buying travel insurance, you shouldn’t only compare the prices; you should also compare what the package covers. And most cheap travel insurance vendors don’t cover even the basic things unlike World Nomads. Their plans are on the expensive side but you’re covered no matter what happens
Did you ever visit Williamsburg? How did you like our list of the best museums in Williamsburg VA? Do you think we didn’t mention some other interesting museums? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
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