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Everybody thinks they know Colonial Williamsburg, the famed living museum that recreates pre-Revolutionary America. You probably recall it from a family vacation or school trip taken some 20 or 30 (or more) years ago. But it’s much better than you remember.

The food-and-drink scene is pleasantly surprising, including good local beer and wine and menus featuring coastal Southern cuisine, and there’s much to explore beyond Williamsburg itself. Here’s how to best spend a long weekend in this history-rich corner of Virginia, including everything you’ll want to see and do that make the old classic worth revisiting.

RELATED: 3 perfect days in Richmond, Virginia

Day 1: Colonial Williamsburg

If you have kids, start at the visitors’ center and ask about RevQuest (free with your Williamsburg admission). RevQuest allows participants to take on the role of a spy for George Washington, and gather and deliver critical war information using a phone app and the help of Williamsburg townspeople. Some of the problems are challenging (best for ages 7-12 or so) and the game takes you all over town, ensuring that you see a lot.

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Flickr CC: C Watts

Strolling the colonial streets, you might have the opportunity to play colonial games like tug-of-war, help in a colonial garden, sit down to tea with a local housewife or assist the local printer. Quite a bit of activity happens out in the streets, including an hour-long “play” in the morning that begins with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and unfolds as various townspeople—men, women, black, white, wealthy, poor—drift in and out with conversations that shed light on how the impending war might affect them. You might think that listening to the full Declaration would be dull, but as with Shakespeare plays, reading it out loud breathes life into it.

Cheesy as it might seem, stay in the colonial town for dinner at Chowning’s Tavern. The pub fare is good (kids will like the house sodas) and musicians wander through the dining room and play the fiddle or penny whistle.

After dinner, consider capping off the evening with a ghost tour; a few local companies offer them. The tours are fine for kids and feature tales of thwarted lovers, wronged soldiers and feuding rivals. One late-night tour—best for teens and adults—takes you to the nation’s first insane asylum (cue spooky laugh).

Day 2: Yorktown

This day starts at Merchants Square, a pedestrian zone between the colonial town and the College of William & Mary. Here a Saturday morning outdoor market offers up baked goods, southern produce and specialties like green-tomato jam and Virginia peanuts. Grab coffee from one of the stores on the square and head down the scenic Colonial Parkway to Yorktown, about 20 minutes away.

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown reopened this spring after a $50-million renovation that more than doubled its size and updated its exhibits. High-quality films, interactive screens and well-curated displays take you from the Boston Massacre to the Treaty of Paris. They did a wonderful job. A nearly 360-degree, 4D theater dramatizes the decisive battle of Yorktown with seats that shake with each cannonball volley. On one large touch screen a personality quiz tells you which real-life period person you might have been and lets you learn about them in their own words. Near the end of the exhibit, digital lanterns hang from a liberty tree; use a touch screen to add your thoughts to the tree.

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Imbued with a fresh take on the war, head outside to the living history portion of the museum, which includes an army encampment and farm.  This might seem redundant after Williamsburg, but yesterday you were in town, where merchants, bankers and traders remained loyalists. Yorktown is the countryside, where independent-minded farmers tended to favor independence. The two experiences complement each other.

If you need a lunch break between the two parts of the museum, drive five minutes to the Yorktown waterfront for lunch. The Yorktown Pub offers steamed, fried and raw seafood and other pub fare. It’s more kid-friendly than it might look. The Beach Delly next door is bright and less expensive and does a great oyster Po’Boy. On the lighter side, look to the Carrot Tree Café for wraps, soups and salads.

When you’re done with museum for the day consider returning here to relax on the beach. There are places to change into bathing suits, rock jetties to climb on and even an old cave you can peek into.

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Day 3: Jamestown and wine tasting

On your way to Jamestown, the final point in the local “historic triangle,” stop at the Old Chickahominy House for breakfast. Part antiques store and part restaurant, it features from-scratch southern cooking like grits, biscuits and Virginia ham at breakfast and Brunswick stew, dumplings and pie at lunch.

Continue down the Jamestown Road to the Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestown National Park. You can start at either place, but leave more time for the Settlement.

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The National Park is the location of the original fort and a working archeology site. A guided tour explains all the things we thought we knew about Jamestown. At a small “Ed Shed” kids can print replicas of the artifacts found at the site on a 3D printer.

The Jamestown Settlement, meanwhile, explores the English, Native American and African cultures that came together at Jamestown with carefully selected artifacts and touch screens. Visit a recreated English settlement, a Powhatan village and replicas of the ships the colonists traveled on. There are lots of interpreters around who are knowledgeable and eager to talk. 

Try to leave Jamestown in time to stop by the Williamsburg Winery for a tasting. A flight is $10 and some of the white and dessert wines are pretty good. Tastings are done standing at the bar while kids and non-tasters hang out at nearby tables. 

Where to eat

Merchants Square is a good spot for dinner. Dog Street has a key corner location and is always lively while Trellis Bar & Grill has the most interesting kids menu; both have good food. The best place is Berret’s Seafood Restaurant, a little off the square. The service is friendly and the she-crab soup is perfect.

Where to stay

The Woodlands Hotel & Suites is made for families and features a pool, water play area, playground, mini-golf and pretty good casual restaurant. It’s adjacent to the Williamsburg Visitor’s Center, which is handy. For a more secluded experience try the verdant Historic Powhatan Resort near Jamestown.

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Tagged: Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

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