Open a U.S. history book, and Virginia is there. Open a science book or a landscape architecture book, and Virginia is there. Open just about any book about American culture, and Virginia is there.
You get the picture. And the region that borders the state’s Atlantic beaches, the Chesapeake Bay and the banks of the James and York rivers is a rich cultural library that can be used to develop an itinerary for the path from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach. You can showcase indigenous and Colonial history, book an excursion on a three-masted schooner, peek into the world’s largest naval base, look deep into outer space or simply kick back with a relaxing walk along the beach.
“Virginia is America’s history,” said Jim Coggin, tourism sales manager for the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, with a dose of state pride and perhaps a dash of hyperbole. “Everything that has happened in the U.S. has a connection here. There’s no more historic state that has shaped the U.S. than Virginia.”
A granite cross at the Cape Henry Memorial, a spot in Virginia Beach administered by the National Park Service, helps set the stage. Here, in 1607, colonists landed who would establish the first permanent English settlement in North America.
They moved up the James River to create Jamestown, but the first landing site was notable 174 years later when citizens of a nation about to be born watched as a French fleet defeated a British fleet in the Battle of the Capes, the precursor of the British surrender at Yorktown that ended America’s Revolutionary War.
The Jamestown Settlement, the American Revolution Museum and Colonial Williamsburg are three perennially popular major attractions in the region. The group-friendly America’s Historic Triangle ticket makes access easy. A visit to the Busch Gardens Williamsburg theme park is a modern-day complement to the historic attractions.
“As group travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, tour operators are seeking meaningful and unique experiences,” said Victoria Cimino, CEO of Visit Williamsburg.
The Jamestown Settlement has special appeal for active groups. They can explore a Paspahegh Native American community and help scrape out a dugout canoe, board replicas of the three square-rigged ships that delivered the first colonists to Jamestown and try on 17th-century armor (it’s heavy and awkward) as they imagine life in a colonial English fort from 1610-1614.
The American Revolution Museum, which opened in 2016, is a sister attraction operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Visitors see the smoke and feel the retort of a flintlock rifle demonstration at a re-created Continental Army encampment and feel the roar of cannons in the “Siege of Yorktown,” a 12-minute presentation on a 180-degree screen.
Quieter pursuits await at Colonial Williamsburg, which will mark its centennial in 2026. This not-for-profit educational institution is the world’s largest U.S. history museum — 301 acres of the original city, 89 original buildings, 515 reconstructed buildings, plus lodging, modern resort amenities and restaurants with history-influenced menus.
While Colonial Williamsburg focuses on a specific era, it is not frozen in time. It is ever changing.
For instance, have you ever wondered what happens after artifacts are uncovered at an archaeological dig, which are common sights at Colonial Williamsburg? That will change in 2025 when the Colin G. and Nancy N. Campbell Archaeology Center opens.
“This facility [will allow] us to show guests a side of archaeological research that most people don’t see — the process of discovery inside the lab,” said Jack Gary, director of archaeology.
Two highly visible sites are proof of Colonial Williamsburg’s vitality as a tour component. One is the Bray School, and the other is First Baptist Church.
The Bray School operated from 1760 to 1774 and is the oldest extant building dedicated to educating Black children in the U.S. It was hiding in plain sight on the edge of the College of William and Mary campus and was moved to the historic district earlier this year. It is Colonial Williamsburg’s 89th original structure.
A video that explains the importance of the Bray School is clear about its origin, noting that the school was “founded for a deeply flawed purpose — directing enslaved students to accept their circumstances as divinely ordained.” Programming in the building is expected in 2024.
Nearby is a ground-level outline of another important structure, First Baptist Church. The building dates to around 1803, which is notable enough, but its true significance is that it was the first permanent home of a congregation founded by free and enslaved Black people. It was created in secret in 1776. Colonial Williamsburg is building a replica church targeted to open in 2026, the congregation’s 250th year. When complete, it will expand the story of Black worship experiences in colonial times and beyond.
Mariners and More
Just a few miles south, Newport News and Hampton offer more to see and experience.
A good start is the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, designated by Congress as “America’s National Maritime Museum.” It is a treasure of model ships, wooden figureheads, nautical paintings, small watercraft from around the world and a major exhibition about one of the most famous battles in naval history — the first engagement of ironclad ships, the Monitor and the Merrimac.
Two other destinations in Newport News let guests stretch their legs and commune with nature. The Virginia Living History Museum serves as a trip through Virginia’s outdoors, from the coast to the Appalachians. You won’t see them all, but there are 250 animal species here. Other elements include a science museum, an aquarium and a planetarium.
For time in nature, there’s Newport News Park and its 7,780 acres of woodlands, lakes, trails and Civil War fortifications. A step-on guide can be arranged for talks about various topics.
Hampton offers yet another way to experience this part of Virginia aboard the Hampton Queen excursion boat, which began tours this year. Its two-hour itinerary includes Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base; Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort in the U.S.; and Hampton University, founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved. Back on land, Fort Monroe and the Hampton University Museum, the oldest Black museum in the U.S., are recommended tour stops.
“The Hampton University Museum is a treasure that more people need to visit,” said Bruce Newton, vice president of tourism for the city of Hampton.
Sailors and Artists
One of the most photogenic sights in this part of Virginia, the American Rover, is in Norfolk. The three-masted schooner departs from downtown Norfolk for daytime and sunset trips on the Elizabeth River and Hampton Roads Harbor. Passengers can lend a hand to set the distinctive red tanbark sails or take a turn at the helm.
The 149-passenger Victory Rover, a sister vessel, specializes in cruises that focus on Naval Station Norfolk. Its main cabin is air-conditioned main cabin and the bow and top deck have open-air seating.
A ship that doesn’t move, the USS Wisconsin, is another major attraction. It is the largest and last battleship the U.S. Navy built and groups can tour it on their own or have guided tours of the command and control facilities or the engine room. The Wisconsin served from World War II through the First Gulf War.
The gigantic battleship is part of Nauticus, a maritime discovery center on the downtown waterfront.
While the Wisconsin is a symbol of crushing power and strength, the Perry Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art offers delicate beauty and fragility. Narrated glassmaking demonstrations are scheduled every day except Monday. The experience makes visitors want to see other glass art displays in Norfolk, which, according to VisitNorfolk, has more free art glass to see than any other city.
Scheduling a visit to the Perry Glass Studio will allow more time to be spent at the Chrysler. Its collection includes more than 30,000 paintings, sculptures and other pieces, and although not everything is on display, there are 50 galleries to see.
Boardwalk and Beyond
An attraction as simple as sand and surf is at the heart of itineraries that include Virginia Beach, the state’s most populous city, home to nearly half a million people. Tour groups take full advantage of the city’s three-mile-long Virginia Beach Boardwalk.
“Many tour operators schedule extra free time in Virginia Beach to let their guests enjoy the boardwalk,” said Jim Coggin of the city’s CVB. “They will start a day’s itinerary a bit later in the morning or offer a full afternoon for leisure.”
A favorite spot for individual or group photos is the 24-foot-tall King Neptune, a bronze statue on the boardwalk at 31st Street. King Neptune is a gateway to Neptune Festival Park, and he points the way to four boardwalk stages that offer nightly entertainment in summer months.
Virginia Beach experiences include boating excursions aboard the Atlantic Explorer or the Atlantic Scout with the Virginia Aquarium to see what Coggin said is the East Coast’s largest population of bottlenose dolphins. Less common than dolphin sightings, but considerably more dramatic, are sightings of migrating whales during winter months.
Another popular group attraction is the Military Aviation Museum, one of the world’s largest private aircraft collections. Its collection of aircraft from World War I and World War II includes a bright red Fokker DR1 triplane like the one the Red Baron flew in World War I, a Curtiss P-40 with a snarling Fighting Tiger paint job on its nose and a PBY Catalina flying boat.
Visiting with pilots who fly these planes and mechanics who work on them is a special part of box lunch programs. It’s even possible to arrange a flight in one of the vintage biplanes to soar over the boardwalk, look inland to the Virginia farmland or peer over the Atlantic to the distant horizon. Some tour operators book a flight and then organize a contest or a drawing to select the lucky passenger.
Considering all that awaits groups in this compact portion of Virginia, you might think there would be nothing to add, but you’d be wrong. The visitor industry here is already looking ahead to 2026.
Did you immediately figure out why?
2026 is America’s 250th birthday; count on special celebrations to mark the occasion.