Yorktown, Virginia, offers rolling green fields and farms rich in history, where you can walk in the steps of America’s founding fathers. And it sits on the banks of the York River. Its location on this waterway was what led to its involvement in the famous Revolutionary War battle. Both sides relied on Navy ships plying the river. Whoever held Yorktown controlled this important water highway.
The town is compact, and you can stroll along the riverfront. Plenty of delicious local cuisine is on hand. The water is perfect for kayaking and paddle boarding. Add in a sandy beach, art galleries, specialty shops, and a graceful bridge, and you have a delightful place to spend a memorable day.
Yorktown beckons you to explore the momentous battle that played a crucial role in forming the United States. On a recent day spent in Yorktown, I took in these sites and was amazed at the quality of everything from the museum exhibits to the recreated army encampment to the battlefield tour. Here are the main activities in Yorktown. Plan your day according to your interests and enjoy!
Start At The American Revolution Museum At Yorktown
Start your sightseeing day at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Here, across the street from the York River, this brick museum contains a surprising number of displays that bring to life the events of the birth of the United States. After securing your tickets, watch the introductory film, Liberty Fever for an overview of the 1770s and 1780s. The story is told by a traveler from the 1800s who has gathered stories of the American Revolution.
Then make your way to the exhibits that feature military equipment, maps, engravings, and personal effects. Interactive exhibits are mixed in, along with more excellent videos. Set in chronological order, the sections of the museum end with a look at the new nation. Challenges faced by the fledgling United States are detailed, with the Constitution finally addressing an official framework.
Be sure to go to the theater that shows a 4D experience of the siege of Yorktown. You are on the battlefield in 1781 with wind, smoke, and thunderous cannon fire. Actors portray General Washington, an army sapper who helped build fortifications at Yorktown, and Sarah Osborn, who followed the army to serve food and coffee to the troops. Alexander Hamilton stars as the leader of his troops as he calls, “Rush on boys!” when they attack the last British defenses.
Pro Tip: After a morning in the museum, you will be ready for lunch or snacks. A small café is open seasonally and serves sandwiches, soups, and cornbread. The gift shop also has food and drinks.
Travel Back In Time At The Continental Army Encampment
After perusing the museum, head outside to the living history exhibits set in a clearing at the edge of the forest. These are included in your entrance ticket.
First you come to the Continental Army Encampment, with its rows of white tents. Here, the daily life of a Continental Army soldier is recreated in fascinating detail. You are free to interact with the historical interpreters. They happily answer questions so don’t be afraid to speak up.
The “kitchen” is formed from a dry moat of dirt, with a mound of earth in the middle. Cooks prepare food here over wood fires. Nearby, a soldier demonstrates how to load and fire a musket.
The surgeon’s tent proved most interesting to me. You can chat with the surgeon and learn about 18th century treatments for wounds and illnesses. He talked through the procedure for amputation, holding up the saw. Then he explained that General Washington required all the men in his army to be vaccinated for smallpox. Cuts were made in the arm, then the “vaccine” was poured in. Pre-hypodermic, this was primitive but effective.
Pro Tip: Watch your step here. While I was at the musket firing demonstration, a commotion several yards over drew my attention. Two men carried a stick about 6 feet long with a snake hanging off the ends. They threw the snake into the forest; just like in the camp, the musket soldier said. I carefully watched where I stepped after that.
Learn About Life On A Revolution-Era Farm
From the army encampment, continue on to enter the adjacent Revolution-era Farm. The farm gives a detailed look at the Edward Moss family from records kept in the late 1700s. The family had four children. Slaves worked the farm, and you can walk into the slave cabin.
Take time to wander along the paths and meet the historical re-enactors. In the kitchen, the young lady told us that fresh cornbread was made that morning. Tobacco hangs drying in a shed.
At a fenced area with chickens strutting around, a fluffy cat wandered along and then lazed in the sun. He is named Rochambeau after the French general who helped the Continental Army win the Battle of Yorktown. “Beau” is obviously a staff favorite.
Notice details such as the paned-glass windows in the main house. These are clues that this family held status in the community, though the buildings are small and primitive by today’s standards.
The grounds include a fruit tree orchard and fields for growing corn, tobacco, wheat, flax, and cotton. These cash crops were sold and the money was used for food and other necessities.
Explore Revolutionary War History On The Battlefield Tour
Yorktown Battlefield is where you can literally walk in the steps of the men in the Continental Army. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton traversed these fields. You can imagine the army, weary after years of war, stealing down the 450 miles from New York and quietly digging into position during the night.
This well-maintained battlefield is administered by the Colonial National Historic Park. Begin at the Battlefield Visitor Center. See the short orientation film and the small museum. Pay a small fee to enter the park, and download the Yorktown Tour Guide app. Then take off on a driving tour of the battlefield.
Signs with large red arrows are easy to follow as you navigate from point to point along the six-stop tour. Listen to an explanation of each stop, with options for more in-depth content.
You can stay in your car and complete the tour in about an hour. But it’s incredible to get out at each stop and tromp along the fields and trenches and berms. Read the plaques at each sight for a concise overview of what happened there.
The stop at redoubts 9 and 10 allows you to walk around and through these British defenses. This is where young Alexander Hamilton led the charge, along with his French allies. These two redoubts were the last line of British troops guarding the city. Once these redoubts fell, the British had few options. General Cornwallis sent word of surrender. The last stop on the tour is Surrender Field, where the British paraded for the formal surrender, essentially signaling the victory of the Continental Army, though the war continued for a while after.
If you have time and interest, you can continue on to the Allied Encampment Tour following yellow arrows on the signs. This tour takes you to places where American and French troops encamped during the siege of Yorktown.
Pro Tip: Are you a Civil War buff? Battles took place in this same vicinity. Along the battlefield tour, you will park by the entrance to the Yorktown National Cemetery. Take time to visit this resting place of more than 2,000 Union and Confederate troops. Read some of the grave markers. Many have names but most are unknown soldiers. It’s a peaceful place marking another tumultuous time in the history of the U.S.
Amble Along The Waterfront And Riverwalk
Riverwalk Landing is a picturesque red brick walkway winding along the shore. It’s an ideal place to unwind after focusing on war. Here, you’ll find dining with fresh seafood entrees and views of the river, galleries with paintings and pottery of local artists, and shops that include a goldsmith and a quaint used bookstore. You are especially lucky if you love a variety of art such as ceramics, glass, and wood sculptures. These can be found in several galleries.
Look for the outsized “LOVE” letters that are on display between Water Street Grille and the Freight Shed. This new installation is great for photo ops and is part of Virginia’s LOVEworks project found throughout the commonwealth.
Your sweet tooth will be happy here. Grab an ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s or opt for a slice of scratch-made cake at The Carrot Tree. And if you’re here for lunch or dinner, head to the popular Yorktown Pub for oysters or the famous grilled crab cakes. Ask about the beer of the day, too.
Visit More Of America’s Historic Triangle
Yorktown is part of America’s Historic Triangle, which also includes Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown Settlement. These three amazing historical sites are all within a few miles of each other. Ticket packages are available. What fun to plan a trip including all three!
A day in Yorktown gives you the perfect blend of the past and present. Explore the unfolding of the American Revolution and why Yorktown is central to the American victory. Trudge through green battlefields with a view of the York River. Unwind in the charming riverfront town. You’ll have so much to think on and remember from your time in Yorktown.
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