Anyone who has studied American history or if you have seen Hamilton: the Musical, you know about the Battle of Yorktown and the importance Yorktown, Virginia played in the Revolutionary War.
While most just go to the Yorktown Battlefield Visitors Center and tour the battlefields, Historic Yorktown is just as important to visit.
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History of Yorktown
In 1691, Yorktown, Virginia was established by the colonial government to keep an eye on trade, which also meant they collected taxes and tafts on goods coming in and out of Virginia. By the 1700s, Yorktown was a major port, with businesses thriving, and boats coming and going from England through the Chesapeake Bay.
Yorktown is now a quiet town on the York River and part of the Colonial National Historical Park. This harbor town is most famous for the Battle of Yorktown, where General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington. As any school kid can tell you, this surrender would be the tipping point to end the Revolutionary War a year later.
Where is Yorktown, Virginia?
Yorktown, VA is located along the York River, just north of Newport News, VA and southeast of Williamsburg, VA. When you are in Virginia’s History Triangle, you are basically 20 minutes from Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown, no matter which of the three you make your home base.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg is also about 15 minutes northwest of Yorktown, for any adventure seekers in your group. It’s definitely worth an extra day to check out this theme park.
Parking in Yorktown
If you are in Historic Yorktown, you will find free parking along the river in several spots, including a covered parking garage in the middle of town, and a beach parking lot farther south of the main buildings.
When you pop up to Main Street to see the historic homes, make sure you read parking signs very well, as there is a lot of private and residential parking. Don’t worry though, you will find a spot.
There is also short-term parking directly across from the Victory Monument so you don’t have to walk too far to see it.
Things to do in Yorktown VA
Yorktown goes well beyond the battlefield when you are looking for things to do. The river is a hub of excitement, while Main Street is where a lot of the history can be found. If you are just looking for a relaxing break, grab your beach chair and head to Yorktown Beach.
You will find kids splashing in the river even on cooler spring days. Weather never stopped my kids, so why would it stop anyone else?
Grab your swimsuit and head down to Yorktown Beach with locals and visitors who are looking to soak up a bit of sun. While the beach isn’t huge, there is plenty of space for all who want to splash around in the York River or just read a book under the summer sun.
In spring, and well into the autumn months, you will still see kids trying to sneak in a little extra water time, building sand castles and couples having a picnic on the river bank.
Pack your own meal and enjoy a little quiet on the river beach when you visit. It’s the perfect spot for lunch, with picnic tables down by the beach parking.
As you enter historic Yorktown, don’t be fooled by the waterfront. You may think that Riverwalk Landing and the shops you see are all there is to it. We made that mistake on our first visit and then got turned around and found Main Street.
This is why you always research your trips ahead of time!
A block up from the beach, you will find the old homes, several bed & breakfasts, churches and the Custom House.
Historic Attractions on Main Street in Yorktown
Take a walk or drive along Main Street and you will see plenty of history still being told in this out of the way road that is sometimes skipped by those just cruising through Yorktown, VA.
There are three buildings of note, but loads more with placards and a story you will want to hear.
Built in 1720, by Custom Agent Richard Ambler, on Main Street, is one of twelve Historic Cutom Houses in America. Today it is managed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), with a gift shop and museum inside.
You can visit June through October on Sundays.
Thomas Nelson Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence and commander of the Virginia militia in the Battle of Yorktown, was also Virginia’s governor in 1781. His stately home in Yorktown up on Main Street, just a few blocks from the water, is still accessible today for visitors to tour.
His grandfather had built the house in 1730 after he immigrated from England to Virginia in 1705. His grandfather became a prominent merchant, passing the business onto his son William and then to Nelson Jr.
By the Revolution, Nelson Jr. was one of the most influential men in the colony.
The home remained in the family until 1908. It served as a hospital for Confederate and later Union soldiers during the Civil War . It was bought by Captain George P. Blow in 1914, and acquired by the National Park Service in 1968.
After restoration efforts, the Nelson House now looks like what it would have in colonial times.
Dudley Digges House
The Digges House, built in 1760, belonged to the Dudley Digges who was part of the Virginia Assembly, and former Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. The property is not open to the public, as it is used for park offices.
The original home was destroyed by fire, but in 1960, the National Park Service restored the home and rebuilt the outbuildings. Legend states that Digges’s first wife, Martha, who died in childbirth, still haunts the home to this day.
Yorktown Riverwalk Landing
Riverwalk Landing is a beautiful walking trail that runs along the river of Yorktown, connecting you to the beach and up to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Bring the kids’ bikes or scooters so their legs last a bit longer as you stroll along the York River.
Several events take place on the Riverwalk, so check the event notices around town and listed on the Yorktown website.
Restaurants can also be found along the Riverwalk, most prominent being the Water Front Grill.
Riverwalk Landing Pier
While Riverwalk is filled with restaurants, shops and beautiful views, the Riverwalk Landing Pier is where we love to watch the sunset over town and the bridge to Gloucester, VA.
Ride the Free Trolley
A free trolley connects all of the major sites around Yorktown, including the American Revolutionary War at Yorktown, Historic Yorktown and the Yorktown Battlefield Visitors Center.
Simply wait at one of the many trolley stops, and you can hop on to your next stop.
American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Step through this living history museum to tour the Continental Army Encampment, interactive exhibits depicting life in colonial times and throughout the war. Kids will love watching a musket being shot, with historical interpreters to answer any questions on their young minds.
The museum does have a cafe on site if you are hungry, or want a snack to take across the street to walk on the trail high above the river.
More in our Parents’ Guide To The American Revolution Museum At Yorktown
York County Historical Center
The Yorktown County Historical Center is one of the many Yorktown museums putting the pieces of the colonial life puzzle back together for the modern world. The museum collection is filled with 90,000 artifacts highlighting almost 300 years of York history.
The most important work the historical center is doing is collecting the stories of people, businesses and historical events that have happened across the county. Visitors can see some of these stories in interpretive exhibits at the museum, as well as on the center’s website.
The Watermen’s Museum is where you go to learn about life on the Chesapeake from pre-colonial times to the present. Yorktown life, built along the York River, is centered around the water. Residents have long looked to the river for food, goods to be delivered and even family members to arrive in the New World.
The Chesapeake Bay not only shaped the city, but the nation as it started out and continues to look to the water for transport and food to this day.
Inside the museums you can check out historical exhibits showing off military and civilian water craft, instruments of their trade, and get a look at the lives of the people that have worked, lived and even fought on the water through the American Revolution and Civil War.
Grace Episcopal Church
Built in 1697, Thomas Nelson, Jr., attended the church, which was later updated inn the Greek Revival style.
Yorktown Baptist Church
Yorktown Baptist Church, which is still an active church, was first founded by a Baptist preacher in 1699 when he opened his home for meetings. A formal church wasn’t established until 1777, and was called the Grafton Baptist Church in Hornsbyville, VA.
By 1944, Grafton Baptist Church wanted to expand, establishing a congregation in Yorktown that would formally change its name to Yorktown Baptist Church in 1946.
The church stands about a block behind the Yorktown Victory Moument. All are welcome to regular services at the church.
Step aboard the Alliance, a 105-foot gaff-rigged schooner. Visitors can book a sightseeing tour on the Chesapeake Bay tidewaters, offered 3 times per day, April through November. Departures leave from the Riverwalk Landing Pier.
If you are a diehard schooner fan, you can book a 7-day cruise through the Caribbean onboard the Alliance, where the ship spends the winter months.
Yorktown Victory Monument
The Yorktown Victory Monuments stands above Yorktown, looking over the town, giving visitors beautiful views of the York River, but also the history that exudes from the town.
The Victory Monument was commissioned by the Continental congress on October 29, 1781 as the news hit Philadelphia that the British had surrendered. However, the monument wouldn’t be built for 100 years, finally completed in 1884.
The figure of liberty at the top was damaged by lightning and replaced in 1956. Maine granite makes up the 84 feet monument shaft, with Liberty adding her 14 feet to reach towards the sky at an impressive total of 98 feet.
Down on Water Street, right across from the beach, you will see a random little cave with a gate across the opening. While legend says it is where British General Cornwallis hid out during the Battle of Yorktown, research actually tells a different story.
Historians think it was used for potato storage in early colonial times and then again for munition storage by the Confederates during the Civil Way.
Erosion and coastal weather conditions have aged the cave, making it unsafe to enter, but you can walk and drive by the cave, even peeking in through the gate if you like.
Colonial NHP – Yorktown Battlefield
Now for the main event– the Yorktown Battlefield. It’s why countless kids have been dragged to battlefields, both Revolutionary and Civil War, for decades to sit on cannons. At least that is what we did in my family growing up (and my dad’s siblings before me).
Yorktown Battlefield Visitors Center
When you enter Yorktown Battlefield, head to the visitors center first. Here you can pay your National Park entrance fee (they accept NPS Annual passes too), and pick up a map. There is also a Yorktown Battlefield app available for your phone that makes a handy driving tour around the battlefield.
Things to do in the Yorktown Battlefield Visitors Center
Watch the 16 minute introductory film of the story of the Siege at Yorktown to get a better understanding of this battle in the American Revolution. Afterwards, wander through the museum, see portions of George Washington’s headquarter’s tents, old cannons and more artifacts.
Don’t forget to grab your Christmas ornament at the gift shop, and use the toilets in the visitors center before you head to the battlefield.
If you are interested in a ranger-led tour, inquire at the information desk about when tours are happening and what the tour will cover.
Driving Tour of the Yorktown Battlefield
There are two main routes you can take through the battlefield–
- Red arrows follow the Battlefield Tour (British campaign), and is much shorter.
- Yellow arrows follow the French and Colonial encampment tour. This tour is much longer and brings you through parts of the “red” tour.
Unless you are a huge history buff, the Battlefield Tour (red arrows) is more than enough to occupy your day. There. are plenty of cannons, placards and homes to discover along your journey.
Moore House was part of a York Plantation established in the 1630s, and later was part of a 500 acres estate named “Temple Farm” by Lawrence Smith II. After three generations of living and working the land, it was sold to Augustine Moore, who had apprenticed for William Nelson (Nelson Jr.’s father), and would become a partner in “Thos Nelson, Jr. & Co.” in 1773.
After inheriting three plantations, and buying “Temple Farm,” Moore became a gentleman farmer.
Even more significant is the home’s starring role in the Battle of Yorktown. When Cornwallis was defeated, Moore House was the place Cornwallis and General George Washington would send officers to hammer out the terms of surrender and finalize the Articles of Capitulation, ending the last major battle in the Revolutionary War.
The home would then change hands several times through. thecenturies, seeing action in the Civil War, and soldiers stripping away siding and wood for fuel. Between 1931 and 1934, the National Park service restored the Moore House to its original look based on historic images and archaeological finds.
Poor Potter Archaeological Site
An odd name for a building since they know that William Rogers actually owned and operated a pottery factory here, but his enterprise was generally referred to as the” poor Potter” cottage by officials, so it stuck.
You can visit the old factory site that Rogers had built. His potters made more than 20 different types of earthenware and stoneware that colonials could purchase in the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as New England and the West Indies.
It’s a significant site, because as a British colony, Virginia wasn’t allowed to industrialize. They were to be solely dependent on the British for everything they needed. Yet, a governor let this pottery factory slip through the cracks, helping Virginia establish itself as self-sufficient, breaking the economic hold of Britain over what would become the United States of America.
Yorktown National Cemetery
Yorktown National Cemetery is home to those who fell in the Civil War. The site was selected in 1866, and is adjacent to the spot where the British surrendered to General Washington.
There are 1596 marked graves and a total of 2204 burials. Walking around, you will notice that multiple “unknown soldiers” share the same grave marker. Most of the markers are for Union Army soldiers, but of the 747 soldiers who were identified, 10 Confederate soldiers and three wives were found.
If you have children traveling with you, please remember this is a solemn place and should be respected. We saw a naval officer walking through the cemetery while we were there paying his respects. My youngest son, who was bouncing with energy, opted to stay by the car so he wouldn’t be a disruption.
One of the best ways to get around Virginia’s historic towns is through the Colonial Parkway, which connects all three towns together. There are several pull offs and parking areas along the parkway for hiking, fishing or just skipping a few stones on the beach.
Watch for strong winds if your kids are climbing on the beach walls, as the combo isn’t always the best. There are loads of beach spots to bring your sand toys and build a sand castle, or your binoculars to check out the resident birds.
Patriot Tours and Provisions
Patriot Tours and Provisions offers two SegwayPT tours you can book through their site. They also have kayaks, bikes and stand up paddle boards you can rent to use along the York River.
The 2-hour SegwayPT “Historical” tour gives you an overview of the history of Yorktown through Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil War times. If you are short on time, a 1-hour SegwayPT “Breeze” tour gives a condensed history of Yorktown and its historical sites.
Yorktown Ghost Walks
If you like to be scared, and hear about the darker side of town, you need to book a Yorktown Ghost Walks tour. Led by real paranormal investigators from Virginia Paranormal Investigations, you will hear the legends and historical accounts of sightings from the great beyond.
Tours have two departures times at 7:30pm and 9:30pm on Friday and Saturday evenings. You must buy your tickets in advance.
Book a Ghost tour here
- Yorktown Market Days: Mid-June through the end of October
- Sounds of Summer Concert Series: Late July through the end of August
- Blues, Brews & BBQ Festival: First Sunday in August
- Rhythms on the Riverwalk Concert Series: Mid-September through mid-October
- Yorktown Art Stroll: last Sunday in September
- Yorktown Wine Festival: First Saturday in October
Christmas Events in Yorktown VA
- Christmas Tree Lighting: First Friday in December
- Christmas Market on Main: First weekend in December
- Yorktown Lighted Boat Parade: First Saturday in December
- Cookies with Santa: First Sunday in December
- Breakfast with Santa: Second Saturday in December
- Mistletoe Market: Second Saturday in December
Remember: always double check dates and times before you attend any event in Yorktown, VA.
Hotels in Yorktown VA
- Duke of York Hotel: the only hotel actually in the center of Historic Yorktown
- Kingsmill Resort: Great for families with condo-style resort rooms, pools and loads of golf
- Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Williamsburg: Close to Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown.
Bed & Breakfasts in Yorktown, VA
- Hornsby House Inn Bed & Breakfast: Five guest rooms and suites filled with family antiques.
- Marl Inn Bed & Breakfast: Half block from Main Street with family rooms and suites.
- York River Inn Bed & Breakfast: Only waterfront bed and breakfast in the Yorktown/Colonial Williamsburg area.
- Yorktown Cottages: Private cottage with a queen bedroom, plus two twin beds
Airbnb and Vacation Rentals in Yorktown VA
- 2,000 Sq Ft Cottage in Historic Yorktown (dba Yorktown Cottages)
- Cottage on a Private Island in the York River
- Historically Registered Southern Mansion 5 miles from Busch Gardens Williamsburg