On Sunday, Dec. 4, we’ll be welcoming the season with Grand Illumination, one of Colonial Williamsburg’s most magical—and popular—evenings. We hope you’ll join us for the lights, music, and fireworks. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it!
First off, don’t miss the chance to snag the best seat in the house for the fireworks. Just text AMERICA to 56512 (text and data rates may apply), complete an entry form, and you’ll have the chance to win four premium seats on Palace Green. The giveaway ends at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 4 and the winner will be notified via the phone number used to enter shortly thereafter. Once you subscribe, you’ll also get texts about any event-related updates including those about the forecast, fireworks, and even the history of our event.
Once you arrive, make sure you pick up a daily Map & Program Guide, which will not only help with wayfinding and building hours, but also includes the special bus schedule and even the locations of the portable toilets.
Announcements will be made from the entertainment stages, but you can also check for any important updates (and share pictures!) on the Grand Illumination event page on Facebook. In fact (shameless plug here), it’s a good time to follow us on all our social media channels: Colonial Williamsburg on Facebook, Instagram (colonialwmsburg), and Twitter (@colonialwmsburg).
When to Arrive
It’s best to arrive early. The fireworks start at 7 p.m., but they are only the culmination of a day of Grand Illumination fun. Get situated somewhere near one of our four stages by 5 p.m. for the entertainment.
Look for some one-of-a-kind offerings and great discounts—not to mention some lighthearted fun—at the live colonial auction, which will take place just west of the new Market House at 1-3 p.m. There will be many special items up for bid, including pewter, furniture, jewelry and china that have never been auctioned before. If you’ve never seen one of our auctions, read up here and you’ll see why they’re so popular.
At 5 p.m. all the homes and buildings will be illuminated by candlelight, cressets will be lit, and live entertainment will begin! Stages will be located on Palace Green, at Market Square across from Peyton Randolph House, on the South side of the Capitol, and on the North side of the Capitol just up from the Public Gaol.
Parking and Getting Around
Parking will be at a premium all day downtown, so the low-stress option is definitely to park at the Visitor Center and take the free shuttle to the Historic Area. But please note: Francis St. will be closed to all traffic except tour buses at noon. So Lafayette St. will be the main route for getting from one end of the Historic Area to the other, and it will be busy. All the more reason to park at the Visitor Center.
Shuttle buses will operate on the regular loop around town from 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m, but the Market House stop will be closed all day. Queen St. will instead serve as the central dropoff. An express shuttle will run from the Visitor Center to the Palace Stop from 5:30 p.m.–6:45 p.m. From there it’s a short walk to Palace Green or Market Square.
There is no bus service from 6:45 p.m.–9:30 p.m. If you need to get back to the Visitor Center during that time, there is an accessible walking path from the Palace bus stop on North England St.
At 9:30 p.m. the shuttles will resume regular service to all stops until 10 p.m.
The Prince George Street parking garage ($1/hr) is your best bet if you want to park near Merchants Square on the west side of town, but that will fill up early. Most street and lot parking is for only one or two hours.
Handicap parking will be available in the Tavern parking lot across from the Capitol on Francis Street. You’ll just need to show your placard to gain entry.
At this writing, the weather forecast for Sunday includes a chance of rain and temperatures dropping into the 40s overnight. In general you can count on Grand Illumination happening rain or shine, but check the Facebook page for updates if you are unsure. The only thing that really causes problems for fireworks is high winds.
Even if it’s pleasant outside, it can be pretty cool standing around in the evening, so dress accordingly, and consider bringing a blanket for warmth, seating, or both. And don’t forget the umbrella if it looks like rain. Beginning at dusk you’ll be able to warm up near (but not too close!) one of the cressets that will be burning all over town. They’ll be allowed to die down as the fireworks approach, then will be fed again afterwards.
What to Pack
Bring your favorite lawn chairs or blankets for a comfortable way to enjoy the fireworks. You can even bring a cooler, but avoid bringing glass or other breakables. It’s going to get crowded and dark out there, so be courteous about sharing the space—and maybe bring a flashlight, too. If rain is still in the forecast, don’t forget to bring an umbrella (or two).
If you’re worried about hauling stuff all the way from the Visitor Center, think about dropping someone off at the corner of Prince George and Nassau Streets. From there it’s just a block over to Palace Green.
Want to travel lightly? We will be selling Grand Illumination blankets, totes, mugs, ornaments, sweat shirts, and long sleeve t-shirts on site!
Snacks and other Necessities
Look for the blue lights outlining refreshment stands throughout the Historic Area. They’ll have American Heritage Hot Chocolate, hot cider, cookies (including our wonderful gingerbread) and more, and will be open until the fireworks begin.
If you stake out a spot around Palace Green, you can stop in at McKenzie Apothecary or the stand near the Lumber House ticket office on Duke of Gloucester St.
In the vicinity of Market Square, there will be stands near the Magazine and Dubois Grocer across from the Public Armoury. The Chowning’s Tavern garden (open-air refreshments behind the tavern) will offer burgers, dogs, beer, and more from noon until 8 p.m., which means you’ll have enough time to stop for a drink or two after the fireworks if you don’t want to fight the crowds. Inside, Chowning’s still has have late-night seatings available at 8 and 8:15 p.m. And the Cider Stand will stay open late, until 9 p.m.
Near the Capitol, there will be refreshments at Shields Tavern, the Raleigh Tavern Bakery, and a stand near the Gunsmith Shop just south of the Capitol.
The taverns are close to fully booked for the evening, so you can check availability around Merchants Square. Several restaurants will be open until 10 p.m. or later.
If you need access to cash, a portable ATM will be available this year next to Chowning’s Tavern.
Restrooms, you ask? In addition to regular restrooms located on the maps or on the app, there will be portable units located at seven different locations:
- Palace Green area (3): by McKenzie Apothecary; at corner of Nicholson St. across from St. George Tucker House; and on Duke of Gloucester Street near Lumber House Ticket Office
- Courthouse and Market Square area (2): near intersection of Queen St. and Nicholson St. on north side of Historic Area, and on Queen St. behind the Market House near the “Main Entrance” bus stop on Francis St.
- Capitol area (2): at the corner of Waller and Nicholson Streets north of the Capitol, and at the corner of Blair and Francis Streets south of the Capitol
Longtime visitors all have their favorite viewing spots. There’s no right answer. But these fireworks aren’t shot up as high as the 4th of July fireworks, so you don’t want any tall trees or buildings in your line of sight.
The most popular spot is on Palace Green. The Governor’s Palace is a beautiful backdrop, and there’s plenty of space. Stay toward the center so the trees don’t block your view. It’s better to be farther back—even as far away as Duke of Gloucester Street—than too far on one side of the Green or the other.
Market Square is the most central spot, and from there you can actually see the fireworks going off in all directions. The Magazine provides a lovely backdrop, and it feels more open than the other locations.
A lesser known and less-crowded spot is the North side of the Capitol, where the hillside creates a small natural amphitheater. It’s the most intimate setting.
On the South side of the Capitol there will be a handicap accessible area for viewing entertainment and fireworks.
Spending the Day
Almost everything at Colonial Williamsburg will be open as usual. Look for the flags out in front to be sure. But the Magazine will be closed all day, and the Capitol’s last tour will be at 3:30. At 4 p.m. the grounds of both the Governor’s Palace and the Capitol will be cleared so the fireworks can be prepared at those sites.
To accommodate the fireworks at Market Square, the Market House will be closed at 6:30 p.m., and will reopen around 7:45 p.m.
There are plenty of fun options before the fireworks.
- Liberty’s Ice Pavilion will be open for skating from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
- Visit the Art Museums, which, along with the wonderful folk art-decorated Christmas tree in the atrium by the central staircase, features two toy-related exhibits. German Toys in America features amazing 19th-century toys, and the old favorite, The World Made Small, includes some truly historic dollhouses. The museums are open 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, making it a great place to explore until right before the fireworks.
- How about some jazz? The Harris Simon Trio will share jazz versions of holiday music, including favorites by Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, and Leroy Anderson, during three performances Sunday at the museum’s Hennage Auditorium: 12:15, 2:15, and 4:15 p.m.
- The Williamsburg Lodge isn’t just a great place to enjoy a special feast, or a drink at Sweet Tea and Barley. The lobby also houses the wonderful gingerbread village at this time of year.
- Come early and get in the holiday spirit with a Christmas Decorations walking tour to get in the holiday spirit. The tour is offered through December; on Sunday the times are 9:15 and 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.
After the fireworks, follow Colonial Williamsburg’s Fifes & Drums as the Junior and Senior Corps marches down Duke of Gloucester Street and converges near the corner of Botetourt Street. The two groups will merge together and perform a medley of holiday tunes to put the perfect finishing touch on the evening!
Share the fun!
Post your pictures for all to see on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #CWGrandIllumination.