The sun was setting and we were in our seats. We had purposely stayed extra-long at Longwood Gardens for this moment, and I was bouncing in my seat. My children weren’t even with me, but I was excited. You see, I was finally getting to see the Illuminated Fountain Show, an attraction that had been renovated and revived in 2017, but I had yet to experience.
GROWING UP WITH THE LONGWOOD GARDENS EXPERIENCE
If you have never been to Longwood Gardens, just 25 minutes outside of Wilmington DE, you have missed the magic of one of the country’s premiere gardens. This is a special spot for many of us who grew up in Philadelphia and the mid-Atlantic region. Many kids went during the holidays or as a special outing in the spring or summer months to see the gardens in bloom. Only members got to go regularly; the rest of us only visited once or twice as kids if our parents could afford it.
When I was younger, Longwood Gardens was a mythical land, one I only experienced less than a handful of times. For my husband, who grew up 20 minutes down the road, it was a yearly tradition. His parents performed there as area musicians, his sister met her husband there while he was in school.
As an adult, it has begun to weave its magic on my own little family. I insist on visiting every Christmas Eve. We don’t have many traditions as we are usually running from one relative’s house to the next. This is one we can stick with though as it is between houses. My boys can see the Christmas lights and Conservatory dressed up. It brings a little magic to the holiday season.
Longwood Gardens is part of our family, as it is many families, but it all started with the du Pont family, back in the early 1900s.
LONGWOOD’S DU PONT HISTORY
While Pierre S. du Pont was born in a DuPont Company house north of Wilmington in 1870, he would later own one of the most magnificent gardens in the country. Du Pont’s love of horticultural and landscape design was heavily influenced by his travels, bringing jets of water, French and Italian design together throughout his gardens soon after he bought what was then the Peirce Farm.
Unlike other family members and wealthy men of his time, du Pont didn’t keep his beloved Longwood to himself. In 1921, he built the large Conservatory, adding on the Music Room in 1923 for his 3650-pipe Aeolian organ. He opened the Conservatory and Music Room to the public, hosting civic and educational groups as early as 1923.
FAVORITE LONGWOOD GARDENS
Throughout the past century, from the time du Pont bought the Peirce farm to the present day, Longwood Gardens has grown and transformed into a world class horticultural display. Landscape designers and horticultural students come to study and test out plant theory in the Idea Garden. The Conservatory and outdoor gardens continue to show off what can grow in a Mid-Atlantic flower garden throughout the summer, but also in a greenhouse in winter.
While wandering the property, it is easy to miss a lot of the smaller gardens or hidden gardens. It’s not that they are small, there are just so many. Take not of a few of our favorites so you don’t skip over them when you visit.
The Meadow Garden was set up and opened to the public in 2014 to show off the history of the land. It harnesses ecological landscape design and sustainability practices to preserve the open spaces and valley around the gardens.
You can walk out to the 18th-century Webb farmhouse, if your feet can carry you, to get a deeper understanding of the history of the land. This is one of the many gardens that will change throughout the year and is worth a look. If you don’t want to make the walk, you can still get a good view from the entrance that looks over the field.
Anyone can feel like Rapunzel when they climb Chimes Tower next to a cascading waterfall at Longwood Gardens. Just behind the Main Fountain Garden, you will find kids running up to the tower, while parents stroll the path. Couples will be lounging on the lawn in front or walking the bridge above the waterfall to check out the views from above.
You can currently climb part of the way to the top of the tower. Parents be warned– there are windows and you should keep an eye on children. We don’t need any climbers or jumpers.
FLOWER GARDEN WALK
The Flower Garden Walk, along with the Peony Garden and Wisteria Garden, are easy to miss if you don’t know to go up the path on your way too or from the Theatre Garden, Italian Water Garden or Large Lake. Always take the tiny paths so you can see what floral treasures are hidden inside.
The staff likes to place benches and chairs so you can ponder the beauty that is inside of these gardens. Bring your sketchbooks to draw the blooms, or just sit and enjoy. All styles of observation are encouraged.
Pierre du Pont was obsessed with fountains. While he has several stationary fountains across the garden, the Main Fountain Garden and the Open Air Theatre show off his flair for engineering when it came to his love of water and horticulture. He also had a thing for theatrics when it came to his water displays.
OPEN AIR THEATRE FOUNTAIN SHOWS
The Open Air Theatre was one of the first “attractions” to be put into the gardens. Inspired by an outdoor theatre near Siena, Italy, Du Pont hid fountains in the floors of the theatre to surprise his nieces and nephews. That cold splash was a welcome respite from the heat on summer days.
Fountain shows are now a continued tradition at the 1,500 seat Theatre, as well as concert performances and lectures that take place on the platform of the stage. Even during the holidays (through about the first week of January), you can see a fountain light show during the evening hours, timed to music.
MAIN FOUNTAIN GARDEN
After the Main Fountain Garden completed renovations in 2017, the public rejoiced as the fountains were turned back on once again. The staff more than anyone else was thrilled to see the Illuminated Fountain Performances come to life though, as more than 1700 jets and fountains burst to life. Theater, music and gardening came together to weave a masterful tale in a way you can’t see anywhere else (that we know of).
When du Pont visited the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and after seeing the fountains of Europe, he knew that he had to bring something special to Longwood. With jet hydraulics and a bit of modern-day plumbing and new electrical workings in the pump house, the team at Longwood Gardens has continued du Pont’s original vision and made sure it will last through the 21st Century.
Watch the video for a sneak peek at the Illuminated Fountain performance you might have a chance to see. Keep in mind that it does change all of the time, so this is just a sampling.
From May to late September, guests can see the Festival of Fountains, which includes daily shows during daylight hours and evening illuminated shows Thursday through Saturday. Check the websites for showtimes, special programming and themes. There are some special ticketed nights for Fireworks and Fountains that may cost extra.
ITALIAN WATER GARDEN
Symmetry plays an important part in the Italian Water Garden that du Pont designed after visiting Villa Gamberaia near Florence, Italy. Blue, white and green dominate the main focal points. You will also see purple asters, white hydrangea and vibrant multi-colored rhododendrons throughout the season.
From the viewing platform above and to the bottom right, you can get the best photos, but don’t discount the side and back views. Best of all, there is a restroom just off the path to the right as you head back up to the Large Lake and one of the tree houses. This is more than a welcome relief for one parent with a child in need of a toilet. No one wants to ask their child to hold it for the long walk back to the Conservatory, The Terrace and the Visitor’s Center. Eek!
LONGWOOD GARDENS CONSERVATORY
The highlight of your visit has to be the Longwood Gardens Conservatory. At least it is for me and my family. No matter the weather, you know you can warm up and see some blooms in this massive greenhouse. The Conservatory is home to 20 indoor gardens, a potting shed, music room, ballroom, pipe organ and gallery.
You could only visit the Conservatory and be perfectly content. You wouldn’t see even a third of Longwood Gardens, but you would still see a whole lot. During the winter months, when the rest of the outdoor gardens are dormant, this is the place to come to renew your spirit and remember that the world is still alive and blooming. Spring will come again!
May through October the Waterlily Display is open in the courtyard of the Conservatory. If you stay until after dark, you will see more lilies, as this is when they tend to open. The bullfrogs also like to come out to do a concert for you, whether you like to hear them croak or not.
My favorite gardens include the Exhibition Hall, as this is where the gardeners show off what is in bloom and any festival favorites (Orchid Festival, Chrysanthemum Festival, etc.). I always have to pop into the Silver Garden, Orchid House and Fern Passage. I find inspiration for my own gardening experiments in each of these rooms, not that there isn’t everywhere you look.
Longwood Gardens Aeolian Organ
When du Pont installed his Aeolian, I’m not sure he thought it would be the largest Aeolian ever constructed, or that it would play such an important part in Longwood’s history. Organists from across the globe come to play and experience the American Art Deco organ design.
Every three years Longwood Gardens hosts the International Organ Competition for young organists. Each is given the chance to win the $40,000 Pierre S. du Pont First Prize, which is the largest cash prize of any organ competition in the world. So, if you play the organ, make sure you practice a little harder this year. This competition is by invite only.
Holidays at Longwood are when this organ really shines. There are regular sing-a-longs and musical concerts that highlight the acoustics and grand nature of this organ. Even people who never thought they would like the sound of an organ stand in line to grab a seat at one of these concerts. I’ve popped in only once to hear it. It’s pretty spectacular and I’m not an organ enthusiast.
Headed to Delaware? Read Things to do in Wilmington DE!
Indoor Children’s Garden
When my oldest son was 17 months old, we discovered the Indoor Children’s Garden. Although Dek could never get enough of being outside, as soon as he saw that flora and fauna playspace, he had to dive in. You see, there is water everywhere. Dek’s squeals of joy echoed throughout the garden as he splashed his hands in fountains, painted walls with a wet paint brush and watched water jump from one pool to another.
Both of my boys now eagerly anticipate a visit to this part of the Conservatory every time we visit. In fact, we have to hold off going until the very end of our visit for fear that we will never get them out. Even as a borderline tween, my oldest can’t get enough.
This is the one place that kids don’t have to be careful. It is a garden built just for them. The most my boys have to do is make sure they don’t knock over any of the other little ones running around inside.
And trust me when I say I have never been so happy to have a full change of clothes in my bag, no matter my kids ages. As a baby, Dek was soaked, but he was happy and able to keep up with his older cousins when we visited that first time. Restrooms are available for children to dry off and change. Just make sure you bring a towel and change of clothes. Do not depend on the staff to have anything for you.
Also, be warned– this is by no means a water amusement park. You should not bring a swim suit. The children’s garden is actually very small compared to the rest of the property. It just has a lot of fountains and water activities that are the perfect height for babies and toddlers (and big kids) to do what comes naturally– splash around and make a fun mess.
LONGWOOD GARDENS FOOD OPTIONS
Longwood Gardens can and should be an all-day affair if you want to get the most out of your visit. It’s not a cheap outing, but it is well worth the price to see this historic property. That being said, you are going to want to plan on eating lunch or dinner while you are there. You are welcome to bring a picnic or buy your meal at one of the restaurants or café on site.
Dining options on The Terrace:
- The Café: This cafeteria-style restaurant has numerous hot and cold options for you to choose from that incorporate plenty of healthy options. Herbs and produce are taken from the gardens, and local flavors, like Kennett Square mushrooms, are often on the menu. You can order at the counter, or pick up a grab and go meal if you don’t want to wait in line.
- Beer Garden: Wood-fired pizzas, burgers and BBQ are all available at these outdoor takeout windows, along with local beer and not-so-local wine. There are plenty of picnic tables you can perch on while you enjoy your meal. Live music is often playing during the warmer months, so expect a crowd, but everyone is willing to share if there is space at their table.
- 1906: The only sit-down, fine-dining option at Longwood Gardens, and you may want to book a reservation on popular weekends. Food is focused around seasonal, locally sourced and sustainable ingredients, with views of the gardens and Conservatory in a quiet, serene atmosphere. When it is hot outside (or cold) and you have been wandering the gardens for a few hours, this is the perfect spot to catch your breath. Why is it called 1906? That is the year du Pont bought the property that would become Longwood Gardens.
LONGWOOD GARDENS AT CHRISTMAS
Christmas at Longwood Gardens is a family tradition for not just our little crew, but for generations of families who have been visiting. Those who live in Wilmington, Philadelphia, throughout the Brandywine Valley, and even farther afield, make the drive to Kennett Square to see the lights around the garden and the Conservatory all dressed up for the holidays.
Each year the garden staff picks a new theme. One year the Conservatory was inspired by the wealth and beauty of Versailles; another year it was Christmas Trees Reimagined. Every year you go in expecting one interpretation and the garden staff surprises you with something completely different. When the Christmas Tree was reimagined, trees floated from the ceiling in the Exhibition Hall, while sculpted books danced in the fire place a la Harry Potter in the Ballroom.
Our favorite way to experience Christmas time at Longwood is to arrive midafternoon to tour the Conservatory and enjoy dinner at The Café. We then grab a few hot chocolates to keep us warm as we wander the lights just as the sun begins to set.
Do keep in mind that the holidays can get crowded and the light display is very popular at night. You will need to get a timed ticket to enter. Very rarely can you just show up and buy a ticket these days. It’s easy to check times online and buy the spot you would like though.
Read more about Longwood Garden Christmas
LONGWOOD GARDENS EVENTS
Every month a new event is announced at Longwood Gardens. Musical performances, theater shows, fountain displays, classes, and tours are always being added to the Longwood calendar of events. Jazz and Pop bands are showing up to play in the Beer Garden, classical performances are scheduled for the music room or Pipe Organ & Gallery. Our favorite events are always in summer and during the Christmas season. This is when the fireworks, illuminated fountains and holiday light displays turn on.
Longwood Gardens also hosts a big-name concert series. Past acts include Leslie Odom Jr., Jesse and Joy, Ira Glass, Roseanne Cash and Band, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. These shows do require tickets for an additional fee. Check website for listings.
LOOKING FOR A LONGWOOD GARDENS HOTEL? CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING!
- Hotel Du Pont– Luxe hotel in downtown Wilmington
- The Westin Wilmington– right near Wilmington RiverFront + pool
- Homewood Suites by Hilton Wilmington – #1 value on TripAdvisor + pool
- Kimpton Hotel Monaco Philadelphia– Our favorite family line of hotels
- The Logan Philadelphia– in the heart of the Philly Museum scene