Major highways, like I-95, that run from Maine down to Florida naturally cut through cities up and down the East Coast. Many we just cruise through, while some we think to stop in and explore. The big players like Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York get plenty of attention, but what about Wilmington DE, Richmond and New Haven.
These smaller cities are just as worthy of exploring, which is why we are pulling over, booking a hotel and catching up with Wilmington, DE this weekend. Long have we driven through on our way from DC to Philly. Our family has even visited a few of its attractions, since my husband grew up not too far from the city, just over the state line in Pennsylvania. It was now time to give the first state of Delaware our undivided attention. And you will soon see why.
THINGS TO DO IN WILMINGTON DE
Just like you, I never really thought of Wilmington as a destination. I knew it was home to the University of Delaware. It also housed at least one du Pont estate; that old-money U.S. family with a very complicated history and twisting family tree. But did you know that inside the city limits there are also several James Beard nominated chefs?
Pre-Raphaelite art is also tucked away in the art museum, a whole family of world-famous illustrators and landscape artists used to call the Brandywine Valley home, and yes, you can throw axes at a wall to work out your frustrations here too.
THE DU PONT FAMILY LEGACY
Anyone headed to Wilmington may want to pick up a copy of the du Pont family tree. Not only are the original family gunpowder mills here, but so are several family homes, estates, gardens and even a children’s hospital. What can be even more confusing is that some spell the name “du Pont” as two words, which is correct, while others spell it as just one word—DuPont, which is actually the company name. You can see how it gets confusing.
Nevertheless, the du Pont family plays an important role in the cultural development of the Brandywine Valley. Their fortune has been used to start museums, build mansions and gardens that would eventually be left in trusts and open to the public, created horticultural programs to study native and exotic species of plants, and build the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children located directly across from the Nemours Mansion.
And that is just in the Wilmington area. The influence of the family can be felt throughout the East Coast and beyond, but we will stick with the area attractions you won’t want to miss.
WINTERTHUR MUSEUM, GARDEN AND LIBRARY
Winterthur is a beloved tradition for anyone living around the University of Delaware, especially as you get closer to the holidays. Yuletide is an event you don’t want to miss, when the mansion is all dressed up for the holidays and the staff has trees decorated all around the house.
Spring, Summer and Fall are just as fun when the flowers are in bloom or the trees begin to change colors. Unlike many other du Pont properties, Winterthur has a much more wild, natural feel. The gardens are seen as a cultural artifact, much like the art in the house, and are preserved as such. Plants were originally chosen so that blooms began in late January and ran through November, always bringing a burst of color and life somewhere across the 1,000 acres of rolling hills, streams meadows and forests.
Children love the Enchanted Woods with its Tulip Tree House, Troll Bridge, Faerie Cottage and giant Bird’s Nest to hide in and explore. Just watch out for the fairies who also call this garden their home. When the mist comes out (and yes parents, there is mist) you know you have walked into a fairy circle and may be transported back to their lands.
If you can drag your children away from the Enchanted Woods, or your children aren’t with you, make sure you do pop into the mansion, which is also a museum. The museum is home to the largest collection of decorative arts in America, with nearly 90,000 objects, including furniture, ceramics and glass, metals, textiles, paintings and prints. You must take a guided tour in order to see the home and collection. No self-guided option is available.
The Galleries across from the home tour do feature many Winterthur objects, as well as special exhibitions that are brought to complement the opulence and era that Winterthur was built. Past exhibits include the costumes of the BBC’s Downton Abbey, as well as Costuming The Crown, a look at the wardrobes from the Netflix show The Crown. Movie and history buffs alike are rubbing elbows to get a closer look at the recreation of 19th and 20th century costumes that could easily have graced the halls of Winterthur.
NEMOURS MANSION AND GARDENS
Alfred I. du Pont built NeMours Mansion and Gardens for his second wife Alicia, who wasn’t really in love with him. It was a modern-day Versailles complete with French mansion and formal French gardens, but it wasn’t enough. She never truly saw him as more than just a friend. Nemours was named after the region of France Alfred’s family came from many generations ago.
Alfred’s third wife Jessie, who was the love of his life and his final wife, would love the property, and live there until her death in 1970. The home takes after the Petit Trion at Versailles, with 77 rooms including guest rooms, a billiards room, bowling alley, bottling room, and shared bedroom for Jessie and Alfred, which wasn’t really heard of in those times.
Guests are welcome to wander the 300-acre property, including the mansion, the largest formal French gardens in North America, a Chauffeur’s Garage housing a collection of vintage automobiles used on the Estate, and nearly 200 acres of woodlands, meadows and lawns. Formal tours are no longer offered, but volunteers and staff are placed throughout the home to answer questions and offer insight into the lives of the du Pont family.
Check the calendar for family days when special children’s tours are offered, which can help to bring this “hands in your pockets kids!” property to life for younger visitors.
Hagley Museum and Library
This is where the du Pont family story begins. E. I. du Pont founded the gunpowder works in 1802 that would begin to build his family’s fortune. The 235-acre historical site includes the powder yards, workers’ community, a 19th-century machine shop, and the first du Pont family home and gardens.
Innovation, technology and American business are the main focus of this museum and library. Visitors are encouraged to explore and really dive into how the industrial revolution unfolded in Delaware and across the nation. Interactive displays, costumed staff members and volunteers bring the exhibits to life, allowing visitors of all ages to get a taste of life in the 1800s.
Step into the school house to practice your letters and math, play the piano, or do some washing in the yard with the ladies while the men are off in the powder works. If you are very lucky, the foreman’s wife, Mrs. Gibbons, will be making cookies during your visit that you can sample. Yum… we do love cookies.
Pierre S. du Pont’s dream of a greenhouse open to the public was quickly realized during his life, and has continued on for years after his death. Longwood Gardens is one of the premiere gardens in America today, combining education, the arts and horticulture into one giant space for people of all walks of life and ages to enjoy together.
Every season brings new blooms and new celebrations to the garden. Summer brings the Main Fountain to life with water shows set to music several times a day. Thursdays through Saturday an evening performance is held after the sun goes down, and that is when the fountain really shows off. Lights, water, music and a bit of fire all come together to dance in a mesmerizing tale even the youngest visitors won’t be able to stop watching.
Christmas at Longwood is all about the Conservatory. Each year brings a new theme, whether it be Versailles, the Holidays turned upside down, or a bit of wizardry and magic. The grounds are covered with lights, for a lovely nighttime stroll while you sip hot cocoa and eat freshly baked mini donuts. It’s a tradition many Philadelphia and Wilmington families cherish year after year, including my own.
Check the website for special family programing and events to plan your visit around. There is always something new happening at Longwood Gardens. Don’t be surprised if it is hard to pick the perfect day to visit.
Read our full Longwood Gardens guide
Read House and Gardens
One of the few houses in the area that is not attributed to the du Pont family. The Read house was owned by George Read II, the son of one of the Delaware signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The 14,000 square foot, 22-room home sits in downtown New Castle, DE, just south of Wilmington, Delaware. Its Federalist architecture is something you often see in Philadelphia, and a beautifully preserved example of how the wealthy lived at the time.
When the Delaware Historical Society took over stewardship of the property in 1975, they began restoration efforts not only of the house, but also the two acres of land that the home sits on. Through archeological digs, they found evidence of early settlers and native inhabitants that tell a rich story of the first state long before Read ever moved in.
BRANDYWINE RIVER MUSEUM OF ART
Just over the state line in Chadds Ford, PA, the Brandywine River Museum of Art is home to many Andrew Wyeth paintings. As the son of painter and illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew was raised in Chadds Ford and influenced by the area, which is easy to see as you stroll the gallery and look out at the Brandywine river through the floor to ceiling windows between galleries.
Andrew wasn’t alone in his artistic talent though. Many of his siblings were also well-respected artists, which are featured in the museum’s collection. Several N.C. Wyeth paintings and illustrations are also regularly on display. The rest of the collection spans from the 1800s to present, mostly paintings, although a few sculptures are in the collection as well.
Events and programming include First Sunday for Families, Stroller Tours, and seasonal Museum Explorer programs. The Explorer programs gets kids hands-on with art and often connects back to the current special exhibit at the museum. Yet another way to bring the museum to life for the youngest visitors.
DELAWARE ART MUSEUM
Those who love Pre-Raphaelite art will love this museum. It is easy to stroll in and wander in the morning hours after grabbing breakfast at De La Coeur Café down the street. You can even finish up your coffee at the outdoor sculpture garden.
A Chihuly glass display greets you as you walk in, but make sure you ask about the special exhibit happening that month. The curators are always bringing in something new and exciting, including a recent group of work by Caribbean artists that explored their relationship with the U.S. and the political climate in their homeland.
British Pre-Raphelite paintings take over a few galleries, but so does area artist Howard Pyle. The museum is also the primary repository for the art of John Sloan, with a permanent collection of more than 2600 of his works.
Family programming gets young art lovers into the museum and immersed into the collection through “Glory of Stories” events. Check the website for listings, and don’t miss one if you are in town. Each event starts off with a story reading, followed by a tour of the museum to show off relevant art works and a studio art project. While other museums can sometimes be boring for kids who aren’t connecting with the collection, this program gets kids excited and hands on. Your kids are sure to remember the art they see, and more importantly, experience.
The Delaware Contemporary
Located in the heart of the Wilmington Riverfront, the Delaware Contemporary showcases a revolving door of exhibitions that highlight regional, national and international artists throughout the year. This museum had seven galleries and 26 artist studios to bring creativity through a variety of mediums. Paintings, contemporary crafts, photography, installation art, sculpture, and even trash as art has been feature behind the walls of this museum.
Don’t miss Art Loop every first Friday of the month, when artists open their studios, food trucks roll up, and new exhibitions are unveiled. This event is free and open to the public. It is also a great time to introduce the kids to new artists in a friendly environment. You won’t have to feel bad if you have to skip out early if/when someone in the family starts to meltdown. And yes parents, there is a cash bar.
Delaware Museum of Natural History
STEAM Trail anyone? How about a pollinator garden, investigation labs and the only permanent dinosaur collection in Delaware? This is what we love to see when we head to the Delaware Museum of Natural History.
Two complete skeletons of a Tuojiangosaurus and Yangchuanosaurus, as well as the head of a Parasaurolophus are on display in the Dinosaur Gallery. The Science in Action Lab is where you can get up close with specimens and have all of your dino questions answered by helpful volunteers. The Hall of Birds, which shows off some of the museums 113,000 bird specimens, and the Hall of Mammals are prime spots to see both extinct critters and a diverse range of animals from at least four continents. And it wouldn’t be a natural history museum without something large hanging from the ceiling (much like the whale in the Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History in DC). In this case, there is a replica of a giant squid that greets you as you enter the museum.
The interactive Nature Nook is where little ones can enjoy story time and crafts, as well as meet a few live animal friends. Explorer Backpacks are available to borrow so you can enjoy the museum inside and out, including a S.T.E.A.M. Hike that encourages science, technology, engineer, art and math (STEAM) through various activities.
Delaware History Museum
Nothing screams history like an old Woolworth’s Department Store in Delaware. The Delaware Historical Society moved in and transformed the space into a museum, as well as the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage.
And you really can’t miss it. The space is right on Market Street in downtown Wilmington. The collection features permanent and rotating exhibits that show off the history of the first state through its immigrant history, maritime heritage, agricultural background, and the many contributions it has made in the arts throughout the centuries.
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Rockwood Mansion and Gardens Museum
Joseph Shipley, who was originally from the city of Wilmington, had spent most of his life and made his fortune in Liverpool, England, but wanted a comfortable English home to retire to once he returned to America. He commissioned George Williams, who had designed Shipley’s English home, to design Rockwood, having never seen the site. When Shipley moved in, he brought his English gardener with him, creating one of the most beautiful gardens that visitors can tour today. It includes something we don’t often see in American gardening– a “ha-ha”, which is a low sunken wall to keep the livestock out.
The Mansion is now one of America’s prime examples of Rural Gothic Revival architecture, built between 1851-1854. Shipley’s great nephew later inherited the home, bringing with him more furnishings from Europe, but many of Shipley’s original pieces still remained in the house.
Formal garden tours are available with a reservation, but self-guided tours and maps are available at the mansion. Don’t skip the conservatory that is filled with Victorian flora. The property does have limited hours and is only open Wednesday through Sunday, so plan accordingly before you pop in.
STROLL DOWN THE WILMINGTON RIVERFRONT
Redevelopment along the Christiana River has surged in recent years, bringing with it new restaurants, museums and play spaces for all ages. The Russell Peterson Wildlife Refuge is the perfect spot for a quiet morning stroll, but you can still take your morning jog along the Wilmington Riverfront path.
The annual Shipyard Summer Concert Series brings family-friendly music to the masses. Picnics are encouraged, as well as dancing. Jazz and blues tend to dominate the lineup, but you will get a bit of showtunes, Irish Folk music, Funk, Hip Hop and Reggae every now and then too.
AXE THROWING AT CONSTITUTION YARDS
We all have frustrations we need to work out. I’m convinced this is why axe throwing has become so popular. Why it isn’t more popular amongst mothers, I’ll never know, but I’m sure it will catch on.
Head over to Constitution Yards to throw a few axes at a wall with WILMO AXES, while the kids dig in the sand. This 30,000 square foot outdoor space is open all summer long at Justison Landing, and offers a beer garden, frozen cocktails and BBQ. Games like corn hole, badminton, bocce and a life-size Jenga are all ready for you to tackle. If you brought the whole team, you can even get a wiffleball game going on the full-size field. Your pup is welcome to hang out with you on the wood-chips, but he/she must stay on the leash.
Mount Cuba Center
If you love wildflowers, Mount Cuba Center is the place for you. Located just northwest of Wilmington, in Hockessin, Delaware, this is where you come to celebrate the native plants of the Mid-Atlantic region April through November. The Lammont du Pont Copeland Colonial Revival-Style house gardens were established in 1937 and continued to expand over the years.
Garden researcher now maintain the grounds, but also use the 15,000 square foot Trial Garden as testing grounds to conduct research on native plants to understand the pests and ecological benefits of native species. Most recently, the Trial Garden evaluated 100 selections of phlox, which is a popular perennial you will find in many home gardens in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Classes are offered throughout the year, like watercolor painting, T’ai Chi Chih, Meditation, and even Story Time for younger children. Picnic Nights celebrate the summer season every Friday by staying open late so you can enjoy dining al fresco. Beer and wine are available for purchase, as well as healthy meals, that is if you didn’t pack your own.
FREE ANNUAL SUMMER EVENTS IN WILMINGTON, DELAWARE
Wilmington, like many other cities, loves a good festival. Almost every weekend in the summer you can find something to do, but a few big events captivate the residents that you should put on your calendar.
- Clifford Brown Jazz Festival (June): The largest, free jazz festival on the East Coast celebrates the life of Clifford Brown, a local trumpet player and composer who died in a car crash in 1956 at age 25. Locals and visitors walk over to the Rodney Square in teh city center with their chairs and dinners to listen to new artists and a few old favorites all weekend long at this community event.
- Wilmington’s 4th of July Celebration (July): Just like the rest of the United States, Wilmington likes to celebrate America’s independence with a bang. Family fun starts on the Wilmington RiverFront along the Christina River with live music and fireworks to end the night.
- Brandywine Festival of the Arts (September): Always held the weekend after Labor Day, this Castle County festival has been running for over 50 years, bringing in 250 artists and musicians from across the country. Children’s activities and local food vendors are available for visitors to explore as you wander around Brandywine Park’s Josephine Gardens, soaking up the best art festival in Wilmington.
SAVE WITH THE BRANDYWINE TREASURE TRAIL PASSPORT
Every summer the Wilmington Delaware tourism board breaks out a secret weapon—the Brandywine Treasure Trail Passport. This is how families, couples and individuals can see at least 12 attractions for less than a total of $100 (families) or $50 (individuals).
Why? Because they want to get you out and exploring the heritage of Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley.
The deal is you get admittance into all of the attractions on the pass one time throughout the summer. You don’t have to cram everything into one day or one weekend. You have the entire summer to use it.
Visit one attraction per weekend if you are local. For those who live down in DC or up in Philadelphia, plan a few day trips or weekend getaways to use up your pass over two or three trips. It’s so easy to do. In one weekend we managed to get to five attractions. Not too shabby, and we didn’t feel rushed at all.
LOOKING FOR A HOTEL IN WILMINGTON DE? CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING!
- Hotel Du Pont– Luxe hotel in downtown Wilmington
- The Westin Wilmington– right near Wilmington RiverWalk + pool
- Homewood Suites by Hilton Wilmington – #1 value on TripAdvisor + pool
- DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Wilmington– Easy distance to most attractions
- Courtyard by Marriott Wilmington Brandywine– it has a pool!