On December 7, 1787, Delaware was the first state to ratify the United States Constitution, thereby becoming the first state to join the union. Many people know that Delaware was the first state, but they don’t know much more. The population of the entire state is less than a million, making Delaware one of least populous states in the U.S. It’s also the second-smallest state -- it’s only larger than Rhode Island.
But that doesn’t mean that Delaware isn’t a great place to visit. It may be small, and its population may be tiny, but there is much to explore -- especially on the ocean. I’ve always told people that some of the best off-the-beaten-path beach towns in the country are on the coast of Delaware. The Delmarva (the peninsula that’s part Delaware, part Maryland, and part Virginia) is known for its beaches, but the other side of the peninsula, Chesapeake Bay, provides water adventure as well.
Here are eight great places to visit in Delaware.
1. Rehoboth Beach
I stumbled on Rehoboth Beach by accident. I was in Atlantic City, New Jersey, attending a concert with a friend, and we had tickets to another show in Washington, D.C., two nights later. So we took the ferry across from Cape May, New Jersey, and landed at Lewes, Delaware. We were looking for a place to spend the day before continuing on to Washington, D.C., the next day, and we ended up in Rehoboth Beach.
What a surprise! Who knew that Delaware would have such a delightful beach town? Because we had come from Atlantic City, I couldn’t help but notice that Rehoboth Beach looked a whole lot like the Atlantic City of the 1920s, before all the towering casinos moved in. If you’re looking for a Victorian city on the ocean with boardwalks and shops and the sounds of the ocean, then Rehoboth Beach is your spot.
There’s even an old bandstand in the center of town, and if you’re visiting during the summer, you can catch a concert there on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday evening. The schedule for each summer can be found here, so bookmark the page when planning a trip. I’d recommend visiting on the Fourth of July (book your lodging well in advance), because you’ll get to witness a patriotic concert by the U.S. Navy Concert Band. What better way to spend the evening of the Fourth than by listening to the Navy Concert Band play The Stars and Stripes Forever by the ocean?
Delaware isn’t just known for its beach towns. Rehoboth Beach and all points south are along the Atlantic Ocean, but to the north, the east side of the state is bordered by Delaware Bay. Delaware Bay sits between Delaware and New Jersey and serves as the state’s eastern border. At the north end of Delaware Bay, the Delaware River deposits its water into the bay. And where the river becomes the bay, you’ll find Wilmington.
Wilmington is the largest city in Delaware, but it’s not some massive East Coast metropolis. The city’s population is just over 70,000. The area around the city is known as Brandywine Valley. It sits along the Delaware-Pennsylvania border and offers much to do in each state.
Attractions on the Delaware side include the Nemours Estate, a massive European-style estate which has the largest formal French garden in the country. So if you’ve visited Versailles or Vaux-le-Vicomte in France and loved the fountains and gardens, then you should make time for Nemours.
As far as places to stay, the Riverfront area is the best.There are several chain hotels there, and a riverfront trail connects many restaurants and other waterfront attractions, such as the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the City Theater Company.
3. Cape Henlopen State Park
I mentioned the Cape May-Lewes Ferry earlier, and when coming from the Cape May side, the ferry will drop you off right next to Cape Henlopen State Park. Delaware was the first state, and Cape Henlopen lays claim to being the first public lands in the U.S., having been public domain since 1682. So I suppose the park was really the first public lands in what would become the U.S., given that this was nearly 100 years before the Revolutionary War.
Cape Henlopen is now a state park. It is best known for its curling sand dunes at the very tip of the cape (think of the curl of Cape Cod -- that’s what you’ll find here). A lighthouse once stood here as a warning to ships entering Delaware Bay, but the winds and the waves crashing against the sand eventually led to its collapse in 1926.
Cape Henlopen State Park is great for camping, and cabins are available near the beach if you’d prefer something less rugged. But it’s also a day-trip destination with trails, a nature center, the Fort Miles Museum, and miles and miles of beach.
Dover is the capital of Delaware. Located in the center of the state, it’s not your typical state capital -- there are only about 38,000 residents. It’s best known for two things: the local Air Force base and its Air Mobility Command Museum and the Dover International Speedway, which hosts several racing events every year.
But that’s not all Dover has to offer. Like any state capital, it boasts a bustling downtown area centered on the capitol building. Perhaps the best place to visit in town is the Old State House. Delaware was the first state, and its capitol building dates to 1791. It was replaced by a new capitol building in 1933, but the old structure is now available for tours. If you’re a Revolutionary War history buff, this is a must-see. You can walk around the tables and chairs where the state government was established in the late 1700s.
5. Bethany Beach
Rehoboth Beach isn’t the only fun beach destination on the Atlantic Coast of Delaware. About 15 miles south of Rehoboth Beach, you’ll find the community of Bethany Beach.
The main attraction in Bethany Beach is the downtown area, which features surf shops, ice cream parlors, and -- my favorite -- French fry stands. There are at least three locations where you can walk up to the window and order the famous hand-cut fries. Trust me -- if you head toward the beach and walk up and down the boardwalk, you’ll see tons of people with these cups of fries in their hands, and for good reason: The savory treats are amazing!
On an East Coast vacation many years ago, my wife and I chose to visit Bethany Beach after spending some time at the museums of Washington, D.C. All three of our boys loved it. We stayed near the beach, where they could skimboard along the sands, and we walked to get dinner and ice cream.
6. New Castle
If it’s history you’re looking for, consider visiting New Castle. Like Williamsburg, Virginia, New Castle is a step back in time. The town boasts the second-most historic structures of any community in the U.S., second only to Williamsburg.
New Castle is only 10 miles south of Wilmington (it’s Delaware, so everything is close), and if you’ve chosen to stay in the Riverfront area of Wilmington, then New Castle would make for a great day trip. The historic structures are numerous and well preserved.
And it’s not just the architecture -- there’s great maritime history as well. Tall ships such as the Kalmar Nyckel sail out of Wilmington and New Castle to take you on a historic cruise of Delaware Bay. The Kalmar Nyckel is a seagoing recreation of a 17th-century Dutch ship, and if your grandchildren are with you, they’ll certainly enjoy the pirate-themed events onboard.
7. White Clay Creek State Park
At the very northwestern corner of Delaware, near the Pennsylvania and Maryland state lines, you’ll find White Clay Creek State Park. Most of the locations I’ve listed above are near the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, but this park is on the other side of the state, near the spot where Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware converge.
History buffs will love that the Mason-Dixon Line runs right through White Clay Creek State Park, with the famous corner marking the beginning of the arc located within the park. From time to time during the year, a local historian will take people on a tour of what might be the most famous surveyed line in history.
The park also offers a number of activities, from hiking to biking to a tour of a historic mansion. If you’ve spent a lot of time at the beach on your Delaware getaway, this is a nice, relaxing alternative to get away into the rolling hills near Pennsylvania.
8. Fenwick Island
We’ll close with yet another beach location. The Atlantic Coast portion of Delaware isn’t long, but it does have several different oceanfront opportunities. One of those is Fenwick Island, just south of Bethany Beach.
Located right on the Maryland-Delaware border, Fenwick Island is sometimes considered just an extension of Ocean City, Maryland, and its unending surf shops and condo towers. But there’s much more to experience on Fenwick Island.
The Discoversea Shipwreck Museum provides an interesting look at shipwreck history. You can rent a kayak and explore Little Assawoman Bay and its wildlife refuge. Fenwick Island State Park is there as well, if you want to explore a state park right on the beach.
Or, like many have discovered when visiting this part of Delaware, you can explore mile after mile of Atlantic Ocean beach.