Delaware is certainly in the news these days, perhaps because it is President Joseph R. Biden's beloved home state. And the beating heart of Delaware is the city of Wilmington. Not only is Wilmington easy to reach from cities on the eastern seaboard, but exploring the city is also well worth the trip. Wilmington has glorious green spaces, vivid historical and cultural monuments, great restaurants, and you may even spot a President in his natural habitat.
Getting to Wilmington: Wilmington is about halfway between New York City and Washington, D.C. It’s a 2-hour drive down I-95 from New York, about a 40-minute drive from Philadelphia, and about 1.2 hours to Baltimore. If you prefer to leave the driving to someone else, you can hop on an Amtrak at Moynihan Train Hall (formerly Penn Station) in New York City and hop off less than 2 hours later in downtown Wilmington at the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Railroad Station. There is also a Greyhound Bus (2.2 hours) from New York City to Wilmington. Philadelphia International Airport is about 18 miles from Wilmington and is a 20- to 40-minute cab ride, depending on the hour and traffic.
The Lenni Lenape were the Indigenous people of Delaware. In the 17th century, as European settlers began to land on the shores of Delaware, Wilmington became a melting pot of settlers from Sweden, Holland, and the British Isles. Delaware was one of the original 13 colonies and became the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. In the 19th century, Wilmington became the last stop on the Underground Railroad before slaves reached freedom in Pennsylvania.
Wilmington was also famously the place where the du Pont family settled, forever changing the city’s future -- and even its topography. Almost every museum, park, and estate bears the stamp of the family’s largesse and civic support, including a number of museums and estates listed here. But there are lots of other fun things to do in Wilmington besides gorgeous real estate!
1. Wander The Jaw-Dropping Nemours Estate
The Nemours Estate was the 300-acre home of the late industrialist and philanthropist Alfred I. du Pont. Visitors have mentioned Versailles in describing Nemours. The estate’s mansion is a jaw-dropping 47,000 square feet in size, and the estate is home to the largest (10-acre) French-style formal gardens in North America. The mansion’s interior is chock-full of paintings, tapestries, antique furniture, and crystal chandeliers. There’s also a chauffeur’s garage with a collection of vintage automobiles. The entire house is accessible; however, the gardens and grounds are not. There is no shuttle service, so make sure to wear good walking shoes.
2. Visit The Premier Collection Of Decorative Arts (And Stop To Smell The Flowers)
Collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont opened his 175-room childhood home, Winterthur, to the public 70 years ago. Today, the Winterthur Museum is one of the best places to see American decorative arts, with a collection of nearly 90,000 objects from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The surroundings are impressive, as well -- there’s a 1,000-acre preserve with a 60-acre garden designed by du Pont (especially gorgeous in the spring). Check the online schedule for a gallery, birding and garden walks, and hikes.
3. Explore Pre-Raphaelite Wonders And Whimsical Statues
The Delaware Art Museum was founded in 1938 to preserve the work of Wilmington book and magazine illustrator Howard Pyle. (He was a major influence on the art of Andrew Wyeth: see Pro Tip for the Brandywine River Museum of Art below.) The Delaware Art Museum also has the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite art outside the United Kingdom, with works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and Edward Burn-Jones, inspired by medieval and early Renaissance art. Also check out the Copeland Sculpture Garden, which contains the Crying Giant, a work by witty and whimsical artist Tom Otterness. The vibrant and walkable Trolley Square neighborhood is nearby, with great restaurants and snacks.
4. See How The First Du Ponts Lived
The Hagley Museum and Library is located on 235 acres along the banks of the Brandywine River, a 5-minute drive north of the Delaware Art Museum. Here you will find restored mills, a workers' community, and the home and gardens of the first du Pont family in the United States. The Hagley acquired the Rothschild Patent Model Collection in 2016, which includes thousands of patent models dating back to the late 18th century when each patent applicant submitted a description of an invention along with drawings and a model. The museum has numerous models on display at the library.
Pro Tip: The library is not part of Hagley’s tour and can be accessed via the Buck Road East entrance off Route 100.
5. Walk, Run, Or Bike In Wilmington’s Lush State Parks
Brandywine Park is located at the southwestern end of the Delaware North Greenway Trail, which extends 10.4 miles northeast through Alapocas Run State Park, Rockwood Park, and Bellevue State Park, ending at Fox Point State Park. Brandywine Park is also the site of the compact and walkable Brandywine Zoo. A relatively recent addition to exercise surrounded by nature is the 8-mile Jack A. Markell Trail that connects Wilmington to the New Castle waterfront. The off-road path is paved and mostly flat, with one stretch of boardwalk through a marsh near Wilmington.
6. Be A Witness To History On The Wilmington Riverfront
The Riverfront is also the home of the Kalmar Nyckel, a full-scale replica of a 17th-century, three-masted, square-rigged, gun-armed merchant ship. The ship provides sailings from May until October, with day sails, pirate sails, and a Halloween Ghost Ship sail. The Delaware Contemporary houses seven galleries, 26 artist studios, a gallery shop, an auditorium, and a classroom. It presents a changing roster of exhibitions from local, national, and international artists. Or Hop on a Wilmington River Taxi at one of six docks along the riverfront. There’s a special 1-hour narrated water journey that covers the history of Wilmington's riverfront.
Tubman-Garrett Park is certainly worth a visit; it commemorates Harriet Tubman and Delaware Underground Railroad stationmaster Thomas Garrett, whose home once stood nearby at 227 Shipley Street. Visit the Old Swedes Historic site, where you will learn about the Swedish settlers who arrived in the New World in 1638 and see what life was like in a typical Colonial Swedish farmhouse. The site also includes Old Swedes Church, the 17th-century Hendrickson House, and the 1638 Burial Ground.
7. Foodie Favorites (And Cool Breweries)
After a day of exploring, you might want to relax in one of Wilmington’s famous breweries, including Iron Hill, Stitch House, or the Wilmington Brew Works. Some recommended restaurants include Bardea Food and Drink, La Fia bistro on Market Street, the Chelsea Tavern gastropub across from the Grand Opera House (an 1871 concert hall which before Covid-19 hosted more than 100 shows a year), and Mikimotos Asian Grill and Sushi Bar. Capriotti’s Sandwich Shop is the place for subs and cheesesteaks. Brew HaHa!, which currently has nine locations in the area, is great for coffee and snacks (and President Biden has been spotted in both the Trolley Square and Greenville branches).
8. Stay At The Grande Dame Or An Upscale Spa
The opulent Hotel Dupont, called “the Grand Dame” of Wilmington, is a 1913 landmark a mile from the Amtrak station. Its Le Cavalier Restaurant specializes in bistro dishes from southern France and North Africa. The Inn at Montchanin Village and Spa is an upscale and historic hotel less than 5 miles north of Wilmington. The inn was once part of the Winterthur estate and dates from 1799. Check out the hotel’s Krazy Kat’s Restaurant for French cuisine (and cat-centric decorations). Or, if you don’t mind a short 15-minute drive, Terry House Bed and Breakfast is a circa-1860 Federal townhouse on Delaware Street in historic New Castle, with gardens adjoining Battery Park on the Delaware River. There are many chain hotels in and around Wilmington, including the Hilton, Doubletree, and Hyatt. You can also check Vrbo for a more homey atmosphere.
Historic New Castle is just a 10-minute drive from Wilmington. You’ll think you have entered Brigadoon as you drive or walk the 10-block radius on the Delaware River, filled with lovingly restored homes from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Brandywine Valley is 12 miles north of Wilmington. You won’t want to miss either the amazing Longwood Gardens, with more than one thousand acres of local and exotic plants, inspiring ANY time of the year -- especially worth a festive visit at Christmas. The Brandywine River Museum of Art (open in June 2021, after renovations) is where you’ll see the work of famous realist painter Andrew Wyeth and his father, the great illustrator N.C. Wyeth.
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