In 2020, the Presidential campaign of Joe Biden thrust Wilmington, Delaware into the spotlight, but this small city just 40 minutes from Philadelphia and 2 hours from New York City by train still may not be on your radar. However, this once-underrated city is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Conde Nast Travel has identified this delightful city as one of the 23 Best Places to Go in the U.S. in 2023.
This mid-priced east coast city offers tons of indoor and outdoor activities and literally something for everyone, making Wilmington and the greater Brandywine Valley the perfect getaway.
**Disclaimer: This was a hosted stay, however, all opinions are my own. I strive to provide my readers with my most authentic sentiments.
Explore Wilmington’s Riverfront
The Wilmington Riverwalk took center stage during the 2020 election season and that is a great place to start in this town. The Riverwalk is home to the Horizon Riverfront Ice Skating Rink, the Delaware Children’s Museum, an IMAX Theater as well as a host of shopping, dining, and entertainment opportunities.
Sports fans, the Riverwalk has something for you too. Choose between a minor league basketball at the Chase Fieldhouse or a Wilmington Blue Rocks game at Frawley Stadium. Additionally, you can visit the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame which covers Delaware sports history from the Civil War to today.
Enjoy the Arts in Wilmington, DE
Patrons of the arts can enjoy a concert in Tubman-Garrett Riverfront Park or find their new favorite artist at The Delaware Contemporary, a unique art space, with seven exhibition galleries featuring collections from local, regional, and international artists.
The Delaware Art Museum focuses on art produced, exhibited, and collected in the region. Its collection includes approximately 12,000 works featuring historical and contemporary American art, British Pre-Raphaelite art, and American illustration as well as contemporary art and rotating exhibitions.
Visitors will want to spend time exploring the museum grounds where you will find the Copeland Sculpture Garden. This outdoor gallery features 20 contemporary sculptures by nationally recognized artists and is set in the landscape.
Bike or Walk along the Jack A. Markell Trail (AKA JAM Trail)
Walk or ride the Jack A Markell Trail, a 5.5-mile (each way) mixed-use bike path that connects the Wilmington waterfront with Historic New Castle. The trail traverses along the Christina River and through the freshwater tidal marsh on an elevated boardwalk before becoming a paved trail and terminating at Battery Park on the Delaware Riverfront.
Along the way, make a stop at the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge and the DuPont Environmental Education Center. This 212-acre wildlife refuge is home to many bird species, otters, turtles, and more.
At the Delaware riverfront watch the freighters go by, fish, or just enjoy the breeze off the water. Battery Park is a pretty little park where locals congregate. You see families strolling, and kids on the playground. Also, it is a popular location for photos.
Pick up the C and D Canal Trail in Delaware City and enjoy a delightful bike ride along the canal into Historic Chesapeake City, MD.
In the delightful town of Historic New Castle, you’ll find cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, the original courthouse (now a museum) and if you’re into cemeteries there’s a pretty great one. And this little hamlet is set up for cyclists. You will find bike racks to secure your ride and even a public bike repair station and water.
While in Historic New Castle be sure to stop at Jessup’s Tavern for a hand-dipped ice cream made by Woodside Farm Creamery and served in either a bowl or Belgian waffle cone.
Stroll the Gardens of the Brandywine Valley
Just a few miles north of Wilmington and extending into Pennsylvania is what’s known as the Brandywine Valley, part of “America’s Garden Capital.” This area, just minutes from the riverfront and downtown, was once owned almost entirely by the DuPont family who made their fortunes manufacturing gunpowder and later chemicals.
Today much of the property once owned by this wealthy family has fallen into the public domain. Thankfully, it did, because the estates, the gardens, and the many acres they occupied are now open for the public to view.
Some of the best-known gardens of the Du Pont family include Longwood Gardens, Winterthur Museum and Gardens, and the Hagley Museum. The Nemours Estate and Mt Cuba are two of the lesser-known estates but are not to be missed.
The Crown Jewel of the Brandywine Valley, Longwood Gardens, is located the furthest from downtown and Riverfront but it’s absolutely worth the drive. This world-renowned garden occupies over 1000 acres and is broken into “Districts” including the Conservatory, the Main Fountain Gardens, the Lakes District, the House and Theatre District, the Chimes Tower District, and the Meadow and Forest District. Each one is distinctive and deserves to be seen but this does require some time and walking.
The Conservatory is a must-visit. It is simply splendid. DuPont loved to entertain and would hold grand events in the conservatory which houses the largest Aeolian organ ever constructed in a residential setting. The organ was refurbished in 2004, and visitors can see and hear this magnificent instrument during their visit.
Winterthur Mansion, Museum, and Research Library
Winterthur, a 175-room mansion, museum, and research library soars nine stories and covers more than 96K square feet. Originally a 12-room home, additions were built to hold what is today the pre-eminent collection of American Decorative arts. Winterthur possesses more than 90,000 objects made or used in America dating back to 1640. The collection holds everything from Chippendale furniture to simple items found in nature.
Situated on 1000 acres of woodlands, fields, streams, and naturalized gardens, Winterthur is a unique four seasons garden that is the vision of the estate’s founder, Henry Francis du Pont. Garden highlights include the Azalea Woods, the Reflecting Pool and Glade Garden located behind the mansion, the Enchanted Woods, and the Sundial Garden. Each is distinctly different and noteworthy. If you have kids, then the whimsical Enchanted Woods is a must-visit.
Mt. Cuba Center
Mt. Cuba, the former estate of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland offers both botanical gardens and natural habitats. The center is committed to the protection of native species. Additionally, the Mt. Cuba Center is a research facility including a trial garden where species are tested for their suitability and the best conditions for introduction into the landscape. The modest colonial revival style home overlooks 1000 acres of meadows and rolling hills.
Nemours Mansion and Gardens
Located almost in downtown Wilmington, the Nemours Estate, a bright neoclassical French estate including the carriage house and an awesome automobile collection may be the most outstanding of them all (IMO). In contrast to the natural setting of Mt. Cuba, Nemours is regal, elegant, and formal. It’s a stunner! The formal gardens and the 77-room mansion are both modeled after the aesthetic of French design making Nemours feel like a little slice of Europe in the mid-Atlantic region.
In Spring, the world-class gardens and stunning mansions of the Brandywine Valley are not to be missed. This is the perfect time of year to visit these estate gardens awash in the colors of cheerful daffodils, vibrant azaleas, and tulips in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Unlike most of the garden estates, Longwood Gardens is a four-season attraction offering both indoor and outdoor spaces. During the summer months, you’ll be dazzled by the way the fountains dance. And the holiday season is simply magical. Regardless of when you visit, you won’t be disappointed!
Activities in Wilmington, DE for Kids and Families
Wilmington isn’t just for adults. This great city offers plenty to do for the whole family, teens too! Here’s a bunch of activities everyone will love.
Delaware Children’s Museum
The little ones will love the Delaware Children’s Museum where interactive exhibits let kids learn about science, math, and technology. This kid-focused museum strives to engage children’s creativity through play and informal learning.
The Brandywine Zoo, Delaware’s only zoo, is located within Brandywine Park. This small zoo allows kids an opportunity to get up close with the animals including Red Pandas, Lemurs, and capybara as well as a variety of birds, reptiles, and even honeybees.
While the Kalmar Nyckel, the official Tall Ship of Delaware sails throughout the mid-Atlantic region from Virginia to New England, the ship resides at the Copeland Maritime Center campus on Wilmington’s historic riverfront.
The original Tall Ship was the first Swedish vessel to make the voyage to the New World. In 1638 Swedish colonists arrived on the colonial ship and established little Fort Christina, the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley, which is now the City of Wilmington.
Today, a replica of the ship sits a mere 200 yards from Fort Christina National Historic Landmark and the original ship’s landing site. The ship serves as a floating classroom and hosts field trips, classroom programs, scouting programs, summer camps, and community outreach events. Students experience history at the Kalmar Nyckel and Copeland Maritime Center by living it through hands-on educational opportunities.
Delaware Museum of Nature and Science (formerly Delaware Museum of Natural History)
Founded in 1957 by John E. du Pont, as the Delaware Museum of Natural History, the museum is the oldest of its kind in the state of Delaware. The exhibit’s core collection of mollusk shells and bird eggs was started in childhood by DuPont. These collections are the 10th largest and second largest in North America respectively.
Opening its doors in 1972, the museum has undergone several iterations. The most recent of which was in 2020 when it underwent a two-year, multimillion-dollar-renovations bringing the museum into the 21st century. When it reopened in 2022, it did so as the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science.
While the original collection of shells, birds’ eggs, and other artifacts remain, the museum now offers large interactive exhibits across multiple galleries.
The Regional Journey Gallery highlights the state’s ecosystems and the PaleoZone feature creatures that lived in the Mid-Atlantic during the Cretaceous period. It is the only permanent dinosaur exhibit in Delaware.
As visitors enter the Global Journey Gallery, they are greeted by a giant world map on the floor surrounded by exhibits that depict the earth’s major ecosystems: The land-based African Savannah, Arctic Tundra, and the Rainforest as well as the Ocean environments; shallow, mid-water and deep.
The Skylight Atrium features a Tree of Life which shows the evolution of organisms over billions of years and the relationship between all creatures.
Finally, the Nature Nook is a space for the museum’s youngest visitors. Here little ones can explore a cave, stream, meadow, and woodland to learn about wildlife and habitats through hands-on experiences.
Wilmington and Western Railroad
Take a trip back in time on the Wilmington and Western Railroad. Hop aboard an antique passenger coach pulled by a coal-burning steam locomotive or an early-generation diesel locomotive and experience early 20th-century railroading. Trains depart from Greenbank Station and wind through some of the prettiest scenery in the tri-state area.
The scenic 10-mile journey will traverse through the small towns of Faulkland and Wooddale, past Mt Cuba Picnic Grove, and through Ashland, Yorklyn, and into Hockessin. In Hockessin, passengers can de-train and explore the downtown area during the 30-minute layover.
Throughout the year the Wilmington and Western Railroad hosts special events including an Autumn Leaf Special, Grandparents Day, Halloween Express, Princess Express, Holiday Lights Express, Doodlebug Days, and the Santa Claus Express.
Go Ape Treetop Adventures
Looking for something for the Teens? Try the rope courses and ziplines at Go Ape Treetop Adventures. See the park from a completely different perspective. Located within Lum’s Pond State Park this forest canopy experience offers 60 aerial obstacles, five ziplines spanning 700 feet, and an epic Tarzan swing.
Additionally, Lums Pond State Park offers 17 miles of hiking trails wrapping around Delaware’s largest freshwater pond and traversing hardwood forests and wetlands. Boat rentals are available for use on the pond. Visitors will find amenities such as picnic areas and restroom facilities.
Canoe, Kayak, or Tube on the Brandywine River
Enjoy a leisurely float down the Brandywine River with Northbrook Canoe. This well-established company will provide the gear and transportation to and from the river leaving nothing for you to do except enjoy the river. Pick a date, time, and distance and they’ll do the rest.
Play a Round of Put-put Golf on the Riverfront
In the evening, during the summer months, one of the best things to do is a family mini golf outing at Riverwalk Mini Golf, an 18-hole course featuring plants that grow along the Christina River and a cool water feature. Located just outside the Delaware Children’s Museum.
Ferry to Fort Delaware from Delaware City
Historic Fort Delaware located on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River, served to protect Philadelphia and Wilmington from attack from the mid-1800s through World War I. During the Civil War, the fort served as a prison camp to hold prisoners of war. At one time the prison housed up to 12,595 Confederate prisoners.
Today, fort historians dressed in period clothing regale visitors with stories of life in 1864, great escapes, and even a ghost story or two. A tour of the island takes you to the parade ground, officers’ quarters, barracks, kitchen, blacksmith shop, and ordnance room. Observe the firing of the Fort’s Columbiad cannon.
During the summer months, birders and wildlife enthusiasts can observe nine different species of herons, egrets, and ibis. The island’s marshes are home to one of the East Coast’s largest nesting areas for wading birds.
Plan an Outdoor Adventure in One of Delaware’s State Parks
Wilmington and the greater Brandywine Valley offer tons of outdoor activities. Five of Delaware’s 17 state parks are within a short drive from Downtown Wilmington so there’s no reason not to get out and experience them.
Bellevue State Park
Bellevue State Park, another former DuPont estate in the middle of suburban Wilmington includes Bellevue Hall, the home of William DuPont’s, avid equestrian. William DuPont built horse stables, indoor horse training facilities, and a 1-⅛ mile long horse track which provide recreational opportunities to this day.
The horse track is now a fitness track that circles a meadow and a catch-and-release fishing pond. The pond is stocked with bass, catfish, and sunfish and provides a peaceful spot to cast a line. Biking and hiking trails lead you on a tour of other areas of the estate and include part of the paved Northern Greenway Trail while other sections remain unpaved.
Additional recreational opportunities include Disc Golf, the Bellevue Tennis Center, and Wellspring Farm, a modern equestrian facility with indoor and outdoor arenas for group and private riding lessons, boarding, and therapeutic riding.
Throughout Summer on Sunday and Thursday evenings, a free Summer Concert Series is held at the band shell. Bring a picnic meal and a blanket and enjoy musical performances of all kinds.
Alapocas Run State Park
Scenic Alapocas Run State Park features the Blue Ball Barn, the Can-Do Playground, the only natural rock-climbing wall in the State of Delaware, and wonderful biking and hiking trails. Rare species such as North America’s largest native fruit-bearing tree, the Pawpaw and the non-aggressive Northern Copperhead, Delaware’s only venomous snake can be found within the forest.
The Blue Ball Barn, built in the 1900s as a dairy barn and named after the Blue Ball Tavern, is now a popular event space. It holds the Delaware Folk Art Collection and tells the park’s story. Near the barn is the Can-Do Playground, Delaware’s first Boundless Playground™. The play area is designed to be accessible to every child, regardless of physical, mental, and sensory abilities. And an accessible Storybook Trail winds around the playground.
The Blue Rock climbing wall offers top-rope climbing and rappelling. The granite cliff reveals the area’s quarrying past. Rock climbing classes are available and free climbing is allowed with a permit.
Additionally, Northern Delaware Greenway Trail, a National Recreation Trail, a wonderful trail for biking and walking, makes its way through Alapocas Run. The paved trail with some steep sections begins near the barn and winds down into the park and along the Brandywine River into Brandywine Park (not the same as Brandywine Creek State Park). The trail passes the rock climbing wall and if you continue it will take you into Brandywine Park in the heart of Wilmington.
This popular park is home to the Historic Jasper Crane Rose Garden, Brandywine Zoo, Historic Josephine Fountain, and the Sugar Bowl, an oratory stage that hosted some of America’s famous 19th-century speakers. Today it is used to host free summer concerts and special events.
Brandywine Creek State Park
Northern Delaware’s Piedmont region is home to Brandywine Creek State Park. The park includes four Nature Preserves including Flint Woods, the Carney Tract, Tulip Tree Woods, and Fresh Water Marsh.
The 24 acres Tulip Tree Woods Nature Preserve is enclosed by a charming three-foot stone wall and is home to a magnificent stand of old-growth Tulip Poplar trees. The forest canopy includes an array of majestic trees, including American Beech, Red Oak, Black Oak, and White Oak. In spring delicate wildflowers, such as Nodding Trillium and Blood Root, blanket the forest floor in a breathtaking display.
Flint Woods Nature Preserve spans 138 acres, protecting 40 acres of mature Piedmont hardwood forest, including one of only six Golden Saxifrage Forested Seep Communities in the state. It anchors over 2,000 acres of protected lands, linking Brandywine Creek State Park and the Brandywine Creek watershed in Pennsylvania. Additionally, it serves as the source of six first-order streams that flow into Brandywine Creek.
Rolling meadows provide a habitat for native pollinators, ground-nesting birds, and rare native plants. But they are also excellent for picnics, kite flying, and disc golf, and in the winter, sledding, and cross-country skiing are favorite pastimes.
Wilson’s Run is stocked annually with trout for anglers (fishing license and trout stamp required) and small-mouth bass, bluegill, and crappie can be found in Brandywine Creek.
The park hosts monthly bird walks, guided canoe excursions, full moon hikes, and more.
Where to Stay in Wilmington, DE
Wilmington offers many options for overnight accommodation both downtown and on the Riverfront.
If you are looking for art and culture, consider staying in the city. This will put you close to cultural sites and performing arts venues. A stay at the sophisticated and historic Hotel DuPont will have you in the middle of all the Wilmington area has to offer.
If you prefer a more affordable stay or to be in the center of it all, then consider one of the Riverfront hotels such as Hyatt Place or Homewood Suites by Hilton. Both are wonderful options in terms of comfortable stays in a prime location.
Places to Eat in Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley
Ubon Thai Kitchen and Bar: If you enjoy Thai food, you will want to check out Ubon, located on the Riverfront near Dravo Plaza Dock. They offer delicious Thai specialties and allow you to request the level of heat (spice) you desire.
Pizza by Elizabeth’s – While pizza is in the name, what Elizabeth’s serves is anything but your typical pie. It is more of a flatbread dressed up with creative combinations like Fig jam, bleu cheese, and thinly sliced prosciutto, with a scallion garnish. Additionally, they prepare ample salads, soups, and appetizers.
Mrs. Robinos Featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives in 2019, this award-winning traditional Italian restaurant in an old Wilmington rowhome has been serving traditional Italian food since 1940. To this day, Mrs. Robinos is a family-owned and operated business. Reservations recommended.
Buckley’s Tavern – This colonial tavern located in Centreville offers “elegant comfort food” served in the dining rooms or outdoors on the patio or rooftop bar and grill. Menu favorites include the cream of mushrooms soup, steakhouse cuts, mac and cheese, and the Buckley Burger.Reservations Recommended.
Jessop’s Tavern – Located in a 300year old building on Old New Castle, Jessup’s Tavern serves American food with English, Dutch, Belgian, and Swedish influences. All seafood is chef-selected, sauces and dressings are made in-house, and much of the baking is done on the property. The bar serves unique beers from around the globe including 300+ bottled and 20 draft Belgian beers. Stepping into Jessup’s is like being transported back in time.