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When I think of travel, I often imagine some far-off, exotic land. But the truth is, you can discover some of the best travel experiences less than an hour from home. I found lush gardens, expansive estates, fun fairy gardens and scenic riverside walking paths, all in Wilmington, Delaware – just a short drive from my front door! Here are some of my favorite finds and preferred places in Wilmington, DE.
Where in the World is Wilmington, Delaware?
The largest city in the nation’s first state, Wilmington was the first Swedish settlement in North America. It was built on the site of Fort Christina at the influx of two waterways, the Brandywine Creek and the Christina River, near where the Christina meets the Delaware. It’s internationally known as a hub of finance and is notably the home of most American credit card companies’ headquarters.
Yes, the city is known for its contributions to corporate America, but when I wandered past the skyscrapers, I also found great family attractions, a deep history, wildlife refuges and river walks. And Wilmington is easily and quickly accessible from Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C. – so it’s a great day trip if you’re visiting any of these cities for an extended time.
1. Kids Will Love the Delaware Children’s Museum
Since I raised five children, I have spent quite a bit of time in children’s museums, and the Delaware Children’s Museum ticks all the boxes when it comes to what a parent – and a kid – looks for in a museum experience. Yes, I always wanted it to be educational, but more than that, I wanted it to be fun. And the Delaware Children’s Museum makes learning fun for its visitors, which is why over 700 people come through the doors seeking adventure each day of the weekend. (Weekdays are a bit quieter, especially during the school year.)
Before entering, check out the red locomotive. I didn’t catch the detail, but I later read that the cab is unusually large for this type of engine, which was used in the 70s and early 80s.
Touch a Starfish; Climb Inside a Tree
Once inside, I found a variety of rooms, interactive exhibits and learning areas, all on a single floor of the museum. My favorite was the ECOConnect Exhibit, where children can learn about sustainable energy while riding a pirate ship (the Kalmar Nyckel, an authentic replica of a tall ship we saw later that day). We loved getting up close and personal with some marine friends in the Touch Tank Aquarium. I have to admit, I was as excited as the kids were when I got to touch a chocolate chip starfish (gently, with one finger) and felt the velvety smoothness of the yellow-spotted stingray.
Another favorite, in the aptly-named Tree Pavilion, was the hollowed-out shell of a 350-year-old Sycamore tree, which was set on its side so little ones could tunnel through on the way to their next adventure. The tree originally grew at the nearby Alapocas Run State Park, but at its new home in the Delaware Children’s Museum, it’s definitely a spot to take Instagram-worthy pics of the kiddos.
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Other areas of note in the museum include the STEM room, the dinosaur skull (which was still decorated for a Philadelphia Eagles’ pregame Super Bowl party, one recent event), the sports area (including hoops areas divided by age), and the Bank on It! Exhibit, which felt just perfect for teaching the premiere industry of Wilmington. The museum is open year-round and is a favorite for children ages 2-8.
Read More: Delaware’s Beautiful Beaches
2. The Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge at the DuPont Environmental Education Center
After spending the morning playing at the Delaware Children’s Museum, I was ready to get outside into the beautiful March day. Wilmington has an extensive riverfront shoreline and much of it has been developed with walking paths or boardwalks, which local and visiting runners, joggers and walkers seem to enjoy. (They were all smiling as they dashed by – honest!)
My favorite trail was the one at the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. Named after environmentalist, scientist and activist Russell W. Peterson, a former Delaware governor, the refuge is one of only a handful of urban wildlife areas in the United States. The wildlife refuge felt like a refuge for locals and visitors alike, as we were surrounded by nature, yet could see the towering skyscrapers nearby.
Although I didn’t see any wildlife on my walk (blame it on an overcast day in early March), I was assured that the area is home to beaver, otter, muskrats and mink, as well as over 30 different types of waterfowl and marsh birds. Since Wilmington is practically in my backyard, I promised to return in true Spring, to take another walk around the Jack Martel trail, a quarter-mile trek around the tidal pool (longer, more challenging paths go all around the refuge).
Learn While Playing
Oh, and the people assuring me about the wildlife? They were employees of the Delaware Nature Society, a non-profit organization that mans the DuPont Environmental Education Center, which is on the edge of the refuge. The knowledgeable and friendly staff is there to answer questions, manage the land and hold special events for visitors.
My tip? Stop in the Center to pick up your starter deck and expansion packs for AquaMarooned, an outdoor challenge game to explore the Earth’s “watersphere.” Part scavenger hunt, part strategy game, totally fun, totally free.
3. Wilmington Riverwalk
Another great place to walk or jog is the Riverwalk in downtown Wilmington. The Riverwalk is a beautiful boardwalk along the Christina River, which winds through a full mile of some of the most popular attractions in the Wilmington downtown area. Strolling down the Wilmington riverfront, we checked out the various restaurants in the area with our eyes and noses. We went “off board” to take advantage of the state’s sales tax status (there is no tax!) to pick up a few souvenirs at a boutique on nearby Water Street. We shared the spacious boardwalk and the incredible riverside views with a variety of friendly local joggers, parents pushing strollers with little ones in tow, some teens biking their way to work and a group of seniors from Philadelphia who were disappointed that fishing is prohibited.
4. Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Right now, many people would associate the state of Delaware with President Biden – and with good reason, as our current Commander-in-Chief proudly calls the first state home. But before the Bidens, another family made its mark in Delaware – the duPont family, who settled here and built a gunpowder mill– and a fortune – on the banks of the Brandywine River. The duPont family has been one of the country’s richest since the mid-19th century, as they invested in numerous areas, including the chemical and the automotive industry.
Many of the family’s posh estates are now museums and open to the public. We visited the opulent Winterthur, home to one of the richest collections of Americana in the country, which is located just west of Wilmington on the Brandywine Valley National Scenic Byway. A descendant of the original family settlers, Delaware native Henry Francis duPont opened the property to visitors over 50 years ago. The grounds are posh and gorgeous, with an Enchanted Woods, seasonal blossoms and exquisite landscaping over the estate’s nearly 1,000 acres.
We saw much of the landscaping as we rode the tram from Winterthur’s Visitor Center to the attraction’s showpiece, a 175-room mansion filled with treasures. The home is a showcase for the du Pont family collections, with more than 90,000 objects curated by Henry Francis du Pont himself. Trace American history through the rooms on the fourth and fifth floors. Tour guides are available in every room to answer questions. My favorite spot might have been the walk-in closet that housed hundreds of ornate candlestick holders.
5. Brandywine Zoo
If you want a guarantee to see animals, you can’t go wrong at the Brandywine Zoo, located in Brandywine Creek State Park right on the Brandywine River. Even on the chilly March day we visited, a plethora of birds, bobcats and farm animals were visible in this little, well-designed zoo.
An Andean condor was putting on a show that day, screeching and dancing and getting all the attention. The American eagles were more stoic but equally captivating. They’ve made a home at the zoo after sustaining injuries that prevent them from returning to the wild.
But the Brandywine Zoo isn’t just for the birds. We spotted a spiny porcupine, a trio of chattering ruffled lemurs and a serval named Savannah. The Barnyard provides some hands-on interaction with a group of goats, which seemed to be a favorite of younger visitors.
Read More: The Best Zoos in the US
6. The Delaware Museum of Nature and Science
The newly renovated Delaware Museum of Nature and Science provides an in-depth look at the local ecosystem, as well as exhibits about the diverse life that shares our Earth. Permanent collections include the Alison K. Bradford Global Journey Gallery, which highlights how various life forms adapt to our planet.
We came tooth-to-tusk with a walrus on the Arctic tundra, roamed with buffalo and bison on the African savannah and dived under the sea to meet with giant squid, whales and other sea life.
7. Historical Sites
If someone in your party likes history (hand raised!), Wilmington has many interesting museums to explore. After all, Delaware is the first state – and many of the streets are still paved with cobblestones in historic Old New Castle. Because of the weather, we didn’t have an opportunity to ride the Kalmar Nyckel, a beautifully replicated tall ship that serves as Delaware’s floating classroom.
We did visit the Delaware History Museum, located in downtown Wilmington, which also houses the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage. The Read House and Gardens in Old New Castle is a national historic landmark completed in 1804 by George Read, one of Delaware’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And Old Town Hall on Market Street is even older, built in 1798 and styled after Congress Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
8. For the Artists: The Delaware Art Museum and the Delaware Contemporary
The Delaware Art Museum is a beautifully curated museum with an emphasis on local artists. The permanent collection includes a variety of exhibits, including one focusing on the work of Wilmington-based artist Howard Pyle, known for his paintings of American heroes and pirates. My favorite artistic area, though, was the one outside at the Copeland Sculpture Garden, which surrounds the Delaware Art Museum and includes The Crying Giant and 19 more sculptures on the lush grounds.
We were unable to see Radical Beauty, the British Pre-Raphaelites, as the exhibit was temporarily closed. But we look forward to seeing the exhibit on a return visit.
For a little less traditional take on art, we highly recommend the Delaware Contemporary, founded in 1979 by local artists to unite art with the Wilmington DE community.
Most of the exhibits here aren’t permanent, but there are 26 on-site artist studios where the displays are always changing and always amazing. My favorite at the Delaware Contemporary was Plastic Reef, an under-the-sea extravaganza created of recycled material.
9. Grab Lunch at DE.CO
Of course, it’s important to find a good place to eat during a getaway. We think we chose well when we went to DE.CO, a food hall in downtown Wilmington. It bills itself as a launchpad for chefs and a haven for eaters. The first food hall in the first state, DE.CO offers everything from a swank sushi bar to Detroit-style pizza.
I’m a purist, so I went for the $12 soup and sandwich combo at Stu and Sammy’s Delicatessen. For that princely amount, I enjoyed a whole grilled cheese sandwich, a cup of potato soup and a Dr. Pepper. My husband ordered a Sandy, an all-American cheeseburger, and highly recommended it.
The Pop-Up Kitchen at DE.CO allows visiting chefs to test new recipes and join the community. During our visit, a vegan chef was presenting his dishes in this space.
10. Other duPont Family Sites
We didn’t have time to visit the other duPont family sites in and around Wilmington. But we plan to take a couple of day trips to learn more. Given the importance of the duPont family to the area, we’d love to check out the following attractions:
The Hagley Museum and Library is where the duPont family story started. It’s the site of the original gunpowder mills, and the original family home and garden are still on-site. There’s also a restored riverside mill and workers’ quarters which let visitors see firsthand what early American industry was like.
Nemours Estate, built by Alfred duPont, is a 102-room mansion with 18th-century French furniture and formal French gardens. Versailles’ Petit Trianon was duPont’s inspiration when designing the Nemours Estate.
Perhaps the most famous modern building in Wilmington DE, the DuPont Building is the headquarters of the DuPont Company. It takes up an entire block in downtown Wilmington, occupying the block bound by 10th, 11th, Orange and Market streets, and was one of the first skyscrapers in the city.
And A Word About Delaware Shopping…
Sure, Delaware is known for the Bidens, the duPont family, and the financial corporations. But did you know that you can shop tax-free in Wilmington (and the rest of the first state)? Delaware has zero sales tax, which makes it a great place to do some shopping.
There are numerous shopping areas in and around Wilmington. My favorite just might be Independence Mall, a busy shopping hub designed to look like Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Give me liberty – and give me tax-free shopping!
Find Places to Stay Near Wilmington
There are lots of options for hotel stays near Wilmington, including vacation rentals. Use this interactive map to help you find a place to stay in the area.