Wilmington, the largest city in Delaware, is a charming destination with a prime location halfway between New York City and D.C. It is a city with rich history and a burgeoning future, big-city bustle and small-town allure.
This city, the hometown of President Joe Biden, has also been a corporate powerhouse since the industrial era. Rodney Square’s historic architecture houses countless businesses, while the Hagley Museum keeps archives on Delaware’s industrial history. Wilmington is also home to some of the earliest public green spaces in the country, such as Brandywine Park.
Whether you are visiting for business or for pleasure, Wilmington has much to offer. Continue reading for a list of the 12 absolute best things to do in Wilmington.
Wander around Nemours Estate
This exquisite estate contains the oldest formal French gardens in the United States. Built in the early 1900s by Alfred du Pont, the American industrialist, Nemours was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Its gardens are home to classical pavilions, famous sculptures, a memorial to one of du Pont’s ancestors, and much more. The estate also includes a Chauffeur’s Garage, where visitors can inspect a sizable collection of vintage automobiles. The property’s gorgeous mansion and gardens are open for guided and self-guided tours from May to December.
Nemours Estate is first on this list for its elegant European gardens and extensive history. Tickets are $20 for adults, and they provide access to the entire grounds and house for the day.
Peruse the Hagley Museum and Library
The rise of industry in America and the story of the du Pont family are chronicled in the Hagley Museum & Library. Formerly the estate of E.I. du Pont, Hagley is located on a hill on the bank of Brandywine River. This property was the home of five generations of du Ponts, who lived and worked at this prime location overseeing their powder mills. Nowadays, the museum runs reenactments at their 19th-century powder mills, and showcases the lives of the thousands of workers who labored at the mills.
Hagley is also home to Crowninshield Garden, a neoclassical garden created on top of the ruins of old mills; it is a marvel of craftsmanship and creativity. Hagley’s library is also responsible for preserving centuries of history of American enterprise. Whether you’re interested in its gardens, powder mills, library, or du Pont residence, Hagley Museum & Library is a must-visit.
Take a view to Wilmington and Western Railroad
Wilmington & Western Railroad is one of Wilmington’s most unique – and popular – attractions. This 10.2-mile railroad, which winds through the Red Clay Creek region, will transport you straight into Brandywine Valley’s past. The Railroad runs various excursions throughout the week, which all take place on their antique locomotives. You can travel to Mt. Cuba for a picnic, explore local shops in Ashland, or wander through the railroad’s museum in Hockessin; all stops on the Wilmington & Western Railroad.
A trip begins at $18 for adults, but prices vary depending on how long the route you plan to take is. The Wilmington & Western also offers specialty trains, like Brews on Board and the Autumn Leaf Special.
Marvel around the Grand Opera House
Since it was constructed in 1871, the Grand Opera House has been one of Wilmington’s most commanding structures. It hosts over 300 events a year, which range from ballet to symphony orchestras to stand-up comedy. The building itself was originally commissioned by the Delaware Grand Lodge of Masons to serve as a temple and meeting place, but it later became a movie theater and then the opera house. Prominent performers at The Grand, as the opera house is known, have included Buffalo Bill, Ethel Barrymore, and John Philip Sousa, among many others.
Performances at the Grand Opera House take place nearly every weekend. Be sure to catch a performance during a visit, whether by local musicians or the First State Ballet Theatre, or just stop by to admire the building’s historic facade.
Overlook the Bellevue State Park
Another former du Pont family estate, Bellevue State Park is a relaxing hideaway tucked into the middle of suburban Wilmington. The 328-acre park contains the elegant Bellevue Hall, various horse tracks and stables, rolling meadows, fish ponds, and more. The state of Delaware purchased the land after William du Pont Jr.’s death to turn into a public park. The state constructed the Northern Greenway Trail, a paved walkway, through the wooded areas on the land, as well as an exercise track and a catch-and-release pond.
Additionally, Bellevue is home to an arboretum and the Mount Pleasant Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic place of worship. Entrance into the park is $8 for out-of-state visitors and $4 for in-state visitors.
Visit Rockwood Park & Museum
Rockwood Park & Museum is a fascinating example of the 19th century frozen in time. This English-style country estate, built in 1854 for Joseph Shipley, a local merchant, was inspired by Shipley’s English house. Rockwood was later inhabited by the Bringhursts, relatives of Shipley’s; the museum today reflects their life circa the 1890s. The museum is home to much of the furniture Shipley imported from Europe, and various memorabilia and clothing belonging to the Bringhursts.
Some believe Rockwood is home to paranormal activity – it has even been featured on My Ghost Story and Ghost Hunters. Whatever the truth, this stately home and its manicured grounds are definitely worth a tour.
Meet the animals at Brandywine Zoo
Located along the Brandywine River, this zoo is home to countless exotic and local animals alike. Brandywine Zoo opened in 1905 as a part of Brandywine Park (more on the park next), on land where a public amphitheater once stood. The zoo has remained popular in the more than hundred years since it first opened, though it has undergone quite a few changes. Its animals are now sorted by region; the regions include Asia, Africa, Madagascar, North America, and South America. Some of its most notable animals include red pandas, an Andean condor, capybaras, white ruffed lemurs, and buffalo.
Less than a 10 minute drive from downtown Wilmington, Brandywine Zoo is the perfect place for an affordable, fun family excursion. Prices for entry vary from season to season, but they are always under $10.
Saunter around Brandywine Park
Designed in part by Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous architect of Central Park in New York City, Brandywine Park was the first established park in Wilmington. Home to the Brandywine Zoo, it is also the largest urban park in Delaware. The 178 acres of the park are a testament to the state’s effort to provide more green space to the public; it serves as a breath of fresh air in the urban landscape. The land of the park exhibits Delaware’s natural country feel and open wilderness, tamed by walking trails and various gardens.
This local treasure, a creation by the father of American landscape architecture, is a must-visit destination in Wilmington. Entry to Brandywine Park is free to all.
Visit Rockford Tower
The stately Rockford Tower is one of Wilmington’s most recognizable landmarks. The 75-foot tall stone structure, located in Rockford Park, is both a former water tower and an observational deck. It was completed in 1901 in an effort to provide clean water for the influx of people in Delaware during the rise of industry in the area. The tower is built from stones from the banks of Brandywine River, and it offers unparalleled views of Wilmington.
Rockford Park is open daily from 8:00am to sunset, but the tower is only open to climb on Sundays. Make sure to visit on Sundays for a chance to see Wilmington’s most impressive vistas.
Take your kids to Delaware Children’s Museum
An exploratory, interactive experience, Delaware Children’s Museum is a family favorite. Built in 2010, this 37,000-square foot building includes ten unique exhibits. Some are permanent, while others rotate; the permanent exhibits include ECOConnect, where kids can connect with nature, and Training Wheels, a transportation-themed adventure.
General admission to the museum is $12 for children and adults. The Delaware Children’s Museum is the perfect outing for families with kids under the age of 10.
Meet the heart of Rodney Square
Rodney Square is the heart of downtown Wilmington. The bustling area is home to stately city buildings and beautiful revivalist architecture alike. The square itself was built in the early 1900s due to the encouragement and financial investment of the DuPont company; it was inspired by the City Beautiful movement, a national wave of new urban planning philosophy that encouraged the improvement of public spaces. Rodney Square now brings the community together for various events, planned and informal. It is surrounded by prominent buildings such as the Wilmington Public Library and the Wilmington Tower.
A gorgeous example of civic dedication and revolutionary urban planning, Rodney Square is one of Wilmington’s most notable districts.
Stroll around Marian Coffin Gardens at Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a classic 19th century estate famous for its whimsical gardens. The mansion, Gibraltar, was built in the 1840s by John Rodney Brinckle, and later bought by the Sharp family. The Sharps expanded the property and hired Marian Coffin to design the estate’s elaborate gardens. Coffin was one of the first professional female landscape architects in the world; she also designed gardens for other prominent families like the Vanderbilts and Fricks. The gardens were created in the Italian Beaux Arts style, but they, along with Gibraltar, fell into disrepair after the death of the Sharps.
After its restoration in 1999, the newly-named Marian Coffin Gardens became one of the most beautiful, historic gardens in the country. These gardens are free to enter, making it one of the most rewarding destinations on this list.