Looking for a fun, kid-friendly road trip from DC or Philadelphia day trip to add to your next East Coast family vacation itinerary? You should consider Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located less than an hour from Philadelphia and only about two hours from Washington DC. Wilmington has historic mansions with beautiful sweeping gardens, riverside miniature golf, and museums to interest the whole family. Venture a bit further outside the city of Wilmington to walk the streets of New Castle where Delaware state history began, or take a ride from Delaware City out to Fort Delaware where it is always 1864. There are so many Wilmington DE activities for families to choose from when visiting the First State.
Best Wilmington DE Activities for Families
Tour the Nemours Estate and Walk Through the Gardens at Winterthur
Since the founding of the black powder works at Hagely in 1802, the history and prosperity of Wilmington and the state of Delaware has been tied to the du Pont family. By the turn of the century, the large duPont family owned many homes across the East Coast including a few large estates in the Brandywine Valley, Nemours Estate and the property that is now the Winterthur Museum and Gardens (pictured above.) You can imagine these houses are a treasure trove of early American paintings and and historic furniture that will thrill any American history buff. However, you might be surprised to learn that these historic houses also cater to families with young children with scavenger hunts featuring animals, rooms set aside for tots to play, and one of the most enchanting children’s gardens in America.
Winterthur Museum and Gardens
My daughter has certainly grown up since our first visit to Wilmington four years ago! On that visit we bypassed the house tour at Winterthur altogether in favor of playtime in the Enchanted Woods and Touch-It Room. With two young preschoolers we simply played all day, and the children fell asleep on the long ride home. On our most recent visit, my daughter and I took a Garden Tram Tour. Along the way we used Winterthur’s app to identify and then snap pictures of all the newly installed Garden Follies, a temporary outdoor exhibit for 2018-2019 season. We followed up our garden tour with a house tour where we counted the portraits of George Washington that we found along the 45-60 minute tour route through the 5th floor of the house. Then we marveled at the beautiful spiral staircase at the entry of house. Finally, my daughter, map in hand, guided us back to the Visitor Center through the Enchanted Woods at the end of our visit.
Visitors of all ages will simply be enchanted by a visit to Winterthur! Families could easily spend an entire day exploring the grounds and the museum. A Garden Tram Tour is the perfect way to acclimate yourself to the naturalistic style gardens designed by H.F. du Pont himself, a Harvard educated horticulturalist. The garden’s legendary bloom lasts nearly the entire spring season, with the azaleas being the highlight during the month of May. The Enchanted Woods holds many delights for children from a misting fairy mushroom ring to a stream with a water pump and watering cans inviting play. The massive house offers tours to fit every interest.
Nemours Estate, the home of A.I. du Pont, is much smaller than the sprawling property and farmland at Winterthur up the road. The decor of the mansion is French inspired, which is also a sharp contrast to the early American furnishings collected by H.F. du Pont at Winterthur. Stepping through the doors at Nemours mansion, any little girl will immediately imagine herself a princess.
My daughter was warmly greeted by the staff as she walked through the doors of the mansion. Most docents that we encountered throughout our self-guided tour took the time to chat with my daughter and tell her stories of the du Pont girls that called Nemours home. To make the visit even more special, my daughter was given a scavenger hunt featuring the animals found in the art throughout the house. Surprisingly, my 9-year-old daughter says that our visit to Nemours was the highlight of our mother-daughter weekend in Wilmington!
A visit to the Hagley Museum fills in the back story of the du Pont family’s prominence in the Brandywine Valley. Situated on the Brandywine River, the museum now tells the story of how black powder was produced at the property. Families can visit the machine shop for a fascinating tour on how the river’s power was harnessed in the industrial process.
Marshall Steam Museum
Open only one Sunday a month in the spring summer and fall months, the Marshall Steam Museum is certainly a hidden gem for families visiting Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley. The museum has a collection of antique automobiles dating from the early 20th century, the same time period that the du Pont family inhabited their beautiful mansions nearby. The automobiles in the Marshall Steam Museum’s collection are powered by gasoline, electric or steam, and museum volunteers take visitors on rides all afternoon long when the museum is open. There are also two small trains that families can ride around the property. The rides are short, but great fun for the kids. My daughter and I rode three of the automobiles in the museum’s collection the afternoon that we visited. We both agree that a carriage-shaped small electric car (more than a hundred years old) with a unique, unrecognizable steering system was our favorite. We also took a ride in a real Model T!
While Wilmington certainly enjoyed many years as an industrial powerhouse in the 19th and 20th centuries, a great environmental effort has been made in recent years to reclaim the wetlands along the Christina River and make the city’s Riverwalk neighborhood a fun place for people of all ages to enjoy.
Riverwalk Mini Golf
The city’s vibrant Riverwalk neighborhood boasts several restaurants and museums as well as a walking path along the Christina River. Considering that for much of the past 200 years, this area had been dominated by shipbuilding companies and industry, the Riverwalk is a surprisingly fun place for families to spend an afternoon or evening. In the shadow of the Delaware Children’s Museum, Riverwalk Mini Golf is a highlight for kids.
du Pont Environmental Education Center
Soon to be connected by bike path to historic New Castle, the Dupont Environmental Education Center sits on the Wilmington Riverfront inside the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. This wildlife refuge is a huge part of the post industrial clean-up of the Christina River. Work is being done to clear out the invasive species that have taken over the marsh and return it to how it would have looked 300 years ago. The education center offers many programs from meet-and-greets with marsh animals like frogs and snakes, to kayaking programs out on the river.
Fort Delaware State Park
Did you know that Delaware has it’s own living history museum? By taking the short boat ride from Delaware City over to Fort Delaware State Park on Pea Patch Island, families step back in time to 1864. At the fort there are several characters dressed up as everything from a blacksmith to an officer’s wife ready to answer questions about their life at Fort Delaware during the Civil War. Kids can help the laundress scrub the laundry or take a lesson from the school teacher who taught a class of students at this remote fort. Families will learn about the Confederate prisoners that were held in barracks just outside the fort on the island and can climb around amongst the cannons.
Learn the History of the First State
Delawareans are proud of their First State history. The state is certainly small, stretching roughly 100 miles from the forested byways of the Brandywine Valley, through the fertile farmland to the shores of the Atlantic beaches. But the history reaches back to the Dutch and Swedish settlers of the 1630s — without which Delaware might possibly be part of Pennsylvania, or Maryland today. While Dover has been the state’s capital since 1777, prior to that the state government met in the New Castle courthouse just outside of Wilmington.
Check out Trekaroo’s Top 10 Things to do with Kids in Delaware.
Historic New Castle
The heritage of Delaware is clearly indicated by the Dutch, Swedish, British, and American flags flying on the historic streets and over the courthouse in New Castle. This is where William Penn first landed and set foot on American soil as he took proprietor of Pennsylvania. Delaware would remain fully under this government for over twenty years then partially until signing the Declaration of Independence as its own separate colony. Families can learn about this contentious history by visiting the free New Castle Court House Museum, part of the First State National Historic Site. While in New Castle, be sure to eat at Jessop’s Tavern, founded in 1674, where the wait staff is dressed as they would have been in 300 years ago in colonial America.
River Taxi Wilmington
Take a ride on Wilmington’s River Taxi for a kid-friendly tour of the Christina River, running right through downtown Wilmington. Learn about Wilmington’s industrial past, the animals that now live along this stretch of river, and Harriet Tubman’s work alongside Thomas Garrett on the Underground Railroad. Kids will love how the Market Street Bridge opens just for the boat to pass through!
Choose from a Variety of Kid-Friendly Museums
No matter what interests your family has, there is a museum in Wilmington for you. True, many of the du Pont properties are museum in themselves, but there are also art museums, history museums and science museums for your family to explore.
Delaware Museum of Natural History
Have a future biologist in the family? Or maybe a preschooler fascinated by dinosaurs? The Delaware Museum of Natural History is a great place for children to learn about animals, conservation, and the natural world around them. Much of the collection is behind glass, but the museum has a fun scavenger hunt for young naturalists and plenty of enthusiastic staff to guide them along their way. There’s also a play room for tots complete with a kid-sized bat cave.
Delaware Art Museum
With a charming outdoor sculpture garden, free admission Sundays, and a colorful children’s room down in the basement, the Delaware Art Museum is a fun place to spend an afternoon with the kids. Take a stroll through the collection taking a break to play with the colorful Tetris-like mosaic tiles in the children room.
During our mother-daughter weekend getaway in Wilmington, my daughter and I stayed at Homewood Suites in a lovely two bedroom suite; one bedroom had a king bed and the other had two doubles. The two bedrooms were separated by a spacious living area with a kitchen, and each bedroom had large connecting bathroom. In the morning, we enjoyed a continental breakfast including fresh pancakes with fruit rolled up inside. This hotel is located within walking distance of about five chain restaurants, such as Olive Garden and TGI Fridays.
Disclosure: The author was hosted by the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. All opinions are her own.