The state of Delaware may be small – only Rhode Island is smaller – but it packs a lot into a small space. Historic homes date from the mid-1600s, and three estates that you can tour chronicle the rising fortunes of one of America’s wealthiest industrialist families. One of these, Winterthur, is now America’s premier museum of decorative arts, and another outstanding collection is not far away, in Wilmington’s excellent Delaware Art Museum. The state’s tourist attractions are not all history and culture; some of the finest beaches on the Atlantic coast stretch almost the entire length of the Delaware coast, providing summer playgrounds for residents of Washington, D.C., Wilmington, and Philadelphia.
1 Winterthur Museum and Gardens
Founded by Henry Francis du Pont, Winterthur is unusual as a museum because it was built as a showcase for his collections of priceless antiques and art but also as a place to use and to entertain family and friends. The 175 rooms were designed to be as historically accurate as possible, with antique furniture, needlework, textiles, silver, glass, paintings, prints, and ceramics appropriate to specific periods. With nearly 90,000 objects to choose from, curators can not only furnish the rooms authentically, but mount special exhibits in the galleries to follow themes such as artistic mediums, techniques, and decorative styles and influences. Because of the house’s size, no tour covers more than small sections; you will need to return several times to see everything. Winterthur is considered America’s finest museum of decorative arts.
Surrounding the house is a 1,000-acre park, where du Pont indulged another passion – plants. Here, he created a botanical garden of plants and trees from all over the world, planning their arrangement with a mind to colors and blooming season, so that the garden would be beautiful from late winter through late fall. Fern-bounded woodland paths lead to grand vistas of lawns and flower beds, and to the Enchanted Woods, a three-acre children’s garden, where kids can step into the world of woods fairies.
2 Rehobeth and Delaware Beaches
Stretching much of the length of Delaware’s 28 miles of Atlantic coastline, its white-sand beaches are the prime attraction for residents of the three major cities within weekend reach. The major resort is Rehobeth, consistently listed among the country’s top beaches for its laid-back atmosphere, boutiques, restaurants, and wide stretch of white sand. To the south is action-packed Dewey Beach, then the Delaware Seashore State Park (with water access on the ocean side and the bayside of a long barrier island), then the family-friendly Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island. North of Rehobeth is Cape Henlopen State Park and the charmingly old fashioned Lewes. There’s a beach for every taste.
3 Hagley Museum and Library
The Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington encompasses the site of the original du Pont gunpowder mills, as well as an estate and gardens. The first du Pont family home, Eleutherian Mills, built by E. I. du Pont in 1803, sits overlooking the restored French-style garden also created by E. I. du Pont. Five generations of du Ponts lived in the Georgian-style home, and their family business grew around them. In the visitor center (and the library if you’re interested in further research), you can learn how the industry developed along the Brandywine River as the technology for using waterpower evolved.
You can see a collection of vintage vehicles in the barn, including a Conestoga Wagon that was used to transport black powder to the port of Wilmington. In the Science & Discovery Center, you can try on a spacesuit and learn about the du Pont materials that went into making it.
4 Nemours Mansion and Gardens
Built-in the early 1900s, Nemours Mansion in Wilmington was a gift from Alfred du Pont to his wife Alicia. This beautiful 77-room home is complemented by equally impressive gardens, the largest formal French gardens in North America. Beyond stretches almost 200 acres of lawns, meadows, and woodlands. Follow the Long Walk to the Reflecting Pool, where intermittent jets of water shoot into the air. The Chauffeur’s Garage holds a collection of vintage automobiles.
5 Delaware Art Museum
Located in Wilmington, the Delaware Art Museum’s collection focuses on American Art of the 19th through the 21st centuries and English Pre-Raphaelite art of the mid-19th century. The museum is especially known for the premier collection of the works and papers of American artist Howard Pyle, who illustrated books by Mark Twain and Robert Lewis Stevenson. Pyle is best known for his ethereal mystical etchings, drawings, and paintings of mythological and medieval chivalry scenes, and for the images of pirates for Treasure Island. You’ll see the originals of his works alongside those of Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, and other familiar illustrators. A highlight of the collections is the complete cycle of murals Pyle painted for the dining room of their home in Wilmington, displayed as intended in an intimate room of paneled walls.
Other special collections at the Delaware Art Museum include posters from American poster designers and jewelry and metalwork made by English craftsmen in the Arts and Crafts style. As you approach the building, you can’t help seeing the Dale Chihuly arrangement of brilliant glass flowers, each several feet across. Displayed in front of a large window and visible from below in the museum’s atrium, the flowers are also visible close-up from a walkway between the two wings of the building.
Outside on the lawns is the Copeland Sculpture Garden, with nine works, highlighted by Tom Otterness’s 13-foot Crying Giant and Three Rectangles Horizontal Jointed Gyratory III by George Rickey, which moves in the least breeze.
7 John Dickinson Plantation
John Dickinson was known as the “Penman of the American Revolution” and he was attributed to drafting the Articles of Confederation in 1778. His 1740s brick house, outbuildings, and slave/tenant house in Dover is part of the farm complex.
6 Air Mobility Command Museum
The Air Mobility Command Museum is home to vintage planes dating from 1941 and artifacts that reflect airlifting, air refueling, and the history of the Dover Air Force Base. On display are a number of large aircraft, including a C-141B Starlifter, C133 Cargomaster, C130 Hercules, and a C-124 Globemaster, among others.
8 Brandywine Creek State Park
Brandywine Creek State Park encompasses 933 acres and is an important area for birds and other wildlife. The park features walking trails, a playground, the Brandywine Zoo, and numerous other things to do. The zoo specializes in North and South American endangered species. Brandywine is ideal for visually-impaired visitors, who can enjoy nature by walking the Sensory Trail.
9 The Nanticoke Indian Museum
The Nanticoke Indian Museum, in Millsboro, is housed in a former one-room schoolhouse and is listed as a National Historic Landmark. A variety of native artifacts are displayed here, from pottery to arrowheads, spears, and textiles, with some items dating back to 8000 BC. Of particular note is a traditional wooden canoe. The museum offers a fine overview and is a great place to learn about the heritage of the Nanticoke Tribe.
10 Delaware’s Old State House
The Georgian-style Delaware State House in Dover was completed in 1792. It contains the Governor’s presentation and ceremonial office as well as the 18th-century courtroom and legislative chambers on the first floor. Building artifacts, historical photographs, and documents are on display.
11 Grand Opera House
The Grand Opera House in Wilmington is a restored 1871 Victorian theater with a cast-iron facade. Over the years, the Grand has hosted Victorian melodramas, burlesque, vaudeville, variety shows, musical recitals, symphonies, and operas. Classical concerts and dance are the focus of today, and other entertainment opportunities are presented year-round.