Perhaps the most under-appreciated of the regular Acela Express stops between New York and Washington, little Wilmington has a major trick up its sleeve: Half of it—well, very nearly—is essentially hiding out, up in the woods above a rather humdrum downtown. We’re not talking your typical, tree-lined Eastern Seaboard suburbia, either—Wilmington enjoys a privileged location at the southern reaches of the fabled Brandywine Valley, a picturesque area prized by artists, aristocrats and lovers of nature for centuries now. With spring busting out all over, it’s the perfect time to drop by for a dose of history, art and—most importantly—an abundance of beautiful gardens and a heady hit of civilized rural life, all found just minutes from the train station.
Ready, set, go look at houses.
Once you get to town, high tail it north. The question is, which ye olde, absurdly beautiful industrialist estate are you headed for? There’s Nemours, there’s Winterthur, there’s Hagley. The latter’s probably the best introduction to the region’s history; this is the site of the old gunpowder works founded by E.I. du Pont back in 1802, making this the du Pont estate that spawned all other du Pont estates in the region. (There are a lot of them.)
Now, it’s garden time.
Of course, when you’re done with that, you’re not nearly done with the du Ponts—it’s Wilmington, their stamp is on very nearly everything around here—your next stop is the 650-acre Mount Cuba Center. This gorgeous piece of property is all about the gardens, particularly the wildflowers. Fun fact: The center, another decommissioned estate, is located on bucolic Barley Mill Road, just a couple of miles up from the Biden homestead. (That’s as in Joe and Dr. Jill.)
Visit the nicest ruins in town.
Should you like to see exactly what a du Pont estate looks like abandoned, look no further than the corner of Greenhill and Pennsylvania in Wilmington’s peaceful Highlands district. Gibraltar wasn’t built by a du Pont; soon enough, however, one of them bought it and lived here. Today, the home is empty, but the beautiful gardens—designed by one of the first female landscape architects, Marian Cruger Coffin—are impeccably maintained and visitors are more than welcome. Bonus: skyline views from up in front of the decaying mansion. Seriously – this is way cooler than shelling out for admission to Winterthur. Nearby, the small but impressive Delaware Art Museum has a noted collection of pre-Raphaelite art, the largest of its kind outside of the United Kingdom. If you don’t know what that means and don’t care to find out, you can at least appreciate the park-like atmosphere of the neighborhood, one of the nicest you’ll find in any Northeast city.
Stop for some of the best ice cream around.
Ever have Jersey milk ice cream? (Not New Jersey – Jersey. It’s a type of fancy cow. Like, the Williams-Sonoma of cows.) Taste the rainbow at Woodside Farm out on Little Baltimore Road, along the fringes of Wilmington suburbia; their ice cream is the stuff of regional legend and a weekend must for many a local family.
Staying in dull downtown over the weekend with all this pretty countryside at your disposal seems almost criminal—instead, check into the gorgeous Inn at Montchanin Village, which is a tiny old village that’s now an fairly upscale inn. While there’s always room for improvement, it does have atmosphere in buckets and is surprisingly handy to the best of Wilmington. For a great weekend deal, head over to overdeveloped Concord Pike—here, the Homewood Suites by Hilton has a neat trick up its sleeve—direct access out the back onto achingly pretty Woodlawn Road, which plunges you into picture-postcard, Brandywine-as-it-used-to-be territory. Not that you need to get in the car to appreciate it all—a vast network of public footpaths begins right behind the hotel, leading you into beautiful Brandywine Creek State Park. Bonus: The trails are clearly marked on Google Maps—no advance planning required.