Get to know the history of the nation’s first — and second smallest — state.
By Judy Colbert
Take the history buffs in your family to Delaware to learn all about the charming First State — the first to ratify the Constitution of the United States on December 7, 1787.
Entrenched in our nation’s history, Delaware seems to celebrate a historical moment every year that you can be a part of. Start exploring at the First State National Historical Park because it’s composed of sites across the state. The New Castle Court House was built in 1732 and was the place where 13 delegates declared independence from Pennsylvania and England in June 1776. New Castle was the capital of Delaware State but only until 1777, when it was moved to Dover so it wouldn’t be easily accessible to the Delaware River and potential capture. The historical park also includes Dover Green; Brandywine Valley; Fort Christina; John Dickinson Plantation, including an exhibit detailing the site’s connection to the Underground Railroad; and Old Swedes Church, one of the oldest church buildings in the country that’s still in use as a place of worship. Part of the National Park Service, the park lets you discover Delaware’s Colonial history up to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. It definitely helps explain why you find traces of Dutch, Swedes, Finns, and English in the area and how they all interacted with Native Americans.
Delaware, as small as it is, excels in many areas. One is the collection of stellar museums, particularly the Winterthur Museum, which currently has a DC-related exhibit about the connection between Jacqueline Kennedy and Henry Francis du Pont. In 1961, when she became first lady and decided to create a White House worthy of a museum instead of just a residence, she hired du Pont, an octogenarian collector from Delaware. You may have seen the Tour of the White House TV show that explored the new décor. Together with renowned decorators, they awakened an interest in preservation and interior design. There are several tour options, self-guided and guided, and you can stop by the pop-up store that sells items inspired by the restoration project.
Other museums worthy of your attention are the Delaware Art Museum; the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame; Hagley Museum and Library; The Delaware Contemporary; Rockwood Park and Museum; Delaware Museum of Nature and Science; and to make sure the little ones are busy, the Delaware Children’s Museum.
Look at Wilmington for a central point for accommodations, perhaps staying at the historic Hotel Du Pont. The 12-story Italian Renaissance building opened in 1913, after two-and-a-half years of construction. French and Italian craftsmen exhibited their awe-inspiring talents as they carved, gilded, and painted. It was expanded in 1918, including the theater now called The Playhouse on Rodney Square. Be sure to check out the European chandeliers, hand-carved wood, terrazzo floors, and 12-foot-high walnut doors engraved with peacocks and urns in the Gold Ballroom.
Bikers should take time to explore the signed Delaware Bicycle Route 1, which runs the south-north length from the Maryland border in Fenwick Island to the Pennsylvania border, north of Montchanin. It goes through beaches, farmland, state parks, and towns.
As the highest elevation of the state is 447.85 feet above sea level, with an average elevation of 58 feet, this is not a strenuous ride. Parts of it are along or near the DuPont Highway, the country’s first divided highway, and several other routes are planned.
If you’re looking for sustenance as you drive through the state, you can’t go wrong with the family-friendly and nostalgic favorite Grotto Pizza, a chain of 20 stores in Delaware and Maryland that started in 1960. Long known as a beach favorite, Grotto offers pizza for one and gluten-free options along with salads, pasta, and gelato. If you’re concerned that friends and pets missed you, look at their gift shop for ornaments, dog toys and bowls, clothing, and more.
In addition to its historical significance, Delaware is also known as the Land of Tax-Free Shopping, which means lots of regular and outlet stores to check out, so leave room in your car when you pack for your getaway.
Banks’ Seafood Kitchen and Raw Bar, adjacent to the Riverwalk in Wilmington, is open for lunch, dinner, cocktails, and late-night bites with an emphasis, natch, on seafood. It’s been through a few name changes since it opened as Harry’s Seafood Grill in 2003 until chef David Leo Banks rebranded the restaurant to its current eponymous eatery. 101 S. Market St., Wilmington
BBC Tavern and Grill seems to talk Southern even though it’s in the northern part of the state. Look for sweet potato fries and shrimp and grits along with a sincere focus on local farms and fisheries that use organic techniques. A great highlight is the restaurant’s proximity to the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science, the Delaware Art Museum, Winterthur Museum and Gardens, and Longwood Gardens. 4019 Kennett Pk., Greenville
The Inn at Montchanin Village & Spa is a historic inn that was part of the Winterthur estate. It’s named for Anne Alexandrine de Montchanin, grandmother of the founder of the DuPont gunpowder company. With 28 rooms decorated with period furniture, a spa, spectacular gardens, and a blacksmith-shop-turned-restaurant, Krazy Kat’s, you probably don’t have to leave, but it does enjoy a convenient location. 528 Montchanin Rd., Wilmington
The Terry House Bed & Breakfast dates from 1860 and offers breakfast, classical music, and a location that’s just blocks from the Delaware River. Each of the four guest rooms has a queen-size bed, TV, private bath, secure Wi-Fi, and porches that run along the back of the house on the first and second floor. Payment is by cash or check only. 130 Delaware St., New Castle
Numerous attractions such as estates, gardens, historic towns, restaurants, and more in the Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley area are included in a discount passe. The Brandywine Treasure Trail Passport (good through October 31 with some blackout dates) gives you admission to 12 top venues for one price ($49 for individual or $99 for family of two adults and up to three children, 17 and under).
Joe Biden is the first president whose home state is Delaware, and his family returns there frequently, to their homes near Rehoboth Beach and in Wilmington. You can tour the state like a Biden, or see a hint of him, in these places:
The marvelous independent Browseabout Books, where you should be able to find books both about and by the president and Jill Biden, calendars, mugs, toys, coloring books, and a café. 133 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach
Secret Service agents have been known to pick up carryout meals from Nicola Pizza, which is located in Rehoboth for another summer but has plans to move to Lewes. 71 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach
For those days when Biden is doing official things, you can still find traces of him in these places, where visitors often take pictures:
Take a photo of you and the family in front of the building sign for the Biden Welcome Center on I-95. It was renamed in 2018. Biden Welcome Center, 530 John F. Kennedy Memorial Hwy., Newark
Biden was famed for traveling via Amtrak during the 36 years he served in the Senate. The Wilmington station (opened in 1908) and designed by Frank Furness and Allen Evans, was renamed the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station in 2011. 100 S. Franch St., Wilmington
This story originally ran in our September issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.
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Get to know the history of the nation’s first — and second smallest — state.