I’ve seen a few travel guides for the Brandywine Valley pop up in the last couple years, but all were outsiders’ perspectives. Here’s what to do, see and eat from a local.
This area is pretty vast and public transportation is nearly non-existent so you’ll need a car to get around. The Brandywine Valley is the area around the Brandywine River. That means it’s comprised of part of two states: Delaware and Pennsylvania. You’ll cross over the border numerous times and not even notice so don’t be wary when I talk about different states continually.
If you are traveling here from a vacation in Philly or NYC it’s best to rent a car in Philly and drive out here. If you’re in NYC you can take Amtrak to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia or rent a car in the city. You can also take the Megabus for much cheaper (though a little more hassle and waiting).
To See in Delaware
Many of the du Pont estates are now stunning museum and gardens. The Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware is where it all began. There’s a shuttle to get around the vast powder yard but you can also walk (I recommend doing this as far as you can go. You’ll need to get on the shuttle to visit the house and office). While you’re there the organic Belin Cafe is worth a stop, the soups are always superb and I love the homemade blueberry lemonade. If you come in September and like antique cars do not miss the Hagley car show, it’s enormous!
The Winterthur Mansion and Gardens are also in Wilmington, Delaware. There are 175 rooms in the house but don’t worry the tour is only about an hour. There’s a quick shuttle from the welcome center to the house or a garden tram that tours the grounds. I recommend the tram if this is your first visit but after you tour the mansion be sure to walk around the grounds a little anyway so you can see the pool house and the flowers for yourself. The shuttle will bring you back to the welcome center and parking lot quickly but don’t forget to stop in the gift shop right across from the mansion. It’s actually “the cottage” the du Pont’s moved into after they made their home into a museum! If you’re with children the Natural History Museum is just across the street. Don’t bother with the cafe at Winterthur though it’s not bad but Buckley’s Tavern is nearby and a better option. Service is slow but the food is worth it. It can get pretty crowded so try Pizza by Elizabeth’s if you can’t get in.
In my opinion the best house of the lot is Nemours. There are no children under 12 permitted which means nothing is under ropes or glass. The tour is around 1.5 hours, then you’ll ride in the shuttle for a quick tour of the grounds. It will drop you off in the gardens for 20-minutes to explore yourself. Tickets always sell out fast for these. Make sure you secure them ahead. You definitely can’t just walk up and get them.
The best grounds are at Mt. Cuba. They’re known for their commitment to indigenous planting and the place is much less crowded than Longwood Gardens with just as much impact.
To See In Pennsylvania
Pierre du Pont went across the border into Pennsylvania to build his home: Longwood Gardens. Longwood is the most popular of all the du Pont estates (except when Winterthur had the Downtown Abbey costume exhibit). The house is relatively modest and is self-guided. The real star here are the gardens and the conservatory. Be ready to walk, everything is spread out and you want to make sure you tour the conservatory (smell those tea roses!), the chimes tower with waterfall and the Italian fountain garden (my favorite). In the summer there are quite a few concerts and also fireworks with music nights. The cafe is only mediocre but there is local delicious ice cream available in there too. There’s also a fancier restaurant, 1906, available as well but I’ve never been.
If you’re an art fan then you’ll want to stop by the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Lots of great art and pieces by all the Wyeths. (You can see more Wyeth pieces at the great Delaware Art Museum. They have quite a few activities too and are in Wilmington, Delaware!) The River Museum offers studio tours for the Wyeths and historic Keurner’s Farm; make sure you get tickets in advance during the summer months.
Everyone will tell you to go to Hank’s eventually (it’s by the River Museum) because it’s a local spot and the Andrew Wyeth used to hang out there. It’s the first place they tell tourists about. Trust me, you can skip it. Instead stop at Antica (owned by the guys behind one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been at: Il Granaio a little further in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania – so worth the trip. Everything is delicious but the gnocchi is the knockout for me) or Brandywine Prime right next door to Antica (a bit pricier).
To Drink & Eat
Chadds Ford Winery has some fun summer activities with music, ice cream and food trucks…and also they make a yummy sangria. There are quite a few wineries around, all pretty small and accessible. There’s signs for them everywhere on the highways (the roads here are really just side roads off the two main roads which are highways: Route 1 and 202). Careful driving, they are terrible drivers around here so be alert. I can’t emphasize this enough: They are terrible drivers, be alert! Also be alert if anyone tries to steer you to a restaurant called Harvest. Who cares if it’s a good wine list, it has the worst food ever.
Maybe you’re here for a few days and you have some free time. Take the scenic drive out into horse country (real horse country, you’ll see lots of horses right off the road here in people’s backyards but I’m talking rolling hills horse country). Catherine’s Restaurant is out in historic Chester County (specifically Unionville, Pennsylvania) and Foxy Loxy Ice Cream Parlor is nearby in the old general store. Delicious ice cream. If you’re willing to go a bit further The Whip is an authentic British pub. It can get a bit crowded as well. Try to get there at an off time and grab a half pint if you’re into that. The welsh rarebit appetizer and the mushy peas are incredible and I don’t normally like those dishes. Stop in one of the farm stores nearby. You can buy carrots and feed them to the horses you’ll see!
If you like sports the Wilmington Blue Rocks are always a fun time and soon they’ll have an even better team after their sale to the Mets. On certain Friday nights they have incredible fireworks after the game! Do not hang around in downtown Wilmington at night. It turns into a bit of a ghost town once the businesses let out for the day and nearly everything closes. The Riverfront does boast some good restaurants that aren’t deserted like the rest of downtown. Big Fish has half price oyster nights and the best cream of crab soup.
Another sporty activity are the canoes, kayaks and inner-tubes along the Brandywine River. You can rent them at several places. I’ve mostly heard about Northbrook Canoe Co. in West Chester, Pennsylvania but I’ve never personally tried any of the rental canoe companies here (oh hey if you like ballet, West Chester is also home to the great Brandywine Ballet Company. Their best show is Dracula. You’ll get goosebumps but warning there is some blood. Also in West Chester is the historical train ride if you’re a train enthusiast. Eat at Doc Magrogan’s Oyster House after). I just go to the park and get in the shallow end: Find Smith Bridge (it’s a red covered wooden bridge on Smithbridge Road past Brewster’s Ice Cream), turn left before going through the bridge and keep going until you see the gravel parking lot and the water. Get in there!
*And if you’re a big history buff or have an extra day, drive out to Delaware City (about 30 minutes away) and take the ferry over to Pea Patch Island, the former Civil War prisoner of war camp. There are ghost tours at night if you’re brave enough. Have lunch or dinner at Crabby Dick’s right across from the ferry dock.