As President Joe Biden’s adopted hometown, Wilmington is having a moment. While there’s now a national spotlight on the small city just 45 minutes south of Philadelphia, excitement about Wilmington has been building locally for years.
For the last century, Wilmington has been known as home of the storied du Pont family and its influential chemical company, as well as a financial center. But after business hours, things got quiet. That’s changed. Today, you’ll find beer gardens, artsy coffee shops, tattoo parlors, sports, and artisanal shops that are open well past 5 p.m.
The city has beautified its once-industrial waterfront, which has a minor league baseball stadium, the indoor Chase Fieldhouse sports complex, the Jack A. Markell Trail, an IMAX theater, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment all along a scenic mile-and-a-half-long riverwalk.
In the last decade, the city’s downtown has gone through a similar renaissance, thanks to thousands of new apartments that house 4,000 new residents — many of them millennial transplants coming from places like New York and Philly. Much of the new development is along about 10 blocks on downtown’s main drag, Market Street, which has charming historic architecture, clean streets, independent shops, theaters, and renowned restaurants, such as Bardea, which was just named a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards.
Dave Govatos, a lifelong Wilmingtonian and owner of wine, beer, and spirits shop Swigg, credits “a youth movement” and a “critical mass of investment.” He says it’s encouraging people to open businesses in the area. “We’re really focusing on pushing the envelope in Wilmington. In the next couple years you’ll see even more.”
He’s right that there’s a lot in the works for Wilmington. On deck: A boutique hotel with the city’s first rooftop bar, a buzzy steakhouse, and a three-million-square-foot neighborhood across the Christina River from downtown, modeled after Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. And to improve the quality of life for longtime residents, $40 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds will support neighborhood revitalization, antiviolence initiatives, and schools, according to Mayor Mike Purzycki.
Like Philadelphia, Delaware was first home to the Lenni-Lenape Native Americans before European settlers arrived from Sweden in 1638 on a ship called the Kalmar Nyckel, a detailed replica of which sails the local rivers today.
As a city in a a border state between states that enslaved people and free states, Wilmington became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, a statue and city park, named for Black abolitionist Harriet Tubman, mark this key role in the area’s history.
Wilmington has been entwined with the du Pont family for centuries. Starting with a gunpowder mill, the family grew to be titans of American business. That helped Wilmington become a corporate capital — something that the city and state have doubled down on in recent decades by creating business- and tax-friendly policies.
The du Pont family’s influence created a vibrant arts and cultural ecosystem that its descendants continue to support today. Though a small city of around 70,000 people, its theaters, museums, gardens, music venues, and more are often just a stone’s throw away.
For Philadelphians, Wilmington is an easy trip. Get there in less than 45 minutes via I-95 South if you’re driving, or hop onto a train and disembark at the Joseph R. Biden Jr., Railroad Station in Wilmington. Biden famously commuted to Washington from that very station every day. From Philly, expect an hour-long trip along the Wilmington/Newark Line Regional Rail line or a 22-minute Amtrak ride to the Frank Furness-designed station.
Downtown Wilmington and the riverfront are very walkable. To explore the Brandywine Valley and du Pont estates, you’ll need a car.
Things to do:
The du Pont Estates
You’ll need a car to see all four du Pont estates — the homes built by the family whose longtime presence has made them virtually synonymous with Wilmington. Visit the estates in the order they were built, starting with the Hagley Museum and Library, where the family’s patriarch E. I. du Pont established his gunpowder works in 1802. Head to Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, which features a celebrated collection of American decorative arts and a magical children’s garden, and then to the 77-room Nemours Estate (which opens for the season on April 1), a mansion with the largest formal French gardens in North America. Finish the day at Mt. Cuba Center (which also opens for the season in April), a lush botanical garden.
Delaware Children’s Museum
Visiting with little ones? Delaware Children’s Museum promises hours of entertainment through hands-on activities that encourage kids to move their bodies and engage their minds. There’s a climbing structure, a miniature train, a massive hollowed-out tree trunk, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) exhibits, and more.
Live entertainment is easy to find in Wilmington, thanks to a trio of beautiful theaters. Built in the 1800s, The Queen is reminiscent of Philly’s recently reopened theater, The Met. Both sat abandoned for decades until developers stepped in to restore them. Today, The Queen plays host to singers, bands, drag brunches, and more.
A few blocks away, The Grand hosts opera, theater, concerts, dance, comedy shows, and more. The 1,200-seat performing arts venue has also been in operation since the 1800s.
Playhouse on Rodney Square
The Grand’s sister theater, Playhouse on Rodney Square, recently underwent renovations and is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2022. The theater, which is located with the Hotel Du Pont, is the oldest continuously operating theater on the Broadway touring circuit, according to the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
📍1007 N. Market St., 📞 302-888-0200
Wilma’s, one of the city’s newest entertainment venues, is located within a bright and airy former bank and opened in late 2021. Go duckpin bowling — it’s similar to traditional bowling, but with smaller and lighter pins and balls — and snack on Cajun fare such as a charcuterie board that comes with alligator, sausages, smoked oysters, pickled okra, roasted garlic, cloves, toasted pecans, maque choux (a corn and peppers sautée), Creole mustard, pepper jelly, and French bread.
Where to eat:
Chef Antimo DiMeo trained at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sorrento, Italy before opening Bardea, a pretty restaurant that walks the line between casual and celebratory. Pasta and pizza lovers will find plenty to enjoy here, but don’t sleep on the menu’s less-expected treats like the burrata pop tart and an avocado preserved in yuzu butter. DiMeo combines modernist technique, fermentation, Asian influences, and a heap of creativity in his dishes. It’s what earned the modern Italian restaurant a spot on the James Beard 2022 semifinalist list for best chef Mid-Atlantic.
Go Vegan Philly
Though called Go Vegan Philly, this Wilmington restaurant makes plant-based fried chicken out of oyster mushrooms. These shrooms are seasoned, battered, and deep-fried just like irresistible golden brown and crispy chicken. Get them on top of a waffle or on a platter with dairy-free mac and cheese and pork-free collard greens. Why the Philly moniker? Go Vegan Philly started as a pop-up here.
Why cook your own spaghetti and meatballs when an 80-year-old Italian restaurant will fill a pot from your kitchen with theirs? Wilmington native and well-known local chef Tyler Akin fondly remembers this tradition from his childhood. Choose a large or small order of pasta, hand over your pot, and Mrs. Robino’s kitchen will send you home with a dinner that looks and feels homemade.
Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar
Snuff Mill is unexpected. Situated in a strip mall that was built around a towering Independence Hall replica, a dream team of food and wine pros opened this fine dining destination in the summer of 2021. Expect aged and perfectly seared steaks paired with a wine program maintained by co-owner Dave Govatos, who also runs neighboring wine, beer and liquor shop Swigg. The spot also operates as a butcher shop — perfect for home cooks looking for quality ingredients.
In family-run businesses, every generation makes its own mark, and that’s what’s happening at 100-year-old Kozy Korner on Wilmington’s west side. Fourth-generation owner Nick Vouras has brought crusty Detroit-style square pizzas to the old-fashioned diner, known for serving breakfast and lunch. Vouras taste-tested pizzas at more than 100 restaurants throughout the Northeast and brought back what he learned. Now, he’s making dough from scratch and selling out days in advance.
Everyone in Wilmington seems to have a memory of the Hotel Du Pont’s restaurant, the Green Room. It was stately, formal, and a favorite for special occasions. When the DuPont Co. gave up ownership of the hotel, its new owner, Buccini/Pollin Group, invested in a refresh and recruited Philly’s Tyler Akin to lead the kitchen. Today, the space has an inviting French brasserie feel with a menu to match. You can’t go wrong with a menu staple like steak frites, but do also try the seasonal dishes here. Another tip: Grab a seat at the picturesque bar while you’re there.
La Fia helped put Wilmington’s dining scene on the map back in 2013. Owner Bryan Sikora describes this 35-seat fine-dining destination’s menu as “contemporary American with a European backbone.” Dishes change with the seasons, but it’s safe to expect duck confit and a “solid octopus dish,” according to Sikora. “Chef Dwayne has an endless creativity to him,” he adds of La Fia’s chef Dwain Kalup. “The food is always very surprising and well-thought-out but not too over the top.”
Milk & Honey Café Gallery
A combo coffeehouse, art gallery, and event space, Milk & Honey Café can be found both downtown and in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood. The coffee comes from local roasters and the cafe offers croissants, egg sandwiches, blueberry pancakes, and more at breakfast, plus an array of sandwiches for lunch. The walls are filled with work by local artists, nearly all of which is available for purchase. Owner Quincy Watkins, a Temple and Wharton grad, is also a pastor at a local church.
Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken Express
The owners of this casual, family-owned eatery like to call their fried chicken the best in the world. That’s why devotees show up by 10 a.m. for the crunchy, golden brown pieces of poultry goodness. Their chicken is succulent on the inside, ultra-crispy on the outside, and available on its own, on top of a waffle or with sides, including creamy mac and cheese and collard greens. Walt’s fans also love the fried shrimp and southern-style desserts.
It’s hard to go wrong at a place known for pho and banh mi, especially when the spot is also BYOB. If you go for pho, Vietnam’s much-loved noodle soup in a rich, clear broth, you’ll find more than a dozen choices. Or go the banh mi route and explore the menu’s pork, beef, or tofu-based sandwiches served on crispy, flaky rolls.
Where to shop:
Wine in Pennsylvania has gotten pricey during the pandemic and the state’s liquor taxes make it even more so. Drive about a half-hour south though and find a deal on quality bottles at Swigg, where owner Dave Govatos stocks a wall of tax-free $16-and-under reds and whites, including many imports. In addition to wine at a variety of price points, the shop also carries beer, artisanal chocolate and cheese, and some of the region’s best amaro, rum, and gin selections. “We’re a Philadelphia or New York City kind of bottle shop that just happens to be in Wilmington,” says Govatos, who also co-owns Snuff Mill just across the parking lot.
Wilmington Country Store
In Greenville, the locale that Joe and Jill Biden call home when they’re not at the White House, Wilmington Country Store has helped dress Wilmingtonians since the 1950s. Fans of preppy styles will find plenty to love in this clothing shop that’s full of both men’s and women’s clothing. Expect brands like Lilly Pulitzer, Eileen Fisher, and Barbour, plus big hats, home goods, and gifts.
Town and Shore Handcrafted
One of the newest stores in downtown Wilmington, Town and Shore offers handmade leather goods, in addition to scarves and clothing. Owner Liv McClintock is well-traveled and designs her pieces to reflect the Mid-Atlantic’s diverse landscapes, hence the name “town and shore.” Book an in-store appointment to meet McClintock and get a personalized shopping experience.
Where to stay
Hotel Du Pont
Since the early 1900s when the DuPont Co. opened the Hotel Du Pont, it’s been a social and business hub for Wilmingtonians. The Italian Renaissance-style building offers a look into its gilded age past, with imported European chandeliers, hand-carved wood, and terrazzo floors. The 217 rooms here are elegant and spacious, and many feature large soaking tubs. Within the building, you’ll find Currie Hair, Skin and Nails salon and spa, the recently renovated Le Cavalier, a French brasserie, as well as DE.CO., a food hall offering sushi, smoothies, chicken and waffles, pizza, a bar, and more. Each night, hotel guests head to the lobby for a “Toast to Twilight,” that includes complimentary seasonal punch and a salty snack.
Inn at Montchanin Village & Spa
Get a sense of what life as a du Pont was like at the Inn at Montchanin Village & Spa, which was once a part of the family’s Winterthur estate. The property is home to 28 guest rooms and suites through its 18th-century-era buildings — some rooms offer marble baths, fireplaces, and private courtyards. On the property, you can dine at Krazy Kat’s, a former blacksmith shop that features upscale American cuisine. The Inn’s spa offers a variety of treatments, including massages, facials, and body wraps.
About the writer
Sarah Maiellano is a freelance food and travel writer, cohost of “Delicious City Philly” podcast, and an award-winning communications professional. Read more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano. She lives in Center City.