I started a new feature last week called MidAtlantic Wednesdays, where I will share new or updated posts about things to do and see with kids in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. If there’s an activity or museum that you’d like to see featured, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line and let me know!
This post was formerly published in June, 2009; I offer here an expanded and updated version with photos from a recent visit.
Winterthur, in Wilmington, Delaware, is the former estate of Henry Francis du Pont, collector extraordinaire. The house contains one of the biggest assemblages of American decorative arts in the world (they currently have over 85,000 objects). And the gardens are considered by many people to be the best example of a naturalistic garden in the United States.
Of course, many people with kids might look at this and say to themselves “clearly not for us!” But let me assure you – I’ve been going to Winterthur with my children since they were very small, and we’ve always had a wonderful time. As such, I consider it a bit of a hidden gem for families.
Travel-With-Kids Tip: You can pay for just admission to the gardens or to see the gardens and the house. Plan to spend at least a few hours, even if you only explore the garden.
There are a number of things you can do at Winterthur with young kids. If your kids are like mine, no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll head first for the Enchanted Garden, where you will find, among many other delights:
A serpentine path – with an actual serpent embedded in the brick, and a labyrinth to follow until you are dizzy;
Magical bridges (we had to check under all of them to make sure there weren’t trolls there), a little fairy village with several houses – including one shaped like a mushroom;
nooks and crannies designed as perfect places to sip a cup of magic tea;
fountains of various varieties and a working pump to explore;
a huge bird’s nest complete with giant eggs;
and a fairy ring.
One thing I especially love about the Enchanted Garden is the care and thought that go into its decoration. In spring, the Maypole wears a garland of flowers. During the fall, pumpkins and gourds (even of the smallest variety) decorate the houses and hearths.
Travel-With-Kids Tip: You’ll find bathrooms on the far side of the Enchanted Garden as well as by the Reflecting Pool. But you might also want to have your children go at the Visitor Center when you arrive and purchase you tickets.
The rest of the garden feels a little enchanted as well. There are numerous paths and hidey-holes, just the kind that childhood dreams are made of. On an early spring day there are flowering trees and fragrance everywhere. In the fall the soft pinks and whites become oranges and reds and the Quarry Garden is a delicious place to climb rocks and crunch leaves.
On a lovely autumn day, we especially enjoyed the gorgeous vista at the edge of the garden, which apparently was also a favorite with Mr. du Pont himself.
Travel-With-Kids Tip: The tram, which stops at various points around the garden, can be fun to hop on or off if your child gets tired. But some of the guides tend to ramble on about the flora and fauna so you may find that it’s easier (and quicker) just to hoof it.
The garden is also famous for azaleas, magnolias, and peonies in the spring; check out the Garden Blog to see what’s in bloom when and plan your trip accordingly.
Closer to the house you can explore the area around the reflecting pool where there is a lovely little glade with a pond where we’ve seen frogs and snakes warming themselves in the sun. There are also gold, orange, silver, and yellow koi; Teddy spent almost a half an hour looking and trying to choose his favorite.
Travel-With-Kids Tip: There is a cafeteria at Winterthur, and you’ll probably find things there that your child likes. But if you prefer to bring your lunch, you can eat it indoors or out at the Picnic House. Or, if you want to go off the estate for lunch, skip the nearby restaurants (which are either not that great, pricey, not appropriate for kids, or all three) and head up Route 52 to Janssen’s Market, a local institution. This supermarket sells a great selection of prepared foods (from hot dogs to sushi), has a fantastic salad bar, and has the best cheese counter around. They also have a seating area, so you can buy and eat lunch right there.
Make your way from the pool into the lobby at the edge of the house and you will find a small snack bar (good for a cookie but not much else) and a gallery space with that has much to offer young visitors. Through the end of January, 2010, “Faces of New Nation” shows a fascinating series of portraits, many of children, from the late 18th and early 19th century. My children loved seeing how kids dressed “in the old days” and Tommy was thrilled to see the paintings of George Washington.
But by far the most attractive exhibit to my children was “K is for Kids” an alphabet-themed display of objects from Winterthur’s collection with an explanation of how they were used by children during the past. The objects themselves are beautiful and appealing, and each is accompanied by a charming rhyme.
The activity book that accompanies the exhibit has an alphabetical scavenger hunt that the boys did together (along the lines of the I Spy books only better of course, since the kids get to see real objects).
It also encourages the kids to “Be the Curator” and draw their own pictures. Tommy completed a lovely pen-and-ink portrait of Teddy, who posed very obligingly.
All that’s really left to see is the house itself. Tours are themed and take about an hour; you see portions of the collection in small groups with a guide. They are detailed and focus on the history of the objects; most young kids probably would lose interest fairly quickly. So if you can, take multiple grownups and tag-team. Because believe me, the collection is worth a visit.
If you really want the kids to see the collection, there is a themed tour of the house that’s just for families called “Once Upon a Family.” And if you happen to be around between the third week of November and the first week of January, you might actually brave a tour of the house with your child. It is decorated in high style and Christmas trees abound.
You could easily make a day trip to Winterthur if you are staying anywhere in the Philadelphia area. Nearby, and not to be missed either, are the Hagley Museum and Longwood Gardens. Remember that Winterthur is closed most Mondays (although not during the holiday season). Please note that the museum and gardens will also be closed during February and part of March 2010.