With over 30 gardens and arboretums within 30 miles, this part of southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware is dubbed America’s Garden Capital.
I am fortunate to live in the Brandywine Valley area, where I am surrounded by some of the best of these gardens. I love visiting them any time of year, but spending a holiday weekend in the Brandywine Valley is the perennial highlight.
Gardens take root in Brandywine
In 1771 a young chemist by the name of E. I. du Pont left France and settled on the banks of the Brandywine River in Delaware, where he started a gunpowder manufacturing operation. He and his descendants built both a lasting business empire and a lasting legacy of estates and gardens in the Brandywine Valley.
One of the best botanical gardens in the country is Longwood Gardens. In 1906, Pierre S. DuPont purchased a track of Pennsylvania land to protect an arboretum with trees that then were over 100 years old.
This farm became the centerpiece of his summer residence. He developed it into a showpiece for entertaining friends and family, which he called Longwood. With his love and interest in all things horticultural, Pierre created a diverse range of informal and formal outdoor spaces. Some of these were inspired by the French and Italian fountain gardens he discovered during his European travels.
Pierre added conservatories, elaborate fountain displays, and an outdoor theater. These became the core of one of the country’s premier horticultural display gardens, which still include the original tract of preserved trees.
Today, over one million visitors enjoy Pierre’s legacy annually, with the holiday display being one of the most popular events. Preparations for “A Longwood Christmas” start as early as September. For two months, staff members wrap over 100 trees with half a million lights throughout the 1000 acre property grounds.
Inside, thousands of poinsettias, amaryllis, paperwhites and other seasonal plants adorn the conservatories, along with numerous decorated trees. Each year the decorations revolve around a different theme, and the designers outdo themselves with creative and unique displays.
My family and I have been enjoying Longwood Gardens at Christmas for the past 25 years, and each visit has been different. Just when I think that the year’s decorations are the best I have ever seen, the following year is even better.
To get the most of the holiday experience at Longwood Gardens, I suggest making ticket reservations for entrance at 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon. This lets you stroll the conservatories and enjoy the floral Christmas displays in daylight. Then go to The Café for a late lunch/early dinner, and by the time you are done eating, it’s twilight, and you can continue your explorations around the gardens and conservatories to see the many creative light displays.
Winterthur Museum and Gardens
For lovers of gardens and historic homes, the area has much more to offer. Fifteen minutes across the border in Delaware is Winterthur Museum and Gardens. Here, another DuPont descendent, Henry Francis du Pont, indulged in his passion for collecting early American furniture and decorative arts, which he displayed in the expanded 175 room mansion. As a trained horticulturist, he also had a personal hand in designing the various elements of the extensive gardens.
During the Christmas season, the family home is decorated in the full holiday splendor of Henry’s time, inspired by the family’s traditions and festivities. A much anticipated annual tradition at Winterthur is a live one-man performance of A Christmas Carol by Gerald Charles Dickens, the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens.
Hagley Museum and Library
Not far away is Hagley Museum and Library, where the DuPont family legacy was established with the first gunpowder works. The site includes the restored mills used for making black powder, a worker’s community, and the ancestral house and gardens of the du Pont family.
A variety of tours provide insight into the black powder manufacturing process, its uses, and its impact on American history. During the holidays, the family residence is decorated for the season as it might have been in the 1920s and 30s.
Just down the road from Hagley is another DuPont family mansion, the Nemours Estate. This property is only open from May to December but is well worth a visit if you are in the area during that time.
The French-inspired mansion and formal gardens will make you wonder if you’ve left the country. In 1907, Alfred du Pont built the largest French-style gardens in North America and the decorative French-style mansion to show his love for his much younger second wife, Alicia.
For the holidays, the elegant rooms are further enhanced with beautiful seasonal, French-inspired accents, decorating the home as it would have been during its heyday.
Brandywine River Museum of Art
Besides the DuPont’s, another family has left its mark on the Brandywine Valley for three generations, producing inspirational art rather than the miracles of science. The Brandywine River Museum of Art features an extensive collection of works by grandfather N.C Wyeth, father Andrew Wyeth, and son Jamie Wyeth.
For the holidays, the museum puts on a huge toy and model train display that appeals to want-to-be train engineers of all ages.
Where to stay during a holiday weekend in Brandywine Valley
There is no shortage of unique accommodations for all tastes in the Brandywine Valley.
- The historic Hotel DuPont in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, immerses you in 5-star luxury and style.
- The Inn at Montchanin Village and Spa, a Historic Hotel of America, is located in a quiet and secluded corner in Delaware, yet it is a short drive to the major Brandywine Valley sights.
- Located along Rt. 52 in Pennsylvania, the Fairville Inn is a more intimate, though equally historic option.
- Just behind Longwood Gardens is the historic Inn at Whitewing Farm, a 1700’s farmhouse with beautifully appointed romantic rooms and suites.
Where to eat during a holiday weekend in Brandywine Valley
These are some of my favorite restaurants in the area:
- Buckley’s Taven for American comfort cuisine in a historic setting;
- Pizza by Elizabeths for not-your-typical pizzas all named for a famous Elizabeth (the Saint with crab and artichoke is my favorite);
- Hearth Kitchen for creative and seasonal entrees;
- Wasabi3 for Asian Fusion and sushi; and
- The Creamery, a restored milk plant reimagined into an innovative beer garden and community gathering spot, features rotating food trucks and an onsite dining menu that uses local seasonal ingredients.
There is so much to discover during a holiday weekend in the Brandywine Valley that a long weekend may not be nearly enough time. It’s also a wonderful destination almost every other time of year.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The area offers a nice mix of history, attractive gardens, and good dining options. For the more historically inclined, the Brandywine Battlefield Historic Park, Valley Forge National Historic Park, and the historic sights of nearby Philadelphia offer more opportunities for exploration.
- All the Brandywine Valley sights mentioned are family-friendly and offer interesting inter-generational activities year-round, not just for the holidays.
- For those who have mobility issues, Longwood Gardens rents scooters and wheelchairs. Winterthur, Nemours, and Hagley offer shuttles that take guests from the ticket center to the mansions.
- Book tickets early for the holiday activities. Longwood Gardens, in particular, gets very busy, especially on the weekends.
- The Brandywine Valley is compact, but you will need a car to get around.
- Weather in southeastern Pennsylvania in December can be quite variable. Though it seldom snows, temperatures may dip into the 30s Fahrenheit, especially for nighttime outdoor explorations. Warm coats, hats, gloves, and warm shoes will make the experience more comfortable.
For updated information on COVID-19, check out the Chester County COVID-19 resource page.
All photo credits: Rose Palmer
IF YOU GO
Read Rose Palmer’s previous post on GOT:
Looking for inspiration and ideas for a perfect long weekend closer to your home?
- Check out some other long weekend destinations in this series.
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