10 Towns You'll Love
They’re a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and a whole lotta cool without being big. Could one be your next move?
Photo by Joe del Tufo
There’s nothing else in Delaware quite like Arden (population 439). The main drag is called The Highway, but it’s only two lanes wide, though it’s still much wider than many of the other streets in this heavily wooded village. Founded in 1900 as a utopian, single-tax community based on the economic philosophy of Henry George, it is still noted for its arts, crafts, music and theater. Like smaller neighbors Ardentown and Ardencroft, Arden has a town meeting form of government. Anyone who has been a resident for six months can make a motion and vote at quarterly meetings of the Town Assembly.
Well into its second century, Arden remains true to its roots as an artisans’ colony. No two houses are alike. The Arden Club, the community’s cultural umbrella group, hosts concerts and theatrical performances, as well as meetings of local cultural organizations. It sponsors the annual Arden Fair, a delightful craft show, on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. The Buzz Ware Community Center, once the Arden School, offers weekly art, tai chi and giqong classes, as well as a monthly family movie night and coffee house.
Claymont // Photo by Joe del Tufo
Claymont and Bellefonte aren’t quite neighbors—they’re separated by nearly three miles via Philadelphia Pike—but both are remaking themselves while respecting their roots.
Claymont, not officially a town but with 14,473 residents within the 19703 ZIP Code, would rise and fall with the steel industry. The original Worth Steel mill, opened in 1917, saw a succession of owners before shuttering in late 2013. A major redevelopment featuring an office park, warehousing and light manufacturing that could bring up to 5,000 jobs has been proposed, but it might take five years or more to bear fruit.
Nevertheless, the still-growing Darley Green townhouse and apartment community, which will eventually have about 900 units, has brought an influx of young professionals. Some work in Wilmington, but many hop on the SEPTA trains at the Claymont station and head for jobs in Philadelphia. And a group of Darley Green residents rents a minibus each month for a night out at local clubs, easily resolving the “designated driver” question, says Brett Saddler, head of the Claymont Renaissance organization.
Layer new business on top of new housing and historic structures like the Darley House, the Robinson House and the Old Stone School, and “Claymont is reinventing itself before your eyes,” Saddler says. “The vision we’ve had for 15 years is finally happening.”
Down the road is Bellefonte (population 1,193), one of Wilmington’s first suburbs, which marked its centennial in 2015. Trolley cars once ran along Brandywine Boulevard, whose two-block retail area features a cluster of craft and resale shops, an artists’ co-op, a barber shop and the popular Bellefonte Café, a dining and entertainment venue that sometimes serves as the unofficial town hall. The real town hall is around the corner in a former church, and the town park, complete with gazebo, is next door. The town has its own art loop on the first Friday of the month, and the business owners work together to plan sales and special events.
“We’ve got a lot of fun, talented younger couples moving in, a number of artists and musicians,” says eight-year resident Nicole Logan, who painted the mini-mural on the back wall of the barber shop. “You know everybody, so it’s great to walk around town.” Logan is often out with Barnaby, her poodle-golden retriever mix who seems to be the town’s unofficial mascot. “He needs a place to be walked and be seen.”
The chemical refineries on the outskirts of town have prompted some to turn their noses at Delaware City (population 1,695 in 2010), but there’s a lot to like about this quaint riverfront community. Biking and hiking trails along Del. 9 and the C&D Canal meet in Delaware City, which, with vast expanses of surrounding marsh, make it a popular ecotourism destination (one reason why the American Birding Association recently moved its national headquarters there). Small shops are starting to enliven the downtown, which also boasts a healthy share of historic homes. Restaurants like Lewinsky’s on Clinton and Crabby Dick’s are popular destinations.
The rehabilitation and redevelopment of historic Fort DuPont is expected to move forward this spring. The proposal calls for a 200-slip marina and a small village with office and retail space and 300 to 500 housing units. Annexation of the property is part of the plan, says town manager Dick Cathcart, a member of the Fort DuPont Redevelopment and Preservation Corporation board.
Historic New Castle
The New Castle Courthouse // Photo by Joe del Tufo
With a history that dates to 17th-century settlements by the Swedes and the Dutch, not to mention William Penn sleeping here before he even reached Philadelphia, New Castle represents the epitome of Delaware small-town living. The old Courthouse, now the centerpiece of the First State National Historic Park, was Delaware’s first capitol building. A historic district chock-a-block with Colonial homes, a cobblestone street, Battery Park, famously uneven brick sidewalks and commanding views of ships navigating the Delaware River add to its charm.
There’s also an innate friendliness about this small city (population 5,285, according to the 2010 U.S. Census). “When I walk my dogs, it’s never a 10-minute walk. There’s always three or four people you run into,” says Esther Lovlie, owner of the Penn’s Place artisans gallery on Delaware Street. Volunteer “ambassadors,” part of the national park’s support team, help visitors find their way around the attractions in the historic district. Antiques and craft shops dot Delaware Street, and Jessop’s Tavern and the Cajun menu at Nora Lee’s are among the dining options. Sailors, novice and experienced, might want to check out the New Castle Sailing Club, and historic Penn Farm, on the outskirts of town.
Hockessin // Photo by Joe del Tufo
Hockessin isn’t a town. Officially, it’s known as a “census-designated place,” whose population (13,527 in 2010) soared with the suburban housing boom of the 1970s and 1990s. It’s one of the best places to be on the Fourth of July, with a parade, neighborhood competitions and a fireworks display in Swift Park. Well known a generation ago for its mushroom farms, it’s easier now to find mushrooms on the menu at the House of William & Merry, Redfire Grill & Steakhouse and Back Burner Restaurant & Tavern. Kids of all ages enjoy visits to nearby Woodside Farm Creamery, which typically offers about 30 flavors of fresh ice cream from April through late October.
The Hockessin Library and the Police Athletic League have become popular community hubs, and residents also enjoy the Delaware Nature Society’s Ashland Nature Center, with four trails through 81 acres of meadow, woodland and marsh. Historic sites include the restored Colored School #107C, the only school black students in the area could attend until some of their parents filed suit in a case that ultimately became part of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
Laurel // Photo by Maria DeForrest
In western Sussex, Laurel (population 3,708) is undergoing a revitalization, but it’s not about to leave its history behind. Six Delaware governors have called this town home, and more than 800 buildings in town are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Restaurateur Kevin Reading was so impressed with the work of the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation in recruiting new businesses for downtown, he opened his second Abbott’s Grill here two years ago. (His other Abbott’s is in Milford.) “Small towns are kind of exciting,” he says. “You invest in a small town and you can see the impact.”
Four miles west of Laurel is one of Delaware’s tiniest towns, Bethel (population 171), which gets by on an annual budget of about $30,000, spending most of it on street lights and snow removal. The town once had oyster shell streets, gas lamps and 14 styles of picket fences, reports author Nancy E. Lynch, a longtime resident. In the late 19th century, Bethel was known for its shipyard, where 21 sailing rams (a flat-bottomed three-masted schooner) were built between 1871 and 1900. Today it’s a quiet town where growth is slow, the living is easy, and the venerable Bethel Market “still sells snuff and makes the area’s best submarine sandwiches,” Lynch says.
King's Ice Cream, Lewes // Photo by Maria DeForrest
Sussex County’s answer to New Castle is Lewes (population 2,747), where the Zwaanendael Museum elicits memories of the original Dutch settlement in 1631 and the Cannonball House provides lasting evidence of the British bombardment during the War of 1812. Through the 1960s, Lewes was well-known as the home of smelly fish-processing plants, but they’re long gone. Bistros, boutiques and opulent beach houses now rule in this bayside alternative to the oceanfront towns.
More than 40 shops and restaurants fill the compact business district, Cape Henlopen State Park offers swimming and fishing, the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment is on the eastern edge of the town, and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry is a constant reminder that New Jersey is 90 minutes away.
“Lewes is distinctive because it is authentically charming. Everything about the experience of being here, as a resident or as a visitor, is real, not contrived,” says Betsy Reamer, executive director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce. “The vast majority of the people who live in Lewes were also first-time visitors, and they love to impart their knowledge of what makes Lewes such a wonderful place to be.”
Milford // Photo by Maria DeForrest
Milford (population 9,559) “is undergoing a renaissance now, but what you’ll see in 10 years will be pretty amazing,” says Reading, who opened Abbott’s Grill in town seven years ago.
“Healthcare options are exponentially growing,” Mayor Bryan Shupe says, with Bayhealth Medical Center building a new $250 million campus on Del. 1 and Nemours agreeing to provide pediatric and senior citizen care at a satellite facility there. “We’ll be a regional healthcare player in Kent, Sussex and beyond,” Shupe says. The new downtown Riverwalk features upscale restaurants, boutiques and stores along the Mispillion, and there’s a growing art community, with four or five galleries in town. “Young people who went away to work in larger towns are now coming back, marrying and starting families,” Shupe says.
The Downtown Milford Inc. business development group is bringing new retailers to town, organizing events like the annual outdoor Eat in the Street and mapping self-guided tours to give residents and visitors a better appreciation of the community.
Milton // Photo by Maria DeForrest
Look at Milton (population 2,756) today and it’s hard to believe it was a major shipbuilding center in the first half of the 19th century. “It’s hard to compare with Lewes, but the two have much in common,” says longtime resident Russ McCabe, a retired state archivist. Milton, he adds, is just “smaller in size, scope and scale.” Indeed, the town once branded itself as Delaware’s Smallest Wonder.
In the local lingo, McCabe says Milton’s population is a mix of old-time residents, “the been-heres,” and the newcomers, “the come-heres,” but they are getting along well together. “You can come to Milton and become involved in the community right away,” he says. “There’s no waiting list.”
Once a hotbed of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Milton is home to the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, which draws tourists from across the country, some of whom might stop for a juicy burger at Irish Eyes or check out the other restaurants in town, where the Governor’s Walk along the Broadkill River pays tribute to five residents who served as governors—four in Delaware and one, Joseph M. Carey, who led the state of Wyoming.
McCabe can’t resist taking one friendly poke at Lewes: King’s Ice Cream has been a popular meeting place in Lewes since 1981, but King’s original shop opened nine years earlier in Milton, and it is still going strong.
The Drunk'n Baker, SMYRNA // Photo by Lance Lanagan
Make no mistake about it, Smyrna (population 10,023) is centrally located—a short hop from Dover and about 40 minutes from Wilmington—but there are plenty of neat things to explore in town, says Mike Rasmussen, owner of the Painted Stave Distillery, housed in a refurbished theater. There’s entertainment in the Opera House, coffee and pastries at the Drunk’n Baker, dining at the new Inn at Duck Creek and the BYOB Odd Fellows Café‚—“the ribs are fantastic,” Rasmussen says—as well as longtime gathering place Sheridan’s Irish Pub.
Newer residents enjoy the affordable housing, with good buys available close to downtown. “It’s a great location for working from home, or if you don’t have to be tied to an office” says Rasmussen. He adds that it’s an easy walk from his house to Painted Stave.
Nearby Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge attracts birders and waterfowl lovers and the Smyrna at Night musical block parties bring out residents for evenings of food and entertainment. And don’t forget Friday night football, since the Smyrna High Eagles are the state’s reigning Division I champions.