Many people have favorite holiday traditions, whether it is seeing The Nutcracker or the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, a visit to NYC to see the tree in Rockefeller Plaza, or to simply enjoying holiday decorations in their local community. For those in the greater Philadelphia area, those traditions many include a visit to Longwood Gardens. Last year, we decided to have our own Christmas at Longwood Gardens experience and share it with my mom, the consummate gardener, as part of her Christmas present.
For those of you not familiar, Longwood Gardens is one of the premier botanical gardens in the United States, covering over 1,000 acres in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, in the beautiful and historic Brandywine Valley (and also famous for its mushrooms!) As with many attractions in this area, Longwood Gardens was once owned by one of the du Pont family, Pierre S. du Pont, who began the tradition of opening the estate to visitors. He left most of his estate to the preservation and maintenance of these gardens and the foundations has continued to open the gardens to the public (for a fee, of course.)
I followed my own advice (see Tips below) and booked our visit in advance. After much consideration over the “perfect time” to go, we decided on a mid-afternoon visit and bought our tickets for 3pm. I’m glad we did because not only were we able to take in the gardens during the daylight and enjoy the full effect of the Christmas lights after dark, we were also able to avoid the incredibly long lines coming off the highway as we left. Instead, we were able to park in close walking distance (avoiding a wait for a parking shuttle) and got out of there before it got too cold (but boy was it cold enough!)
Our first stop was the Conservatory. If you go, check your program early so you can scope out seats for the organ performances and holiday sing-a-longs. Otherwise, just go with the flow and wind your way through acre after acre of beautiful displays. In the main hall you will find a display of Christmas trees. In the Exhibition Hall, you might see the table set for a lavish Christmas ball. Along the way you will see orchids, rose gardens, tropical plants, bonsai displays, Chinese gardens and so much more.
Head outside as it starts to get dark to enjoy one of the most beautiful displays of lights I have ever seen. Some sights not to miss are the treehouse (great fun to climb with kids), the Garden Railway featuring an enormous outdoor display of miniature trains (perfect for any Thomas the Train fans), and the Open Air Theater fountain. Featuring 750 jets in changing patterns, these illuminated sight and sound shows take place every five minutes after 3:30pm. Go in just as one show finishes for a good seat. I’d recommend a seat in front so your pictures and video aren’t all the people with cameras held aloft in front of you.
You can wander for hours if your feet (and the cold) allow. With a child and a senior, we only spent an hour to so outside before we decided to warm our toes by a nice fire at dinner.
Tips for Visiting Longwood Gardens at Christmastime:
- Buy your tickets in advance — Longwood Gardens offers timed entries and if you arrive to buy tickets on site, you may have to wait some hours or find yourself completely out of luck
- Plan your visit to arrive around 3pm — that way you are ahead of the crowds, can see the gardens by day and darkness, and can avoid the late evening cold temperatures
- Visit the Conservatory first — after a quick stroll through the grounds, you should head over to the Conservatory. With 4-acres of flowers and plants in the Conservatory alone, you will easily spend 1-2 hours inside. After your trip to the Conservatory, it should be getting dark and you can fully enjoy the lights and the fountain show in their full glory
- Dress in layers — it will be quite warm in the Conservatory but chances are, it will be chilly outside at this time of year. Be sure to dress in layers and bring warm hats and gloves
- Hit the bathroom after the Conservatory — the Conservatory has an entire hallway of individual bathrooms so make a pit stop here before you head out in the cold and have to worry about finding a restroom later
- Book your dinner reservation in advance — if you are dining on-site at the lovely 1906 Dining Room, be sure to book your reservation when you get your ticket, otherwise, be prepared to stand in long lines in the cold just to get a hot chocolate or snack at the Cafe. If you can hold off on dinner until after your visit, there are many options in nearby WestChester and I’d wholeheartedly recommend Avalon Restaurant (and their two wood-burning fireplaces just might warm you up!) If you want to have a lunch (and do a little gift shopping) before your visit, I’d also recommend Styer’s Garden Cafe in Glens Mills, PA. It is a lovely setting with a focus on fresh, local ingredients. Wherever you eat, be sure to try something with mushrooms!
- Bring a camera, or two — you will really want to bring your camera to capture all the beautiful displays. This might be a time to bring more than just your smartphone, and cart along a digital camera that does a good job capturing the outdoor lights and possibly video for the fountain show. I actually recommend bringing two cameras, or a camera and a phone. I found that the best way to keep my daughter engaged while her grandmother examined every bud was to equip her with a camera and let her practice her “budding” photography skills. I have to say, some of my favorite shots were hers. Just make sure your battery is charged!
What about you, what are your favorite holiday travel traditions? Do you have somewhere you like to go to see the lights? Have you been to Longwood Gardens? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.