With roots that wind back to 1631, Lewes is one city that has kept its past in the present. Much of the downtown area is a national historic district. The city has held its own against the British, housed a World War II military base and prisoner of war camp and served as a maritime hub. It is also home to a major hospital. Not surprisingly, Lewes attracts history buffs, but it also draws outdoor enthusiasts and shoppers. The city is so intimate that friends or family members can pursue their individual interests and meet for meals. Here are some must-dos while you’re visiting.
MEET THE MAKERS
If you’re an early bird, head to George. H.P. Smith Park for the Historic Lewes Farmers Market, which is a provider-only market. (Vendors sell only what they’ve grown or made.) The market is open on Saturdays in the season, from 8 a.m. to noon.
Store your baked goods and produce in the car and brush up on Lewes history. Start at the Zwaanendael Museum, whose façade resembles a gingerbread house. Because the Dutch originally settled Lewes, the museum resembles the town hall in Hoorn, the Netherlands. “Zwaanendael” is a modern take on Swanendael, which is Old Dutch for “Valley of the Swans.” It was the name of the original Dutch fort, that was reportedly wiped out during a dispute with Native Americans. The museum showcases the city’s maritime, military and social history.
Next, visit the Lewes Historical Society complex, located at Third and Shipcarpenter streets. The society has nine main structures, many of which were moved to this site. Tour a blacksmith shop that dates back to the 1790s and the circa-1785 Burton-Ingram House, which is nationally recognized for its Federal-style architecture. The Old Doctor’s Office holds examples of Lewes’ contribution to medicine. (Lewes is home to Beebe Healthcare, founded in 1916 as Beebe Hospital by doctors James Beebe Sr. and Richard Beebe.)
The society owns structures throughout the town, including the Cannonball House, which is a maritime museum. Built before 1797, the house was struck by a cannonball during the British bombardment of Lewes in 1813. The 1812 Memorial Park, located across the street, commemorates Lewes’ successful stand against the British blockaders, who had demanded provisions.
By July 4, the society plans to open the Lewes History Museum in the old Lewes Public Library, now the Margaret H. Rollins Community Center on Savannah Road.
The society offers tours on a variety of subjects, including architecture and the city’s maritime history, seminars and history happy hours.
SEE SEA-WORTHY ATTRACTIONS
From Lewes Beach, which fronts the Delaware Bay, you can glimpse the brick East End Lighthouse, which stands on the Delaware Breakwater, and the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse, located on the outer breakwater. Get a closer look during a sunset sail from Fisherman’s Wharf, which also offers dolphin-watching and private cruises. Fisherman’s Wharf is the place to go for charter boat fishing.
You can also see the lighthouses on a ferry trip from Lewes to Cape May, which you can book as a foot passenger or with your car. Some people simply opt to ride the ferry across the bay and back for the experience. The Lewes terminal frequently hosts special events, and there’s an outdoor dining area with a bar that features local brews.
The Lightship Overfalls, a National Historic Landmark, is docked next to the Lewes Historical Society’s U.S. Life-Saving Station’s boathouse, which was a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard. Tour the ship to learn how the crew lived at sea.
With the scarlet Overfalls as a backdrop, Canalfront Park is a soothing place for a stroll. It’s also a hub for such activities as concerts, alfresco movies and morning yoga in the summer.
With six miles of oceanfront beach, ribbons of paved trails and camping grounds, Cape Henlopen State Park is a naturalist’s paradise. Borrow a bike for two hours at the Nature Center and peddle the newly completed section of the Gordons Pond Trail, which links the Lewes side of the park to the Rehoboth end. It frequently tops the list of the best biking and hiking trails in the state.
Lewes is also at one end of the Junction and Breakwater Trail, which is also part of Cape Henlopen State Park. The trail is named for a span of the railroad chartered in 1857 to link Harrington, Delaware and the Atlantic Coast. The walking/biking trail opened to the public in 2003, and it’s been expanded twice.
SALUTE OUR MILITARY HISTORY
Before Cape Henlopen State Park was a premier destination for fishermen, swimmers and campers, it belonged to Fort Miles, an Army base built in 1941 to defend Philadelphia and the industries along the Delaware River and Bay.
The Fort Miles Historic Area features restored soldiers’ barracks, a gun park and a concrete tower that you can climb for a 360-degree view. The tower is one of many along the coast that were positioned to direct the line of fire on enemy vessels. Consequently, they’re known as “fire towers.”
The Fort Miles Historical Association conducts tours of Battery 519, which are available by appointment or during special events.
SHOP SECOND STREET
The bulk of the city’s boutiques, restaurants and galleries are located on or just off Second Street. Among the wares are gourmet chocolates, jewelry, antiques, women’s clothing, Lewes-emblazoned items, books, toys and kites, and art.
STROLL THROUGH THE GRAVEYARD
Anywhere that you walk in Lewes, you’ll encounter a colorful history. For instance, visitors to Lewes are often seen wandering amongst the tombstones at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Second Street. The stones bear the names of prestigious local figures, such as Ryves Holt and Dr. Joseph Maull, governor of Delaware for just nine weeks before his death. Other Delaware governors buried here include Daniel Rodney, Caleb Rodney and Samuel Paynter.
You’ll also find the grave of Capt. James Drew of the ill-fated De Braak, which sank off Cape Henlopen in 1798. For centuries, the ship was the subject of massive treasure hunts. It was rumored there was Spanish loot on board. But when the wreck was finally discovered in 1984, there were no gems or diamonds. Instead, the salvors brought up a large number of artifacts that reveal military life at sea. The state of Delaware owns the collection, parts of which are displayed in the Zwaanedael Museum. The state also holds periodic tours of the ship’s hull, housed in Cape Henlopen State Park. The tours start at the museum.
Don’t miss the grave of river-and-bay pilot Henry McCracken, who was buried with his anchor, a piece of which pops up through the ground. The Lewes Historical Society periodically offers tours of the graveyard, particularly around Halloween.
Besides great restaurants in Lewes, have we missed something that you think is amazing in Lewes? Comment below and let us know.