“Explore Fairfield County” is an informational series that provides a glimpse into the wonderful towns and cities in Fairfield County. Fairfield County is diverse in that it includes big cities, small suburbs, beaches, farms, and busy highways. It covers a large geographic area and, because of this, it has a lot to offer families! To help you get the most out of Fairfield County, our contributors have shared the top things they love about each local area. To read more in this series, click here.
Norwalk, founded in 1640, is home to almost 90,000 people. Although only a portion of Norwalk is situated along the Long Island Sound coastline, its history is steeped in oystering, giving it the nickname “Oyster Town.” Located about 45 miles northeast of New York City and a few short miles from New Canaan, Wilton, and Westport, Norwalk has three Metro North train stations and easy access to I95, Routes 1 and 7, and the Merritt, making transportation quite convenient.
Norwalk’s public school system includes 12 elementary schools (two of which are magnet programs), 4 middle schools, and 3 high schools. It is also home to a few private, Montessori, charter, and alternative program schools, as well as Norwalk Community College. This city is a wonderful place to settle down and raise your kids. Even the pirate lifestyle is encouraged at Sheffield Island!
1. The Norwalk Public Library, Main Branch
The main library is located on Belden Avenue, and the children’s section encompasses the entire second floor, with an impressive collection of books. There’s a fish tank, train table, dollhouse, dress-up area, play kitchen, and large cityscape carpet for toy trucks and planes. All you need to do is present your library card and ask for a particular bag of trains, vehicles, or wooden dolls, and then, instant fun!
The programs they offer are incredible (ranging from Zumba to STEM activities to Chess to Lego building). Walk-in music classes are offered multiple times a week, making it easy to fit around your kid’s nap schedule or your own work schedule. Once a month, they offer a kid’s movie night for $1, including pizza for dinner! They plan many wonderful activities, and the Countdown To Noon on New Year’s Eve shouldn’t be missed. They strive at cultivating a love for reading with contests or visits from local authors, or fostering a child’s curiosity and compassion!
2. Stepping Stones Museum and Devon’s Place in Mathews Park
We love Stepping Stones so much that it is one of the only venues we buy a yearly membership to. This children’s museum boasts a water room (tip: for toddlers, put the provided jacket on backward so that they can stay extra dry. And bring an extra set of clothes. The jacket can only withstand so much splashing!), dance room, enclosed play area for non-walkers, a construction site, and indoor treehouse and slide—the exhibit room changes about four times a year.
There is a small rink outside for sock skating in the winter, and in the warmer months, there is a small train that takes you around the parking lot, passing Mathews-Lockwood Mansion. Another insider tip: the museum opens early for members on Wednesdays and Saturdays so that you can beat the crowds!
At the end of the parking lot sits Devon’s Place, a great playground for kids of all ages. There are little cabins and a lighthouse for make-believe games or snacking. One area is designed for older kids, another area is designed for younger kids, and there is a splash pad located beside picnic tables.
During the holidays at the Worldwide Community Lights Celebration nighttime light display, the museum’s exterior becomes a canvas for animated projections.
3. Calf Pasture Beach
From mini-golf to the state-of-art splash pad to the renovated playgrounds to the delicious seafood options (and drinks) at Ripka’s Cafe, this place is basically a vacation in itself. Its paths span miles and are very accessible to strollers. You can enjoy the boardwalk and watch the fishermen, you can take in some history at the Shea-Macgrath Memorial, and if you’re a dog lover, you can head over to the massive dog park. You can rent kayaks, take boat cruises, and there’s even a skateboard park! There’s plenty of nightly entertainment as well – movies, concerts, and, of course, a spectacular fireworks show for the Fourth of July.
4. Stew Leonard’s (The Original Store!)
For those of you who have never been to a Stew Leonard’s supermarket, it’s basically an amusement park meets fresh produce shop, and this location is where it all began! Farm characters like Stewie the Duck and Clover the Cow wander through the aisles stopping to hug your children. As you push your cart, your kids look up to see performing milk cartons and produce (you’ll very quickly memorize their songs!), a somersaulting Mickey Mouse, and an electronic train. Spend $100, which is pretty much inevitable, and get free ice cream (or coffee). There is a small petting farm with goats, cows, ducks, sheep, and chickens, who earn their names in a contest in warmer months.
There are great holiday events: Christmas Tree lighting with the Clauses, a menorah lighting, a Halloween hayride (it’s not very scary or dark, so kids over 3 will be fine), trick or treating throughout the plant center, a recently added Halloween themed blow up drive-thru and an Easter egg hunt throughout the store. They also host great kids’ birthday parties upstairs, which are very affordable!
5. Constant Revitalization
Over the past few years, the city has put lots of money into making Norwalk a more desirable and exciting place to live. The WayPointe District has several new buildings, shops, and restaurants (Barcelona, Sedona Taphouse, Bobby Q’s, to name a few). In the summer, there are block parties with food, drink, and store promotions.
The recently renovated Wall Street Theatre adds more entertainment and culture to the city with concerts, comedy shows, fitness events, and a teen theater program. Both of the city’s Bow Tie Cinemas have been updated with recliners, bar and restaurant service, and reserved seating, making people from towns outside Norwalk flock here for true viewing pleasure.
The OnWashington movement connects local businesses and is spearheaded by local real estate collective AGW SoNo Partners and is managed by MaxEx Public Relations. Washington Street is in the Historic District of Norwalk and is filled with mouthwatering dining, unique shops, salons, artists, and creative office spaces. AGW SoNo Partners strives to make OnWashington “Norwalk’s most intriguing neighborhood” and focuses on supporting the tenants, enhancing the block, and attracting new tenants to open their businesses.
The recently opened SoNo Collection, right off exit 14 on I95, is a mall that offers designer department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom. It also boasts a rooftop garden and sculpture gardens, and they currently offer weekly yoga and Zumba classes.
6. Neighborhood Diversity
Norwalk was our first stop after moving from Brooklyn and is an excellent transitional city into Connecticut. With its various neighborhoods like West Norwalk, East Norwalk, South Norwalk, Rowayton, Cranbury, Broad River, Wolfpit, etc., you get a different vibe wherever you go.
SoNo offers the downtown feel with restaurants, bars, art galleries, and cool buildings; some renovated from warehouses and some with amazing rooftop views. Be sure to try Match, Washington Prime, Tablao, The Spread, and Saltwater in Washington Street’s downtown area.
Rowayton is a quaint neighborhood, nestled along the waterfront, home to three beaches. Cranbury, close to Wilton, is more tucked away in the woods. The other neighborhoods all have the suburban feel with sidewalks, but each with its own flavor. From farm-to-table restaurants like Oak and Almond and Sugar and Olives to a community garden at Fodor Farm, it’s fun to play tourist in your own town!
7. Cranbury Park
This park is a hidden oasis of over 200 acres. There’s a pristine lawn of the greenest grass, wooded trails that are awesome for baby-wearing walks, and this magical tree that you can walk into! You’ll often see artists painting, campers running around, and butterflies fluttering by. There’s even a frisbee golf course! There’s a roofed pavilion with numerous picnic tables (great for hosting kids’ birthday parties!) and two small playgrounds. The beautiful Gallaher Mansion with its accompanying sculpture garden is the perfect backdrop for professional photos or a wedding venue.
8. The Maritime Aquarium
Otters, meerkats, seals, oh my! That’s just 3 of the 300 species that this fantastic aquarium has! Who knew frogs could be so many different colors? Who knew sharks don’t like to go near the air bubbles of divers? No matter your age, there is something, be it an animal, event, or activity for everyone! If you’re feeling stressed, take a seat in the dark at the jellyfish exhibit and be soothed by the changing lights that make them glow. If your kids need to get their energy out, take them to the indoor or outdoor play area. There’s a new 4D immersive viewing experience that recently replaced the IMAX movie theater. The cafe offers affordable and delicious meals and teaches a valuable lesson in protecting marine wildlife: they’ve eliminated straws.
Depending on the season, you may find Santa on a fishing boat (or diving into the shark tank), special exhibits with butterflies or flamingos, or Lego weekends or Seal Spotting and Birding Cruises. With a membership you get to enjoy after-hours events like Trick-or-Treating, sleepovers, interactive scavenger hunts, and wine parties!
The seaside village of Rowayton is tourist-worthy. They host an annual Shakespeare Festival and a “Porch Jam” during the summer at Pickney Park. Let the kids run around and pitch a blanket in the grass. All proceeds from the “Porch Jam” go to provide art and music enrichment for inner-city youth and the underserved in the greater Norwalk area. The quaint and picturesque downtown is lined with shops. It boasts fun and casual seafood joints on the water, such as Rowayton Seafood and Rowayton Market, a ready-made deli with outdoor seating and the best sandwiches.
10. Oyster Festival
In early September, the Norwalk Seaport Association hosts this weekend-long event at Veteran’s Park. Although you will spend a lot of money, every dollar is worth it for the hours of fun you will have! There are dozens of carnival rides, talented face painters, and too many concessions to choose from (including beer tents!). Of course, you need to make sure to taste some of the city’s famous oysters! Your admission ticket does get you free entertainment from circus performers, medieval knights and ladies, and bands. Kids also love climbing into military vehicles. Good luck trying to track down whatever kid’s character is there!
11. The BEST casual summer eateries
Valencia Luncheria, while open all year, tastes even better in the summer! Nothing beats sitting outside with sand below your shoes and beach plants around you. This Venezuelan restaurant, known for its vast menu of arepas and empanadas (it appeared on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives!), has incredible frose (rose slushies!).
Overton’s Seafood is your quintessential New England waterfront food stand. The lobster roll is oversized and succulent, and the onion rings are a crispy taste of heaven. Bring your tray of food to the deck, which overlooks a marina, and enjoy the overall experience!
Have you visited Norwalk? Do you live here? What do you love about it?
Be sure to read all the posts in our Explore Fairfield County Series by clicking here.