“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 10 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, located on Belden Avenue, is our second home. 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!
There are days when we have visited it three times, each for a different reason! The programs are incredible (ranging from Zumba to STEM activities to Chess to Lego building) and the librarians are so kind. 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 and that includes pizza for dinner! I am constantly amazed by the wonderful activities they plan, be it related to a specific holiday (the Countdown To Noon on New Year’s Eve is one of our favorites!), 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
Before we moved to Norwalk, we fell in love with Stepping Stones. So much that we decided to buy a family membership the day of our first visit! This children’s museum boasts a water room (tip: for toddlers, put the provided jacket on backwards, so 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 tree house and slide. The exhibit room changes about four times a year.
In the winter, there is a small rink outside for sock skating, 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 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 beside picnic tables.
3. Calf Pasture Beach
As a teacher, this beach is my happy place during the summer. 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. While I have yet to do it, 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 a free ice cream (or coffee). In warmer months, there is a small petting farm with goats, cows, ducks, sheep, and chickens, who earn their names in a contest.
There are great holiday events: Christmas Tree lighting with the Clauses, of course, 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, and an Easter egg hunt throughout the store. (The last two get insanely crowded, so arrive a half hour early!). 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.
Currently, a mall, the SoNo Collection, is being built, right off exit 14 on I95, and will hopefully open in late 2019. Besides designer department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, the plans also include a rooftop garden and sculpture gardens.
6. Neighborhood Diversity
Having lived in the Bronx and Manhattan for the bulk of my life, Norwalk reminds me of New York City, but on a much smaller and quieter scale. 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. 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 their 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 a small playground. The beautiful Gallaher Mansion with its accompanying sculpture garden is the perfect backdrop for professional photos or venue for a wedding.
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? Not me. Until I saw for myself here! 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 an IMAX movie theater (the largest in CT!) that rotates between nature films and blockbusters. 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. Again, I’d recommend becoming a member to get to enjoy after-hours events like Trick-or-Treating, sleepovers, and wine parties!
9. 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 the military vehicles. Good luck trying to track down whatever kid’s character is there (we only spotted Poppy from the ferris wheel)!
10. 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 just enjoy the overall experience!
I live for ice cream, so it’s no wonder why I’ve saved the best for last. Hop over to Mr. Frosty’s if you’re in the mood for creative milkshakes (Sandy Beach is my fave) or custard tornadoes (think McFlurry or Blizzard, but fancier!) and dancing to music on a less humid day. When it’s too hot, but you really need to satisfy your craving, enjoy the air conditioned Sweet Ashley’s. The most popular flavor for kids is Cookie Monster, which is blue-tinted vanilla with cookie dough and oreos.
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.