Recently praised by USA Today as one of the most liveable places in America, Danbury is a small city near the southern shore of the upscale Candlewood Lake.
Here you’ll be in the very southern foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, with peaks rising to 900+ feet under a mantle of forest.
When I think of Danbury I think of the outdoors and fall color. There’s a whole constellation of parks and protected natural spaces in and near the city. At the drop of a hat you can hike, go horseback riding, fishing and boating, or just bask in the sun on a summer’s day.
Danbury also has a pro ice hockey team, and a farm for U-Pick apples and pumpkins in fall. Not to forget, one of the top upscale malls in New England is right here.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Danbury:
1. Tarrywile Park & Mansion
More than a typical urban park, Tarrywile Park & Mansion is 722 acres of undulating greenery on what used to be a farm and orchard.
Where Tarrywile Park really stands out is for the lovely historic properties within its borders. The finest has to be the Shingle Style Tarrywile Mansion, raised in 1897.
This elegant building can be toured by appointment and is rented out for weddings and special events.
Another structure at the park is the Gothic Revival Hearthstone Castle, dating from 1899 and awaiting restoration.
In spring and summer you can amble in the flower garden, while the picnic area is in a pastoral orchard. I could spend days on the park’s trails, leading deep into the forest. So even on hot summer days you’ll be cool in the shade here.
The Children’s Garden has a pond with koi carp and bullfrogs in the reeds, and there’s yoga in the park every Sunday morning from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
2. Danbury Railway Museum
At the old Union Station on the Danbury Branch of the Metro-North Railroad there’s a museum telling the story of the railroads in southern New England and neighboring New York.
The station dates to 1903 and closed in 1993 when a new station was built on the other side of the block. It’s a handsome building in a Richardsonian Romanesque style with fine Colonial Revival flourishes.
Both the station and the six-acre railyard are a delight for train enthusiasts, endowed with more than 70 pieces of historic equipment and artifacts.
There’s beautiful old rolling stock outside. I was impressed with the Boston & Maine 1455 Steam Locomotive (1907) and loved exploring the various cars.
Train rides are offered on weekends from April to November and there’s a calendar of special events all year round.
3. Danbury Museum & Historical Society
For a sense of place, drop by this museum on Main Street, which preserves an ensemble of five historic buildings.
The modern building here is Huntington Hall, which was built in 1963 and houses the offices, gift shop and library. The historical structures include the John Rider House (1785), John Dodd Hat Shop (1790), the Little Red Schoolhouse (late-18th century) and the Marian Anderson Studio.
The latter was used by the world-famous operatic contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993), who lived in Danbury for more than a half a century.
When I came through, the museum was open Wednesday through Saturday. For in-depth guided tours, come on Friday or Saturday.
The museum is also a community hub for a host of local societies and puts on a popular cursive camp in July for children and parents.
4. Candlewood Lake
This reservoir was formed in the 1920s by a hydroelectric dam at the junction of the Housatonic River and Rocky River. Candlewood Lake covers more than 5,400 acres and is the largest in Connecticut.
This majestic body of water borders Danbury to the north and is understandably desirable for its sweeping natural beauty. I don’t think it’s a mystery that some of Connecitut’s most expensive real estate is on its shores.
Along 60 miles of shoreline there are little resorts, complete with golf courses, beaches and marinas.
At the lake’s very southern shore, just a couple of miles from the center of Danbury, is the 11-acre Candlewood Town Park. This features a beach, picnic areas, a playground and boat dock, all in picturesque scenery.
5. Downtown Danbury
It’s not hard to see the amount of work that has gone into Danbury’s center in recent years. On my last visit there was a small but growing community of local businesses in the old storefronts along Main Street.
If you want a perfect time to come I’d say the first Saturday in June, for the Street Festival. This event has been going for more than 30 years, and brings local artisans, food trucks, and interactive exhibits to Main Street.
A few steps away, the City Center Green is the setting for Danbury’s hotly anticipated summer concert series. Also on the green is the city’s farmers’ market, happening on Saturday mornings, late June through October.
6. Blue Jay Orchards
You could pass an idyllic day in late-summer or autumn at this 140-acre orchard and market, picking your own apples and taking an old-time hayride to the pumpkin patch.
Over the course of a few weeks, from the beginning of September to the end of October, a medley of apples will be ready for picking. These include juicy and sweet Galas early in the season, the crisp and sweet Braeburns later on, or the tart Granny Smiths at the end.
Blue Jay Orchards grows 15 different varieties and you can time your visit by checking the website.
When you come you have to make a detour to the farm market, for its jams, jellies, pastries, pies and cookies. People travel a long way just for the cider and the apple cider donuts—personally, I cannot get enough of these.
7. Danbury Fair Mall
Source: jjbers / Flickr
Danbury claims the second-largest mall in Connecticut, which is also the fifth-largest in New England.
You’ll find it just off I-84, across from Danbury Municipal Airport. There are just under 200 stores and services at Danbury Fair.
Most of these are midmarket and upmarket retailers like Banana Republic, Macy’s, L.L. Bean, Gap, H&M, Michael Kors and Abercrombie & Fitch.
Also here is a huge branch of the fast fashion store Primark on the upper floor of the Sears store.
The mall was built on the site of a historic fairground, and rekindles that atmosphere with SummerStage. This is a programme of outdoor concerts, arts and crafts and fund for children throughout July and August.
8. Bear Mountain Reservation
North of the city proper, there’s another place to enjoy Candlewood Lake among the suburban communities on the lake’s western shore.
On rocky terrain with some awesome perspectives of the lake, Bear Mountain Reservation is threaded with twisting trails. These guide you into deep woodland and then out onto glorious open meadows.
There are ten color-coded trails, the longest of which is the Red Trail, at 1.7 miles. On my most recent visit, there was a brand new exercise station at the trailhead.
9. Collis P. Huntington State Park
Taking the name of the 19th-century railroad magnate Collis Potter Huntington, this 1,000-acre state park is on land donated by his heirs in the 1970s.
The park had been landscaped decades before, at the turn of the 20th century. There are five man-made ponds, a system of trails and a small stone lighthouse that is still standing on one of the ponds’ islands.
On arrival you’ll be confronted by naturalistic sculptures of bears and wolves. These are the work of famed sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) who had her studio here.
Visit for hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing in winter. Autumn and early-winter is bow-hunting season, so I’d consult the website if you’re out for leaf-peeping.
10. Hemlock Hills
In the beautiful, hilly environment just past the Danbury Fair Mall there’s a string of connected natural spaces. These start in the west with the Hemlock Hills and push east through Pine Mountain, Bennett’s Pond State Park and the Wooster Mountain State Park Scenic Preserve.
With peaks rising to just over 900+ feet, this densely wooded landscape is in the southern foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. That range begins in western Connecticut, cutting through Massachusetts and into Vermont.
The parks are connected via a system of walking trails, like the Yellow and Red Trail, both linking Hemlock Hills with Pine Mountain.
I found these two trails steep but family-friendly and both bring you to a beautiful vantage point.
The Red Trail is also intersected by the Blue Trail, which leads you to the 56-acre Bennett’s pond. This beautiful body of water is enclosed in untouched forest and primed for fishing and mountain biking on its shores.
11. Ives Trail & Greenway
You can go for an adventure without straying far from Danbury on this 20-mile trail. The Ives Trail & Greenway carries you through the hardy terrain to the south of the city.
Best suited to more experienced walkers, the trail begins at Bennett’s Pond in Ridgefield. From there you’ll venture through protected spaces in the rugged southern portion of Danbury, into Bethel and ending up in Redding.
Near the start in Ridgefield you’ll travel among spectacular glacial erratics, boulders deposited at the end of the last Ice Age.
Most memorable of all for me was the overlook at Charles Ives’ preserved cabin. This is near the top of a peak and blessed with far off views of the rippling forest.
12. Richter Park Golf Course
Danbury’s excellent municipal course is hailed as the best in the Tri-State area and is nestled on the west shores of the West Lake Reservoir.
For non-residents Green Fees are a little steeper than if you live here. Still, they do include a complimentary cart and a small bag of balls for the new driving range.
I was in awe of the scenery on this course, with wildflowers in bloom in spring. I can only imagine how pretty it gets in fall.
The course is a tricky 18-hole, par 71, designed by Edward Ryder and with undulating fairways. Remarkably, 14 of the 18 holes have water hazards and the greens are guarded by 49 newly renovated bunkers.
13. Danbury Ice Arena
Open every day of the week, Danbury Ice Arena is a fine option on days when the weather isn’t cooperating.
The facility dates back to 1999 and was given a big expansion in 2004. Every week there are special classes to help you brush up on your skating or puck-handling skills, as well as youth leagues for kids.
Over the last 20 years a succession of professional teams has taken up residence at this 3,000-capacity venue.
The Danbury Whalers, once of the NHL when they were based in Hartford, played five seasons here until 2015.
When I went to press the current tenants were the Danbury Hat Tricks, taking their name from the city’s hat-making heritage. They play in the Federal Prospects Hockey League against other franchises based in the East.
14. Squantz Pond State Park
This beauty spot is minutes north of Danbury, near the western shore of Candlewood Lake.
Squantz Pond is a treat in summer when you can go swimming, motor-boating and fishing on this 270-acre body of water, created when the reservoir was filled in the 1920s.
Also in the park is a nature center, picnic area and a spot where you can hire canoes and kayaks. On the west side, trails lead off into the high ground of the Pootatuck State Forest.
Follow the Blue Trail to climb to a scenic overlook to cast your eyes over the pond and Candlewood Lake beyond. My time to come is fall of course, when the colors are breathtaking.
15. Ives Concert Park
This gorgeous pond-side park is next to the Western Connecticut State University campus west of Danbury. Ives Concert Park is named for the Modernist composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) who was born in the city.
Ives Concert Park pays tribute to this cultural connection with a rich programme of concerts and theater performances at its amphitheater on weekends in the summer months.
This series attracts more than 60,000 people and is the only stage in the area dedicated to live entertainment. My tip is to keep an eye out for the annual reggae and Ecuadorian festivals, which are always a blast.
Of course, you can visit the 40-acre park during the week to admire the gardens and walk the public hiking trails. Every couple of weeks in summer there’s a Yoga at Sunset class, with details published on the park’s website.