Darien is the smallest town on what is known as the Gold Coast, a region settled by rich Manhattan executives and with the sort of idyllic streetscapes that inspired The Stepford Wives.
The public amenities in Darien are second to none, and include a world-class library, beaches, and sweet, netly tended parks.
And even though Darien is mostly quiet and residential Stamford and Norwalk are minutes on the train, so you’ll never be short of things to do.
1. Pear Tree Point Beach
Where the Goodwives River enters Long Island Sound is one of Fairfield County’s best beaches.
A plus point for Pear Tree Point Beach in summer is its wooden chairs that can be used for free, but the pale sand is also comfy.
Shielded by Long Neck Point and Nash Island, the water at this piece of shoreline is shallow and safe for younger swimmers, and in summer there’s steady traffic in front, partly because Noroton Yacht Club is directly across the water.
Pear Tree Point Beach has a picnic area, grills, a concession stand, bath house and gazebo, and faces west for dreamy sunsets.
2. Darien Historical Society
At a pretty spot on Old Kings Highway, the Darien Historical Society maintains an exhibit hall in a barn from 1827, the 18th-century Bates-Scofield House and the Darien Historical Archive and Resource Library.
The exhibitions in the lofty post & beam Scofield Barn are always compelling, sourced from the society’s extensive collections, famed for their abundance of historical costume, going back to the 18th century.
When we wrote this list in summer 2019, “Over Here: Darien’s WWI” recounted the stories of local men who fought in the Great War, displaying correspondence, uniforms, propaganda posters, sketches and keepsakes brought back from the front.
The Saltbox Bates-Scofield House was built in 1736 and has been carefully restored to its 18th-century appearance and decorated with pieces that give a sense of daily life in Darien between the 18th and mid-19th century.
The house is constructed around a large central chimney with an authentic beehive oven.
3. Darien Library
Among the busiest libraries in Connecticut, Darien Library is visited by 1,300 people on a typical day and is commended as a Library Journal Five Star Library.
It has the highest annual per capita circulation in the state, with more than 32 items checked out per resident, and organizes an incredible 1,500 public events every year.
There are author visits, book discussions, storytimes for kids, music performances and art exhibitions.
As an institution Darien Library goes back to 1894, but is in a modern LEED building that takes its cues from Darien’s heritage architecture.
Parents will love the children’s and teens’ rooms, while there’s a cafe, free Wi-Fi and computers and a 3D printer.
Free movie screenings take place every Friday in a small auditorium with an excellent sound system.
4. Cherry Lawn Park
In 28 acres on Brookside Road is a park for Darien to be proud of, and is the product of a lot of effort by local volunteer groups and associations.
Cherry Lawn Park is full of opportunities for passive and active recreation.
If you want to take it easy there’s a bunch of picnic areas, as well as a natural pond with a stone bridge, a nature center and trails for a gentle stroll.
If exercise is in order you’ve got a softball field, four tennis courts, a basketball court and the multi-use Casey Field.
Children may be happiest of all, as the playscape at Cherry Lawn Park is large, cleverly designed and packed with equipment.
5. The Mather Homestead
The Middlesex Parish Deacon, Joseph Mather, built this splendid house in 1778 during the Revolutionary War.
On two levels, with a wood frame structure and a central chimney, the Mather Homestead is regarded as one of New England’s finest examples of 18th-century architecture.
In the early 20th century Stephen Mather gave the house a Colonial Revival appearance, and also added a porch, two-storey extension, a sunken garden and carriage barn.
The main block retained its historic character through these changes and is replete with authentic woodwork, family heirlooms and original furnishings and masonry.
The Mather Homestead has only recently been transferred to a foundation and opened as a museum, and you can show up for a tour on Sundays, generally from September to June.
As of 2019 there were plans to establish an education center in the barn.
6. Cove Island Park
Five minutes from downtown Darien on Route 1, the 83-acre Cove Island Park is within Stamford city limits and sits on an island separated from the mainland by an 18th-century millrace.
In an amazingly diverse environment there are two sandy beaches, and lots of nature-spotting opportunities at the Cove River estuary’s salt marsh and tidal mudflats, which are rich with birdlife (287 recorded species). There’s a massive lawn area to relax on, and the rocky shoreline is popular with anglers or a scenic lookout where you can ponder Long Island.
Cove island Park also has a state-of-the -art nature center, covering the wildlife of the sound, and in winter kids can go skating at the Terry Conners Ice Rink.
Until recently non-residents would be slapped with a hefty seasonal fee to visit, but you can now purchase a more reasonable daily pass at the entrance.
7. The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk
One of the top tourist attractions in Connecticut is almost in touching distance of Darien, and is partly housed in an ironworks dating back to 1860. The Maritime Aquarium opened in 1988 and holds 75 live exhibits, with 2,700 marine animals representing more than 300 different species.
Kids will be thrilled with all the interaction in store, at three touch tags bustling with harmless nurse sharks, sting rays, crabs, sea stars and other marine life.
Some of the other marquee exhibits are the Harbor Seals, Sea Turtles, River Otters, the 500,000-litre Ocean Beyond the Sea tank and the mesmerizing Journey with Jellies exhibit.
The IMAX theater is also a must, with a screen six stories tall and a 10,000-watt digital sound system.
8. Weed Beach
Another inviting place to unwind by Long Island Sound, Weed Beach sits opposite Cove Island off Nearwater Lane.
The park takes up 22 acres and the small but spotless sandy beach is accompanied by a host of facilities.
There’s a concession stand, a play area for little ones, paddle tennis courts, a car-top boat launch, a fit trail with equipment, a bath house, a windsurfing area and tennis courts.
Weed Beach is a public park, but as is often the case in Connecticut, non-residents have to pay a fee to use the parking lot.
9. Waveny Park
On the other side of Merritt Parkway to the north of Darien is a genteel local park in New Canaan around a Tudor-style “castle”. Waveny House was built in 1912 for Lewis Lapham, one of the founders of Texaco and was designed by W.B. Tubby with grounds landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Lapham would spend the summers at this handsome building, with Tudor arches, mullioned windows, parapet merlons and turreted chimney stacks, and the property was sold to the town of New Canaan in 1967.
The house is used today for events, and the encompassing park 300 acres of rambling fields, ponds and trails.
There’s an aquatic center here too, as well as paddle tennis courts.
New Canaan’s annual Fourth of July fireworks take place here.
10. Tilley Pond Park
A relaxing little haven right next to downtown Darien, Tilley Pond Park is only eight acres but packs a lot into this space.
The eponymous pond is skirted by lawns and woodland, and built over the water from the east bank is a stone hut with a fireplace.
In front of that stone hut is an elegant fountain, while the pond attracts all sorts of waterfowl and has a little tree-shaded islands to the north.
There are lots of benches around, so you can bring lunch to the park from one of the restaurants downtown.
11. Lock City Brewing Company
Opened in 2015, this craft brewery is a few short minutes west of downtown Darien in Stamford and has a taproom open Thursday to Sunday, pouring flights and pints.
They have several IPAs on tap, as well as a sour, stout and ciders.
Lock City Brewing Company is small and cosy, and dogs and children are welcome.
You can play board games and sit outside in summer.
There’s occasional live music and a new food truck most evenings.
12. Geary Gallery
With a high reputation in Fairfield County, the Geary Gallery is run by art dealers Anne and Tom Geary and sits in a terrace between their framing and restoration businesses.
Over the last 35 years the Gearys have provided a platform for representational artists, putting on a dynamic schedule of short-term exhibitions.
These shows last for no more than a month at a time, so there’s always something new, and feature artists of national and regional standing.
One of them is the Chinese Impressionist Xue Jian-Xin, who had his first western show at the Geary Gallery and continues to exhibit here.
Admission to the gallery is free, and all of the artwork is available for purchase.
13. Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum
One of the earliest and most important Second Empire-style houses in the United States was built on West Avenue in Norwalk as a summer home for the railroad and banking magnate LeGrand Lockwood in the 1860s.
The mansion has astonishing architecture and interiors, showcasing the splendour of the Victorian era.
LeGrand Lockwood was one of America’s first millionaires, and his chateauesque residence came with technological innovations like gas lighting, hot and cold plumbing and central heating via a furnace that burned a ton of coal a day.
In 2019 there was a worthwhile exhibition about Victorian suffragists.
From early April to January, guided tours are 13:00, 14:00 and 15:00, Wednesday through Sunday.
14. South Norwalk Historic District (SoNo)
This revitalized neighborhood cuts in west from the old harbour along Washington Street and has a smattering of historic buildings, lots of local businesses, a cosmopolitan selection of restaurants and some romantic waterfront views.
When it comes to dining, you’ll have to decide between pizza, noodles, tapas, burgers, pub grub, steak, poke and New England-style seafood.
Ferries for the lighthouse on Sheffield Island depart next to the bridge on Washington Street, and on the east bank the Veteran’s Memorial Park and Marina stages Norwalk’s famous Oyster Festival on the first weekend of September.
15. Salt Cave of Darien
A blissful place to escape for an hour or so, the Salt Cave of Darien is a chamber lined with tons of therapeutic Himalayan pink salt.
This substance is a pharmaceutical dry salt possessing 84 minerals and nutrients, and has anti-inflammatory properties that are especially beneficial for people with respiratory ailments.
Micro-particles of this salt are dispersed throughout the cave via a soothing cascade, and during your session there will be calming music as you recline on an anti-gravity lounge chair.
Along with halotherapy, the Salt Cave of Darien offers massage with licensed therapists, and has a program of yoga and meditation classes.