In the very west of Connecticut, the city of Norwalk sits by the water on Long Island Sound.
Norwalk was founded in the mid-17th century and has come through ups and downs. A low point, to say the least, was the destruction of the town by the British during the Revolutionary War.
Calf Pasture Beach, the place where the British troops landed, is now one of a few restful places to unwind by the water.
Known as Oyster Town, Norwalk is a place with special ties to the sea. The city honors its historic oyster industry with a festival at the start of September.
In summer you can take cruises out to the little islands just offshore, and there’s a clutch of attractions and museums to pique your interest. A few are the Maritime Aquarium, the regal Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, and the Stepping Stones Museum for Children.
So without further ado, here’s my look at the 15 best things to do in Norwalk.
1. The Maritime Aquarium
An aquarium done right, the Maritime Aquarium has 75 live exhibits, with more than 2,700 marine animals from 300 different species.
A visit here will take you on a journey that starts in the rivers and marshes that feed Long Island Sound. Then you’ll strike out into the open ocean. As you go you’ll meet harbor seals, river otters, jellyfish, sharks and loggerhead turtles.
There are three touch tanks where you can discover what nurse sharks, sting rays, starfish and all kinds of other animals feel like. My kids adored this element of the aquarium.
Added to all that is an IMAX Theater with a 10,000 watt digital sound system. This screen is six stories high and eight stories wide.
What’s more you can also take birding, seal-spotting or marine life study cruises on the museum’s own research vessel, R/V Spirit of the Sound. This uses a quiet hybrid/electric propulsion system.
2. Stepping Stones Museum for Children
Working on the basis that children learn best through doing, this attraction opened in Mathews Park in 2000. Stepping Stones has a series of interactive educational zones designed to spark kids’ imagination, curiosity and interest.
The Energy Lab helps little ones learn about the science of energy, through wet and wonderful exhibits. Meanwhile Express Yourself is all about social-emotional learning, and Build It! get kids acquainted with the basics of construction and architectural design.
Grown-ups and children alike will be transfixed by the Color Coaster kinetic sculpture by artist George Rhoads. Outside, Celebration Courtyard has a huge open-air tent and eco-friendly play surface.
3. Lockwood-Mathews Mansion
The railroad and banking magnate LeGrand Lockwood (1820-1872) built himself this palatial country house from 1865 to 1868. It forms the centerpiece for what is now Mathews Park, close to Stepping Stones.
A National Historic Landmark since 1978, the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion is one of the first examples of a Second Empire-style country house in the United States.
The property was saved from demolition after a long campaign in the 1960s, and is fully restored inside and out. I was taken with the exquisite wrought iron crestings on its roof and above the elongated porch.
In its day the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion was cutting edge, with gas lighting, hot and cold plumbing, and ventilation. I was amazed to discover that the central heating system was fueled by a ton of coal every day.
You can take a guided tour of the refined interiors from the beginning of April to the beginning of January. As you go you’ll learn the story behind every room and the personalities that dwelled here.
When I wrote this article the house was closed for a scheduled, year-long renovation.
4. Sheffield Island Ferry
Setting sail from a dock on the west bank of the Norwalk River, opposite the Veterans’ Memorial Park, a ferry will take you out to the Norwalk Islands in Long Island Sound.
At the height of summer there are services every day of the week, including three on weekends.
It will take 45 minutes to glide past the various little islands in this archipelago. On the voyage the skipper will point out the various landmarks on both sides of Long Island Sound, as well as the Manhattan skyline if conditions are right.
After that you’ll have 90 minutes on Sheffield Island. I spent this time visiting the lighthouse, picnicking, walking trails and combing the shore for shells, sea glass and horseshoe crabs.
5. Sheffield Island Lighthouse
The main goal of the ferry ride to Sheffield Island is this grand lighthouse, which in its current form dates to 1868.
At that time a hardy limestone house was constructed here, with a beacon in its gable. This replaced a 30-foot tower that had been erected in 1828.
Since 2011 the light has been running on solar power and is aimed at the Norwalk side of Long Island Sound, purely for its symbolic value.
You’ll be given a tour of the building, filled with interesting anecdotes, and can go to the rail at the top. From here you may see the Manhattan skyline off in the distance on a clear day.
A separate city until 1913, South Norwalk is a diverse and vibrant neighborhood, and my place to go for dining, arts, shopping and entertainment.
All of the museums above are in SoNo, together with lots of galleries and studios. These all open their doors for the SoNo Arts Festival in August.
There are more than 30 places to eat in SoNo, and the offer is very international. I’m talking, sushi, empanadas, clam chowder, fish tacos, poke, roti or a comforting grilled cheese.
What grabbed me about this part of town is just how many independent retailers there are on these streets, at design stores, specialty food shops, jewelers and more.
7. Norwalk Oyster Festival
On the first weekend after Labor Day, Oyster Town celebrates the long history of its oyster industry and raises money for all sorts of good causes.
When I compiled this list Norwalk Oyster Festival was deep into its fifth decade. The celebration promises three days of live music, arts and crafts, lots of fun activities for little ones, and, of course, oysters galore.
There’s an international food court, a craft beer tent and even an oyster slurping contest. You can catch a Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show and a stunt show by the Nerveless Nocks.
A line-up of fairground rides and amusements is in store, not to mention Kids’ Cove, which has its own rides, games and entertainment just for children.
Sunday is Family Day, with discounts on entrance, rides and food for families with kids.
Just by way of intro, some of the names to have played the Norwalk Oyster Festival are Little Richard, Tito Puente, Willie Nelson, The Monkees and Cheap Trick.
8. Norwalk Historical Society Museum
This museum mapping Norwalk’s past is based at the red brick Georgian Revival former Lockwood House, which is younger than I thought. Built in 1973, it was funded by Manice deForest Lockwood and his cousin Julia Belden Lockwood.
The collections were relocated in the 1990s and then brought back here with the opening of the Norwalk Historical Society Museum in 2015.
When I was here recently there was a series of concurrent exhibitions. Of these, I was transfixed by “Self and the World”. This photography show presents 19th-century photography from Norwalk, via every format from daguerreotypes to an original early Kodak camera.
9. Mill Hill Historic Park
The Norwalk Historical Society has a second location on the east bank of the Norwalk River. Mill Hill Park is a living history museum made up of three buildings up to 280 years old.
My favorite of these is the sturdy Town House, constructed in 1835 as a place for civic meetings. It was one of the very first buildings in Norwalk to be made of brick.
The Town House is still a mainstay of the community, hosting social events, meetings and displays of historic memorabilia.
A rare survivor from the 1779 Burning of Norwalk is the Governor Thomas Fitch Law Office (1740). This is part of the kitchen wing from Governor Thomas Fitch’s house and is furnished with an 18th-century Chippendale desk and other fittings to give a sense of what Fitch’s office would have looked like.
The Downtown District Schoolhouse dates to 1826 and was relocated here when the I-95 was built through East Norwalk.
East of these buildings is the third-oldest cemetery in the city, where family plots were provided with the property grants issued to Norwalk’s earliest settlers.
10. Wall Street Theater
Opened way back in 1915, the Wall Street Theater has been reborn a few times in the last century, changing hands between a multitude of owners.
In its earliest days stars like Lilian Gish, Mary Pickford and John Barrymore graced this stage.
Later, in the 1930s it was remodeled as a movie theater, but was also booked for boxing matches and concerts by the likes of Elvis Presley.
In its latest incarnation the Wall Street Theater is mainly a live music venue. You can catch well-known touring bands and solo artists from all genres, as well as a big helping of tribute acts.
11. Calf Pasture Beach
Norwalk’s annual 4th of July fireworks take place at this historic beach and park on the peninsula of the same name.
In the 17th century Calf Pasture was used by Connecticut colony settlers as grazing land for cows.
Later, in 1779 during the Revolutionary War the beach was a landing point and encampment for a raid by 2,600 British troops led by William Tryon. This attack resulted in the near-complete destruction of the city.
My personal highlights are the large beach and the scenic fishing pier. Other features include a playground, splash pad and spaces for softball, volleyball, skating and bocce.
The Norwalk Sailing School also rents out kayaks and sailboats, and provides a small craft safety training program.
12. Compo Beach
Just across the boundary in Westport, this picture-perfect beach is backed by 30 acres of beautiful parkland. Compo Beach is barely 15 minutes by car from Norwalk’s main attractions so I had to include it in my list.
Bounded to the west by the Saugatuck River, Compo Beach has a boardwalk, a big wooden playground, lockers, bathrooms, a concession stand and two beach volleyball courts.
The beach is patrolled by lifeguards daily, from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM between Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
There’s also a wealth of sports facilities behind the beach. You’ve got two lighted basketball courts, a skate park, open skate area and a softball field. Be aware there’s a significant parking fee during the summer season.
13. SoNo Switch Tower Museum
The New Haven Railroad spanned much of the south of New England between 1872 and 1968, operating more than 2,000 miles of track by 1912.
A captivating relic from the 1890s can be found at 77 Washington Street in South Norwalk. Here you’ll be met by an original switch tower preserved next to the tracks as a museum.
May through October, rail fanatics can visit from 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM on weekends. Inside you’ll get to see the only surviving Armstrong lever machine to be found in Connecticut.
Part of the fun for me was watching the trains go by and imagining the tower in its glory days.
14. Oyster Shell Park
This park is somewhere to gaze at the harbor and the waterfronts on both the east and west banks of the Norwalk River.
Oyster Shell Park was totally renovated in the 2010s. I find it hard to imagine today, but up to 1979 this space, catching the breeze from the water, was a working landfill.
Today it is threaded with the Norwalk River Valley Trail, and has a hilltop plaza, a children’s playground and a well-tended disc golf course. It’s all just a brief walk from the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion and the Maritime Aquarium.
15. Norwalk Boat Show
At Norwalk Cove Marina, in the landward nook of Calf Pasture Peninsula, the Norwalk Boat Show is another milestone in the city’s events calendar.
Big in the industry, this event is attended by major exhibitors, from Geico and Progressive to Discover Boating, Corona and Coors.
Across four days towards the end of September there’s a lot going on. For instance, you can watch demonstrations by high-speed racing boats, take part in stand-up paddleboard and kayak sessions at the Try it Cove and boost your boat-handling skills through on-water clinics.
There’s plenty happening for kids too, at a special mini-lake boating lake, or at boat-building workshops dreaming up and crafting their own vessels. When I was here there was a stunning display of antique boats, dating back to the mid-20th century.