In the very west of Connecticut, the city of Norwalk is within the New York metropolitan area and rests by the water on Long Island Sound.
Norwalk was founded in the mid-16th century, and was burnt to the ground by the British in 1779 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 has special ties to the sea, and honours 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, like the Maritime Aquarium, the regal Lockwood-Mathews Mansion and the Stepping Stones Museum for Children.
1. The Maritime Aquarium
An aquarium done properly, 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 before you strike out into the open ocean.
As you go you’ll meet harbour 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.
Added to all this is an IMAX Theater with a 10,000 watt digital sound system and a screen six storeys high and eight storeys 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, which 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 and 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, while 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 ColorCoaster kinetic sculpture by artist George Rhoads, and outside Celebration Courtyard has a huge open-air tent and eco-friendly play surface.
There’s always a short-term exhibit at the museum, either self-created or brought here from other children’s museums around the United States.
3. Lockwood-Mathews Mansion
The railroad and banking magnate LeGrand Lockwood (1820-1872) built himself this palatial country house from 1865 to1868 in 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, with 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, ventilation and a central heating system fuelled 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, learning the story behind every room and the personalities that dwelt here.
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 the 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, before you land at Sheffield Island.
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, which you can spend 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 sturdy limestone house was constructed here, with a beacon in its gable, replacing a 9.1-metre 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 and can go to the rail at the top to see the Manhattan skyline off in the distance on a clear day.
A separate city until 1913, South Norwalk is a diverse and vibrant neighbourhood, and the place to go for dining, arts, shopping and entertainment.
All of the museums above are in SoNo, together with lots of galleries and studios, all opening 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, whether you’re hankering for sushi, empanadas, clam chowder, fish tacos, baklava, roti or a comforting grilled cheese.
What will also grab you about this part of town is just how many independent retailers there are on these streets, at design stores, specialty food shops, jewellers 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.
The Norwalk Oyster Festival is now in its fifth decade and 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 was funded by Manice de Forest Lockwood and his cousin Julia Belden Lockwood, and built in 1973. The collections were relocated in the 1990s and then brought back here with the opening of the Norwalk Historical Society Museum in 2015. In 2019 there was a series of interesting, simultaneous exhibitions, dealing with mid-20th-century African-American Migration from the South, valuable porcelain from the Farrington-Lockwood Collection, photography in 19th-century Norwalk and the building’s architect Margaret Hoyt Smith.
“Form, Function & Family” displayed silver from the historical society and City of Norwalk collections, while “Norwalk Collects” is a display of 30 representative objects from the museum’s deep collections.
9. Mill Hill 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.
The most prominent of these is the Town House, constructed in 1835 as a place for civic meetings, and one of the 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), part of the kitchen wing from Governor Thomas Fitch’s house and furbished 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 I95 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.
In the 1930s it was remodelled as a movie theatre, 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, booking 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, while 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 and resulting in the near-complete destruction of the city.
The big draw here is the large beach, complemented by a fishing pier, playground, splashpad 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 programme.
12. Compo Beach
Just across the boundary in Westport, this beach backed by 30 acres of parkland is barely 15 minutes in the car from Norwalk’s main attractions.
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 to 18:00 between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
There’s also a wealth of sports facilities behind the beach, including two lit basketball courts, a skate park, open skate area and a softball field.
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 on Washington Street in South Norwalk, where you’ll be met by an original switch tower preserved next to the tracks as a museum.
Rail fanatics can visit from 12:00 to 17:00 on weekends, when you’ll get to see the only Armstrong surviving levers to be found in Connecticut.
14. Oyster Shell Park
Somewhere to gaze at the harbour and the waterfronts on both the east and west banks of the Norwalk River, Oyster Shell Park has been renovated in the last decade.
It’s hard to imagine today, but up to 1979 this space, catching the breeze from the water, was 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, all 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, attended by big exhibitors, from Geico and Progressive to Discover Boating, Corona and Coors.
Across four days towards the end of September 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 going on for kids too, at a special mini-lake boating lake, or at boat-building workshops dreaming up and crafting their own vessels.