An hour out of New York from Penn Station, Stamford has an urban, big city feel downtown, where nine Fortune 1000 companies are headquartered.
Head south and you’ll hit Long Island Sound and almost 20 miles of shoreline with waterside parks and beaches.
And if you go north, Stamford is my idea of a New England small town. Here, attractions like the Stamford Museum and Bartlett arboretum hide amid expansive hardwood forest snaked with trails.
Downtown Stamford brims with life for its bars, restaurant, cinemas and the Stamford Town Center Mall. Meanwhile Broadway musicals, big-time comedians and famous musicians take the stage at the fabled Palace Theatre.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Stamford:
1. Stamford Museum & Nature Center
Deep in the woodland of North Stamford, the Stamford Museum & Nature Center mixes art with nature, history and agricultural sciences.
It all sits in 118 acres on the grounds of the half-timbered Bendel Mansion, built in a mock Tudor style in the late-1920s.
In this fine building you can look around a diversity of galleries for contemporary art exhibitions. Other strongpoints include the Natural History of New England, antique farming implements, totem poles, and vintage pedal cars.
There are also prints by the likes of Warhol and Dalí and work by prominent local artists like Gutzon Borglum and Reuben Nakian.
Outside is a glorious sculpture collection and the 10-acre Heckscher Farm, celebrating New England’s rural heritage. You’ll see a range of heritage breeds and non-indigenous species like alpacas, burros and llamas.
The Overbrook Nature Center meanwhile has interactive wildlife exhibits and is served by trails that wind through 80 acres of parkland. These connect with the neighboring Bartlett Arboretum, which I’ll cover below..
Don’t miss the Edith & Robert Graham Otter Ponds, keeping playful North American river otters.
2. Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens
A botanical attraction described as a “living classroom”, the Bartlett Arboretum holds more than 3,500 specimens. These are planted in 12 different gardens close to the Stamford Museum.
Most of what you’ll see has been gathered from New England. These are complemented by plants from the Caribbean, Africa, Mexico and the Southwestern United States.
The most mature specimens were planted more than a century ago, while the most recent have been here more than 50 years.
Take a wander in the Frank Bartlett Heisinger Conifer Garden and the Mehlquist Garden for its azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese Andromeda, all under lofty hardwood trees.
Woodland Treasures is brimming with more than 100 species in less than an acre, while the Alice Smith Fern Allée is flanked by 60 kinds of fern. My favorite of all is the quaint Cottage Garden, arranged like an English garden from the 1700s.
3. Downtown Stamford
Over the last 25 years the old heart of Stamford has come through a lot of changes. For one thing, the skyline is unrecognizable from before, with high-rise buildings like the 34-story Parc Tower.
And while business is obviously booming, downtown Stamford sparkles with culture and entertainment. I’ll talk about a few spots later in my article, but I’m also fond of the Avon Theatre Film Center, the place to go for independent film.
In summer head to Columbus Park for the Alive@Five Summer Concert Series. Some household names have played these shows, from Boyz II Men to Cee Lo Green.
There are upwards of 100 places to eat and drink downtown, more than a dozen nightspots, and plentiful shopping. The latter is provided in spades by the Stamford Town Center mall. When I went to press, celebrity chef Todd English was due to open a food hall here.
4. Philip Johnson Glass House
There’s an icon of Modern architecture in New Canaan, a simple drive east of the Stamford Museum.
A single open plan room with glass walls on a slender wooden frame and brick base, the Glass House (1949) was designed by Philip Johnson. It’s a study in minimalism, geometry, reflection, and transparency. To me, it’s a dream home.
The house’s only concealed element is the bathroom, which is housed in a brick cylinder. The Glass House was designed as a weekend retreat for Johnson, who used the property for almost 60 years until he passed away in 2005.
You can take an informative guided tour via the visitor center in downtown New Canaan. This entails a shuttle and a 3/4-mile walk through the estate and a visit to some of the other structures on the grounds, like the Brick House where Johnson’s guests would stay.
5. First Presbyterian Church
Wallace Harrison (1895-1981), who took part in the construction of the Rockefeller Center, designed another local Modernist masterpiece.
The First Presbyterian Church, also known as the Fish Church for how its outline evokes the fish symbol from early Christianity. It was ready in 1958 and is still a wonder more than 65 years later.
I’d urge you to go inside to marvel at the stained glass windows. These are astonishing, and made up of 20,000 pieces of faceted glass. As an ensemble they illustrate the crucifixion on the right side and then the resurrection on the left.
In front of the massive Visser-Rowland pipe organ is a wooden cross, some 30 feet tall and clad with wood from Canterbury Cathedral.
6. Cove Island Park
In the very southeast of Stamford, Cove Island is the site of a 19th-century factory manufacturing bleached minerals, dye extracts and liquorice.
The mill was razed by an infamous fire in 1919 and over the next few decades was developed into a park. I’d find it easier to list the things that Cove Island Park doesn’t have, but the main draw in summer is the pair of sandy beaches.
These are accompanied by a children’s playground, a sweeping lawn area, a cycling path, a mile-long walking trail and a state-of-the-art nature center.
Anglers can cast their line along the secluded rocky shoreline, while there are spots along the Cove River and at Holly Pond where you can spot birds. In fact, the park is listed as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, with more than 287 species recorded.
7. Cummings Park
Right on Long Island Sound, the 80-acre Cummings Park mixes green space and active recreation facilities. Among the features here are a boardwalk, pavilions, fishing pier, snack bar and Cummings Beach.
As well as a raft of tennis and basketball courts, Cummings Park has four softball fields and a public marina and boat launch.
The beach is sheltered by the little islands on Westcott Cove and is just the place to pass a few quiet hours in the summer sun. Sitting behind is a hill that becomes sledding central after winter snowfall.
The park is named for Homer Stille Cummings (1870-1956), former mayor of Stamford who became Attorney General under FDR. I was pleased to learn he used to come for walks along this shore.
8. Mill River Park
The green banks of the Rippowam River are the boundary between Stamford’s West Side and downtown. Mill River Park opened in 2013 after a six-year restoration project on the river.
As part of the project this space was joined to Stamford’s Kosciuszko, Scalzi and Southfield parks via a greenway.
At Mill River Park there are riverside paths on both banks, occasionally departing from the water to wind through undulating greenery.
I adore the ice rink in winter, but the park’s headline attraction has to be the charming David & Marian Nissen Carousel. This has 30 handcrafted animals, from horses to a rabbit, seal and frog.
9. The Palace, Stamford
The place to catch a live show in downtown Stamford is this magnificent Art Deco venue that has been around since 1927. Seating 1,580, the Palace Theatre started out as a stage for vaudeville.
After spending more than 40 years up to 1983 as a movie theater, it has reverted to live performances in the 21st century.
Come for off-Broadway musicals, touring recording artists, concerts by the Stamford Symphony Orchestra, top-tier comedians, magic shows and performances for children. For a sense of caliber, Steve Martin and Martin Short performed here when I was in town.
The Palace Theatre is part of the Stamford Center for the Arts, and sits four blocks from its partner, the Rich Forum, where talk shows like Jerry Springer have been recorded.
10. Half Full Brewery
You might be surprised to discover a hip craft brewery dwelling in this nondescript industrial building on Homestead Avenue.
Half Full’s taproom pours the brand’s wide choice of beers, from hoppy pale ales to maltier options. As someone who gravitates towards malty beers, I was pleased with my Dunkel (Dark Lager).
To find out what Half Full is all about you can order a flight, and of course you’ll be able to buy cans to go.
When I compiled this list, the company had recently opened a second location. Known as the Third Place, this coffee house/coworking space by day, and a taproom by night.
11. The Ferguson Library
With a handsome Ionic portico at the corner of Broad Street, Stamford’s public library is a pillar of the community and one of the largest in Connecticut.
The Ferguson Library’s main building is in a Georgian Revival style and dates to 1910. Whether you’re a permanent resident or just passing through, I can think of plenty of reasons to keep the library in mind.
There are movie screenings for kids every Friday, as well as workshops, discussions and all kinds of children’s programs.
Friends of Ferguson Library runs a used book store here, and there’s Winfield Street Coffee just next door.
12. Fort Stamford Park
A peaceful spot with a story to tell, Fort Stamford Park holds the 250-year-old earthworks of an American fort from the Revolutionary War.
This location was no coincidence as Fort Stamford had clear views to the Long Island Sound and Mianus River.
Also on the site is the Goodbody Garden, landscaped in a formal style with a stone-pillared pergola, sunken garden and Italianate balustrades.
For me, spring and early summer are fabulous here. At this time of year the magnolias and peonies are in flower and the butterflies are out in force.
13. Mianus River Park
This park follows the course of the namesake river along the Stamford-Greenwich boundary. Mianus River Park is almost 400 acres of calming nature for hiking, jogging, birding, fishing and mountain-biking.
On slopes that climb sharply from the riverbanks there’s a large swathe of hardwood forest, wetlands, rock formations, a cave and a wildflower garden. If you’re up for a challenging hike or bicycle ride, this is my local go-to.
The Mianus River flows for 20 miles before it reaches Long Island Sound, and provides water to some 100,000 people in the Stamford-Greenwich area.
14. Curtain Call
To take the pulse of Fairfield County’s arts scene you can see what’s on at this award-winning producing theater, which puts on 12 or more shows throughout the year.
Curtain Call is a community enterprise, run mostly by volunteers, but with professional values.
There are two venues at one location: The 184-seat Kweskin Theatre and the 100-seat Dressing Room Theatre, a cabaret-style space.
September through June, the season offers something for all comers. I caught a truly moving performance of The Diary of Anne Frank, staged with a light touch.
Curtain Call also provides a creative outlet for the young people of the Stamford area, with writing, acting, improv, comedy and dance classes and workshops.
15. West Beach
For a family day out in summer, West Beach is a little way down from Cummings Park on Westcott Cove.
What you’ll find is a pleasing bend of clean, pale sand, lapped by sheltered Long Island Sound waters. There’s a children’s playground right by the sand, while lifeguards are on duty at peak times in summer.
And if the sea air gives you an appetite, I’d check out Brennan’s Restaurant just behind. You can also pick up something from one of the delis, cafes or sandwich shops a few steps away on Shippan Avenue.