WHY GO: Norwalk CT has gone through its ups and downs. But now, with new restaurants and nightlife, it’s on a definite upswing. Families come here for the award winning Stepping Stones Museum and Maritime Aquarium.
Gourmands can’t wait to try out the newest South Norwalk bistro. And boaters and kayakers wax lyrical about the islands, fishing and wildlife. No matter how you approach it, though, you’re bound to find something to surprise you in this quirky Connecticut maritime town.
Combine this getaway with one just 15 minutes up the Connecticut Coast in Fairfield CT for more art and a marvelous boutique hotel.
Things to Do in Norwalk CT
If you haven’t been to the Maritime Aquarium in a year or two, you’ll be astounded by the change. Gone is the 19,000 gallon indoor-outdoor Seal Exhibit and in its place an entirely indoor 160,000 gallon 2-story habitat for those swimming cuties.
One of the largest attractions in the state, this once Long Island Sound focused aquarium, in a former 1860’s iron works factory renovated as a state-of-the-art educational center, draws over half a million visitors a year. Lately, it has pivoted to programs on worldwide Climate Change, and how our planet’s oceans influence weather and the environment.
Live sharks in a 110,000 gallon tank, loggerhead turtles, seals, rays and jellyfish join a cast of other aquatic animals. Some you can pet. Others are best left behind glass.
The IMAX Theater has also been closed, and will be demolished, due to the upcoming replacement of a Metro-North railroad bridge just a few yards away. Now the Maritime Aquarium features a 4-D theater, which makes watching a 15-minute movie about sharks frighteningly interactive. (Just FYI – you WILL get wet. And poked).
Some new exhibits are also drawing more and more visitors here. The “Newman’s Own” funded interactive video wall is New England’s largest at 9’X32′. Kids, (and, ok, adults) can “paint” a choice of fish or sea creature (out of 50) and then watch it swim around. I’ve never seen so many rainbow colored dolphins and flounder. Ever.
Upstairs, biome exhibits from swamp to desert feature monkeys, parrots, tortoises, and porcupines. But Meerkats are the star attraction, with their always vigilant, always on the go personas. Time your visit to feeding time, when staff dole out crickets to the family tribe. Interestingly, one meerkat at a time is always “on duty” – scanning the sky for predator hawks. That’s the reason you’ll usually see one or two looking up.
Ever growing, the Aquarium also went though a multi-million dollar renovation in 2013, adding a Ray touch tank and the grossly popular “Jiggle A Jelly.” It’s a touch tank filled with, yep, benign Moon Jellyfish. (Other non-touch tanks teem with the poisonous Atlantic Sea Nettles).
With a state of the art movie theater, traveling exhibits, and Marine Study cruises to Long Island Sound, you can spend the good part of a day learning about the region’s maritime environment.The hybrid Research Vessel – the Spirit of the Sound catamaran – is quiet, green and holds twice the number of guests as did the old boat. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Aquarium only – $28.95 adults; $24.95 seniors (65+); and $19.95 children 3-12. (Aquarium with 4-D Theater, $35.95, $31.95, $26.95). Age 2 & under, free.
FYI: The Norwalk Maritime Aquarium is one of our 10 Perfect Places to Pop the Question in Connecticut!
VISIT: SoNo Switchtower Museum
Train historians worked long and hard to preserve “Signal Station 44.” They removed three garbage cans full of pigeon poop from this 1896 Switch Tower to clean it after years of decay. Climb narrow iron stairs to the burnished third floor for a chance to pull the disengaged Armstrong levers (so named because you needed a strong arm to budge them!) that once moved track switches manually on the main line. It’s a fascinating peak at tough railroad jobs before computers took over the heavy lifting. May-Oct, Sat and Sun 12-5, free.
VISIT: Matthews Park
Trio of Attractions – Lockwood Matthews Mansion, The Center for Contemporary Printmaking and Stepping Stones Museum
This home was built by financier and railroad baron LeGrand Lockwood between 1864 and 1868. It’s considered one of the earliest and most significant Second Empire Style country houses in the United States. Spring – Dec, Wed-Sun tours at noon, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, $10 adults, under 8 free.
The CCP features both emerging and established artists. Catch a rising star and purchase a woodcut, etching, silkscreen or lithograph for $75 and up. (Take that, Art Basel!). Or, sign up for a 6-hour printmaking workshop and create one yourself.
The Center is the only one of its kind between New York and Boston. In addition to five gallery shows per year and a slew of classes, it offers services for established artists and a cottage for a selected Artist in Residence. Monday through Saturday 9 am – 5 pm, and Sunday 12 – 5 pm. Free.
Stepping Stones was built with a keen eye to what excites and stimulates a child’s mind. Geared toward children 1-10, this small but active learn-through-play center engages even the youngest crawlers. No detail is overlooked. Whimsical water wheels are attached to rain gutters outside big picture windows. Even when it rains, there’s something to learn. $15, open daily 10-5 from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Closed Mondays From Labor to Memorial Day.
Over 200 years ago, ewes were kept on Sheffield Island to keep them from the boy sheep on Ram Island just across the way. Since then, Sheffield Island has been a compound for cholera patients, a ritzy estate and most importantly, home to the Sheffield Island Lighthouse.
You can visit this decommissioned 10-room granite lighthouse, built in 1868, as well as the rest of the 54 acre island, administered by Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, during a three hour tour run by the Norwalk Seaport Association.
A 45-ft. catamaran transports 49 people several times a day in season for a half hour narrated tour of Norwalk Harbor. (You’ll also pass barrier islands and the famous Norwalk oyster beds).
Families pushing strollers and picnickers join history buffs for a glimpse into what life was like on this island before electricity. The lighthouse keeper had to carry two five-gallon pails of oil (40 lbs. each) up to the top floor every four hours to keep the light lit. Tours and ferry cost $22 per person.
GO: Stew Leonard’s
If Walt Disney had gone into the grocery business, this is what he’d have come up with. Goats bray from the roofs of tiny sheds in the parking lot petting zoo. Parents and kids line up for creamy soft-serve custard ice-cream before grabbing a cart. And animatronic cows and milk-cartons entertain tots as Mom and/or Dad choose fresh produce, meats and fish from overflowing shelves. Locals have been bringing out of town friends here for years.
If you’ve ever wondered where all the collapsed barns, felled trees, and demolished 1800’s houses in Southern Connecticut have gone, just take a peak into the 7,000 sq. ft. Factory Underground – a recording and video production studio, and private concert and event space, founded by Edisun front man, Ethan Isaac, in Norwalk CT.
Edisun is best known for its tours of duty through conflict zones – giving U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world a taste of hard-rock from home.
But Isaac and his partner, the Hip-Hop/EDM artist, Kenny Cash, are also keen on reclaimed and distressed wood. Plus, some weird-ass design elements, like an American Flag emblazoned WWII bomb, sourced “from a farm in Jewett NY”, that hangs over a table in the bar/event room, and other……things. “We always get a look when we tell people needing the bathroom to take a left at the chainsaw,” says Marketing Director, Marc Alan
Factory Underground winds through chambers both large and small; offering an industrial kitchen, soundstage rehearsal space, and several recording rooms. If you’re lucky, you’ll be invited for, say, a book-launch party or another special event.
SHOP: Eco Evolution
If ever you need “low-waste,” sustainable, up-cycled, environmentally-friendly gifts, housewares, toiletries, cleansers, food, clothing, pet products, candles, books, and more, look no further than this brand new and intriguing collective. You are bound to find something for yourself and others. And, if you’re like me, you’ll spend more time poking around than you thought you would.
Best Places to Eat and Drink in Norwalk CT
If you’re in the mood for a burger, beer, or steaming bowl of clam chowder, there’s no better place in South Norwalk than this 130 year old institution. On the corner of Washington and Water Streets, Donovan’s is everything you can ask for in a pub: clubby interior, casual menu, good brews, and friendly service.
EAT: Public Wine Bar
Walk through the front door to be greeted by a floor to ceiling wine rack. This “Wine Bar,” however, is not just about the vino. Specialty cocktails rule the day – with concoctions like Public 88 – an “orchid infused Toto’s French topped with Rose Cava,” Blackbird Singing – a sour whiskey blend, and the fiery Hot Blooded Margarita.
Yes, the Spicy Tuna Tartar ($13), Salmon A La Plancha ($22), and Chicken and Wild Mushroom Pappardelle ($22) are all excellent. But my absolute favorite is the Shaved Brussels Sprouts on Risotto Cake – citrus-lemony greens sitting on a caramelized disc of crispy-sticky rice. Paired with the Public 88, it’s the perfect light bite.
EAT/NIGHTLIFE: 57 Upstairs at B.J. Ryan’s
Who knew Fairfield County CT would wholeheartedly embrace a New York style cabaret (now a speakeasy), complete with prominent Broadway show crooners, an intimate room aglow with votive candles, and dinner service?
Opened in April 2018 in a room above B.J. Ryan’s pub, the 60-seat 57 Upstairs is the brainchild of singer, actor, pianist and music director, Kenneth Gartman.
Musicians and vocalists range from soulful to cheeky. Entertainment has been compared to “a Broadway veteran in your living room, singing songs for you and a small group of friends.”
EAT: The Spread
This place is so farm to table, the tabletops are reclaimed farm barnwood, and are enlivened by “living walls.” The eclectic “New American” menu reflects Chef Carlos Baez’s heritage (Mexican) and work history (in a sushi restaurant, among others). His Shrimp on Caramelized Quinoa Cake with Chorizo Sauce won “Best of Best Dish” in CT Magazine. Try the Ricotta Gnocci – with tender stewed veal “meatballs.” Ambrosial.
EAT: Knot Norm’s
Young chef/owner Jay LeBlanc has got himself a winner in his little extension of an already thriving catering biz. Not only is his mega-chunk warm lobster rolls winning awards, but he’s equally adept with fried chicken, Korean BBQ Brisket, and, incredibly, on-the-spot whipped up vegan dishes. In East Norwalk (across the Norwalk River from the Norwalk Maritime Museum), this tiny place may be hard to find at first. But believe me. It’s worth it.
EAT: Valencia Luncheria
Why is it that some out of the way restaurants cause such a commotion? Because they are so excellent, patrons will travel off the path to get to them. This is the case with this colorful Arepas, Empanada and Burritos emporium. You can dine on the cheap or try a Platos of the day. And yep, there’s a bar scene. Cocktails with Mexican Coke or Jalapeno infused vodka are fiery awesome.
Best Places to Stay in Norwalk CT
STAY: EVEN Hotel Norwalk
This hotel brand is devoted to your health and wellness. Rooms feature mini-gyms. And top celebs in food and fitness partnered to make each stay a “wellness” experience. Surprisingly, this trend in lodging launched in little Norwalk, and you can experience it firsthand as part of your Norwalk escape.
Learn more in our EVEN Hotel Norwalk review.
STAY: Hotel Zero Degrees
Sister property to the hot boutique hotel in Stamford, CT – this sleek Norwalk version is roughly a 10-minute drive to the attractions in SoNo. But no worries, they’ve got a complimentary shuttle to get you there.
Quilted metallic grey headboards, back-lit mirrors in glossy bathrooms, orange throws and walls for punch – rooms are fresh and fun. Like any all the rage boutique establishment, rates include a bevy of complimentary perks. Enjoy a warm breakfast, wi-fi, covered parking, Starbucks coffee, shuttle to downtown and a very fun rooftop lounge. Drinks will cost you, but table games will not. $129-$400 per night.