“Explore Fairfield County” is an informational series that provides a glimpse into the wonderful towns and cities in Fairfield County. Fairfield County is diverse, including big cities, tiny suburbs, beaches, farms, and busy highways. It covers a large geographic area and, because of this, it has a lot to offer families! To help you get the most out of Fairfield County, our contributors have shared the top things they love about each local area. To read more in this series, click here.
Norwalk, established as a town in 1649, is home to about 91,000 people. Although only a portion of Norwalk is situated along the Long Island Sound coastline, its history is steeped in oystering, giving it the nickname “Oyster Town.” Located about 45 miles northeast of New York City and a few short miles from New Canaan, Wilton, and Westport, Norwalk has three Metro North train stations and easy access to I95, Routes 1 and 7, and the Merritt, making transportation quite convenient.
Norwalk’s public school system includes 13 elementary schools, five middle schools, and four high schools. With each school specializing in a range of programs from Spanish/ English dual language to STEM to Bank Street curriculum to International Baccalaureate, the district prides itself on offering school choice via lotteries. Norwalk is also home to a few private and parochial schools and Norwalk Community College, which has an early education center. This city is a wonderful place to settle down and raise your kids.
With its various neighborhoods like West Norwalk, East Norwalk, South Norwalk, Rowayton, Cranbury, Broad River, Wolfpit, etc., you get a different vibe wherever you go. It is not surprising that many people from New York City move up here, nor is it surprising that many residents who were raised in Norwalk never want to leave.
SoNo offers the downtown feel with restaurants, bars, art galleries, and cool buildings, some renovated from warehouses and some with amazing rooftop views. Be sure to try Match, Washington Prime, Mecha, El Segundo, and Evarito’s in the Washington Street area.
Rowayton is a quaint neighborhood, nestled along the waterfront, home to three beaches (enjoy a fancy date night at Rowayton Seafood and reserve a time around sunset). Cranbury, close to Wilton, is more tucked away in the woods. The other neighborhoods have more of a suburban feel with sidewalks, each with its flavor. From farm-to-table restaurants like Oak and Almond and Tavern at Gray Barns to a community garden at Fodor Farm, playing tourist in your own town is fun!
Over the past few years, the city has put lots of money into making Norwalk a more desirable and exciting place to live. Several new luxury buildings have been built in the WayPoint and SoNo districts, within walking distance of many shops and restaurants.
The SoNo Collection, right off exit 14 on I95, is a mall that offers designer stores like Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, and Apple. Camp is a kid favorite with toys and rotating theme experiences. The mall also has a rooftop garden, many art installations, and an upscale bowling alley called Pinstripes.
To create more of a social scene, businesses like SoNo1420, a distillery with unique cocktails, and SpaceCat Brewing Company, a craft brewery, have also set up shop in South Norwalk! A bit further away, but still technically in SoNo, is 314 Beer Garden, a massive outdoor space where you can play yard games and listen to live music. They have delicious wood-fired pizza and s’mores kits.
The Wall Street Theatre was recently refurbished, adding more entertainment and culture to the city with concerts, comedy shows, and fitness events. The area surrounding the theatre has also been built up and hosts a holiday celebration with a petting zoo, a light show, and performances by local dance groups!
The Norwalk Public Library, Main Branch
The main library is located on Belden Avenue, and the children’s section encompasses the entire second floor, with an impressive collection of books. There’s a tall wraparound fish tank, train table, dollhouse, play kitchen, several couches and bean bags, and even a tilt-a-whirl chair. For more quiet fun, they have bags of vehicles, dinosaurs, and sensory items that your children can borrow during their visit!
Adult patrons can check out way more than books on the first floor. There is the seed library (seed packets of flowers, fruits, and vegetables you can take for free!) and a MakerSpace studio where you can book an appointment to use any equipment, ranging from 3-D printers to a Cricut machine.
Stepping Stones Museum and Devon’s Place in Mathews Park
Stepping Stones is a popular children’s museum that boasts an awesome water room (tip: for toddlers, put the provided jacket on backward so they can stay extra dry.), an enclosed play area for non-walkers, a multi-media room, and an indoor treehouse and slide. The exhibit room changes about four times a year. Another insider tip: the museum opens early for members on Tuesdays and Saturdays, so buying a membership pays for itself when you beat the crowds!
At the end of the parking lot sits Devon’s Place, a great playground for kids of all ages. There are little cabins and a lighthouse for make-believe games or snacking. One area is designed for older kids, another for younger kids, and there is a splash pad beside picnic tables.
From mini-golf to a state-of-art splash pad to the renovated playgrounds to the delicious seafood options (and drinks) at Ripka’s Cafe, this place is basically a vacation in itself. Its paths span miles and are very accessible for strollers. You can enjoy the boardwalk and watch the fishermen, take in some history at the Shea-Macgrath Memorial, and if you’re a dog lover, you can head over to the massive dog park. You can rent kayaks, take boat cruises, and even a skateboard park! There’s plenty of nightly entertainment with movies, concerts, and a spectacular fireworks show for the Fourth of July.
Stew Leonard’s (The Original Store!)
For those of you who have never been to a Stew Leonard’s supermarket, it’s basically an amusement park meets fresh produce shop, and this location is where it all began! Farm characters like Stewie the Duck and Clover the Cow wander through the aisles stopping to hug your children. As you push your cart, your kids look up to see performing milk cartons and produce (you’ll very quickly memorize their songs!), a somersaulting Mickey Mouse, and an electronic train. Spend $100, which is pretty much inevitable, and get free ice cream (or coffee). In warmer months, you can visit a small farm with goats, cows, ducks, sheep, and chickens in the parking lot.
There are great holiday events throughout the year, open to all customers. Finally, if you want to throw a fun and affordable birthday party for your child, but the planning aspect stresses you out, book one at Stew’s! Their friendly staff takes care of everything from entertainment to food to decorations.
This park is a hidden oasis of over 200 acres. There’s a pristine lawn of the greenest grass, wooded trails that are awesome for baby-wearing walks, and this magical tree you can walk into! You’ll often see artists painting and butterflies fluttering by. There’s even a frisbee golf course! There’s a roofed pavilion with numerous picnic tables (great for hosting kids’ birthday parties!) and two small playgrounds. The beautiful Gallaher Mansion, with its accompanying sculpture garden, is the perfect backdrop for professional photos or a wedding venue.
The Maritime Aquarium
Otters, meerkats, seals, oh my! That’s just three of the 300 species that this fantastic aquarium has! Who knew frogs could be so many different colors? Who knew sharks don’t like to go near the air bubbles of divers? No matter your age, there is something for everyone, be it an animal, event, or activity! If you’re feeling stressed, sit in the dark at the jellyfish exhibit and be soothed by the changing lights that make them glow. If your kids need to get their energy out, take them to the indoor play area. There’s a 4D immersive theater, and the cafe offers affordable and delicious meals.
Depending on the season, you may find Santa on a fishing boat (or diving into the shark tank), special exhibits with butterflies or flamingos, or Seal Spotting and Birding Cruises. With a membership, you can enjoy after-hours events like Trick-or-Treating, sleepovers, interactive scavenger hunts, and wine parties!
An Abundance of Arts
There are many opportunities for residents to appreciate and participate in the arts, both visual and performing. For music lovers, there are the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra, the nationally-acclaimed high school marching bands, and a handful of recording studios, including Factory Underground Studio and Sonotainment.
For those wanting to experience stage productions, check out the classes and shows run by Crystal Theatre or Rising Stars Performing Arts. Dancers can train at several places throughout the city, including The Spot at Just Dance Studios (where Charli D’Amelio started her career), Norwalk Academy of Dance, and Dance Dimensions.
As for the visual arts, the Norwalk Art Park is a collection of murals that beautify the Isaacs Street parking lot. (Grab a cookie or five at Rebel Daughter, which is also in this lot.) FiveFingaz, a local artist, who created Love More than Ever, spreads so much joy throughout the city with family-friendly graffiti classes, pop-up exhibits, and visits to schools. (Two of his uplifting street art pieces are featured in the Norwalk Art Park, but keep your eyes peeled for his tags on sidewalks and on buildings like Mike’s Deli.)
Finally, the Norwalk Art Space opened in 2021. This peaceful and inspiring space is a museum, cafe, classroom, and artists’ workshop. The physical layout of the building invites contemplation, and there is often some interactive component to the current exhibition.
In early September, the Norwalk Seaport Association hosts this weekend-long event at Veteran’s Park. Although you will spend a lot of money, every dollar is worth it for the hours of fun you will have! There are dozens of carnival rides, talented face painters, and too many concessions to choose from (including beer tents!). Of course, you need to make sure to taste some of the city’s famous oysters!
Last but not least, home to the BEST casual outdoor eateries
Valencia Luncheria, a Venezuelan restaurant known for its vast menu of arepas and empanadas (it appeared on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives!), has incredible frose (rose slushies!). Sit at one of the picnic tables and dip your feet in the sand.
Overton’s Seafood is your quintessential New England waterfront food stand. The lobster roll is oversized and succulent, and the onion rings are a crispy taste of heaven. Bring your food tray to the deck, which overlooks a marina, and enjoy the overall experience!
Right down the street from Overton’s is Mr. Frosty’s, which has the best homemade ice cream. The flavors are so fun, and they’re always experimenting with different ingredients, so you must keep coming back to try their newest creation!