About a decade ago, Norwalk, Connecticut, had a fantastic ad campaign.
It was so effective, in fact, that people were actually convinced that South Norwalk was a tourist destination.
At the time, Norwalk was riding high on renewed interest in the city. There were plenty of things to do in Norwalk, CT:
- Main Street in SoNo was hopping with bars and restaurants
- The Maritime Aquarium was gaining recognition nationally
- It was more affordable than much of the CT Gold Coast, while still within reach of NYC
This writer has met more than a few people in the area, compelled to book a stay at a Norwalk hotel and plan an extended visit to town.
And all were disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Norwalk.
It’s beautiful, with several historic neighborhoods worth exploring.
The parks are fantastic, the bar and restaurant scene is still thriving, and the Maritime Aquarium remains worthy of a visit.
Plus, half this writer’s family is from there, so I know it well.
That said, I wouldn’t want to spend several days solely on a visit to Norwalk, CT.
But it’s a great day trip or two, or a weekend getaway.
Curious to know what things to do in Norwalk, Connecticut, are actually worth the trip?
Then read on.
A brief introduction to Norwalk, CT
Norwalk is located in an idyllic spot on picturesque Long Island Sound in western Connecticut. It’s an easy drive or train ride from the New York metropolitan area.
Norwalk is deceptively bursting with history.
It is hard to imagine, for example, that the now peaceful setting at Calf Pasture Beach was the landing point for British troops. Seeing as it was the Revolutionary War, those troops proceeded to burn the original mid-16th century town to the ground in 1779.
Today, Norwalk is affectionately known as Oyster Town, as a nod to its links to the country’s historic oyster industry.
Like many other charming CT towns, Norwalk features neighborhoods with their own unique history and feel:
- South Norwalk
- East Norwalk
The lovely shoreline, town and surrounding area offer a long list of things to do in Norwalk, CT.
13 of the best things to do in Norwalk, CT
Whether it is:
- Touring the islands dotting the waters offshore
- Exploring museums
- Or discovering the intriguing history of Connecticut
Below are some of the top things to do in Norwalk, CT, this weekend, all mapped-out in a walking tour starting in South Norwalk.
Or any time you are looking for adventure.
Starting at what many consider the downtown of Norwalk, in the neighborhood of South Norwalk:
1. Shopping and Restaurants in “SoNo”
South Norwalk was a separate city until 1913.
Now known as SoNo, this is the place to go when you want to shop or dine. It is a diverse, trendy spot in a vibrant neighborhood where people in the know go to eat, enjoy the arts, and find entertainment.
Known for its galleries and art studios, SoNo hosts an Arts Festival every August. It is, without question, one of the best summer festivals in all CT. While more crowded at this time of year, this is the time to plan your visit if you want to get a glimpse of the galleries and studios on the open-door tour.
If art isn’t your thing, visit any time of year and enjoy a sumptuous meal at any of the over 30 places to eat in Norwalk CT’s SoNo district.
In fact, more than a few of the most romantic restaurants in Connecticut are located here, for varied reasons:
- Evarito’s, especially for their rooftop terrace
- Match, with a decidedly romantic ambience
- Barcelona, because all hip wine bars are more than a little romantic
- Mecha, as nothing says romance like slurping noodles together
If you can’t resist the temptation to shop, you’ll discover an eclectic collection of independent boutiques. You’re sure to earn bragging rights for your unique finds.
2. SoNo Switch Tower Museum
This might admittedly be a bit of a yawn for most.
There is something to be said about the history of the New Haven Railroad. It spanned more than 2,000 miles of track and operated through much of the south of New England between 1872 and 1968.
The SoNo switch tower is more captivating than you might think.
At the very least, it makes an interesting backdrop for some selfies.
Dating back to the 1890s, it is the original switch tower, a fact that excites rail fanatics.
It may even get an unexpected reaction from even the most disinterested of visitors.
There’s something almost romantic about the red brick and contrasting wrought iron staircase.
And there’s something to be said that the workers here sent travelers and tons of materials and goods along the miles of tracks for almost a century.
3. Head Out to Sea on the Sheffield Island Ferry
This cruise tour starts off on the Norwalk River, a few steps from Washington Street in South Norwalk.
The ferry leaves the dock and heads out to the picturesque islands that dot the waters in the Long Island Sound.
This is a peak attraction during summer in CT, with service running every day.
The 45-minute ferry ride allows you to explore the “archipelago” of little islands before landing at Sheffield Island. You’ll learn about the local various landmarks and take in the breathtaking views of the distant Manhattan skyline when conditions allow.
Once you disembark on the island, you can explore the trails, lighthouse and shoreline for 90 minutes before heading back to town.
The Sheffield Island Lighthouse is the main attraction for most people who take the tour. Dating back to 1868, the limestone house was a beacon letting ships know they were nearing land.
The site of the original light is now underwater, but it had a thirty foot tall tower erected in 1828. That said, the original keeper’s house still stands, with 19th-Century furnishings to take visitors back in time.
Fun fact for sustainability fans: the lighthouse now runs on solar power.
A tour of the building includes a trip to the top where on a clear day you can see the Manhattan skyline. So if the sun is shining, and the skies are blue, this could be one of the best things to do in Norwalk CT today.
While major draws include:
Sheffield Island also hosts one of the most unique things to do in all of Connecticut: a Sheffield Island clambake.
4. Discover Underwater Creatures at the Maritime Aquarium
This Aquarium in South Norwalk features 75 live exhibits. The more than 2,700 marine animals represent 300 different species.
This is the rare opportunity to discover creatures common to the rivers and marshes feeding Long Island Sound.
You’ll also find more than a few that live in the depths of the ocean.
Each area of the aquarium introduces you to different species including the opportunity to interact with:
- Nurse sharks
- And an assortment of other animals at three “touch tanks.”
You’ll discover playful river otters and harbor seals, then progress to the more threatening predators of the sea such as sharks.
You can also take in an educational movie at the IMAX Theater with an awe-inspiring six-by-eight-storey wide screen. And the 10,000 watt digital sound system is sure to surround you.
If you are feeling more adventurous, the Maritime Aquarium also offers cruises for:
- Marine life studies
All in an authentic research vessel.
5. Gaze Out at the Harbor from Oyster Shell Park
Walk out the north entrance of the Maritime Aquarium and follow the Norwalk River Valley Trail to the next tourist attraction on our list.
Oyster Shell Park offers the perfect spot to look out onto the harbor along the banks of the Norwalk River. Choose your view from various viewing decks along the bank, and let the gentle breeze cool your face on a hot summer’s day.
If you just want to live in the moment, this is a place to unwind for a few minutes before continuing along the Norwalk River Valley Trail.
You’d never know this was a former garbage dump overlooking the Norwalk River.
Unless someone told you, of course.
Oyster Shell Park is also walking distance to the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion and the Maritime Aquarium. As such, it can be a central spot where you catch your breath before heading on to the next attraction.
6. Walk the Halls of the Impressive Lockwood-Mathews Mansion
Before encountering a change of fortune, railroad and banking magnate LeGrand Lockwood built and lived in this mansion.
It is what can only be described as a palatial country house.
This National Historic Landmark is the United States’ premier Second Empire-style country house. It displays all the grandeur of the Victorian era.
No expense was spared building what at the time was a state-of-the-art home. It features all the latest comforts and luxuries of the time, including:
- Hot and cold plumbing
- Gas lighting
- And central heating
A major landmark throughout the area, we have a sketch of the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion on the first floor of our inn, just past the front desk.
The mansion saw some rough times after the final owners left the home back in the 1930s (just like our historic mansion). The property later passed to the city (unlike ours).
However, locals rallied to save the mansion in the 1960s, and it was eventually restored to its former glory. The original Stepford Wives movie even used the mansion in 1975, as the home of the Stepford Men’s Association.
As you approach the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion, be sure to look up to see the intricate wrought-iron cresting on the roof crowning the elegant porch.
Guided tours are available and highly recommended as you get a sense of:
- The history of the home
- The people who lived here
All while taking in the exquisite interiors.
Tours are available from April to January.
7. Discover Emerging Artists at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking
Surrounding the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion are a few other historic or simply entertaining attractions, all on the same estate:
- A historic cemetery (always worth a visit, in this writer’s opinion)
- Stepping Stones Children’s Museum, one of the best museums in Connecticut, especially for young families
- The Center for Contemporary Printmaking
The Center for Contemporary Printmaking is a gallery-like no other.
Here, you can explore the works of both emerging and established artists.
It is the only museum of its kind in the area, celebrating the art of printmaking.
You can discover artists’ work and even take something home with a selection of:
- Intriguing woodcuts
If you fancy yourself an artist, you can actually take a printmaking workshop and create your own print.
There are five gallery shows each year, classes galore, and an intriguing Artist in Residence who has the honor of living in the onsite cottage.
Though considering this is an up-and-coming neighborhood that’s still figuring out how to up and come, not sure how much of an honor it is.
Actually, cheap rent anywhere in southern Connecticut is quite a find.
8. Take in a Show at the Wall Street Theater
Head up West Avenue from the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion complex to reach Wall Street and the Wall Street Theater.
Located in what is quickly becoming known as the “Arts District” of Norwalk, this 1915 theater has experienced several iterations.
At the peak of its theater days, its stage was graced by iconic silent film and stage actors such as John Barrymore, Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford.
The theatre was remodeled when movies became prominent in the 1930s. Yet even after that, the theater also featured everything from boxing matches to Elvis Presley.
Today, the Wall Street Theater is a live music venue, where you can catch an intimate concert of well-known bands, solo artists and tribute acts. It’s a perfect spot to find things to do in Norwalk, CT, at night.
9. Take in Some History at the Norwalk Historical Society Museum
Continue along Wall Street, and pass Troupe 429; self-described as New England’s best gay bar and an emblem Norwalk’s diversity.
Up the hill along Wall Street, you’ll find the first of two sites that the Norwalk Historical Society manages.
The Norwalk Historical Society incorporated in 1899. Its mission is to preserve and promote interest in the history of Norwalk. The museum not only celebrates the rich history of the area but also embraces its diversity.
Perhaps that plug for a gay bar makes more a little more sense now.
It includes two sites:
- The Norwalk Historical Society Museum
- Mill Hill Historic Park
Mill Hill Historic Park
The Mill Hill Park site is a living museum featuring three buildings over 280 years old situated on the east bank of the Norwalk River.
You can tour an 1835 Town House, one of the first brick buildings in Norwalk. You’ll also discover one of the only surviving buildings to survive the 1779 fire; the law office of Governor Thomas Fitch, circa 1740.
Completing the museum is the Downtown District Schoolhouse, dating back to 1826. There’s also a cemetery where the families of Norwalk’s earliest settlers were laid to rest.
This writer’s personal favorite is a garden overlooking the Norwalk River. It’s full of plants typically grown in colonial Norwalk gardens.
Take a peak or a picnic at historic Norwalk Green, and see the churches surrounding the green before heading down West Avenue towards the coast.
Norwalk Historical Society Museum
The museum, another 6-minutes walk down, is housed in a red-brick Georgian Revival house.
The museum hosts a number of changing, interesting exhibits, including the mid-20th-century African-American Migration from the South. Other exhibits include porcelain from the Farrington-Lockwood Collection, 19th-century Norwalk photographs and more.
Continue your tour of things to do in Norwalk, Connecticut
At this point, you’ll have walked about 44 minutes from the starting point of this walking tour, assuming you didn’t stop anywhere.
In which case, why would you have bothered coming here?
Regardless, continue south along another twelve minutes or so to reach the East Norwalk train station to catch the train back to wherever you came from.
You could also loop back down to SoNo, if you left your car or if the train stops at that station sooner.
And it likely will.
But if you’d like to continue your tour of Norwalk, here are few more attractions to keep you busy:
Unpretentious Norwalk, CT, Beaches for relaxing
Beach property in southern Connecticut is prime real estate.
And that holds true in Norwalk, Rowayton, and nearby Westport as much as anywhere else.
But visiting the beach is an absolute necessity of a list of Connecticut summer activities.
Head south from the East Norwalk Train station to reach Norwalk’s premier beach destination: Calf Pasture Beach.
10. Lounge on Calf Pasture Beach
If you’re looking for free things to do in Norwalk, CT, a trip to the beach is an easy solution.
In the cold months, at least. Like most beaches in Connecticut, this is open to non-residents in the summer with passes only.
While this might have been the landing site for the British army centuries ago, it is now the go-to beach to luxuriate on the sandy beaches of the seashore park. Located on a peninsula, this was where Connecticut colony settlers grazed their livestock in the 1770s, hence the name.
The stunning beach sits alongside a picturesque fishing pier. If you’re so inclined, you can also rent a kayak or sailboat and view the beach from the water.
11. Take a Short Drive to Compo Beach
Located on the eastern side of the Saugatuck River in Westport, it’s just a short 15-minute drive to a lovely beach that provides the perfect border for a 30-acre park.
The Compo Beach boardwalk makes for a lovely stroll along the shoreline. And the lovely beach is an ideal place to relax, take in some sun, and do some people-watching from behind your fashionable sunglasses.
2 Top Events in Norwalk, Connecticut
If you need an excuse or still more justification to visit one of the most down-to-Earth towns in our corner of Connecticut, look no further.
Norwalk hosts a couple of raucous affairs, where people behave as if they don’t care what Buffy at the country club will think.
12. Slurp Back Oysters at the Norwalk Oyster Festival
Oyster lovers: mark the first weekend after Labor Day on your calendars.
You don’t want to miss this popular festival.
This Connecticut fall festival is when “Oyster Town” celebrates its history, while also raising money for local causes.
For 50 years the festival has hosted a three-day celebration where locals gather and visitors flock to enjoy the food, music, arts, and activities.
Even if you don’t like oysters, the international food court offers plenty of options, and you can wet your whistle at the craft beer tent.
Friday and Saturday are the prime visiting time for this event, as Sunday is Family Day where it is a bit more kid-oriented.
And you’d be wrong to assume the event’s entertainment is too “small town”.
They’ve attracted some major stars including jazz great Tito Puente, country’s own Willie Nelson and rock ‘n roll’s Little Richard.
While the idea of slurping oysters might seem a little sloppy, it could arguably be one of the most romantic things to do in Norwalk, CT.
If you believe oysters are an aphrodisiac, that is.
13. Time Things Right to Attend the Norwalk Boat Show
Mark your calendar for the end of September if you want to attend the Norwalk Boat Show.
Held at Norwalk Cove Marina, at Calf Pasture Peninsula, this is the destination event for boat lovers.
Spanning four days, the show offers thrilling demonstrations by high-speed racing boats.
If you prefer your waters quiet and calm, you can enjoy stand-up paddleboard and kayak sessions.
Or test your boat-handling skills at the event’s many on-water clinics.
Even more restaurants and places to eat in Norwalk
Norwalk has a vibrant restaurant scene, with options from around the globe.
In fact, some of this writer’s favorite varieties of international cuisine in the entire area are in Norwalk:
- Hoi An Pho & Grill, for the best Vietnamese and pho in southern Connecticut
- Saffron has the best Indian food in Connecticut
- Oishi Sushi & Izakaya for the best sushi in the area
- Valencia Luncheria for amazing Venezuelan cuisine
Top Indoor things to do in Norwalk, Connecticut
And if rain (or snow) makes the beaches or a walking tour uninviting, there are plenty of other indoor things to do in Norwalk.
In fact, the number of indoor activities here makes Norwalk a top destination for winter in Connecticut.
Aside from a few attractions this writer has already mentioned:
- Maritime Aquarium
- Lockwood-Mathews Mansion
Norwalk also has more than a few destinations for shopping:
- SONO Collection, built long after mall building was fashionable, because Norwalk deserves everything everyone else had back in the 1980s
- Norwalk also has one of the most unique antique stores in Connecticut, Fairfield County Antique & Design Center
Norwalk’s Bowlmor is the closest bowling alley to Greenwich. This writer spent many a winter evening here as a teenager. To be fair, bowling is arguably one of the top winter activities in Connecticut.
Personally, this writer lost interest in bowling after discovering the best Connecticut breweries, several of which are in Norwalk:
- Lesser Mind Brewery
- Iron Brewery
- Beaver Beer Brewery in nearby Westport
Go to Stamford and Visit FLAG
This is admittedly a cop-out for an article about things to do in Norwalk.
But hear me out.
If you are looking to expand your visit with more things to do in Stamford, CT, this is a great stop for art lovers.
The Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery is revolutionizing how we view contemporary art.
And they’ve received acclaim from the international arts community.
This is the place where “in the know” art appreciators find the work of emerging artists. FLAG is also the sponsor of the Joseph Kosuth exhibit at the Louvre, so you can bet they know their stuff.
Find still more attractions, activities, and things to do in Connecticut
Now that you’ve got your visit to Norwalk planned (you’re welcome, by the way), keep exploring more nearby Connecticut towns.
For example, following Route 7 north from Norwalk is one of the best Connecticut fall foliage driving routes.
And, aside from the gas, it also counts as one of the top free things to do in Norwalk.
Other cute towns nearby include:
- New Canaan
Be sure to see the list of the most unique activities, attractions, and things to do in Connecticut, and download a free copy of the CT Travel Guide.