Confession: We discovered Norwalk, Conn., by accident, trying to escape the crush of post-holiday traffic on Interstate 95 between New York and Boston. Norwalk is located in Fairfield County, Connecticut's "gold coast," but it's not one of the one-percenter burgs like Greenwich or New Canaan. Norwalk — once famous for its oyster industry — is a more diverse community. For the visitor, SoNo (or South Norwalk) is the main drawing card: The warehouses and factories along the Norwalk River on Washington Street have been redeveloped as a dining and shopping district, which also includes other attractions, including the Maritime Aquarium. Who knew Norwalk had so much going on — or that Long Island Sound had sand tiger sharks?
Located on the Merritt Parkway just off I-95, the 170-room Hilton Garden Inn (560 Main Ave., 203-523-4000, www.
norwalkhilton.com; rooms from $109) is quiet and comfortable, plus convenient to SoNo, just one exit south. It offers sleep-system adjustable beds, free Wi-Fi, and mini-fridges, plus breakfast available for purchase. (This is handy in Norwalk since good breakfast places are lacking.) There's also an indoor pool and a small fitness center for working out the kinks after a long drive. A new entry in Norwalk's hotel market, Hotel Zero Degrees Norwalk (253 Main St., 203-750-9800, www.hotelzerodegrees.com; from $90) is geared toward the business crowd, with spacious work areas and furniture on casters so that you can reconfigure the room to your liking. Local artwork enhances the 96 guest rooms and common areas. If your taste runs to "olde" and quirky, book the Silvermine Tavern (194 Perry Ave., 203-847-4558, www.silverminetavern.com; from $135). Ten guest rooms (not handicapped accessible because of steep stairs) are set within a cluster of 200-year-old buildings; stay in the old tavern or country store where the ceilings are sloped, the tubs have clawed feet, the beds are antique canopied numbers, and the floors are delightfully creaky. Supposedly, the place was a speakeasy during Prohibition.
One of SoNo's most bustling eateries, The Spread (70 North Main St., South Norwalk, 203-939-1111, www.thespreadsono.com; plates from $6-$24) offers tapas in a room with a "rustic industrial" vibe — unmatched vintage china and exposed pipes, with a giant steel ceiling fan. Plates come in small, medium, and large sizes, but even the small ones can be shared. They're famous for pressure-cooked shaved beef tongue on bruschetta ($11); we liked the crispy pork belly bites with pickled rhubarb ($13) and the melt-in-your-mouth veal and ricotta meatballs ($8). The spicy sauteed broccoli ($6) — super garlicky — is a winner too. On the fancier side, Match (98 Washington St., South Norwalk, 203-852-1088, www.matchsono.com; entrees from $21.95) is a perennial favorite (and listed in the book "1000 Places to See Before You Die"). Owner Scott Beck helped launch the revitalization of SoNo 14 years ago, and chef Matthew Storch's seasonal, local new American cuisine continues to win raves. The oxtail and short-rib ragu with herbed gnocchi is a hearty choice for a cold winter night. For sweets, the go-to spot is Cafe Chocopologie (12 South Main St., South Norwalk, 203-854-4754, www.chocopologie.com). They serve savories and salads here too, but really everyone comes for the award-winning confections created by master chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt.
DURING THE DAY
Set in a refurbished factory at the mouth of the Norwalk River, the Maritime Aquarium (10 North Water St.; South Norwalk, 203-852-0700, www.maritimeaquarium.org, $20) focuses on the marine life of Long Island Sound. Sand tiger sharks, sea turtles, harbor seals, river otters, and jellies are among the 1,200 creatures of 259 species here. If you're willing to brave the weather, sign on for a winter creature cruise (December-March, 2½ hours, $23) and head out by boat to seek out seals that winter in the sound. Open for guided tours, the Victorian-era Lockwood-Mathews Mansion (295 West Ave., South Norwalk, 203-838-9799, www.lockwoodmathewsmansion.com, $10, April-early January) was saved from demolition in 1964; now it's a National Historic Landmark and one of the earliest and finest surviving Second Empire-style country houses ever built in the United States. If you've got kids in tow, don't miss Stepping Stones Museum for Children (303 West Ave., South Norwalk, 203-899-0606, www.steppingstonesmuseum.org, $15). This LEED gold-certified children's museum boasts Energy Lab, a million-dollar exhibit about the science of energy, plus a too-cute Tot Town for infants and toddlers. Even parents are mesmerized by the Color Coaster, a 27-foot mechanical toy-kinetic sculpture in constant motion. The most interesting place to shop in town is SoNo Marketplace (314 Wilson Ave., South Norwalk, 203-838-0719, www.facebook.com/sonomarketplace), a renovated warehouse that's home to pop- up shops (one was selling bowls made of old long-playing vinyl records on our visit) and eateries, like Lobstercraft, purveyor of a noteworthy lobster BLT. Outdoors, there's a winter beer garden warmed by heaters, featuring an array of craft beers.
Norwalk is home to a lively pub scene. You could create your own mini Connecticut Beer Trail here. Potential stops would include Guvnor's Brewery (136 Washington St., South Norwalk, 855-488-6677, www.facebook.com/guvnorsbrewery), where they brew their own beer on-site in a set of copper tanks right behind the bar. Look for six varieties, including seasonal brews, plus food infused with beer, like a chili made with Black Magic Stout. Then there's the Brew House (12 Marshall St., South Norwalk, 203-853-9110, www
.sonobrewhouse.com), where you can count on 15 beers on draft, 60 varieties of bottled beer, and a famous Sunday brunch ($29.95). Monthly beer dinners are a big draw at Ginger Man (99 Washington St., South Norwalk, 203-354-0163, www.gingermannorwalk.com), featuring beer pairings with a five- or six-course meal (around $75). Anytime, though, there are 52 beers on draft, more than 100 bottled beers, and a rotating cask-conditioned ale. For live music (or DJs) and dancing, with a youngish local crowd, hit the Black Bear Saloon (80 Washington St., South Norwalk, 203-299-0711, www.blackbearsono.com ).
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.