Ahhh, summer … so many possibilities. Taking lots of local excursions — ideally free or inexpensive ones — is how my family fits in maximum fun. Following are four great close-by places and two more that are worth a road trip, plus suggestions on kid-friendly places to grab a bite to eat.
Danbury Railway Museum, 120 White Street, Danbury, 203-778-8337, danbury.org/drm.
Adults $6, ages three to 12 $4, children under three are free, plus $3 for Danbury Rail Yard tour. Located inside the historic train station and rail yard in downtown Danbury, the museum offers railroad history, tours of the six-acre railyard with more than 70 pieces of historic equipment and artifacts, opportunities to try hands-on railroad work, and of course train rides (weekends and special events only). The 20-minute tour of the rail yard includes a ride on a real operating turntable. Kid-friendly meal add-on: Pancho’s Tacos, 145 White Street, Danbury, 203-790-0900, panchostaco.com.
Earthplace, The Nature Discovery Center, 10 Woodside Lane, Westport, 203-227-7253, earthplace.org.
Teens/adults $7, children $5, but free for the grounds only, where there’s plenty to do. On the 62-acre property are six, 15- to 30-minute walking trails, including one that loops around a swamp and a universal design trail, Wheels-in-the-Woods IV. Pick up one of the trail activity flyers for an enhanced outdoor adventure, such as word hunting. After your walk, stroll through the birds of prey exhibit area to meet injured feathered friends and then check out the well-equipped wooden playground (after 3 p.m. and on weekends only). Kid-friendly meal add-on: Bobby Q’s for pit-smoked BBQ; 42 Main Street, Westport, 203-454-7800, bobbyqsrestaurant.com.
Want to linger longer in Westport? Head to The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts, 40 Jesup Rd., Westport, 203-221-2153, levittpavilion.com, for a free outdoor concert. Held on more than 50 summer nights, the best times to bring the kiddos are Wednesdays for the Children’s Series (7 p.m. start) and Fridays for Party Band and Pop (8 p.m. start). “Opening Night: The Sixties Show,” on Sunday, June 24, will also be popular with families. Most visitors bring their own picnic food, but snacks and ice cream are on site for sale.
Stepping Stones Museum for Children, 303 West Ave. (Mathews Park), Norwalk, 203-899-0606, steppingstonesmuseum.org.
At $15 a head, how does this one make the list of free and cheap places? Here’s how: snag a discount pass from your public library for buy-one-one admission, or plan to attend when admission is free — Thursday, July 5, and Thursday, August 2, from 5 to 8 p.m. for anyone, or Saturday, July 14, from 9 to 11 a.m. for families of children with special needs. In five main galleries are 100-plus hands-on activities. A giant open-air tent with eco-friendly play surface is the place to be on must-be-outside days. Free all the time are the themed community garden areas on site and Devon’s Place accessible playground, located across the parking lot. Kid-friendly meal add-on: Ash Creek Saloon, for barbecue, sandwiches and salads; 2 Wilton Ave., Norwalk, 203-847-7500, ashcreeksaloon.com.
Dinosaur State Park, 400 West Street, Rocky Hill, 860-529-8423, dinosaurstatepark.org.
Teens/adults $6, $2 for youth ages six to 12, and free for kids five and under. The exhibit center’s geodesic dome features 500 of the 2,000 dinosaur tracts accidentally discovered back in 1968, plus a model of a Dilophosaurus. Jennifer Fetcho of Hamden visited with her husband and daughter, now eight, whose fave parts were the dinosaur footprints and hands-on room.
“She was able to hold real fossils,” said Fetcho. “We really love it there and plan to visit at least once each summer.”
The grounds, free to visit, feature nature trails, picnic spots, mining for gems and fossils ($5.50-$9 per bag) and a track casting area (available in dry weather; BYO materials listed online). Kid-friendly meal add-on: Michel Angelo’s Pizzeria, Restaurant & Lounge for pizza, grinders and burgers; 825 Cromwell Ave., Rocky Hill, 860-257-3136, michelangelosct.com/rocky_hill/.
Submarine Force Museum and USS Nautilus, 1 Crystal Lake Road, Groton, 800-343-0079.
Free (closed Tuesdays). Tour the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered ship and the first vessel to go to the North Pole. The ship, in use from 1954 to 1979 by the U.S. Navy, has been converted into an historic landmark that anyone can visit via a self-guided audio tour through the spaces where the crew lived on long voyages. Kid-friendly meal add-on: Groton Townhouse Restaurant for salads, sandwiches and ice cream; 355 Route 12, Groton, 860-449-0355, grotontownhouserestaurant.com.