Only have a day or two? From exploring magical gardens to hitting the local bike trails, here are five of the very best things to do in Northampton, Massachusetts.
By Yankee Staff
Oct 05 2021
Northampton, MAPhoto Credit : Mark Fleming
With their stately academic buildings, rich arts and cultural scenes, and top-notch eateries and coffee shops perfect for fueling lively minds, New England college towns can be terrific getaway destinations even if you’re more into 401ks than GPAs these days. Of these towns, Northampton, Massachusetts, gets particularly high marks. A city of just under 30,000 in the “Happy Valley” region of Western Mass., Northampton offers a laid-back, bohemian vibe alongside the first-class amenities of Smith College, which include a botanic garden and an art museum.
You could easily spend a week or more exploring this engaging academic-minded city, where alums such as Julia Child and Sylvia Plath once roamed. But if you have just a day or two, here are the five best things to do in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Established in 1871, Smith is one of the famed “Seven Sisters,” the group of Northeastern liberal arts colleges that historically served women students in contrast to the traditionally male-dominated Ivy League. Today the nation’s largest privately endowed college for women, Smith boasts a beautiful campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to be a botanic garden and arboretum. It’s home to more than 2,500 species of plants, not only from Massachusetts but from across the world; its crowning jewel is the Lyman Conservatory, whose greenhouses hold such fascinating specialty gardens such as the Palm House, the Succulent House, and the Camellia Corridor. For man-made masterpieces, check out the Smith College Museum of Art, where highlights range from works by Degas and Picasso to thought-provoking installations such as “Arts of Africa, c 1825–1960.”
Victorian-era architecture mixes with local boutiques and galleries throughout the long three blocks of Main Street, but the starting (or stopping) point for any downtown buying spree is Thornes. With roots going back to 1873, this former department store has long been the cornerstone of local retail; pressed-tin ceilings, wooden floors, and historic details lend atmosphere to its current 55,000-square-foot sprawl, which houses nearly 20 shops and eateries. Artisanal chocolates, Tibetan crafts, heirloom jewelry, organic-cotton kids’ clothes—Thornes has it all (and Herrell’s hot fudge sundaes to boot).
One of the best ways to get a feel for Northampton and its neighboring communities is by heading out on a two-wheeled adventure. Bring your own or rent a ride from a local outfitter; there’s also a bike-sharing program, ValleyBike, that’s an affordable alternative for short jaunts. Among the most popular segments of the Northampton Rail Trail System is the 11-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail (also known as the Norwottuck Branch of the Mass Central Rail Trail), a flat, paved path that links Northampton, Hadley, Amherst, and Belchertown and includes a stretch over the Connecticut River via a former railroad bridge.
Northampton is by no means short on places to please foodies, from the superlative baked treats at Hungry Ghost Bread to the patties piled high with fixings at Local Burger to the Moroccan and Mediterranean spices of Amanouz Café. But when it comes to grown-up libations, one spot stands out above the rest as a watering hole like no other: the Tunnel Bar. Snugged into a former 1896 pedestrian tunnel running beneath Northampton’s Union Station, the bar invites thirsty visitors to relax amid original stone and brickwork as they sip both classic and creative cocktails — with names like “Pure Silk” and “El Chupacabra” — that have made this spot a perennial no. 1 pick in local readers’ polls.
The Pioneer Valley has long been an agricultural hub in Massachusetts, and Northampton is a prime spot for sampling local food and produce at its seasonal farmers’ markets. From April to November, look for the Tuesday Market behind Thornes Marketplace and, on Saturdays, the Northampton Farmers’ Market at Main and Gothic streets. There are winter market sessions, too, meaning you can keep your pantry stocked with things like farm-fresh eggs, local maple products, homemade jams and salsa, veggies, and more.
Have your own list of the very best things to do in Northampton, Massachusetts? Leave your picks in the comments below!
This post was originally published October 6, 2021, and has been updated.