Northampton, Mass: A Top Arts and Dining City

Northampton, Mass is a Hub of Arts, Politics, and Fine Dining

City Hall in Northampton - photos by Max Hartshorne
City Hall in Northampton – photos by Max Hartshorne

By Russell Bradbury-Carlin

WHERE

Western Massachusetts. About 2 hours from Boston in the foothills of the Berkshires. Located on I-91, about 25 minutes north of Mass. Pike, I-90.

WHY GO?

A funky, small New England college town, named “The Best Small Arts Town” in the U.S. Lots of cultural events and outdoor activities. Great restaurants, more than 80 in a three-block radius!

Northampton is referred to by some as “Lesbianville.” The town has long been a magnet for women who come out of the closet and marry and move to Northampton. Past mayors have been lesbian. Many shops and other businesses feature lesbian products and books. It adds an interesting touch to this friendly place, where the streets are full of people all night and all day.

WHEN TO GO?

Any time of the year is good. During the school year, there are more art/cultural events. Summer is beautiful and there are festivals and outdoor activities. Winter is nice for nearby skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating. And, of course, the fall foliage is beautiful in New England.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

By Air/Land
Car, bus (Peter Pan), Valley Flyer commuter train service from New Haven to Northampton. Amtrak as well. You can also fly into Hartford and take a bus, train or car. There is a small airport in Northampton for commuter flights.

The farmer's market
The farmer’s market

Getting Around

Once here, the best way to get around is on foot. But, during the school year, some of the local buses (especially to Amherst — another college town) are free. Rent a car, if you want to travel outside of town. Enterprise is located in Northampton and Amherst. 413-587-0108

BEST ATTRACTIONS

The arts! Tons of galleries, museums, small theatres, and public art spaces. Browse all day and see performances by top theatre, music, literary and dance artists in the evenings!

  • Shopping: many local small businesses selling eclectic unique things.
  • Smith College Campus: beautiful campus to stroll around on — especially the path around the pond and the campus greenhouses.
  • Check out the Paradise City Arts Festival in October.
  • Sitting in the main street cafe (there is a Starbucks on Main Street and Woodstar coffee on Gothic St.) and watching the parade go by. There will be kids on the street, pierced and shaven, with skateboards and attitude, but it is always friendly. The farmers market sets up every Saturday downtown.

BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS

There is a fantastic dog park here, it seems that many city dwellers own dogs so a wooded circular big area is set aside for dog walkers, just past Smith College off Route 66. There is a circular loop that goes through farm fields and woods and is a perfect place to walk your dog.

A sidewalk scene
A sidewalk scene

BEST ACTIVITIES/ GUIDES

There are lots of outdoor activities from hiking to rafting, as Northampton is located in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains and near the Connecticut River. Local outfitters can arrange everything from kayaking to ballooning.

For some free activities, try:

  • Hiking Smith College campus.
  • Riding bike/rollerblading along the Northampton/Belchertown bike path, an eleven-mile path.
  • Riding to Easthampton along the other bike trail. That’s another nearby town that’s very cool too.
  • Hanging at coffee shops like Starbucks, Woodstar, Northampton Coffee, Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters all in the downtown area.

BEST ALTERNATIVES

In addition to the nightly lectures and performances held on Smith’s campus and around town, there are also lots of local options for informal learning from yoga to arts and crafts. Look at the bulletin boards around town and pick up a local paper.

  • Gay/Lesbian Parade: the first Saturday in May.
  • Iron Horse Music Hall, a small, cafe/performance space with legendary big-name performers.
  • The Parlor Room a more intimate setting for up to 100 and a great place to see live music, on Gothic St.
  • Flywheel: in nearby Easthampton — funky performance space featuring lots of local and regional bands. Volunteer-run.
Yoga is popular here.
Yoga is popular here.

For language learning, try the International Language Institute of Massachusetts, which offers intensive two-week language classes in everything from Spanish to Chinese in the summer! Also offers TEOFL courses and English for speakers of other languages. 

BEST LODGINGS

There are also a number of hotels, motels, guesthouses and small inns in the area. 

  • Hotel Northampton — expensive, but right downtown. One of the best bars in the city is their Wiggins Tavern, a clubby, little cellar bar with a great New England vibe.

BEST EATS

There are lots of inexpensive eateries featuring all kinds of food from around the world. This is a college town, so remember that coffee shops and cafes are also plentiful!

• Bela– Total vegetarian, small, funky– Cheaper
• HighBrow Wood Fired Kitchen + Bar.–wood-fired pizza, pasta, great atmo, moderate
• Oriental Taste, great Chinese, pretty good deal.
• Amanouz Cafe–Moroccan cuisine, cheap and filling
• India House — more expensive
Local Burger, award-winning organic burgers and delicious fries
• The Green Bean, amazing breakfasts, and a nice little cafe on Main St.

Busking for spare change
Busking for spare change

BEST LIVE ENTERTAINMENT

If you can’t catch a performance or lecture at Smith College Campus, try the following:

  • Iron Horse: famous concert venue. Small and intimate. Many national folk, jazz and alternative bands/musicians. Check the schedule in the weekly Valley Advocate, or online at iheg.com
  • The Parlor Room. The Parlor Room at Signature Sounds is an intimate music listening room/performance space in downtown Noho.32 Masonic St, Northampton, MA 01060 (413) 665-4036 www.parlorroommusic.com
  • Academy of Music: Larger, but not mainstream, movie theatre. Also occasional opera house.
  • Calvin Theater. Part of the Iron Horse Group, national acts in music, theater, dance, and spoken word.

BEST LOCAL HAUNTS

  • Joe’s Pizza
  • Haymarket Cafe.
  • Northampton Brewery’s rooftop garden
  • The Deck. Outdoor dining seasonally, on the bike path.
  • Roberto’s Pizza on Pleasant St.

BEST SHOPPING

There are plenty of unique shops in town featuring the works of local artisans, but Northampton is a book lover’s paradise.

  • Thorne’s Market — lots of small businesses in a non-mall mall.
  • Raven – used books.
  • Book Links. New books inside Thorne’s Market
  • Market St.– side street with many used clothing stores, book stores and antique stores.
  • A to Z Science store. Huge selection of intelligent and creative toys and games for kids on King Street across from the Hotel Northampton.

VISAS AND OTHER DOCUMENTS

If you need a visa and passport to enter the US, you need one here. Lots of foreign students, however, are here on student visas.

MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS

U.S. dollar. Lots of ATMs around. Credit cards accepted almost everywhere.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

As a college town, Northampton is very safe. Usual precautions apply. Don’t drink and drive, however. The police are pretty serious about it, especially the ones who ride bikes and sneak up on unsuspecting pot smokers.

Of course, marijuana is legal to purchase and smoke in Massachusetts. There is a dispensary called NETA on Pleasant Street.

In a medical emergency, there is a hospital in town.

BEST RESOURCES

Northampton and Hampshire County website
Resources for everything from lodgings to arts events

Valley Advocate
Local paper to check for events.

Music calendar for Iron Horse Entertainment Group