Amherst, Massachusetts: The Quintessential College Town
By Kevin McDowell
Amherst is a classic college town. The center of town is a bustling mix of bookstores, cafes, art galleries, restaurants, and bars.
Although busy, the atmosphere is peaceful and welcoming. The crowd is a mix of students, professors, artists, and musicians. Outside of the center lies a beautiful, sprawling expanse of quiet streets, rolling farms, and woods.
How Do I Get there?
Amherst is located in central Massachusetts, about an hour and 45 minutes west of Boston. It is accessible by either Route 2 or the Mass Pike, although Route 2 is free of tolls, more scenic, and has less traffic. From New York and points south, it’s accessible via Interstate 91.
No matter what your taste or budget, Amherst has the eatery for you. From the best slice of pizza west of 128 to fine dining, you can find it all here.
Antonio’s Pizza: Mentioned first for a reason. One of the best slices of pizza I have ever tasted, up there with the North End and New York City. The key is the crust, thin and crispy, but still somehow able to support the ludicrous amount of toppings on every slice.
Pay no mind to the occasionally sarcastic or impatient counter workers; Antonio’s is a must-visit on any trip to Amherst.
F0rmosa Chinese Restaurant: Features all local produce, including vegetables and herbs are grown at a farm under the same ownership. It is fresh and delicious, not excessively greasy, as Chinese can often be. Main Street
Lone Wolf Cafe: It’s amazing how one plate of something as simple as scrambled eggs can be so much better than another. Lone Wolf gets all the seasonings right. Best breakfast in town. Only breakfast. Strange but they do a good job with it.
Atkins Farms: A hundred-year-old farm offering some great fresh homemade foods. Some of the best fudge I’ve tasted. Located out of town heading on Rte 116 toward Granby and South Hadley. They now have a second outpost in North Amherst, smaller but with lots of the same great foods.
The Black Sheep: A delicatessen, all-butter scratch bakery, café, gourmet food purveyor, and full-service caterer. An institution in Amherst with the slogan, “Baked in Amherst.” A place where just about everybody goes. The Black Sheep is now a market with groceries, having made the pivot during the pandemic of 2020.
Judies: Known throughout New England for their famous popovers. Expanded now into a huge winding space with comfy seating and great lighting. This has been closed since the 2020 Pandemic.
Miss Saigon: Some people say this is the best restaurant in town for value, freshness and hard to resist Vietnamese pho noodle soup. Right next to CVS in downtown Amherst.
Every college town has a few great bars, and Amherst is no exception.
McMurphy’s Uptown Tavern: Good music and atmosphere, very reasonably priced. The bar is small, which can make it feel cozy on a slower night, or a bit irritating and overcrowded on a busy one.
The Hangar: A nice pub in a spacious location on University Drive. Plenty of room even if your parents and a bunch of friends want to go out to dinner and all be able to fit. Reasonably priced food. Many award-winning beers running the gamut from ales to lagers. A caution: some patrons here may be from Amherst College.
The Harp: This bar was built as a traditional Irish Pub, some say that it’s now a bit more upscale. But you still get a cozy vibe and in most cases, you’ll end up chatting with the fellow or gal next to you at the bar. Music a few nights a week. North Amherst, north of UMass at the end of North Pleasant St. Trivia contests with cash prizes on Tuesday nights.
The Moan and Dove: A sweet little bar south of Amherst center on Rt. 116, the Moan and Dove has the best selection of beer in town, both draught and bottled. Very much the Irish pub atmosphere.
The Great Outdoors
Located in the scenic Berkshire foothills, Amherst and its neighboring towns offer a variety of outdoor activities. There is something for lovers of the outdoors of all ages and levels of ability, at any time of year:
Exploring the UMass, Amherst College, and Hampshire College campuses.
Riding the Norwottuck Rail Trail, a 10-mile bike path running from Belchertown to Northampton (another busy college town), offering views of local scenery, the highlight a rail bridge over the Connecticut River. Soon to be repaved, after someone decided that paving bike paths with recycled broken glass didn’t make much sense.
Swimming at Puffer’s Pond. Or jumping off of the cliff, if you’re up for it. Another classic Amherst locale, this deep and clear pond makes for wonderful swimming on a summer day.
Golf at one of three local golf courses: Hickory Ridge Country Club, Cherry Hill, and Amherst Golf Club. The public course is Cherry Hill, owned by the town in North Amherst.
Visiting the forested mountains and wetlands of the Holyoke Range State Park. The 3,000-acre park offers year-round outdoor activity, from mountain biking to hunting to snowmobiling.
Newest Cultural Attraction
Amherst Cinema Arts Center: Opened in 2006, the Center brings nearly 2000 people per week into its theaters to see the best in independent and foreign cinema. Three screens.
Amherst and Williams play “The Biggest Little Game in America” once every two years at Amherst College and the Mullins Center is host to D-1 basketball and hockey, while UMass football, soccer, and lacrosse programs are always nationally ranked. The UMass marching band is one of the best in the country. It’s one of the things UMies worldwide are proud of.
Galleries and Museums
Amherst is culturally very rich; the town is home to many museums and art galleries.
The Emily Dickinson Museum: Split between two houses in the center of Amherst. One was Emily’s birthplace and home, the other her brother’s. Guided tours of both are offered throughout the day.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art: Located south of Amherst Center on Rt. 116, the museum has three galleries featuring picture book art from around the world. Kids will love the hands-on studio.
Amherst College Museum of Natural History: Renovated and reopened in 2006, the museum has a huge variety of exhibits and a planetarium. For families, it’s a great complement to the Eric Carle Museum.
Amherst History Museum is another museum in town https://amhersthistory.org
National Yiddish Book Center: Not for profit organization whose goal is the restoration of Yiddish books for a new generation of readers.
Mead Museum at Amherst College: Features nearly 20,000 artworks ranging from ancient Assyrian carvings to modern Russian art.
University Gallery at UMass: Brings world-renowned contemporary artists to its location in the basement of the Fine Arts Center
Art Galleries: Amherst has a wealth of art galleries, including Hope and Feathers, and Gallery A3. The galleries are constantly rotating in new exhibits and shows, ensuring a fresh, diverse art scene.
Amherst Spots To Take It All In
Sometimes, the most gratifying activity in Amherst is to simply relax and enjoy. Luckily, most of the best spots in town to do so are free. Some of my favorites:
Front of Antonio’s Pizza: A couple of benches allow for great people watching, and generally enjoying Amherst center.
Amherst Common: Another great spot in Amherst center, the common is quiet and cool, a nice place to relax on a hot day.
Campus Pond, UMass Amherst: My favorite part of the UMass Campus to sit and relax. Benches are scattered around the edge of the pond, far enough apart for a private conversation.
Top of Mt. Tom: Part of the Holyoke Range State Park. Getting to the top certainly isn’t relaxing, but the view is hard to beat. Ýou can walk up a paved road to get there.
A nightspot – Puffer’s Pond: A good time during the day, the pond takes on a whole new look and feel at night. Great place to stare at the stars.
Amherst Walking Tours
The Amherst Chamber of Commerce has a walking tour of Amherst, highlighting more than thirty buildings and features of interest including the homes of the town’s two most famous residents, Emily Dickinson.
Amherst also has 20-odd walking trails named after famous writers. The town continues to be a haven for the literary with a number of indie bookstores and scores of writers and picturebook artists in residence.
Places To Stay
Inn on Boltwood: An elegant old building in the center of town, this hotel was once called the Lord Jeffery Inn. It has been an Amherst fixture since 1926. Now serving dinner and lunch in their renovated tavern.
Allen House Victorian Inn: Bed and breakfast with award-winning antique decor. Located just outside the center of town.
Courtyard Marriott: Actually located in Hadley, about a five-minute drive from the center of Amherst. Not as convenient or prestigious as the two above, but less expensive.
For More Information
Visit the Amherst Chamber of Commerce
The Amherst Center Cultural District has a map of attractions and cultural destinations in Amherst Center. amherstcenterculturaldistrict.org
Kevin McDowell is a graduate of the Univerity of Massachusetts who now lives near Boston.