Time is precious, and so is Northampton.
So we decided to give our travel writer Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio just one day for a getaway and to get away to Northampton, a vibrant hub of the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts.
Northampton is a place you can rock and you can relax. It has a great vibe and a refreshing energy, thanks to the folks who live, work, play and study here.
Situated at the junction of Routes 91 and 9 (and 5 and 10 and 66), Northampton is a hub of academia (Smith, Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts) and creativity and commerce and community.
Northampton has history (to 1654) and a youthful spirit. Dining choices abound. The coffee house scene is serious. Numerous shops and markets, among other attractions, make for a jam-packed visit.
All this makes this city of nearly 30,000 among the most eclectic communities in New England.
“When tourists are here, it’s always fun to head people towards all the restaurants and bar rooms,” Henry Walz, the owner of The Old Bookstore in Northampton, told UpCountry’s Giulia. “Downtown Northampton is turning more and more into an entertainment district, which is making for a fun and healthy part of the town.”
What follows is Giulia’s 24 hours in Northampton. Mind you, it’s impossible to capture this city in one day and in one magazine article. But it’s a starting point meant to inspire your trip. And we’ll be back.
Welcome to UpCountry, Northampton!
— Kevin Moran, executive editor, UpCountry
by Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
1. A 9 a.m. caffeine boost
Get started on the day at the Haymarket Cafe, on Main Street, with a latte or espresso paired with a variety of breakfast choices; eggs benedict, avocado toast and acai bowls are all popular choices. Students fill the small wooden tables, working on their laptops or engaging in lively conversation over coffee and pastries. The pastel-colored walls are lined with vintage photographs and prints of cities, landscapes and people.
2. A 10 a.m. shopping spree
Head over to Thorne’s Marketplace on Main Street to browse everything from women’s fashion at Cedar’s Chest to natural foods at Cornucopia. With 18 different shops, you’ll find a variety of gifts and other possible purchases for friends, family members and even for yourself.
“I really like the inventory we have,” said Audris Wayton, who started working last year at Blue Marble, a shop with a focus on hand-crafted items including pottery, scarves, and jewelry. “I enjoy working in Thorne’s because it feels like a family. We’re all neighbors and we spend every day together, it’s really nice.”
3. A noontime snack
A Northampton staple since 1938, Joe’s Cafe on Market Street remains somewhat of a hidden treasure. The comfy indoor space is inviting for a sit-down lunch. Old-fashioned red booths provide a relaxed dining environment and the walls feature paintings of Argentine gauchos, the cowboys of the pampas (many were immigrants from Italy) — an inspiration from when the first owner, Camella Biandi, traveled to Argentina and came back to open Joe’s Cafe more than 70 years ago.
The restaurant has all the Italian classics — Margarita pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken parm — but it also offers more intricate dishes, such as chicken cacciatore and a shrimp scampi.
“It’s sort of a secret place for people that don’t know Northampton,” said Northampton native Ernie Brill. “Hands down, best pizza in town.”
4. A 1:30 p.m. literary break
Open since 1958, The Old Bookstore, as its name suggests, is the senior bookstore in the Pioneer Valley. Tucked away on the ground floor of a brick building on Masonic Street, it sells all types of used books. Cookbooks, history books and fiction novels are just some of the genres you can find here. It is somewhat of an anachronism, a pleasant one, in the age of mega-chain bookstores and online orders.
“My favorite part about working here is dealing with the clientele,” said Henry Walz, who has owned The Old Bookstore since he took over for his parents in 2000.
“I obviously really like books, but you never know who will come running through the store on any given day or what their particular interests or story may be, and that’s really a great aspect of it.”
Ernie Brill, a retired Northampton school teacher, calls it “the best bookstore with the most reasonable prices.”
It is a place to browse, to spend some contemplative time, to find a literary treasure — and to buy a book or two.
5. A 2:30 p.m. art stroll
To be transported to a different space and time, head down to the Smith College Museum of Art, on Elm Street, where light glistens through the enormous glass windows surrounding an outdoor courtyard.
There are no van Goghs or Vermeers, but you can get a glimpse of lesser known works such as Englishman Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s drypoint prints on paper or Frenchman Pierre Allais’ oil on canvas paintings.
With four floors of galleries, exhibitions rotate every couple of months, with some staying for longer than others. It is generally uncrowded, a break from the hubbub of big-city art museums, and has its own treasures.
The museum is open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Thursdays from from 10 to 8, and Sundays from noon to 4. It’s also open every second Friday from 10 to 8.
6. A 4:30 p.m. produce tour
If you visit Northampton on a Tuesday, stop by the Farmers Market downtown. Open every Tuesday from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., vendors sell a variety of organic fruits and vegetables, local cheeses, popsicles and even wood-fired pizza if you’re looking for a late lunch.
“I really like setting up the stand and the creative part of putting things in certain places, and all the colors and patterns,” said Noel Poindexter, who works at Old Friends Farm based in Amherst.
Poindexter comes to sell produce here each Tuesday, something that the owner of Old Friends Farm has been doing for almost 15 years.
“We get to talk to a lot of the community members, and we have really built relationships with the people here,” she said.
A refreshing break from supermarket shopping, heirloom tomatoes, freshly picked berries, home-grown spinach and other produce are in abundance.
7. A 5:30 p.m. date with nature
Looking to rest and rejuvenate after a day filled with activities? Stroll down to the Smith College Botanical Gardens on College Lane. You can walk along the river and find a nice patch of grass to bask in the evening sun and alongside peonies and roses.
The conservatory hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily with a suggested donation of $2. But the outdoor gardens are open daily and year round.
8. A 6 p.m. pre-dinner drink
A little distance beyond downtown, Building 8 Brewing is a small brewery in Baystate Village on Riverside Drive, and it’s a perfect spot to grab a local craft beer in a congenial setting. Opened in 2015, the brewpub began with just one holding tank and two fermenters, but has since expanded to three tanks and six fermenters.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., you can sit at the bar and order any beer on the menu. With greater production has come a push toward a broader array of beers.
“We’re a small brewery, but we have about 40 customers who come in here regularly who are right from this neighborhood,” said Kevin Formhals, who works at Building 8 Brewing. “We distribute within a 30-mile radius, and are focusing on expanding right now beyond just IPAs.”
But don’t be discouraged, pale ales are the traditional fare here.
9. A 7 p.m. taste of the Atlantic
At Eastside Grill, on Strong Avenue, the dinner choices are extensive, offering a seafood-centered menu. Appetizers range from fried calamari to pan-seared tuna, and entrées feature dishes like salmon, swordfish and shrimp. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, the butternut squash ravioli or the risotto are often-ordered choices. For drinks, the watermelon mojito is a special treat, and the wine and beer list is lengthy.
10. A 9:30 p.m. post-dinner cocktail
At Tunnel Bar, on Pleasant Street, you can enjoy a historical experience while sipping your favorite cocktail.
With the original red brick foundation still intact from the 1896 train station that once occupied this space, the tunnel used to be the pathway passengers shuffled back and forth to board Northampton trains.
Now transformed into a luxurious and cozy bar, the somewhat mysterious-feeling space attracts locals and tourists alike. It has even made Buzzfeed’s list of “19 Bars You Should Drink at Before You Die.”
It has a feeling of stepping back in time, but with modern-day, upscale bar service. The drinks are creative. Choices such as the Bourbon or Cognac Tunnel Side Car and the Sweet Vermouth Tunnel Manhattan play off the bar’s historic pedigree.
Not part of the bar scene? Take in a show at one of the many performing arts venues in town, such as the Iron Horse Music Hall, The Academy of Music Theatre or the Calvin Theatre.
11. A midnight snooze
Hotel Northampton offers a quiet and quaint respite following a drawn-out day ambling about the town. Its lobby is completely comfortable in the Colonial Revival style, and its restaurants — The Wiggins Tavern and Coolidge Park Cafe — serve up breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night drinks and fare.
Situated on King Street, just off Main Street, in downtown, the hotel is convenient to all of downtown’s features, like theaters, shopping, dining, etc.
12. An 8 a.m. bagel and smoothie
After a long day out in Northampton, it may be time to recharge and make the most out of the morning.
At The Roost, on Market Street, you can order smoothies, bagels, sandwiches and all sorts of coffees in a rustic, quiet atmosphere. Twinkling Christmas lights are strung across the walls and light-bulbs in old glass bottles dangle from the ceiling. It is open until 11 p.m. on weekends, when you can order beer and wine if you fancy a drink with casual conversation and a light meal.
13. A 9 a.m. visit with silver and gold
Before leaving Northampton, Silverscape Designs is a must-go shop if you’re a jewelry fan. Located right downtown on Main and King streets, the shop, in a former bank building, is a jewel itself: The ceiling features a Tiffany glass atrium, and the restored lights are the same ones that once provided illumination for bank clients in a structure that dates from the early 1900s.
“We have really tried to keep the building in its historical aspect,” said Jane A. Merrill, general manager of Silverscape Designs. “People from all over the world come here, and it’s really fun — there’s a big influx of people once school starts in August and September.”
Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio spent the summer of 2018 working as an intern of The Berkshire Eagle’s features department. A 2018 graduate of Williams College, Giulia is currently a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School.