In the Connecticut River Valley, and skirted in the south by the long ridge of the Holyoke Range, Amherst is a town known for institutions of higher education, famous poets and progressive thought.
To call Amherst a college town would sell it short. Within minutes there’s the innovative and iconoclastic Hampshire College, the gigantic UMAss Amherst campus, and finally the esteemed and picture-perfect Amherst College, which mingles with the city’s downtown area.
Robert Frost taught at Amherst College and retired in the town, while Emily Dickinson spent almost her whole life in the Dickinson Homestead, now a museum managed by Amherst College.
1. Emily Dickinson Museum
The birthplace and lifelong home of the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is just east of Amherst Center on Main St.
After childhood and a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson rarely left this building, seldom greeted guests and later in life hardly left her bedroom.
So visiting the Federal-style Dickinson Homestead (1813) you’ll get a privileged and moving insight into a unique mind and talent that was only truly recognized when her cache of poems was discovered after her death.
The museum also comprises The Evergreens next door, home to Dickinson’s brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their three children.
The collection comprises more than 8,000 family artifacts, from furniture to portraits, dinnerware and textiles. The museum also curates all kinds of events throughout the year, including the Tell It Slant Poetry Festival in September.
2. Amherst College
The third-oldest institution of higher education in the state blends seamlessly with downtown Amherst.
Amherst College is compact, enrolling fewer than 2,000 undergraduates each year, and prestigious, as one of the highest ranking liberal arts schools in the world.
Among the alumni are six Nobel Prize laureates and a President of the United States in Calvin Coolidge.
You’re free to wander the campus on an informal tour, appreciating 19th and early 20th-century architecture by the McKim, Mead & White firm, and mansion-like fraternity houses from the early 1900s by Putnam & Cox.
A remarkable building is The Octagon (1848), ordered by college president Edward Hitchcock, and previously containing the natural history collections and observatory.
In 1870 the Central Park-designer Frederick Law Olmsted had input on the campus layout, recommending today’s quadrangle. The modern Beneski Museum of Natural History and Mead Art Museum on the campus both demand a visit.
3. Hampshire College
Established in 1970 as an experiment in higher education, Hampshire College has a campus with a beautiful setting in the south of Amherst.
Here the peaks of the Holyoke Range are on the horizon to the south. Hampshire College continues to do things its own way, with an unorthodox curriculum, self-directed academic concentrations, use of narrative evaluations instead of grades, and has always been known for its progressive politics.
A few famous alumni are Ken Burns, Barry Sonnenfeld, Lupita Nyong’o, comedian Eugene Mirman and author Jon Krakauer.
There’s profuse green space on the campus, as well as a food cooperative and worthwhile attractions like the Yiddish Book Center and Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
4. Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (The Carle)
With his wife Barbara (1938-2015), the treasured children’s author and illustrator, Eric Carle (1929-2021) founded this unique museum on the Hampshire College campus in 2002.
Eric Carle published more than 70 books, and is best known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), which has sold more than 50 million copies and been translated into 66 languages.
There are three galleries at the museum, staging six exhibitions a year for national and international picture book artists, with shows devoted exclusively to Carle’s body of work at the West Gallery.
This attraction is designed with younger visitors in mind, while celebrating the power, beauty and fun of picture book art.
The museum hosts a wealth of programs and has a library, a studio where children can create their own masterpieces, a garden/meadow in memory of Barbara Carle, and an excellent gift shop.
5. UMass Amherst
At almost 1,450 acres, the largest campus in the University of Massachusetts system, and the largest campus of any university in the state is less than a mile north of Amherst Center.
You can take a tour or simply look around the campus on your own steam. The prevailing style here is Modernist, after a flurry of construction in the 1960s and 70s.
One landmark from this time is the W. E. B. Du Bois Library (1974), which at 286.5 feet is the tallest university library and second-tallest library of any kind in the world.
For sports, the UMass Minutemen and Minutewomen compete in Division I of the NCAA, and have a strong reputation for ice hockey and lacrosse.
The university’s Brutalist Fine Arts Center (1975) has pride of place by Campus Pond, and is designed as a monumental gateway to the campus, housing a 2,000 seat concert hall, studios, galleries and the University Museum of Contemporary Art.
6. Amherst Center
Downtown Amherst is a destination in its own right, loaded with cultural venues, sights, colorful events, independent shopping and dining.
Part of that appeal comes from the adjoining Amherst College campus with its stately architecture and world-class museums. Just along Amherst Town Common there’s a global assortment of eateries, for everything from falafel to pho.
The Amherst Cinema has been an entertainment pillar for nigh on a century, while a much newer arrival is The Drake performing arts space, which opened in 2022.
For a moment of reflection you could also wander over to the historic West Cemetery (1730) where you’ll find the grave of Emily Dickinson, and the Jones Library (1919) holds vast collections of manuscripts and correspondence for both Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Back on the common there’s a farmers’ market on Saturdays, and free weekly outdoor concerts on Fridays in summer.
7. Yiddish Book Center
Also not to be missed on the Hampshire College campus is a cultural center dedicated to preserving Yiddish-language books and media.
When it was founded in 1980 by the young graduate student Aaron Lansky, this was the first Yiddish museum in the world, and was set up to preserve and recover Yiddish books that were being discarded by American Jewish people who couldn’t read the Yiddish language of their forebears.
There are now more than a million books in the collection. The current 49,000-square-foot complex opened in 1997 and hosts enthralling permanent and visiting exhibits.
Unquiet Pages for instance is a series of 19 panels on the library’s bookshelves, shining a light on Yiddish novels, poetry, plays, reportage and memoirs.
The Lee & Alfred Hutt Discovery Gallery is devoted to traditional Eastern European Jewish culture, while there’s a children’s corner with a reading area and a pretend restaurant where kids can learn Yiddish names for typical Jewish foods.
8. Beneski Museum of Natural History
The modern Beneski Earth Sciences Building on the Amherst College campus houses three stories of exhibits, with more than 1,700 specimens on show.
These extensive collections go back to the college’s earliest days in the 1820s, and many were assembled by the geologist and third college president, Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864).
This goes for the incredible assortment of dinosaur tracks, known as the Hitchcock Ichnological Cabinet, and considered the largest collection of its kind in the world.
You can also get stuck into rich displays on other aspects of vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, anthropology, minerals and other geological specimens.
Some of the iconic exhibits are the Ice Age mastodon and mammoth skeletons on the first floor, and the world’s best preserved Dryosaurus specimen in the basement.
9. Mead Art Museum
The third must-visit Amherst College museum is the repository for the college’s distinguished art collection and is named for the architect William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928) who graduated in the class of 1867.
Mead’s wife Olga Kilyeni Mead left his entire estate to the college, which went towards the museum’s building, designed by James Kellum Smith and opened in 1949.
Numbering 19,000 pieces, the college’s collection touches on Ancient Assyrian carvings, Japanese prints, West African carvings, American and European fine art (Claude Monet, Frans Snyders), Mexican ceramics, Russian art, Tibetan scroll paintings and an entire English paneled room from the 1600s.
The Mead Art Museum is free to the public and displays selections from that inventory, as well as modern and contemporary art shows, with recent exhibitions featuring the work of Liliana Porter, Sonya Clarke and Michael Mazur.
10. Mount Holyoke Range State Park
There’s striking mountain scenery in the south of Amherst courtesy of the Holyoke Range, a 9.5-mile traprock ridge running east to west.
Crossed by the 114-mile Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, the range is loved for its challenging hikes and rewarding walkers with distant views from its ledges.
The Mount Holyoke Range State Park contains seven miles of the ridge line, but also has more than 30 miles of trails through woods and wetlands.
The park is known as one of the best spots in the area for mountain biking, whether you want to test yourself on those steep slopes or meander through the forest. There’s a visitor center along Route 116, serving as a handy pitstop before an eastward hike across the ridge.
11. Amherst Farmers’ Market
Saturday mornings, April through November, there’s an award-winning farmers’ market on the Amherst Common. This has been a local tradition for more than half a century now, and brings in producers, growers and makers from across the Pioneer Valley.
The market is a big event, with as many as 50 vendors each week for local and seasonal produce, honey, maple syrup, eggs, jams, cheeses, cut flowers, wines, pasture-raised meats, organic nuts, breads, pastries and tons more.
There’s always an assortment of vendors for handcrafted items, as well as a profusion of prepared food and beverages, from breakfast wraps to crème brûlée and kombucha.
12. The Norwottuck Rail Trail
A stretch of this 11-mile bicycle/pedestrian trail passes through Amherst on its route from Northampton to Belchertown.
The Norwottuck Rail Trail is on the rail bed of the Central Massachusetts Railroad, which opened in the 1880s and closed to passengers in 1932 and freight in the 1970s.
The trail passes east to west through Amherst bending northwards to the southern edge of the Amherst College campus, before turning southeast. There’s a parking lot for the trail just on the town line in South Amherst along Station Rd.
Despite crossing some hilly terrain, especially in the southeast of Amherst, the Norwottuck Rail Trail is a level ride or walk, and from Belchertown now connects to the Mass Central Rail Trail, which will eventually be more than 100 miles long.
13. Amherst Cinema Arts Center
This non-profit, four-screen movie house in Amherst Center dates back to 1926 and was converted from an old stable.
In the late 20th century this had become a second-run theater, before closing in 2000 and reopening in 2006 as a three-screen theater for mainstream and independent film.
The fourth screen was added in 2012, and this is a great place to go for classic movies, Hollywood releases, art house hits, documentaries, shorts, and dozens of international and independent features.
The popcorn is excellent, and you can also order beer, wine and cider for these small, comfortable auditoriums, all up-to-date with the latest sound and projection technology.
14. Puffers Pond
The largest body of open water in Amherst is in the north of Amherst on the Mill River corridor, and is a favored recreation area for swimming, picnicking, walking, birding, fishing and paddlesports.
This is a remnant of Amherst’s industrial heritage, and was the site of mills as early as the 1720s, although activity ceased by the 1940s with only foundations visible today.
There’s a beach in summer, with shallow waters regularly tested for quality. Not far west of the swimming area is the pond’s dam, with a rather pretty mid-19th century waterfall/spillway that can be viewed from the bridge on Mill St.
15. Atkins Farms Country Market
At the foot of Holyoake Range by Hampshire College is a giant country market packed with local items, combined with a specialty food store.
The roots of this business go back to 1887, when George H. Atkins moved to the area and planted an orchard.
The retail side of things grew quickly through the 1960s and 1970s, and the enormous store that welcomes you today was doubled in the 1990s and then expanded again in the early 2000s.
The apples and apple products sold at Atkins Farms Country Market come from trees grown a stone’s throw away at Belchertown and another site off Bay Rd.
People come from miles around for the baked goods, especially the apple cider donuts, and there’s a first-class salad bar and a deli counter known for its Rueben and meatloaf sandwiches.