A haven for progressive thought and a destination for the LGBTQ+ community, Northampton is often described as the most liberal city in the United States.
A large proportion of the city’s residents identify as gay or lesbian, and Northampton officially boasts the highest number of lesbian couples per capita of any city in the country.
Noho Pride hits town in May, and is just one of many events on Northampton’s effervescent Main Street, full of sustainable local businesses.
In the west, the downtown area merges with the campus of Smith College, contributing to Northampton’s place on the Connecticut River Valley’s Knowledge Corridor, and home to a sensational art museum and exquisite botanical garden.
1. Smith College
A big contributor to Northampton’s progressive energy is this highly prestigious private liberal arts college, which opened in 1875.
Smith College has an astonishing list of alumni that includes several Pulitzer Prize winners, among them the poet Sylvia Path.
We’ll go into more detail on the main attractions here a little later, but it’s also worth just taking your time to appreciate the campus for its august architecture and greenery, with more than 1,200 varieties of trees and shrubs forming a campus-wide arboretum.
You might visit to do some research at one of the libraries, or come for a performance at the proscenium Theatre 14. Smith College was the first women’s college to join the NCAA, and the Pioneers have programs for 10 different sports.
2. Smith College Botanic Garden
The Smith College campus is all the prettier for a botanical garden that was first drawn up in the 1880s. Frederick Law Olmsted, famed for designing Central Park, was involved in the early planning.
Today the garden has more than 6,600 kinds of plants, a third of which grow in a magnificent set of greenhouses, dating from 1895.
In terms of botany and horticulture, there’s something new to see around the campus in every season of the year: In winter the tropical greenhouse displays contrast with the wintry outdoors; there’s a splendid bulb show at Capen Garden in spring, followed by a rose arbor.
From around this time into early summer the Rock Garden is at its best, and then from October there’s a gorgeous fall palette and annual chrysanthemum show.
3. Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA)
Established in 1920, the art museum at Smith College has a collection of more than 25,000 works gathered since the 1870s.
One area of specialty is European art, with works by names as important as Monet, Degas, Seurat, Courbet, Cézanne and Camille-Corot.
The SCMA also has rich inventories of Islamic art, African art, Asian art, decorative arts, sculpture, antiquities and works on paper.
The museum is part of a complex given a $35 million renovation in the early 2000s, also housing the college’s art department and art library. Recent noteworthy solo exhibitions have featured the likes of Clarissa Tossin, Isaac Julien, Kyung Woo Han and Maya Lin.
4. Downtown Northampton
Condensed onto a pretty short-ish stretch of Main Street, the center of Northampton is the downtown of many people’s dreams.
You’ve got fine old commercial blocks, a month’s worth of restaurants, a pulsating live music scene, art galleries, theaters, outdoor markets, scores of inviting shops, and quirky new events by the week.
We’ll cover some of the most exciting spots later in this list, but bookworms can disappear down a rabbithole at the warren-like Raven Used Books, and if you’re looking for a classy place to stay, the 106-room Hotel Northampton is right here in a Georgian Revival building from 1927.
There’s never a bad time to come, but Main Street is abuzz for Noho Pride on the first Saturday in May.
5. Frank Newhall Look Memorial Park
Much more than a simple park, Look Park is a self-contained family day out, especially in the warmer months.
There’s a small admission fee for vehicles, after which you’ll have access to a roster of attractions. A favorite is the Look Park Steamer, a miniature train chugging through the park on a one-mile loop.
There’s a splash pad resembling a small water park, well-kept playgrounds, paddle boats, 18 holes of mini golf, and the Christenson Wildlife Center, keeping pygmy goats, fallow deer, peacocks, chickens, barred owls and more.
The park has an array of sports facilities, from tennis courts to softball fields, while the Pines Theater is a magical venue for outdoor performances in summer.
6. Norwottuck Rail Trail
It’s a breeze to get around Northampton and neighboring communities on both banks of the Connecticut River without a car.
A local highway for cyclists is the 11-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail, which is on the rail bed of the former Boston & Maine Railroad, and initially opened as the Central Massachusetts Railroad in 1887.
Crossing the river on a bridge built that year, the trail shines for its scenery, passing through wetlands in Amherst and Belchertown, and skirting the north side of the Holyoke Range.
In Northampton the path connects with the six-mile Manhan Rail Trail, which bends past the south side of the Smith College campus, and the 5.4-mile Northampton Bikeway, which cuts west and serves Look Memorial Park..
7. Thornes Marketplace
One of downtown Northampton’s many success stories has seen a former department store become a haven for local merchants.
There are more than 30 businesses in this 19th-century commercial building, some of which have a presence in Northampton for more than 50 years.
Shops at Thornes Marketplace run the gamut from women’s footwear to natural body care products, books, handmade gift cards, men’s apparel, sustainable children’s toys and ethically sourced handicrafts.
In addition you’ve got a yoga studio, a gym, a natural foods restaurant, a cafe and an ice cream stand.
8. Academy of Music Theatre
In 1892, a year after opening, the Academy of Music Theatre became the first municipally owned theater in the country when it was deeded to the city by the local philanthropist, Edward H. R. Lyman.
A host of famous names appeared here in the first few decades, including Sarah Bernhardt, Harry Houdini, Mae West and Boris Karloff. By the 1930s the Academy had been converted for movies, and was a first-run cinema up to the 1980s with the arrival of multiplexes.
Today this 1,000-seat is a key performing arts stage for the Pioneer Valley, with a number of important resident companies and partners, like the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra, Pioneer Valley Ballet, Valley Light Opera, and the community-based theater company, Eggtooth Productions.
9. Farmers’ Markets
The Pioneer Valley has long had a high reputation for its agriculture, particularly for Connecticut shade tobacco industry, which has now receded, and Hadley asparagus, still one of the most celebrated crops in the region.
This heritage, combined with Northampton’s status as a progressive town with a young population, makes the city a mecca for farmers’ markets, selling super-fresh seasonal produce, jams, maple syrup, cheeses, artisanal breads, honey and tons more.
Spring through fall there’s a main Tuesday Market (plaza by Thornes Marketplace), Wednesday Market (Florence Civic Center), and a Saturday market (Gothic Street).
In the winter, Grow Food Northampton, the organization behind the Tuesday Market, runs a winter market, also on Tuesdays, at the Northampton Senior Center.
10. Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum
The 30th president Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) moved to Northampton to become a lawyer after graduating from nearby Amherst College, and returned here after his term.
The Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum has the quality of being a library within a library, as it is located at the public Forbes Library, near the Smith College campus.
This elegant Romanesque Revival building is from 1893, and the presidential library was established here in the early 1920s when Coolidge began donating memorabilia and documents.
One of the more curious pieces is an electric exercise horse that was installed at the White House to tackle Coolidge’s weight gain.
11. Tunnel Bar
If you want a nightspot with a bit of character, then how about a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge in a 19th-century pedestrian tunnel?
This is the award-winning Tunnel Bar, and the passageway in question was built in 1897 for the passengers boarding trains at Union Station.
All of the original stones and brickwork are still here, and the muted lighting and comfy leather chairs create an inimitable environment for a tête-à-tête over a vintage cocktail, delicately crafted martini, fine wine or locally sourced craft beer.
12. Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
More than one fifth of Northampton’s land is protected open space, and the largest individual property is the 850+ acre Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area in the north of the city.
This is managed by the local nonprofit, Broad Brook Coalition (BBC), protecting a tapestry of damp habitats around the lake and along the banks of Broad Brook, and providing a beautiful space for passive recreation.
You can explore the wetlands via a boardwalk, as well as a stand of swamp forest, hilly woods, boggy meadows and more, on a system of interconnected marked trails.
13. R. Michelson Galleries
The former Northampton National Bank building, with its lofty ceilings, is the venue for the largest commercial art gallery in western Massachusetts, known for its connection to the Northampton-based sculptor Leonard Baskin (1922-2000).
Work originally shown here has made it to some of the country’s most prestigious museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Families should keep R. Michelson Galleries on the agenda, as it places picture book illustration in the same league as fine art. You can often see work by the likes of Dr. Seuss, R. W. Alley (known for Paddington) and Marc Brown who is famous for Arthur Read.
14. Historic Northampton
For the backstory on Northampton, the local historical society is based at a campus on Bridge Street, on the northeastern edge of downtown.
There are three historic houses here, making up an historic district that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
These are the Parsons House (c.1719), the Shepherd House (1795), and the large Federal-style Damon House, from 1813.
The latter is the main museum space, with smartly presented exhibits on various historical threads (the evolution of Main Street, when we made this list).
Historic Northampton is a dynamic organization, with a calendar of lectures, discussions, readings, live performances, walking tours, and community events like the Neighbors DoozyDo Parade in September.
15. Three County Fair
Marking the traditional end of summer here on Labor Day weekend is the Three County Fair, first held as long ago as 1818, making it the longest consecutive running agricultural fair in the United States.
The fairgrounds are just off Bridge St, less than five minutes from downtown, and livestock exhibits and competitions remain a central part of the event.
These go hand-in-hand with live entertainment, high-octane vehicle shows, amusement rides and games, barnyard animals, and everyone’s favorite fair food.
For the last 30 or so years, the fairgrounds have also hosted the Paradise City Arts Festival, a regional showcase for fine and functional art, taking place in May and October each year.