“College town” brings to mind ivy-covered halls, students hunched over laptops surrounded by stacks of books, and perhaps the sound of bells tolling gently in the distance. When you locate that idyllic town in New England, you can add autumn’s riotously colored hills to the picture.
The Amherst-Northampton area of Massachusetts offers visitors all that and much more. You can plan a great leafing-peeping weekend getaway to this hidden gem of central-west Massachusetts, where you will find something for everyone in your family to enjoy.
The area is home to five of the nation’s top schools—Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke Colleges, as well as the flagship campus of the University of Massachusetts. It’s possible to spend the entirety of your trip just strolling their delightful grounds and enjoying architecture that covers nearly every period in American history. But if you did only that, you would miss some first rate art, history, and natural history museums that dot the campuses. Most are free of charge or, in a few instances, accessible for a very modest fee. Insider tip: check out the rest rooms at Smith College Museum of Art.
If your kids enjoyed The Very Hungry Caterpillar, then a pilgrimage to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in South Amherst is a must. In addition to the originals of Carle’s art an illustrations, there are exhibitions of guest artists and a child-sized art studio with all of the materials your kid will need to create a souvenir masterpiece. After that, cross the street to Atkins Farms country market for a quick bite or ice cream. If you visit on a fall weekend, you can also take a hayride or pick apples in Atkins’ orchards. Make sure to take home some of Atkins famous—and delicious—cider and cider donuts, and prepare to become addicted.
If you are into hiking, you have options. Just south of Atkins on Route 116 is the Notch State Park, where you can enjoy an easy walk on wooded paths. The Notch is pet-friendly. For a more strenuous hike, consider Mount Holyoke, located in nearby South Hadley. The views from the top of Mount Holyoke are spectacular, and you can see the Connecticut River, the mill town of Holyoke, and, on a good day, all the way to the Berkshires. A bike path runs throughout Amherst and continues to Northampton, so if two wheels with pedal power is your preferred form of transportation, you can roam for miles without the worry of vehicular traffic.
By now you must be hungry. Not to worry. One of the benefits of visiting a college town is that you have a wealth of cuisines—and price points—to choose from. In Amherst you can indulge in African fare or French bistro cooking, sample of flight at a wine bar, or snack on a knock-off cronut. On the stretch of Route 9 that connects Amherst to Northampton, you’ll find authentic Mexican, Korean, and Vietnamese meals. They won’t be served in elegant surroundings, but they’ll be the delicious real deal. If your taste buds hold out till you reach Northampton, you can choose from a brew pub, tapas, natural foods, or world fusion cuisine. No matter which town you stop to linger, you will find a pizza of your liking within a block.
Amherst-Northampton is a jumping off point for an extended visit to Western Massachusetts. From here, Historic Deerfield, Sugarloaf State Park, Mass MOCA and the Clark Museum, and the Berkshires beckon.