When most people think of visiting Massachusetts, they think of Boston, but the state is filled with other places worthy of a visit. Northampton, in the heart of the Pioneer Valley, attracts thousands of college students to the area schools, but the small city is also ideal for a family getaway. Great food, hiking, skiing and shopping are all at hand, and fun free things to do abound.
Northampton, Massachusetts is kind of the hippie area of the Pioneer Valley, a hotbed of vegetarian restaurants and counterculture similar to my Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Though both have more chain stores each year (Park Slope has three Starbucks stores alone and is getting there more; Northampton has one) they each also support local bookstores and mom and pop cafes.
Northampton is also the epicenter of the five college consortium: U Mass, Amherst, the flagship of the Massachusetts state schools, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke and Smith College, located right on Main Street. This means the streets are filled with young, earnest people, even in summer, and fun free things to do are popular with the underfunded college set.
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Pick a College – We Chose Smith
Smith College has a wealth of free things to do. For outdoors-y types, a day spent exploring the campus is particularly rewarding. The spectacular campus was designed as a living museum by the landscape architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed both Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in, you guessed it, Park Slope, Brooklyn.
In winter, we have brought snowshoes to the wooded trails around campus; in summer, you can hike the relatively flat trails and gain relief from the sun. If it’s not too sunny or hot, walk around the Botanic Gardens and arboretum that are integrated into the 147 acre campus. There are specialty gardens with thousands of labeled plants, and the indoor Lyman Conservatory, which has plants from orchids to carnivorous. There is also a rose garden, herb garden and wildflower garden.
The Smith College Museum of Art is free for college students, anyone under age 18, employees of the five college consortium and friends, and for all visitors on the second Friday of the month, from 4–8 p.m., with family friendly activities from 4-6 p.m. The permanent collection features art from around the world, in different media, form antiquity to the present.
Climb a Mountain: Mount Holyoke
The name “Pioneer Valley” lets you know that where there are dips, there are peaks nearby. For more intense hiking, we drove the short distance to the neighboring town of Mount Holyoke, where there are several trail heads where you can park free and hike the almost 1,000 foot summit. If you have small children, or are unable to hike for a couple of hours, you can drive almost to the summit and still enjoy the views.
When you get to the top, you can relax in rocking chairs on the porch of the old Summit Hotel (now closed) and picnic at table scattered around. But make sure you bring enough water; when we hiked, the promised water (water and bathrooms are supposed to be available Memorial Day to Labor Day) was not working. But there were telescopes, where we could get a closer lookout at the surrounding mountains, valleys and the Connecticut River.
Also in Holyoke, you can hike to the top of Mount Tom. And in the winter, bring your snowshoes. Both mountains are great for winter activities.
McCray’s Farm, South Hadley
This family friendly destination has a free petting zoo with farm animals. While you are there, check out the homemade ice cream, made from the milk of the farm’s cows. In the fall, there are hayrides and pick your own pumpkins.
Yiddish Book Center
This museum, on the Hampshire College campus, is technically not free – would a donation kill you? But you can give next to nothing, and children and students are always free. The building itself is cool, representing a shtetl, or Jewish town of Eastern Europe. There are Yiddish games, and an interactive gallery about Jewish cultural identity. You can also learn about Yiddish newspapers and of course, Yiddish literature.
The museum is closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.
We drove a 2016 Buick Regal to explore the the region. It was the perfect car to have in both Brooklyn and Northampton. The all-wheel drive gave me confidence on the dirt roads, but the sleek looks were ideal for the city. And the gas mileage – 27 mpg on the highway, where we did the bulk of our driving – melded with the environmental consciousness of Brooklyn-ites and Northampton denizens.