For so many New Englanders, the phrase “a weekend in Amherst” can send shivers down the spine. Stressful fall drop-offs with a mattress barely clinging to a minivan roof and last minute meal plan changes aren’t exactly the recipe for a fun getaway, and don’t mention sweltering commencement marathons in May. But Amherst has so much more to offer than parent’s weekends and campus tours; it’s a vibrant destination all its own.
“As someone who’d never been to New England before, I always heard about how charming it was,” says Amanda Stenroos, innkeeper at Black Walnut Inn and an Ohio native, “When you get here you realize how great and down to earth people are. Now when I think of New England charm, Amherst comes to mind.”
Amherst is pure New England, from its quaint and historical center to vibrantly colored homes, and its fiercely independent spirit (one of its nicknames is “The People’s Republic of Amherst”). The Pioneer Valley town is starting to gain traction as a bonafide tourist destination. Amherst’s three universities provide intellectual, artistic, and cultural possibilities that rival those of much larger cities while maintaining a picturesque, small town vibe. Dining and lodging options (beyond dorm room floors) abound, and there are plenty of things to do for people of all ages. Fall is the busiest season, as leaf enthusiasts converge upon the region, but Amherst has plenty to offer year-round.
For a cozy place to stay, the Black Walnut Inn (1184 North Pleasant Street, 413-549-5649, www.blackwalnutinn.com, rooms starting at $146) is hard to beat. This historic property dates back to the 1740s, and each of the 10 unique rooms has a rustic quality that’s hard to replicate. Exposed beams in the rooms and plenty of antiques in the common areas add to this B&B’s charm, and the innkeepers can be relied on for great breakfasts. According to Stenroos, the inn is regularly occupied by guests of the local colleges, people in Amherst for weddings, and families looking for a fun weekend away.
As for entertainment, Amherst’s eclectic museums are among its top draws. For example, the Beneski Museum of Natural History (first floor of the Beneski Building, 11 Barrett Hill Drive, 413-542-2165, www.amherst.edu/museums/naturalhistory) exhibits a wide range of fossils, minerals, and models showcasing the earth’s history dating back millions of years. This Amherst College museum includes a giant Columbian Mammoth skeleton, a cast of a T-Rex skull, and an extensive collection of fossilized dinosaur footprints. The museum displays more than 1,700 pieces on its three floors, and there are plenty of student docents to help explain the exhibits. Perhaps the best part of this hidden gem is the cost — or lack thereof. It’s free.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (125 West Bay Road, 413-559-6300, www.carlemuseum.org) entertains young art enthusiasts. The only full-sized picture book museum in America, this institution was founded by Eric Carle, an illustrator and writer most famous for “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and his late wife, Barbara. According to marketing manager Sandy Soderberg, the museum welcomes more than 50,000 visitors each year, and they enjoy experiences such as working on their own picture book art in the museum’s studio, attending author talks, and reading in the extensive picture book library. The museum’s focal points are the galleries displaying original works from famous picture books and art inspired by the books. A current exhibit highlights Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight’s “Eloise” series.
The Yiddish Book Center (1021 West Street, 413-256-4900, www.yiddishbookcenter.org) offers up a unique cultural experience in town. The center has worked to preserve more than 1,000,000 books in Yiddish, an Eastern European Jewish language that has been declining since the Holocaust in the 1940s. There are also permanent and traveling exhibits on the language. Despite the dwindling number of speakers, Yiddish has left its mark in America, delivering commonly used words like “shmooze” and “chutzpah.” The Emily Dickinson Museum (280 Main Street, 413-542-8161, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org) sits in the legendary poet’s home and offers guided tours in addition to exhibits on Dickinson’s life.
For grownups, Amherst Farm Winery (529 Belchertown Road, 413-253-1400, www.amherstfarmwinery.com) offers wine tastings in a converted 1800’s dairy barn. Guests can indulge in some of the winery’s quirkier offerings like Weathervane White and Red Rooster, and live music is occasionally offered as well.
After checking out fossils and wine, some food will definitely come in handy, and Judie’s Restaurant (51 N. Pleasant St., 413-253-3491, www.judiesrestaurant.com) is one of the best options downtown. Home to juicy burgers and incredible fries, Judie’s is famous for its giant popovers, which come plain but also serve as vessels for dishes like gumbo and shrimp scampi. The skylit dining room provides a stellar view of downtown Amherst, with its multitude of shops, bakeries, and interesting people.
Cushman Market and Cafe (491 Pine St, 413-549-0100, cushmanmarket.com) sits off the main drag but it’s a favorite of students and locals, and for good reason. This coffee house serves breakfast and lunch and offers live music at a Sunday Jazz Brunch, and a flowery outdoor patio during the warmer months.
All of these spots, and the connection many New Englander’s share to town via its students, are contributing to a rise in popularity for Amherst as its own destination. “There’s farm to table food, bike trails, attractions, and it’s so beautiful,” says Soderberg, from the Eric Carle Museum. “People are finally discovering there’s something between Boston and the Berkshires.”
Jon Mael can be reached at email@example.com