WHY GO: Amherst MA and its environs hums with writers, poets, illustrators, and one astounding book sanctuary. The “Belle of Amherst,” poet Emily Dickinson, is most associated with this small college town in Western Mass. (“The Other Side of Massachusetts”). But she’s not the only author or illustrator who once lived, or currently lives here.
The Pioneer Valley is certifiably Kid-Lit Center. As such, it was home to Patricia MacLachlin (Sara, Plain and Tall) until her death in 2022, and is currently home to Eric Carle (the man who made Hungry Caterpillars and Brown Bears alluring to tots the world over), Mo Willems (Pigeons, doodles!), and Jane Yolen (The Devil’s Arithmetic and “How Do Dinosaurs”….do anything).
Plus, it’s also where you’ll find over a million rescued Yiddish books in a makeshift shtetl.
Even if you’ve never set foot on the campuses of Amherst College, Hampshire College, or University of Massachusetts before, come visit for the authors, the books, and the lively conversations they spark. And of course visit for the shear beauty of hiking the Connecticut River Valley.
Expand your getaway to nearby Historic Deerfield MA: A throwback to the ’70s. The 1670’s, that is, complete with a cozy and uber romantic 1880’s inn.
Amherst is one of the Best Romantic Getaways in Massachusetts.
Things to Do in Amherst MA
Emily Dickinson is one of the world’s best-known female poets. Yet, when she died at age 55 in 1886, she was virtually unpublished.
By all accounts, Dickinson engaged in an active social life as a young woman. However, she became increasingly reclusive through the years. Her poetry was short, lyrical, and intensely personal. (“Hope is the thing with feathers” ).
After Dickinson’s death, her beloved sister and her maid each discovered hundreds of handwritten verses in Emily’s dresser drawers and trunks.
Dickinson lived most of her life (and spent most of her time) within the walls and gardens of this home in Amherst. Though by age 30 she expressed, “I do not cross my Father’s grounds to go to any house or town,” she would make short appearances in the parlor during Amherst’s “social event of the year,” – the Amherst College Commencement Teas, hosted by her father, Edward, a founder of the school.
Lately, Emily Dickinson has been rediscovered by new generations, thanks to Apple TV’s glossy rock n’ roll treatment of the poet in its “Dickinson” series (2019-2021). An unexpected hit, the show caused a resurgence of visitors to Dickinson’s Amherst home, the Homestead. The Evergreens, built next door for her brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan, is also open for tours.
Located near the campus of Hampshire College, this homage to the man who wrote and illustrated A Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear Brown Bear is as fresh and vibrant as his books.
The contemporary stone and glass structure encompasses a vast sunlit hall lined with several vibrant oil paintings, three galleries (one always devoted to Carle’s work, the other two displaying a rotating roster of illustrious children’s book illustrators), a comfy reading library with every Picture Book you can think of, a well-stocked gift/bookshop, and a popular Art Studio.
Though kids enjoy the galleries, the real draw for them is the fantastical Art Studio – free with admission. There, they can draw, cut, and assemble their own pictures, and work on art projects, with help from art educators.
SEE: Yiddish Book Center
Travel writing is my schtick. I am a Getaway Maven after all. So, with what some would call chutzpa, I schlepped on up to Amherst MA to schmooze with the mensches at the Yiddish Book Center.
Even if you are not Jewish, you’ll possibly know some of the italicized words in this section, proving that Yiddish is far from a dead language.
But in 1980, when Hampshire College grad, Aaron Lansky, was pursuing his Masters in Yiddish Literature at McGill University, he was hard pressed to find any books in that language.
This led to a request for books (posted on index cards) in the New York coffee shops that Lansky knew to be frequented by older Jews.
The response, you’ll learn on an eye-opening visit here, was overwhelming. Over 1.5 million books – representing 40,000-70,000 titles – have been collected so far from vanishing Jewish communities around the world. Including Zimbabwe and China!
Books are a Portable Homeland
For Jews, according to Lansky, “books are a portable homeland.” When he began collecting in 1980, Lansky felt he was “picking up fragments of this world and saving them for the future.”
The 49,000 sq ft. Yiddish Book Center, currently recognized as “one of the largest Jewish Cultural and Educational organizations in the country,” is designed to look like an Eastern European shtetl.
Grab a self-guided tour brochure. Watch the 12 minute orientation video. And prepare to be immersed in all aspects of this foreign yet familiar tongue.
Along with stacks of books (with more both coming and going – the YBC has established over 600 Yiddish Libraries all over the globe), you’ll find interactive exhibits, movie film clips, artifacts, video interviews, and a cornucopia of programming.
“People have been known to get lost here,” says one docent. And she wasn’t talking physically.
VISIT: University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst
This multi-disciplinary museum immerses you in contemporary art the only way a liberal arts university can. Experimental. Innovative. Provocative. It’s always interesting to see what art is brewing in the halls of academia.
VISIT: The Beneski Museum of Natural History – Amherst College
Get Outside: Bring A Book To Read
This 114-mile hiking trail traverses the Metacomet Ridge that runs primarily through Mount Tom Reservation.
Mount Holyoke Range State Park
The 3,000 acre Mount Holyoke Range SP offers 27 trails of various lengths and difficulties. (Mostly intermediate and strenuous).
The 11-acre Puffers Pond is an oasis of splashy fun a few miles out of town.
Best Restaurants in Amherst MA
EAT: 30 Boltwood
Set in the Inn on Boltwood (formerly the Lord Jeff Inn) 30 Boltwood is a departure from the traditional if there ever was one. Bare filament bulbs hover over copper tables and brown leather banquettes in a room where shiny white rococo ceramic candle holders and eggshell trim punch up chocolate colored walls and hardwood floors.
It’s a funky, contemporary space. The locally sourced menu changes seasonally, but artisanal burgers and fries are consistently good.
EAT: Pulse Cafe, Hadley
Just up Route 9, on your way to Interstate 91, you’ll find one fantastic, totally plant-based restaurant, Pulse Cafe. Besides artful salads and creamy-without-dairy soups, Pulse excels in wood fired pizzas and calzones. Even the customized Gluten Free pies are fantastic.
DRINK: Moan and Dove
A bit out of town on Route 116, you’ll find high-end, craft beers and free peanuts. That’s it. These folks look upon beer like oenophiles see wine – as something to be appreciated, sampled and savored.
EAT: Locals Love
This, being a very diverse college town, it’s no surprise that favorite restaurants run ethnic. So, there’s Lili’s Restaurant for noodles and dumplings, Ricelicious for, you guessed it, rice bowls, Hazel’s Blue Lagoon for jerk chicken and other Caribbean delights, Momo Tibetan Restaurant, fine American dining, Bistro 63, and, of course, the always a hit for burgers and beer – Johnny’s Tavern.
Best Hotels and Inns In Amherst MA
STAY: Inn on Boltwood (formerly Lord Jeffery Inn)
In 2012, the Inn on Boltwood (then, Lord Jeff) went through a $16 million basement to roof renovation. Updated rooms are decked out in Early American blues and crisp whites, Federalist furniture and luxurious bedding.
Some suites, done in sage greens, feature a switch-on gas fireplace. Glass showers, white subway tile and black and white mosaic floor in each bathroom are vast improvements on the original. Rooms from $189 per night.
Once a cinderblock-not-much-better-than-a-dorm-room Campus Center Hotel, the renovated Umass Hotel @ Campus Center is now a hip place to stay in the Pioneer Valley.
The much-maligned drab concrete hallways are bright, wide, bold yellow and carpeted. They lead to charming rooms you’d never recognize if you’ve been here before.
Furniture is clean-lined and contemporary. It’s quite a surprise to find Herman Miller ergonomic desk chairs, funky quilted bedspreads tucked into platform beds, oversized pillows, i-pod docks, 37” flat-screen TV’s, and recycled polished concrete and glass bathrooms in a campus hotel.
You can’t leave without taking the elevator to the top floor for unparalleled views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Extraordinary in the Fall. Rooms from $119 per night.