North Adams, Mass: My Hometown is the Best Budget Friendly Getaway in the Northeast
I moved away from my hometown when I was 18 with no intention of ever returning. I grew up in Massachusetts’ tiniest city, tucked away in the hills of Northern Berkshire County. I always enjoyed North Adams, but I never truly appreciated its beauty and offerings until very recently. Like all angsty teenagers, I deemed my hometown beneath me and no longer worthy of my time after high school. I went away to college in Boston and then moved all over the country throughout my twenties. Each time I returned to visit family and friends, I began to miss North Adams a little more. As I was evolving and learning to be an adult, North Adams was undergoing major changes as well. My hometown was turning into the coolest cultural hub in the Northeast.
Let me give you a little background. North Adams, which is three hours north of New York City, and three hours west of Boston, was once a booming factory town. From the 1930s-70s, the massive company Sprague Electric was headquartered in North Adams and it created a blue collar middle class which employed most of my family and about 4,000 more North Adams natives. Sprague Electric was the lifeblood of the majority of families in the area. Its importance to the local economy at that time cannot be overstated.
And then in 1985, Sprague Electric closed it’s doors.
The closing of Sprague’s was devastating. It led to a massive population decline and the closing of several other area businesses, restaurants, and retailers. Looking back, it makes sense that large scale manufacturing couldn’t survive in a city like North Adams. We’re 40 minutes from the nearest major highway. Tractor trailers literally have to navigate winding country roads and, if they’re on Route 2, survive a corner called Dead Man’s Curve. Was it surprising for my generation that we’d have to find a new industry to reinvent our hometown? No, it really wasn’t. The same can’t be said for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations though. Manufacturing was all they knew. They were depressed, they were pissed, and they wanted their jobs back.
So when it was announced that a contemporary art museum would be opening within the abandoned Sprague factory buildings in 1999, it was received with mixed reactions. Could a giant museum help our local economy? We were told tourism was going to be North Adams’ new industry, but it didn’t seem promising at the time.
The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA) hoped to revitalize our depressed and dilapidated little city, but attaining that lofty goal would prove more difficult than anticipated. The marriage between North Adams, its life-long residents, and Mass MOCA has been rocky to say the least.
Still, North Adams kept working to rebuild and redefine itself in a post-manufacturing era. Mass MOCA did its part to attract larger and larger crowds, while building a calendar of events and festivals that would rival the hippest venues. The cooperation among the city and the museum continued to evolve and grow.
Flash forward to Memorial Day weekend 2017. I’m home for two weddings and a baby shower. “What a luxury it is to be able to pack up and visit home for 17 days!” friends and family exclaim. I reply, “Yes, it’s quite luxurious working twelve hour days alone in my parents’ freezing cold basement.” Remote entrepreneurship isn’t always as glamorous as it seems.
In between family events and catching up with old friends, I allow myself to be a tourist in my hometown. On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Mass MOCA opened a newly renovated factory building, which effectively doubled the museum’s size. The band Cake performed on the Mass MOCA lawn that night. Cake is one of several cool bands performing in North Adams this year thanks to Mass MOCA. You can also see Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and more than 50 other bands here this summer and fall.
License plates from all over the nation were parked along the streets and tourists were poking in and out of the shops on Main Street. There’s still a long road ahead for North Adams, but I can assure you it is ready for your visit.
So why should you visit this little corner of heaven? I’m going to give you my top five reasons. Take it from me, I know this place like the back of my hand.
1. It’s Really Freaking Beautiful
First and foremost, North Adams is nestled among one of the most aesthetically pleasing landscapes in America. The Berkshires are stunning, there’s really no denying that. In the spring and summer, the mountains are as green as Ireland. In the fall, you’ll find no better place in the world for ‘leaf peeping’ as the trees are colorfully transformed like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. You can visit the Norman Rockwell museum, which is located about an hour south in Stockbridge. I’m personally a big fan of winter, but the first snow of the year is gorgeous. It always makes me think about the James Taylor lyrics, “The Berkshires seem dreamlike on account of that frosting…” Damnit, this place is beautiful!
2. A World Renowned Art Destination
The Wall Street Journal recently published an article calling North Adams a premier “cultural hub." If you enjoy art, you need to see all the museums, galleries, and cool exhibits in North Adams and neighboring Williamstown. Ten minutes down the road from Mass MOCA is the Clark Art museum, which is one of the fanciest places I’ve ever stepped foot in. I don’t know anything about art, but I’m told the exhibits and installations featured in these museums are world class.
3. Delicious Food and Plenty of Places to Drink
I also don’t know shit about food, but the meals I’ve had in North Adams and the surrounding towns during my most recent trips home did not disappoint. There’s eateries for budgets of all sizes. If you’re looking for a classy meal, check out Mezze Bistro, Grazie, Public, or Gramercy Bistro. For lunch I recommend the most legendary hot dog stand in all the land, Jack’s Hot Dogs. This place has been a local favorite for about a hundred years and it’s truly unique, greasy, and delicious. Check out the Freight Yard Pub, Mingo’s, and The Hub if you’re looking for budget-friendly places to eat. There’s also no lack of coffee shops and cafes in the area.
If you’re into craft brews, stop by Bright Ideas Brewing located on the Mass MOCA campus. Across the street, the newly renovated Mohawk Tavern is a place you might find my friends sharing a few laughs while visiting home on the weekends. The Purple Pub in Williamstown is also one of my favorite watering holes. You may even spot a famous person or two during the summer months.
4. Interesting Activities
North Adams is home to music festivals Fresh Grass and Solid Sound, an elite summer baseball team with a roster of the best college players in the country, and a slew of outdoor activities. North Adams is close to ski mountains, lakes, ponds, Jiminy Peak’s Mountain Adventure Park, and the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail. There’s a food festival, a street beach festival (where they actually dump truckloads of sand onto the road), a fall foliage festival and parade, a car fest called Motorama, a Winterfest in February, and the High Mud Comedy Festival in March.
Oh and I can’t forget the Williamstown Theater Festival! It’s not technically North Adams, but it’s right next door. WTF attracts some of Hollywood’s biggest stars each summer. It’s basically Broadway in the woods. It’s also very weird and surreal to see Gwyneth Paltrow or Bradley Cooper in your local sandwich shop.
5. Easy on the Wallet
Southern Berkshire County, including the famed towns of Lenox and Great Barrington, is known for being an escape for New York City elite and those with expensive tastes. I suggest driving another 45 minutes up to North Adams to experience a more wallet-friendly version of The Berkshires. There are several hotels, inns, and B&B’s available at decent prices. Since many of the area’s best activities are based outdoors, you’ll find plenty of free and reasonably priced things to do.
Twelve years ago I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown, now I’m one of its biggest fans. I may be biased, but I’ve traveled all over the country and I can honestly say North Adams, Massachusetts is one of the most beautiful places in America. I’m lucky to have grown up here and to have witnessed its transformation from failing factory town to a culturally rich community. I highly recommend visiting before this inexpensive hidden gem becomes a national treasure.
Check out explorenorthadams.com to plan your trip.
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Main photo from Carol's View of New England.