North Adams, Massachusetts (CNN) — Brooklyn. Marfa. Provincetown.
These hip enclaves across the USA are mentioned with some regularity by residents and business owners of North Adams, who believe their little slice of the Berkshires in Massachusetts shares similarities.
The comparisons are relatively new, for North Adams wasn’t always so artsy and adorable.
In the early 1900s, families looking for a city escape ventured to the area thanks to the Mohawk Trail, one of America’s first scenic roads. Though they found picturesque farmland, lush mountains, rivers and stunning fall foliage (a postcard from a neighboring town even referred to the area as “America’s Switzerland”), North Adams fell off the tourist map in the Jet Age.
After a long period of decline, with factories shuttered and unemployment soaring, North Adams and the rest of the northern Berkshires began to experience a revival; artists and other creatives started moving into abandoned mills, entrepreneurs began opening hotels and restaurants, and the area suddenly became serious about reinventing itself as travel hotspot.
After a period of decline, North Adams set about reinventing itself as an artsy, tourist enclave.
City of North Adams
North Adams has a decidedly more hip and edgy vibe than the rest of the Berkshires, much of which is known for sprawling vacation homes, 19th century estates and cultural offerings like Tanglewood.
Here’s an inside look at what makes North Adams the Hamptons of the New England area.
Come for the art
Northern Berkshire County used to make for a nice day trip, says MASS MoCA’s director, Joseph Thompson. But now, he says, North Adams isn’t just an eight-hour-escape-from-the-city destination; it’s a rightful multi-day vacation spot.
This is due in no small part to MASS MoCA’s own expansion; the museum doubled in size in 2017, and it’s considered the largest contemporary art museum in the United States. MASS MoCA’s repurposed industrial buildings hold works of art that can sometimes be monumental in scope, including walls drawn by Sol LeWitt.
MASS MOCA’s 2017 expansion led to the museum’s distinction of being the largest contemporary art museum in the United States.
The light exhibitions by James Turrell are a big draw, even earning a recent visit from Kanye West. The museum also hosts concerts year round as well as the Solid Sound Festival in the summer, a three-day festival run by the indie band Wilco. It’s easy to spend hours here, taking in the art and hanging out at the Bright Ideas brewpub and the AOK barbecue restaurant on campus.
Just five minutes from North Adams, in neighboring Williamstown, the Clark Art Institute is home to a collection ranging from medieval works to Old Masters to Impressionists. Its newest building, designed by Tadao Ando, sits next to a large reflective pool, blending into the landscape. Take advantage of the walking trails in and around the Clark if you have time — they provide good views of the nearby mountains.
Stay for the scenery
The Hoosic River flows through this area, and fly fishers and paddleboarders alike can take advantage of its proximity to North Adams.
The northern Berkshires has natural beauty in spades: The town of North Adams sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, right next to Mount Greylock, the tallest summit in Massachusetts. Good options for hiking and biking abound.
The Appalachian Trail crosses through the area, but it’s not the only choice for outdoorsy adventure. There are trails and walks for all skill levels, from the gardens and woods at the Field Farm property in Williamstown to the steep hikes that lead up Mount Greylock.
There are lots of outdoor summer activities too. The Berkshire East Mountain Resort has whitewater rafting and ziplining, and Jiminy Peak offers mountain biking. With the Hoosic River flowing through the town, consider fly fishing; Berkshire River Drifters offers guided tours year round.
And, of course, there’s the Mohawk Trail scenic route, the road that drew visitors here a century ago. It now follows Route 2, and some of its most dramatic views are right by the Golden Eagle restaurant just east of North Adams.
A town to take your time in
North Adams now boasts a place to stay that’s a destination in its own right; Tourists is a stylish retreat just 10 minutes from downtown.
Up to 8,000 people have already stayed in the hotel’s 48 rooms since it opened in the summer of 2018. Created by a group of transplants and locals that includes John Stirratt of the band Wilco, and Ben Svenson of the developer group Broder, Tourists contains few remnants of the run-down motel it once was.
The property sits on the road heading into North Adams on the old Mohawk Trail, where inns and guesthouses at the turn of the century used to put up sights that read ‘Tourists’ to lure customers who were driving past. The owners kept it simple, naming the place ‘Tourists’ and marking the entrance to the hotel with a sign of their own.
The rooms at TOURISTS are bright, spacious and minimal, some with patios and views of the woods behind the hotel.
The rooms are bright, spacious and minimal, some with patios and views of the woods behind the hotel. Just behind Tourists is the Hoosic River, crossed by an Instagram-worthy suspension bridge that leads to a maze of footpaths.
The main building at Tourists serves a hearty breakfast and supper as the hotel has converted a nearby farmhouse into a restaurant serving comfort food from Austin chef Greg Thomas.
And be sure to pack your swimsuit, no matter what time of the year it is: The pool, open from spring until late in the fall, is kept at a toasty 85 degrees. All this makes it a place to linger, not just a place to rest your head.
“We were just building a hotel we wanted to stay at,” founding partner Svenson tells CNN Travel. “People come and people come back. It meets the need for a true respite in their life.”
TOURISTS’ pool is inviting spring through fall, as it’s kept at a toasty 85 degrees.
Closer to town, and right across from MASS MOCA, is the Porches Inn. The property is hard to miss; it’s made up of a whole row of distinctive and stunning Victorian homes that date back to the early 1900s. The hotel describes its style as “granny-chic” and the rooms have a cozy, homey feel. There’s a small bar, a heated outdoor pool, hot tub and (as the name suggests) large porches for relaxing.
Some of North Adams’ beautiful Victorians are available for rent through Airbnb; homes in the downtown area are often walking distance to MASS MOCA and restaurants and bars. For a more unique stay, consider staying at the House at Sweet Brook Farm in neighboring Williamstown, about 15 minutes away by car from the heart of North Adams; it’s a working alpaca farm with mountain views.
The fall is North Adams’ shoulder season and one that promises beauty in the surround foilage
Eat like the locals
The northern Berkshires are dotted with farms selling fresh produce, and some of its best restaurants draw from the bounty of the area. Back on the MASS MOCA campus, Gramercy Bistro relies heavily from local producers for items like coq au vin or spinach and goat cheese ravioli.
And over in Williamstown, Mezze Bistro + Bar serves a menu of locally sourced, Mediterranean-influenced large and small plates inside a large farmhouse surrounded by gardens; any of the vegetable dishes based on what’s in season are good bets here.
An old farmhouse serves as the on-site restaurant location for TOURISTS.
Many local farms sell their produce either at farm stands or at the farmers’ markets. Farmers markets in both North Adams and Williamstown run on Saturdays from May to October. Sweet Brook Farm is known for its maple syrup and alpaca knitwear. And an early summer festival draws food stands and local designers to Greylock Works, a former mill turned event space and hub for artisanal food producers.
North Adams is good destination year-round but summer is peak season. Consider instead going in the shoulder season. Visiting in the fall means foliage as stunning as anywhere in New England.
The mix of culture and outdoor recreation draws a sophisticated, creative crowd, especially couples in their 30s and 40s looking to spend a few days out of the city. And with the town buzzing with more creative projects (including a Gehry-designed museum), there’s reason to keep coming back.
North Adams is under three hours by car from Boston and about three and a half hours from New York City.
Amtrak offers train service from Boston to nearby Pittsfield, which is about 30 minutes away by cab, and is hoping to open service from New York Penn Station in 2020.