The 19th-century soprano Jenny Lind called it "the Paradise of America," spawning the moniker "Paradise City." Various news outlets have dubbed it "Lesbianville, USA" because of the town's sizable Sapphic community. Some locals call it "Hamp," others "Noho," a nod to its perennial artiness. Call it what you will, sometime between its Puritan beginnings and its milltown heyday, Northampton became a magnet for artists, writers, and other free spirits. The founding of Smith College for women in 1871 fueled the flow of intelligentsia. Today Smith, the largest liberal arts college for women in the country, bolsters a downtown filled with boutiques, movie houses, clubs, ethnic restaurants, and a competitive latte circuit. The compact city core survived the end of the industrial era . By the 1980s Northampton was on the rebound , with several factory buildings retooled to house artists' studios . Visitors sometimes grouse about scarce parking, but that's usually because they don't know where to look. Stash the car at one of the two big lots at the junction of Crafts and Hampton avenues and Conz Street , or in the inexpensive public parking garage off Hampton.
Main Street (Route 9) presents many an alluring storefront, but it's worth turning a few corners to discover what may be just out of sight -- like the used and antiquarian bookstores the Connecticut River Valley is famous for. Browsers are welcome at Raven Used Books (4 Old South St., 413-584-9868, ravenusedbooks.com ), Gabriel Books (21 Market St., 413-586-5596 ), the Metropolitan (9 3/4 Market St., 413-586-7077 ), Half Moon Books (7 Pearl St., 413-586-3988 ), and the Old Book Store (32 Masonic St., 413-586-0576 ).
At the west end of Main, Smith College Museum of Art (Brown Fine Arts Center, Elm and Main streets, 413-585-2760, www.smith.edu/artmuseum ) houses a warren of intimate galleries and a cafe.
Ambitious walkers can amble east to the other end of town, past the railroad bridge where Main turns into Bridge Street, to Historic Northampton (46 Bridge St., 413-584-6011, historic-northampton.org ), a campus of three houses dating from 1730-1813 . The museum complex offers house tours and exhibits that plumb Noho's early history, from witchcraft to silk farming.
The sheer number and variety of stores downtown makes it hard not to indulge in some form of retail therapy in Noho. If time is of the essence or weather inclement, the indoor bazaar called Thornes Marketplace (150 Main St., thornesmarketplace.com ) houses more than 30 stores and restaurants in an 1870s building. For teen and college-age fashionistas, the clothing at C.S.O.R.K. Women's Fair Trade Fashions (8 Crafts Ave., 413-303-1088, csorkperu.com ) combines original style and social conscience. Find sumptuous wearable art and handmade home accessories from $5 to $5,000 at Skera Contemporary Crafts (221 Main St., 413-586-4563, skera.com ), the self-described "Filene's Basement of American craft."
Noho is the epicenter of the famous Western Mass. artisan scene, and several other galleries feature high-quality crafts: Don Muller Gallery (40 Main St., 413-586-1119, hidden-hills.com/donmullergallery ) carries glass, jewelry, ceramics, and woodenware. Pinch (179 Main St., 413-586-4509, pinchgallery.com ) specializes in American studio pottery, tableware, wall art, and jewelry. Occupying a former bank building at the city center, Silverscape Designs (1 King St., 413-584-3324 ) dazzles with handmade jewelry.
Northampton's restaurants offer a fair sampling of the world's cuisine. In the ethnic category, the Moroccan-Mediterranean fare at Amanouz Cafe (44 Main St., 413-585-9128, amanouz-casablanca.com, entrees $7.50-$10 ) stands out for flavor as well as affordability. Of at least three Japanese restaurants in town, Osaka (7 Old South St., 413-587-9548, osakanorthampton.com, sushi rolls $4.50-$8, entrees $9-$24 ) has snagged the annual "best of" award three years running.
The city's not short on choices when it comes to eclectic fine dining, either. Leading the pack with an elegant fusion of Italian and Southwest American flavors is the Del Raye Bar and Grill (1 Bridge St., 413-586-2664, fundining.com, entrees $18-$29, reserve ahead ). For its steaks and seafood with a Cajun accent, the East Side Grill (19 Strong Ave., 413-586-3347, eastsidegrill.com, entrees $15-$19 ) gets raves year after year.
For a kid-friendly dinner out, try Spaghetti Freddy's (125A Pleasant St., 413-586-5366, unionstationrestaurant.com, entrees $9-$16 ), one of three restaurants at Union Station, a renovated century-old railroad complex.
In a New England winter there's nothing more restorative than breathing tropical air, if even for an hour. The Lyman Conservatory at Smith College Botanic Garden (15 College Lane, 413-585-2740, www.smith.edu/garden ) provides that very opportunity. The greenhouses at the conservatory's core were built more than a century ago to offer plant sciences to Smith students, who continue to use the complex for that purpose. (Admission is free, but the institution welcomes donations.) Smith's 125-acre campus is a gem in itself, designed in the 1890s to double as an arboretum by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted. If the snow has yet to fly, Look Memorial Park (300 North Main St., Route 9, Florence, 413-584-5457, lookpark.org ) in the village of Florence, about two miles west of downtown, is a great spot for a stroll or a playground outing.
Come evening, take in a play or a movie at America's sixth oldest theater and the only one municipally owned, the Academy of Music (274 Main St., 413-584-8435, academyofmusictheatre.com ). December's lineup includes performances of "The Nutcracker" as well as films and regional talent.
Anyone who has ever wanted to dig a tunnel and furnish it will find heaven at the Tunnel Bar (Strong Avenue and Pearl Street, 413-586-5366, unionstationrestaurant.com ), an actual tunnel through the railroad bridge below Union Station. Patrons savor the bar's oversize martinis ($8) in leather armchairs. Not for the claustrophobic. The Toasted Owl Tavern (21 Main St., 413-585-5088, toastedowl.com ) is a sports bar with a classy atmosphere: brick walls, Mission light fixtures, a glorious arched front window, and dark woodwork.
Nightclub cool comes and goes, but Pearl Street (10 Pearl St., 413-584-7771, iheg.com/pearl_street_main.asp ) stays perennially popular with college kids and other rock fans, thanks to ever-hip and danceable live music. Divas (492 Pleasant St., Route 5, 413-586-8161, divasofnoho.com ) is a gay and lesbian/Goth hotspot, housing three bars under one roof. Known for cheap beer and great DJs.
For jazz, blues, and folk, the Calvin Theatre and Performing Arts Center (19 King St., 413-584-1444, iheg.com/calvin_theater_main.asp ) features national headliners such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ziggy Marley, and Doc Watson. The more intimate Iron Horse Music Hall (20 Center St., 413-584-0610, iheg.com/iron_horse_main.asp ; see Page D7 for more), keeps alive the small-stage scene with faves like Room Full of Blues, Chris Smither, and Jonathan Edwards .
Northampton has little in the way of lodging downtown, although several chain hotels are within a few minutes' drive. Expand the drive to 20 minutes and a world of choices opens up (valleyvisitor.com). Fans of country bed-and-breakfasts can find plenty of scenic spots in the surrounding villages (hidden-hills.com ). In town, the premier place to stay is the Hotel Northampton, smack in the city center (36 King St., 413-584-3100, hotelnorthampton.com, doubles $180-$190 a night December weekends ). This sprawling Colonial Revival grand dame, established in 1927, has been crowned a National Trust Historic Hotel .
Next closest are the Autumn Inn (259 Elm St., 413-584-7660, doubles $99 a night in December ), about a mile northwest of town on Route 9, near the Smith campus, and the Best Western (117 Conz St., Route 5, 413-586-1500, bestwestern.com, doubles $99 a night in December ), about a quarter-mile south of Main Street.