Things to Do in Central Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley, the State's Most Underrated Regions
Many travelers feel about Massachusetts the way I feel about Thanksgiving: It’s all about the sides. In the Bay State’s case, the scenic mountains and picturesque villages of the Berkshires on the far western end of Massachusetts tend to get whatever attention doesn’t go to Boston, Cape Cod, and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard on the state’s eastern edge.
But that view of things leaves out some meaty stuff in between. The regions of Central Massachusetts and the Pioneer Valley (the less-heralded part of Western Mass. east of the Berkshires) abound in fun and enriching things to do that rival more ballyhooed parts of New England for natural, historical, and cultural attractions. And in many instances, these unsung areas outdo what bookends them—after all, only this region can lay claim to giving the world such wonders as Dr. Seuss, basketball, and the Yankee Candle.
Perhaps best of all, the state’s relatively small size and quantity of rail connections make reaching Central and Western Massachusetts cities such as Worcester and Springfield simple via Amtrak and regional trains from Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and other points in the northeastern U.S.
The things to see and do that follow just might convince you to set the state’s sides aside and make the middle the main course.
We’ll start in the Connecticut River Valley city of Springfield, which makes sense considering so much else got started here.
Known as the “City of Firsts,” Springfield has racked up an impressive number of innovations in its history, including America’s first gas-powered automobile (courtesy of the Duryea brothers), first board game (courtesy of Milton Bradley), first American-English dictionary (courtesy of Merriam-Webster), and first American witch trial (take that, Salem!).
Also created here: basketball, invented by Canadian-born educator James Naismith using a soccer ball and two suspended peach baskets at Springfield College in 1891. Today, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame (1000 Hall of Fame Ave.) commemorates that event and celebrates the sport at every level—pro, college, and otherwise. Inside the silver spherical building, several floors of interactive multimedia exhibits and displays of jerseys, gigantic footwear, and shrines to various GOAT contenders encircle a full basketball court where visitors can demonstrate why they’re unlikely to join the more than 450 inductees honored onsite.
Oh, the places you’ll go!
There’s a Springfield museum
For fam’lies and fans—
A Dr. Seusseum!
The author grew up here (pre-Lorax, pre-Whos),
So colorful rooms let you walk in the shoes
Of characters—also the man himself,
With photos and artifacts piled on the shelf.
Here’s Horton! There’s Yertle! The Cat in the Hat!
Plus drawings and book drafts and objects like that.
Just walk through the place and, Grinchlike, the ice’ll
Melt from your heart, thanks to Theodor Geisel.
In addition to the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum (21 Edwards St.), Geisel’s nom de plume is memorialized with a sculpture garden on the Springfield Museums campus, a clump of five institutions dedicated to art, science, and Springfield history.
Opened in 2018 in a part of downtown Springfield that had been badly damaged by a tornado several years before, the 240-room MGM Springfield (One MGM Way) is one of two resort casinos in Massachusetts (Encore Boston Harbor is the other). Though opponents to bringing a casino to town once expressed concerns about degrading the city’s historical character, MGM’s developers have, to their credit, worked to preserve nearby buildings such as the castlelike State Armory, which has been restored and stabilized (it now houses a comedy club operated by MGM).
Similarly, the resort’s interior design reflects Springfield’s history and culture with work by local artists, text in carpet and wall hangings referencing word-obsessed local icons like Merriam-Webster, and an overall industrial-chic aesthetic incorporating exposed brick, metal, and leather meant to evoke the city’s past in manufacturing. The casino has not only brought gaming to the region but also big-name entertainment acts such as Bruno Mars and Bob Dylan, who might have otherwise skipped these parts.
Heading north from Springfield, you’ll hit Hampshire County, where the towns balance manageable size with a worldly sensibility, perhaps owing in part to the many colleges and universities situated here. Amherst is the county’s most populous locale, and it certainly has its draws, particularly for those on a literary pilgrimage to Emily Dickinson’s Homestead.
But a worthy alternative is quirky Northhampton, with its compact downtown chockablock with independent shops and international restaurants. More than 20 local retailers, from booksellers to chocolatiers, can be found across three levels at Thornes Marketplace (150 Main St.), a hub of independent commerce in a historic building that also houses Paul & Elizabeth’s, a venerable restaurant serving Japanese-inflected fish and vegetarian dishes.
Afterward, stop in the locally beloved Herrell’s ice cream shop (8 Old South St.) for a scoop with a “smoosh-in” of cookies or candy, and end the night with a drag show, live music, or whatever else is on at the LGBTQ+-focused Majestic Saloon (24 Main St.), where the décor is Barbie pink and the drinks are named after divas (seems like the Judy Garland should be a handful of Seconal and a swig of vodka, but what do we know?).
Proof that Northampton’s countercultural streak goes back a ways can be found at the Sojourner Truth Memorial at the corner of Pine and Park streets in Florence (a village of Northampton). The once-enslaved abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights lived in the area from 1843 to 1857, having been drawn to Northampton by a utopian community committed to justice and equality. A small park and 7-foot-tall bronze statue pay tribute to the activist. You can download a self-guided walking tour of other local Sojourner Truth–related sites at SojournerTruthMemorial.org.
On your way back to the center of town, stop to tour the botanic garden and art museum on the campus of Smith College. Both are free to visit and have intriguing temporary exhibits (we caught one at the garden on the botanical inspirations of Smith alum Sylvia Plath). The eye-popping, artist-designed public restrooms at the art museum almost outdo what’s displayed in the galleries.
Continue north from Northampton to reach rural Franklin County and its impossibly scenic stretches of forested hills, mighty rivers, 18th-century homes, and jars of Yankee Candles as far as the eye can see.
South Deerfield’s Yankee Candle Village (25 Greenfield Rd.), located down the road from the company’s headquarters, is a 90,000-square-foot scented behemoth stocked with some 200,000 candles available in all 250 or so fragrances currently in production. The range pretty much compels you to trace the brand’s stages of scent abstraction, as outlined in a memorable 2021 social media thread by Alex McMillan. (Tell me: How is “Snowflake Kisses” an aroma?)
But the candle smorgasbord (which includes a candle bar and “Wax Works” station for making your own creations) is only the beginning. The massive, seemingly built-to-overwhelm retail complex also encompasses an area selling home and kitchen goods; an old-timey general store; a year-round Christmas-themed “Bavarian Village” with a castle, artificial evergreens, artificial snow flurries, model trains, and oversize nutcrackers; a candy shop; a “Man Cave” for merch related to sports, beer, and barbecue; a Build-A-Bear Workshop; a brewery; a pizzeria; a fudge emporium; and a terrifying animatronic band called the Candle Mountain Boys, whose dead-eyed banjo-picking will haunt your dreams.
After the fragrant excesses of Yankee Candle Village, you’re likely to welcome the simpler way of life demonstrated at another kind of Yankee village: Historic Deerfield (80 Old Main St.), a string of 12 carefully preserved houses constructed from 1730 to 1850. Period furnishings and demos of traditional skills—weaving, woodworking, open-hearth cooking (pictured above)—give visitors a feel for Deerfield during the colonial era, when settlers were first taking advantage of the agricultural opportunities of land made fertile by the region’s three major rivers. (Guided tours of the houses aren’t available in winter.)
Download the Historic Deerfield mobile app to learn about the Indigenous Pocumtuck people who predated the colonists, and pop into the Flynt Center of Early New England Life (37 Old Main St.; free admission) to see furniture, ceramics, textiles, and crafts from the era.
The nearby campus of Deerfield Academy, an elite boarding school, was one of several such institutions in New England used as filming locations for Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, set at a similar albeit fictional school during a winter break in the 1970s. Deerfield Academy student Dominic Sessa ended up getting cast in one of the movie’s main roles.
Four seasons’ worth of outdoor activities offer some of the best ways to experience Franklin County. The Deerfield, Connecticut, and Green rivers supply numerous routes for rowing and rafting. Orchards serve as settings for fruit-picking—and sources for the region’s well-regarded craft ciders. And the county’s hills and valleys make beautiful backdrops for hikes during fall foliage season or cross-country skiing treks in winter.
At the very least, you should make the drive or hike up to the top of Mount Sugarloaf for a commanding view of the Connecticut River Valley.
Onward to the very center of the state, home of New England’s second-largest and most mispronounced city, Worcester (for the record, it’s wuss-ter, with the same vowel sound as in "good"). Though often overlooked by travelers—as second cities often are—Worcester has in recent years cultivated a scrappy, inclusive energy fueled by a diverse, youthful, and artsy populace.
Looking to plug into the city’s vibrant vibes? Fill up on Indian, South American, East Asian, or vegan dishes and Wachusett Brewing Company beers at the bustling Worcester Public Market food hall (160 Green St.; pictured above). Check out the mix of ancient mosaics, European masters, and up-to-the-minute contemporary exhibits at the Worcester Art Museum (55 Salisbury St.), a relatively small facility that punches well above its weight class. And sample Worcester’s burgeoning LGBTQ+ nightlife scene at drag shows and queer spaces such as Femme Bar, which opened in 2023 to become one of only about two dozen lesbian bars in the entire country.
The rolling farmland north of Worcester has an eye-catching cameo in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation of Little Women. The hilltop scene in which Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie makes a desperate wedding proposal to Saoirse Ronan’s Jo was shot on pastoral Gibbet Hill in Groton. Just below the spot where poor Laurie’s hopes are dashed, a farm grows tomatoes, berries, beets, greens, herbs, and other produce used in the seasonal menu at the adjoining Gibbet Hill Grill (61 Lowell Rd.). Housed in a converted barn, the restaurant exudes farm-freshness in dishes such as potato-crusted haddock and honeynut squash stuffed with pumpkin risotto.
To pair dinner with a show, catch a jazz, Americana, or classical concert at the Groton Hill Music Center (122 Old Ayer Rd.), an enormous structure that seems to emerge from the surrounding fields in a wave of curving stainless steel and blond wood. The architecture and materials used to make the two performance halls (Meadow Hall is pictured above) have been engineered to optimize acoustics for a “warm, vibrant sound,” according to the venue's operators. Abundant windows throughout the building let in natural light and connect the space to its bucolic surroundings.
Ski magazine readers named Wachusett Mountain, just outside of Worcester, the top resort in the Eastern U.S. when it comes to easy access. Driving to the ski area from Boston or Providence, Rhode Island, only takes a little more than an hour, and there’s even a convenient seasonal train-and-shuttle service from Boston to Wachusett via MBTA Commuter Rail.
The 2,006-foot-tall mountain has 27 trails, three high-speed lifts, and a formidable snowmaking operation to give Jack Frost a boost when needed. Though small in size, the independently owned resort is ideal for families, with easy-to-ride carpet lifts for beginners, instructional programs for kids as young as 4, and special events such as family movie screenings and meet-and-greets with St. Bernard dogs. A gear shop, night skiing, and après-ski pub grub round out the winter offerings. In the summer and fall the resort hosts festivals and food trucks, and a Skyride up the mountain shows off views from the highest point east of the Connecticut River.