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An eclectic, independent streak runs deep here

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / October 10, 2010

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NORTHAMPTON — Dubbed the “Paradise of America’’ in 1851 by opera singer Jenny Lind; “Lesbianville, USA’’ in 1992 by the National Enquirer; and often referred to as simply “NoHo,’’ Northampton is a vibrant, artsy community of 28,500 residents in Western Massachusetts. It’s a college town with a rich history, impressive architecture, and an easygoing, laid-back vibe that embraces creative types, and welcomes gays or straights, and everyone in between. A weekend visit is necessary to explore all that the city has to offer.

With plenty of places to stay, one well-known option is the Hotel Northampton (36 King St., 413-584-3100, www.hotelnorthampton.com, $140-$285 with continental breakfast). This grand old inn was built in 1927 and is home to the Wiggins Tavern, a circa 1786 structure that was relocated from New Hampshire and reassembled next to the hotel in 1930. Many famous visitors have passed through the hotel’s doors over the years — David Bowie and Melissa Etheridge among them. The rooms are spacious enough, and decorated with down-home country New England charm. There’s Wi-Fi throughout the hotel and an exercise room on the second floor. You can reserve a room online through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America website (www.historichotels.org).

Northampton’s pride festivities are held the first weekend of May, and plenty of other interesting events take place throughout the year. Last month the Miss Trans New England pageant was held at the Academy of Music Theatre and the city hosted Queer Carnevale: Mardi Gras in New England, featuring performers like Melissa Ferrick, All the Kings Men, and the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus. The Out! For Reel LGBT Film Series — billed as the largest LGBT film series of its kind in the country — is based in Northampton and will kick off its third season Oct. 23 with a screening of “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister’’ at the Academy of Music Theatre.

The town is known for its art galleries. While we were there, R. Michelson Galleries (132 Main St., 413-586-3964, www.rmichelson.com) was showing a collection of large-scale photographs by Leonard Nimoy. The exhibit runs until Oct. 31.

Quirky attractions abound. Ye Ol’ Watering Hole & Beer Can Museum (287 Pleasant St., 413-585-0990, www.yeolwateringhole.com) houses an extensive collection of beer cans. Started by a previous owner in 1970, it has grown to more than 4,000 cans, some of which date to 1935.

Dorina (7 Old South St., 413-341-3229), a “spiritual reader adviser,’’ specializes in palm and tarot card readings. Palm readings cost $20, tarot cards $50, psychic analysis of your future $50, and a full life reading $90.

If shopping is more to your liking, downtown is the place to be. Pride and Joy (20 Crafts Ave., 413-585-0683, www.nohoprideandjoy.com) is headquarters for all things GLBT: movies, CDs, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and books like “Mom & Mum Are Getting Married.’’ It’s also a one-stop shop for all things rainbow: flags, magnets, coffee mugs, suspenders, disco balls, ashtrays, even air fresheners.

Faces (175 Main St., 413-584-4081, www.facesmainst.com) is another eclectic store that sells all kinds of cool stuff: ninja knee socks, Beatles posters, and eco-friendly bags made from recycled rice sacks. Check out the Art-O-Mat vending machine by the front door. It’s an old cigarette vending machine that dispenses little works of art. Five dollars will buy you tokens to drop in the machine, pull the handle and out drops an original piece of art that you can call your own.

Hands down, my favorite place to shop is Sid Vintage (279 Main St., 413-582-9880, www.sid-vintage.com), which carries rad clothes, like circa-1980s leopard print mini-skirts and an array of shirts from the glory days of my childhood: bright yellow Pac-Man T-shirts and well-worn souvenirs commemorating teams like the 1985 New England Patriots and the 1986 Red Sox. The store also sells kitschy light switch plates of Elvis and retro pin-up girls. And I love the decor (especially the “Desperately Seeking Susan’’ movie poster hanging in the back).

There are plenty of places to eat and drink. Northampton Brewery Bar & Grille (11 Brewster Court, 413-584-9903, www.northamptonbrewery.com) boasts a rooftop beer garden and serves handcrafted ales and lagers. It bills itself as the oldest operating brewpub in the Northeast, having opened in 1987. The menu includes hearty fare like half-pound hamburgers ($8.50), cheese-stuffed Southwest meatloaf ($14.95), as well as lighter offerings like the “jazzed greens,’’ a salad made of mixed greens, sliced apples, red onion, and topped with crumbled bleu cheese.

Green Street Café (64 Green St., 413-586-5650, www.greenstreetcafenorthampton.com), near the Smith College campus, serves French-inspired cuisine. When we stopped by, it was in between lunch (which is served until 2 p.m.) and dinner (which starts at 5), so we didn’t get a chance to sample the menu, which features entrees like chicken with peaches and sage and akai rice ($22) and pan-seared grouper with dill beurre blanc and mashed potatoes ($26).

Packard’s (14 Masonic St., 413-584-5957) is a neighborhood bar that’s famous for its burgers and affordable drinks. The place looks like a typical barroom and is filled with regulars who can give you the scoop on what’s happening around town. We sat at the bar for lunch and ordered salads, which were surprisingly tasty and fresh. My companion got the Caesar salad ($4.95), and I dug into the grilled lemon pepper shrimp salad ($7.50), which consisted of two skewers of shrimp served on a bed of fresh mesclun greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

The Sierra Grille (41 Strong Ave., 413-584-1150, www.sierragrille.net) hosts live music (check the schedule at www.myspace.com/sierragrillemusic). The bar serves only beer and wine. The menu features “small bites’’ like chips and salsa ($5), the artisanal cheese plate (and fresh-baked sourdough bread with butter or olive oil ($4), as well as staples like ribeye steak ($23), salmon ($17), and chicken breast ($15). Vegetarians will be pleased to know that their food is cooked on a separate grill, and the restaurant’s sauces are vegetarian.

We decided against trying to start a mosh pit, and instead ventured upstairs to the third floor to check out Bishop’s Lounge (41 Strong Ave.), which was packed with throngs of people dancing to reggae music. We made our way through the sweaty crowd, stayed for a while, and eventually left to go to The Tunnel Bar (125A Pleasant St., 413-586-5366), housed across the street in an old tunnel below Union Station. Alas, it was closed.

A return trip is definitely in order.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.