In case you hadn’t heard the news, here it is: Providence, Rhode Island is on the way up. It’s a city with a storied past, and in the past 20 years, has changed dramatically. The city literally ripped out a freeway downtown, replaced it with parks and gardens, spurring a building spree of hotels, shops, and cafes.
The city is embracing a new vision as a Creative Capital. But what makes this such a creative place? A lot of things, actually. I was surprised to see so much hustle, bustle, and entrepreneurialism going on here. If you’re in the area, here are some things to do in Providence, Rhode Island that you can’t miss!
I love all of the architecture, from the stoic (like the ‘batman’ building up there) to the classic, Colonial homes on College Hill. Some noteworthy sites to visit:
- First Baptist Church of Providence: Not exactly a tourist attraction, but you may be surprised that this was the first Baptist church in America. Looking at old photos, it is stunning to reveal that the building is essentially unchanged.
- Rhode Island State House: World’s 4th largest self-supported marble dome. Beautiful both inside and out; tours are available Mon-Fri.
- The Arcade: America’s oldest enclosed shopping mall. It’s so sad to see it unused at the moment.
- Benefit Street: On College Hill, this street has a concentration of late 18th and early 18th century Colonial homes.
Take note as many of my subsequent things to do in Providence are housed in historic buildings – architecture is everywhere!
Boutique Shops and Cafes
Thayer Street on College Hill is where Brown University students come to hang – and as you can expect, the street has everything you could want, including rubber ducks (see above), army/navy goods, tea, antiques. If your energy is flagging, make a pit stop in Blue State Coffee, which has a quirky personality and donates a portion of profits to charity, which you can vote for your favorite choice.
Westminster Street, just off of the main downtown routes, has some great little shops. Eno Fine Wine and Spirits (perfect to grab something for the hotel room), Craftland has local art, Oh, and if you need some caffeine, pop into Tazza – top notch stuff.
Lastly, if you are in need of some department store shopping, there’s always Providence Place Mall. Yes, it is chain stores, but as far as malls go, it’s pretty nice.
Libraries, Museums, Theater
It’s hard to define Providence’s cultural vibe, because it’s so vast. It’s also at the heart of what makes this town the Creative Capital.
- Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum: Spare a full morning or afternoon for this museum, as they have over 80k pieces in their collection, spread out over a number of inter-connected buildings. An incredible treasure trove of art in varying genres and eras.
- AS220: They call it a “community arts center”, but it just doesn’t seem to do justice to a venue that is a bar, cafe, event center, music studio, art gallery, and artist workshop. Needless to say, you should stop in.
- Anatheum: Pictured above, this was probably my favorite “museum” stop. This is the oldest library in the United States. And you can just walk in and walk around, and if you have a card, check out a book – it’s still operating. The simple, just-what-you’d-expect decor is priceless (pictured above), as is spending a few minutes thumbing through a card catalog or browsing the books shelves that have been here since 1838.
Providence was one of the first cities established in America – though Rhode Island was the last of the 13 colonies to become a state. It’s also a city of seven hills, like many others in the world. It purportedly has the most coffee/doughnut shops per capita of any city in the country, and the highest number of restaurants per capita.
Parks and Outdoors
There are parks galore in this town – so make sure you take the opportunity to enjoy them. Pictured above, Prospect Park is probably the most well known because of the superb view (great at sunrise/sunset). It’s on College Hill.
The hub of the downtown restorations has been Waterplace Park. This is where the famous Waterfire Festival takes place, and it’s just a wonderful place to walk around, both day or night.
And just on the outskirts of town, near the airport, is Roger Williams Park. One of the first urban parks in the U.S., there are 7 lakes to enjoy, a number of historic structures to see, and the Providence Zoo is also here.
Waterfire is no doubt one of the most famous of the Providence attractions, and draws in thousands of tourists every year. I timed my visit to ensure an opportunity to experience, and an experience it is – just after dusk, the crowds gather around the canals and waterways. Silently, workers clad in black all move into position. Music, chosen specifically for the event, slowly fills the air, and then, in a flash, the waterways in every direction are lit in a blaze of flight. The wood is aromatic, like the perfect fireplace.
I wonder if it’s the simplicity of this festival that makes it so enjoyable. The attention to detail, the hit to all your senses, makes it so memorable. No matter what, make sure to get yourself on a boat tour. The perspective is entirely different and really was the highlight for me.
Where to Stay in Providence
After a day of exploring all the things to do in Providence, you’ll need a comfy place to rest your weary bones. I suggest you stay in the downtown area, for easy access to most of the sights without driving. As for hotels, my top two are easy to choose:
- Hampton Inn Downtown Providence: Talk about a great find! I love Hampton Inns for their great amenities (free breakfast, all day coffee, lap boards for your laptop, fitness rooms, etc), but this Hampton is just incredible. It used to be a bank, and it’s an old colony house, so you get the perfect meld of ambiance with modern amenities. The location is perfect for Waterfire or to explore anywhere downtown.
- Renaissance Downtown Providence: The Renaissance Hotel doesn’t look like a hotel at first glance – that’s because it was built as an imposing Masonic temple. It fell into disrepair before the good folks at Marriott got it back into shape – and it’s a stunner now. Rooms feature artwork showing the original building, graffiti included.
Rhode Island is the smallest US state, so getting out of town is pretty easy. Here are some recommendations for Providence daytrips.
- Newport, RI:The seaside option for getting out of Providence; it is well known for stately homes as well as being a gorgeous, scenic spot.
- Mystic, CT: Mystic is in Connecticut (as mentioned, Rhode Island isn’t very big), and it’s a wonderful town with an aquarium, shopping district, and all the amenities you could ever want. Mystic has a strong sea-fearing vibe, with many ship captain homes, aquatic themed art galleries, and rustic boats you can check out.
- Boston, MA: Many folks live in Providence and commute into Boston, so the trek is fairly easy. I’d be remiss not mentioning it, and if you’ve got the time, combining Providence and Boston could be a great week in New England.
Is it a heck of a great vacation destination? Oh yes.
Special thanks to the Providence and Warwick CVB for being such a kind host and showing me around town. Learn more about our editorial policy on sponsored trips here.