If you are looking for a day trip from Boston or are spending a few days exploring the US’ smallest state, be sure to see what Rhode Island’s capital, Providence, has to offer.
Providence is one of the US’ oldest cities, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. The city’s name refers to God’s Providence. Roger Williams was thankful to God for giving him a place to support his ideals of religious freedom for all. It is now a haven of great food, art, and historical buildings.
The Providence River running through its center makes it feel a bit like a European city, and you can palpably feel its strong immigrant history. Like Rome, it also claims to be built on seven hills. I have lived near for over 19 years, so I hope you enjoy my ideas for the best things to do in Providence, Rhode Island.
Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island
Visit College Hill, Providence RI
One of Providence’s claims to fame is the world-renowned art school of RISD or Rhode Island School of Design. Not only does it train some of the best artists in the world, but it has a fabulous museum that is free to visit on Sundays and the third Thursday of every month.
Walk through the ivy league grounds of the first US college to accept students regardless of their religion, which is one of the ideals on which Rhode Island was founded.
Bring yourself back to your co-ed days by hanging out where the nearby Brown college students hang out. Here you can find clusters of fantastic ethnic food and shopping.
Stroll along the 18th- and 19th-century residences on this street in Providence’s east side.
Almost 20 percent of Rhode Islanders claim Italian ancestry, so you can imagine that we have a fabulous Little Italy. Our centers around Atwells Avenue, where you can’t go wrong with any of the multiple Italian restaurants. Other ethnic foods are also beginning to show up on this popular avenue, perfect for walking along.
Take a meal or dance to a live Italian band in this square, making you feel like you are in Europe. The restaurants on the square have outside seating in season.
This area is small enough to get around on foot. You can walk along the Providence River or among the tall buildings of our Financial District.
11 Westminster Street is the tallest building in Rhode Island. It gets its nickname because it looks like the Daily Planet building, but it was not in the movies.
Eat or shop in the oldest indoor mall in the country, built in 1828. It has been on the National Historic District Registry since 1976.
Museums in Providence
Associated with the Rhode Island School of Design, this museum contains both local and global art. It is the 20th largest art museum in the US. Admission is free every Sunday and the third Thursday evening of each month.
Museum of Natural History and Planetarium at Roger Williams Park
This museum houses the state’s only public planetarium.
Providence’s first mansion, nearby Brown University, got its name from the house’s owner.
Street Art in Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is a city inspired by art; much of it is on display through our streets. Here are a few of my favorites.
Theater in Providence, Rhode Island
Being a creative town, here are a few of our theaters.
Take in a world-class Broadway show in this gorgeous theater opened in 1928 as Loew’s State Movie Palace.
If you prefer plays, rather than musicals, the smaller Trinity Rep may be more your taste. A Christmas Carol has been playing here for the last 40 years.
Showing darker plays in an intimate setting, you will be surprised how good the shows are. And the tickets are cheap without a bad seat in the house.
Waterfire is my favorite thing about Providence. It is an art installation on the Providence River. At sunset, black boats slide through the water, lighting the bundles of aromatic woods in baskets in the canal. More wood is added long into the night. Piped-in music complements the grace of the boats. Flocks of pedestrians meander along the waterfront under our candelabra-lit bridges. Many find a place to sit and watch.
Tips for Getting the Most Out of Waterfire
- Expect crowds, no matter the time of year. The only time I have been without crowds was late at night. It is less crowded the farther you get away from the Providence Place Mall.
- Make reservations at a restaurant where you can sit and watch the fires, or at least walk without having to move your car. My go-tos are Cafe Nuovo, which has a patio right on the canal, and Hemenway’s, whose windows overlook the end of the canals. Heminways will only have you close to the fires on full lightings. Some nights only the area around the basin is lit.
- There are concrete bleachers to sit on around Waterplace Basin. It is a wonderful view, but the most crowded area.
- Bring a blanket and sit on the grass across the canal from Cafe Nuovo.
- Park in the Exchange Street lot, bring a chair, and set up a picnic on the lawn.
- Walk the whole way down to the end of the canals. There is a park in front of Heminways where street artists or installations often are.
- Around Steeple Street, you can often find a Del’s truck for a sweet treat. Just remember spoons and straws are for tourists.
Where to Park for Waterfire
- Just out of the sheer convenience of it, I usually park in the huge lot at Providence Place Mall. It is easy to get to and from the highway.
- Park at the lot between Exchange Street and Cafe Nuovo.
Roger Williams Park
This 102-acre park in the middle of the city is named after Rhode Island’s founder. It has botanical and Japanese gardens, a zoo, and lakes on which you can ride swan boats. Around Halloween, it hosts the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, which truly lives up to its name with thousands of intricately carved pumpkins on display.
India Point Park
Located in the emerging Fox Point Neighborhood, this is a great place to take a walk with views of Providence Harbor. There are placards along the cement trails educating about Providence’s history as an important harbor. This is also the starting point of the East Bay Bike Path, one of our best bike trails.
Best Restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island
Between the strong immigrant influences and a world-class culinary school, Johnson and Wales, Providence has a very delicious food scene.
Best Atmosphere in Providence
Set in a 1901 bank building, a meal at The Dorrance is all about the atmosphere with stained-glass windows and expansive golden ceilings.
Most Rhode Island Restaurants
New York System
The name makes this one confusing, but NY system hot wieners are uniquely Rhode Island, and this restaurant in Olneyville is where they were created. Check out the bar next door after for unlimited old-school video games while you grab a drink.
Cappricio’s (Also Most Gangster Rhode Island)
So old school, but so good. White table cloths, fine cuisine prepared table-side. This is one of our go-to’s for an elegant night out.
Located on Federal Hill, my great-grandmother ate here as a child. It is old-school authentic Italian, upscale, but not stuffy.
Best Italian Restaurant in Providence
Set in a beautifully restored old funeral home inside the Italo-American club, Maria’s Cucina has some of my favorite Italian food in the state.
Best Place to Hang with the Girls
Duck and Bunny, a Snuggery
Enjoy a cute afternoon tea in this old house on the happening Wickenden Street. If you would rather, enjoy lunch in their English garden. They are currently closed for remodeling.
Best Ethnic Food in Providence
We have a lot of choices for unique foods, including Mexican, Portuguese, and Dominican cuisine, but our Peruvian is phenomenal. Read all about why I love Los Andes.
Most Mod Eats in Providence
Ogie’s Trailer Park
Siddle up to the bar, order a Moscow Mule, and get transported back into the times of Mad Men. When you are done feeling fancy, pull up to the trailer and order food that reminds me of eating in front of the TV as a kid- Frito pie, loaded tater tots, perogies. Eat it out on the picnic tables in the trailer park.
Best Seafood in Providence
This is a great starting destination for a WaterFire evening, located on Providence’s canals with high glass windows and a patio.
Where to Stay in Providence
It is easiest to stay right downtown, which is within walking distance of most of Providence and close to the train station.
The Biltmore, built in 1922, is on the National Registry of Historic Places and National Registry of Historic Hotels. It is now called the Graduate. Sleep in a bit of Providence history by booking your room.
At this hipster boutique hotel, dream of both the religious and lascivious past of this building. Do I have you curious? It was both a mission, then a strip club. You can find out for yourself by booking a room.
Where Stay in Providence with Kids
Courtyard by Marriot Downtown
I find this line of hotels very easy to stay in with my family. I can generally find suites for a reasonable price with breakfast included. Find one for your family here.
How to End Your Night in Providence, Rhode Island
The Boom Box
Sing yourself to sleep (or wide awake) with karaoke and sake cocktails underground in the basement of the Dean Hotel.
The Arcade Bar
This is the bar I mentioned above, in the Olneyville section of Providence– drinks and video games.
Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
Catch a big-name show in this small venue.
Haven Bros. Food Truck
Eating late-night diner food out of this food truck is something every Rhode Islander has done at some point.
Things to Do in Providence, RI, with Kids
- Check out RISD’s Tours for Tots.
- Providence Children’s Museum
- Roger Williams Park- zoo, museum, or swan boats
Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or ideas that I missed. Enjoy your day in Providence!