WHY GO: Once called the “Beehive of Industry” Providence, RI fell hard during the Great Depression only to be hit even harder by a devastating 1938 Hurricane. Deep in decline by the 1970’s, city officials decided to take action, uncovering downtown rivers that were buried beneath roads and embracing a passionate artistic community spirit. It’s an ongoing renaissance in the first state of the union that supported religious tolerance, thanks to Roger Williams. You can pay respects to this great man, explore the booming riverfront, see the original 1663 Rhode Island Charter signed by King Charles II, learn about the ghostly aspects of Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Campuses, shop funky, and eat splendidly in this eclectic College Town getaway.
Things To Do In Providence RI
TOUR: Savor Federal Hill with Cindy Salvato. Federal Hill – the Little Italy of Providence, has always been an immigrant neighborhood. On this three-hour gut-busting walking tour, enjoy Antipasto plates, ravioli, breads, and sweets at Roma, Tony’s Colonial, Venda Ravioli, Venda Bar Pizzeria (the only Government of Italy DOP Certified Pizzeria in town) and other exceptional shops and restaurants on Federal Hill. Along the way, Salvato offers tutorials in selecting the best pasta, olive oil and cheese. You’ll end up inches from 15 ft deep 1920 gas-fired-ovens in the kitchen of Scialo (pronounced “shallow”) Brothers Bakery, now run by two Scialo Sisters, Carol and Lois. Watching the industrious bakers create delectable cakes and cookies from scratch is, alone, worth the price of the tour. Saturdays in season 9am-12, $50 pp.
TOUR: Captain Tom’s Providence River Boat Company. One of the most unique tours of Providence’s urban waterways is via 28-foot pontoon boat on the Providence River from Waterplace Park through the Hurricane Barrier into Providence Harbor. Captain Tom McGinn expounds on the history of the Providence waterfront, or lets you enjoy silently (your choice). It’s as close to Venice as you’re going to get in New England. $20 per person. Select “Waterfire” tours, also $20, take you within arms reach of 80 river bonfires – a very special perspective. Contact online for reservations.
TOUR: La Gondola. An alternate, more romantic way to experience Providence-as-Venice is via your own Gondola. Depending on the package, your gondolier will sing to you as you nibble biscotti and sip Italian wines. From $79 to $169 per couple for 40 minutes.
TOUR: Providence Ghost Tours. Some of the stories on this entertaining nearly two hour walking tour are gross and creepy, but isn’t that part of the fun? Beginning at the Roger Williams Statue in Prospect Terrace Park (offering spectacular city overviews at sunset), you’ll hear about the fate of Williams remains, and learn about the four categories of ghosts (FYI – Orbs, Apparitions, Poltergeists and Specters). From there your guide weaves tales of dorm room hauntings, unexplained deaths and sightings with Providence history. Find out why a horseshoe impression remains on the stairs of a former Revolutionary War hospital now a university dorm, and who promised to “arise from their graves and mingle” at 4:30pm each evening. 8pm in Summer, 7pm Sept-Nov. every night in season (check calendar), $15 pp.
VISIT: Roger Williams Visitor Center. Roger Williams – born in London in 1603, and trained in the ministry – fled to Boston where he encouraged separation from the National Church. Cast out of Puritan Massachusetts for his beliefs (Williams founded The First Baptist Church in 1638), he was assisted by Native American tribes in the wilds of what is now Rhode Island, and established a settlement at the head of the Narragansett he called “Providence.” This was the first British colony that sanctioned freedom of conscience and religion, a philosophy that informed the basis for the First Amendment of the US Constitution over a hundred years later; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” See a short movie, and then climb the hill to see his statue and a magnificent view of Providence. Open 9am-4:30pm daily except holidays. Free.
VISIT: Original Rhode Island Charter at the State House. A climate controlled pocket museum within the State House tells the story of how this wilderness became a hotbed of religious freedom. Filled with artifacts and documents leading up to the establishment of Rhode Island as a colony, the piece de resistance is the original Rhode Island 1663 Charter signed by King Charles II himself. Don’t leave the State House without looking up towards the magnificent vibrantly hued dome. Encircling its interior base is a Latin inscription, dating from first century Rome that translates to “Rare felicity of the times when it is permitted to think what you like and say what you think.” State House open to the public weekdays 8:30-4:30, free.
VISIT: Providence Athenaeum. Edgar Allen Poe courted his ladylove Sara Helen Whitman among the stacks of this Greek Revival, member supported library. Built in 1838, and filled floor to ceiling with books rare and pulp, the Athenaeum is a city treasure. Take the self-guided “Raven Tour” (“follow the ravens”) to find stories about Poe, about the building itself and original handwritten cards in the still-functioning card catalog. Come on a Friday evening from 5-7pm for the free coffee-house style Salon Series that serves to amplify what’s happening in Providence. Check the website for speakers. Wine, sherry, nibbles and “brilliant conversation” are complimentary. Mon-Thurs 9am-7pm, Fri, Sat 9am-5pm. Open Sun. 1pm-5pm Sept-May, closed Sun. Jun-Aug, free.
VISIT: RISD Museum of Art. Though the college itself is known for forward-thinking design, the RISD art museum looks as far back as antiquity. You’ll find an Egyptian mummy lying by its sarcophagus, medieval cherub, landscape and religious oils, Greek urns all the way up to Matisse, Cézanne, Warhol, and Koons among 86,000 objects and artifacts. Open Tues – Sun 10am-5pm, $12 adults $3 kids.
SHOP: Westminster St. which is experiencing quite the revival with trendy, local craft shops like Craftland, crammed with soaps, jewelry, t-shirts and knitted everything, and Homestyle (“artful objects for life and home”), which won Best of New England 2011.
What To Eat In Providence RI
RECHARGE: Coffee Exchange. In funky Fox Point, the Coffee Exchange hits all the buzz words – Fair Trade, Sustainable, Organic – rendering it the hot spot for very a diverse clientele. Walk in any morning to find the dew of youth chatting with cane-wielding seniors, tattoos and pinstripes, all enjoying that first (or fifth) jolt of caffeine. A buzzing place for sure.
EAT/Lunch: Red Stripe. If you love mussels (and even if you don’t), this neighborhood bistro popular with college kids and parents of same is your place. Known for “Moules & Frits” you can get a plate of seasoned shellfish with a variety of seasonings for just $12. Don’t like mussels? Try the “Everything But the Kitchen Sink” salad ($13); a wooden bowl brimming with chopped Romaine, pickled green beans and cauliflower, hearts of palm, feta, chickpeas, hard-boiled eggs and lots more.
EAT: Los Andes. Nondescript building and nowhere near the downtown scene, Los Andes needed one thing to get people in the door when it opened five years ago: great food. Since then, it’s been packed every night of the week, won top honors by many review sites, and the talented owners, young brothers Omar and Cesin Curi, keep ‘em coming back. Why? Great food. Candlelit tables and informed, enthusiastic waitstaff dressed in white button down Oxford shirts and ties, Los Andes dishes up innovative Peruvian/Bolivian cuisine with Italian and Japanese influences. The signature Ceviche Martini, a humongous martini glass packed with citrus-snappy calamari, mussels, shrimp and fish tidbits, is big enough for two and amazingly priced at $7.95. My favorite? The Envuelto Pollo – an ambrosial amalgamation of chicken breast, roasted red peppers, spinach, mushrooms, creamy cheese, rolled and coated in seasoned Ritz Crackers $13.95.
EAT: CAV. An acronym for “Cocktails, Antiques, Victuals” – CAV, located in a factory building in the former jewelry district – is a delight for the eye and palate. Kiln rugs, crystal chandeliers, and carvings enhance the French-inspired innovative fare. Start with delicate Goat Cheese Croquettes with Balsamic Reduction ($5.25), and try one of the more intriguing dishes like Poulet aux Poires – pan-seared chicken breast with red pears in red wine and ginger pear sauce with Asian Chive Dumplings $25.95. Strange, but surprisingly lip-smacking.
DRINK: The Hot Club. Contrary to what its name implies, this is not a “hot” club. It’s name stems from the building that this extremely popular neighborhood joint hard by the Providence River occupies; the former Steam Room for surrounding factory buildings. Providence home boys, The Farley Brothers, filmed parts of Something About Mary right on these weathered plank floors. Take a 30 minute Providence River Boat Tour from the Hot Club patio for just $10 – you can take your drinks! River tours Wednesdays and Fridays in season @ 6pm.
Where To Stay In Providence RI
STAY: Jacob Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast Inn. Once owned by Gilbert Grosvenor, first editor of National Geographic known as “the father of photojournalism” and his wife, the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, the elite of the early 1900’s – Vanderbilt’s, Firestones among them– were invited out to Jacob’s Hill to ride horses and hunt fox. Just four miles from downtown Providence, but a world away, the Select Registry Jacob Hill Farm Bed and Breakfast Inn is a find. Bill and Elenora Rezek restored the 1723 main house, which retains its original cooking fireplace and features several modernized luxurious rooms, and remodeled the 75-horse stable used for the Jacob Hill Hunt Club in the early 1900’s into a second series of guestrooms – as well as the breakfast room, billiards room, ping pong room and reception area. Drive ten minutes into Providence for dinner (Elenora will give you directions to all great restaurants), although you may just yearn to lounge by the pool or play tennis on sultry afternoons. Antique-filled, eclectic rooms each have a particular charm; I love the Vanderbilt Suite – with comfy sleigh bed, French doors that open to a Jacuzzi marble bathroom, and sliding glass door onto a small deck overlooking the pool. Rooms and suites from $180-$460 include gourmet breakfast, cheese plate and glass of wine at arrival, cookies at bedtime, wi-fi and parking.
STAY: Christopher Dodge House. While the highway-side, unkempt neighborhood location might give one pause, this 1850’s brick home, completely restored in 2002, is a beautiful and quiet oasis of hospitality. Stay in a “Prime” room facing away from I-95, and, on your torso-high four-poster bed, you could be at any lovely country B&B. Burnished original wide plank floors, 11 foot ceilings trimmed with elaborate moldings, fresh baked goods and drinks 24/7 and gourmet breakfast, it’s a nice and friendly alternative to larger hotels in town. Rooms range from standard to luxury (Prime), with prices that reflect the difference. Baths are not marble or granite luxurious, but clean and fine. While walking in the neighborhood during the day is ok, it’s probably safer to drive downtown at night. Standard rooms are $129-$149, though the Mavens recommend the “Prime” rooms, $169-$189. All include free wi-fi, free parking, fresh-baked goods in the afternoon, and gourmet multicourse breakfast.