The 1798 Nathaniel Smith House on Benefit Street, dubbed “the most impressive concentration of original Colonial homes in America.”Photo Credit : Angel Tucker
The once-vibrant city was a desolate urban landscape when I moved away in 1978. What a surprise, then, to find a very different Providence in 1993, the year I moved to an apartment in a beautifully restored colonial on Transit Street on the East Side. That historic neighborhood was almost demolished in the ’70s to make way for a parking garage; thanks to the spunk and determination of architectural historian Antoinette Downing, it was saved and restored.
Ever since Roger Williams founded Providence in 1636, spunk and determination have created and resurrected this city over and over. The Providence of today is a thriving, historic, creative, hip city—a perfect city, in fact, in which to spend a weekend this holiday season.
Check in to the boutique “vintage chic” Dean Hotel, in the heart of downtown. It’s filled with custom furniture and eclectic artwork from local artists. Then head to an early dinner at New Rivers, a cozy restaurant just a short walk away on Steeple Street.
You can’t turn a corner in Providence without bumping into history, and New Rivers offers a gorgeous view of the First Baptist Church, the oldest Baptist congregation in the United States, founded in 1638 by Roger Williams for members to meet in private homes. The church you are gazing at held its first meeting in 1775.
New Rivers, owned by Beau and Elizabeth Vestal, is known for seasonal food that celebrates and collaborates with local purveyors. The house-made charcuterie is the perfect starter—think smoked duck breast and pork rillettes served with really good mustard and pickled veggies. No matter what else you order, make sure to get the homemade Parker House rolls and the triple-cooked French fries with malt vinegar aioli, a nod to the way Rhode Islanders put malt vinegar—not ketchup—on their fries.
After dinner, make your way to Trinity Rep for its production of A Christmas Carol. For the past 44 years, Trinity Rep has reimagined this classic play (even streaming it last year when Covid shut down theaters). The lights will dim, and holiday magic will begin.After the play, if you’ve feeling like grabbing a late-night snack, line up with college students, workers ending their shifts, and hungry locals at Haven Brothers, one of the oldest restaurants on wheels in the country. Originally, Haven Brothers was a horse-drawn lunch wagon started in 1893 by a widow named Anne Haven, who bought it with the insurance money from her husband’s death. Every afternoon at 4:30, it pulls up on Dorrance Street next to City Hall and serves hot dogs, burgers, and fries late into the night. I recommend getting a Haven Dog—mustard, relish, onions, celery salt—at the take-out window, and munching it on the walk back to the hotel.
Start your morning with coffee and a breakfast sandwich from Bolt, right in the Dean. For a break from your caffeine routine, try a café miel (espresso, steamed milk, and honey) or the Woodsman (espresso, steamed milk, maple syrup). Now properly refueled, drive up College Hill to view Brown University’s grand Van Wickle Gates, which lead to the ivied main campus and onto Hope Street, where every December the Hope Street Merchants Association decorates trees and sidewalks with unusual lights created by neighborhood artist Cristin Searles Bilodeau.
Be prepared to do some holiday shopping at the independently owned businesses that line Hope Street. Start at Frog & Toad, which “sells stuff you don’t need but gotta have,” like Kamala Harris action figures and Rhode Island–themed T-shirts, coffee mugs, and ornaments.
Big this year is anything emblazoned with “Knock It Off,”then-governor Gina Raimondo’s famous warning to those who kept throwing parties as Covid cases rose.
Kreatelier is an interior design shop that also sells unique, all-organic cotton baby and kid clothes, as well as dresses, scarves, and jewelry for grown-ups. At Stock Culinary Goods, you can get a presentation board shaped like a whale or the state of Rhode Island, as well as other locally made and classic kitchen goodies.
After all this shopping you should be ready for lunch, which means it’s time to head to the Wurst Kitchen, part of the restaurant Chez Pascal, which is a lovely place for dinner, with its tin ceiling and seasonally driven menu. But this December afternoon you want house-made wursts, ordered from a take-out window or eaten inside with a nice glass of cabernet. (I always share a wurst or two with my husband but dig into the pork-butt pastrami sandwich myself.)
To work off some of those calories, go downtown to the BankNewport City Center outdoor ice skating rink, where for just $7 you can glide across the ice for up to three hours. Finish the afternoon shopping on nearby Westminster Street at the indie bookstore Symposium and—for one-of-a-kind items made in Rhode Island and Massachusetts as well as “selected artistry and weirdness from across the country”—Craftland (imagine if Etsy came to life as a store).
Pop into The Eddy for a cocktail before dinner at one of Providence’s two James Beard Award–nominated restaurants: Persimmon, owned by chef Champe Speidel and his wife, Lisa, which sources the best local ingredients available; or Oberlin, where chef Ben Sukle serves superlative small plates of seafood and pasta.
The North, right in the Dean Hotel, creates an eye-opening, globe-spanning brunch. Try coconut pancakes, chicken and waffles, or rock crab congee—all perfect sustenance for a visit to the RISD Museum, located on the south side of the Rhode Island School of Design campus. At the 20th-largest art museum in the country, you can lose yourself in Impressionist masterpieces, gaze upon a 10-foot-tall 12th-century wooden Buddha, and peruse more than 700 19th-century Japanese prints. Stop into the museum store to pick up something from RISD’s alumni collection—a tie by Nicole Miller, say, or a Family Guy T-shirt designed by Seth McFarland.
From the museum, stroll down historic Benefit Street, a 1.2-mile stretch of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Look for the majestic John Brown House, former home of the wealthy merchant who founded Brown University in 1764. Next door sits the Nightingale-Brown House, the largest 18th-century wood-frame house in North America. You’ll also pass the Providence Athenaeum, where Edgar Allan Poe wooed Sarah Whitman in the 1840s and H.P. Lovecraft wrote his horror story “The Shunned House,” about the house at 135 Benefit Street. Benefit Street ends at Wickenden Street, where you can grab a cup of sustainable coffee at the Coffee Exchange or a slice of pizza across the street at Fellini’s. Both still have the laid-back hippie vibe that permeated Providence in the 1970s.
On your way out of town, drive south on Route 95 to glimpse the famous Big Blue Bug at exit 19. The 58-foot-long, nine-foot-tall steel and fiberglass termite has reigned over Providence since 1980. During the pandemic, it wore a mask, but now it’s December, so the bug will be sporting a red blinking nose and antlers. It’s a perfect finish to a weekend that covered 400 years of history and all the spunk and determination of the city whose State House is topped by a statue dubbed “The Independent Man,” which you’ll see overlooking and guiding the city as you leave.