College Hill, Providence, Rhode Island.Photo Credit : Rhode Island Commerce Corporation
For visitors to Providence, Rhode Island, the city park known as Prospect Terrace offers a great place to get your bearings. From this elevated vantage point atop the College Hill neighborhood, you can see markers of Providence’s rich history as a political, financial, and religious hub: City Hall and the State House, the c. 1819 Old Stone Bank, and the steeple of the oldest Baptist church in America, established by city founder Roger Williams. But the tree-lined streets of Rhode Island’s state capital hold many more discoveries, including dining and cultural scenes enriched and enlivened by generations of immigrants as well as an endlessly churning population of college students.
You could easily spend a week or more exploring this classic New England city at the head of Narragansett Bay. But if you have just a day or two, here are the five best things to do in Providence, Rhode Island.
Dotted with lakes and filled with trees, gardens, and walking paths, this 400-acre-plus showcase of Victorian landscape design is the kind of verdant civic park you’d love to have in your own town. Even better, there are attractions within the main attraction: Roger Williams Park Zoo, the third oldest in the country, where thrills range from a petting zoo to a zip-line ride; the Roger Williams Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, the only such museum in Rhode Island, and the state’s only public planetarium; the Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park, the largest public indoor display gardens in New England; and a Carousel Village with a vintage merry-go-round and a choo-choo train.
Sights, sounds, and scents of Narragansett Bay accompany your walk or ride along any or all of this nearly 15-mile shoreside path, Rhode Island’s first-ever state-built bike route, completed from 1987 to 1992. Set largely on the former rail bed of the Providence and Bristol Railroad, it runs from Providence’s India Point Park to Independence Park in Bristol, with possible stops including the Crescent Park Looff Carousel in East Providence, wildlife watching at Audubon’s Nature Center and Aquarium in Bristol, and Colt State Park, a 464-acre green space that’s open to the bay.
Ranked as one of the most walkable cities in New England, Providence invites strolling — and throws in enough hilly options to make a good workout, too. The local convention and visitors bureau has an excellent self-guided tour map you can download for free, and which covers such highlights as the c. 1828 Arcade, the nation’s oldest indoor shopping mall; the Industrial Trust Company building (nicknamed the Superman Building for its resemblance to the fictional Daily Planet headquarters); and Waterplace Park and the Riverwalk. If you prefer to be led by a local, the Rhode Island Historical Society offers public tours of Benefit Street in College Hill, a roadway lined with restored colonial homes and grand mansions near the cast-iron filigree gates of Brown University.
Part of the Rhode Island School of Design, this museum features an aggressively diverse collection dedicated to exposing its students to many artistic styles. It houses nearly 100,000 objects — furniture, textiles, art, silver, and more — including works by 18th-century Newport furniture makers Goddard and Townsend and 19th-century Rhode Island painters John Noble Barlow and Gilbert Stuart. All the big names are here, too, such as Monet, Manet, Picasso, and Warhol. Plus, it’s right down the street from a one-of-a-kind shopping experience, RISD Works (located inside the RISD Store), which is stocked with creations by RISD faculty and alums.
Providence is a small city in the country’s most diminutive state. But it has long punched far above its weight in its cultural relevance, its art scene, and especially its restaurants. On Federal Hill, the city’s Little Italy, neighborhood favorites include Caserta Pizzeria and Angelo’s Civita Farnese. For fine dining, Al Forno in Fox Point and Gracie’s downtown have been at the top of their game for decades. And there’s no shortage of little independent bistros whose ambition and gumption seems to match that of the city itself, from North, known for a pan-Asian menu that layers together sweet, sour, buttery, and umami flavors; to Birch, a specialist in seasonal, modern prix fixe dining; to Nick’s on Broadway, where the dinner is terrific, but the brunch is famous.
Have your own list of the very best things to do in Providence, Rhode Island? Leave your picks in the comments below!
This post was first published in 2020 and has been updated.