Planning a visit to the smallest New England state’s biggest city? We’ve got you covered with these top tips on what to do in Providence, RI.
By Aimee Tucker
Apr 22 2021
Please note that businesses, attractions, and events throughout New England have been modified, closed, and/or canceled in response to the COVID-19 health crisis. Please travel responsibly, and check with state guidelines and individual businesses and organizations before making travel plans.
The Rhode Island city of Providence is a place where history and hipness go hand in hand. Craving culture? Looking for an Instagram-worthy excuse to get outside? Dreaming of your next favorite meal? Read on for a selection of our favorite Providence hotels, restaurants, and can’t-miss attractions. Once you’re through, you’ll no longer be wondering what to do in Providence, RI, but rather how you’re going to fit everything in.
Whether it’s shopping, culture, or quiet nature escapes you’re after, we’ve rounded up some great options for how to spend a day in the Renaissance City. All of the following selections for what to do in Providence, RI, have appeared in a recent edition of the annual list of Yankee Editors’ Picks for the Best of New England.
Yes, it’s hyped, and yes, more than 10 million people have seen WaterFire Providence, Barnaby Evans’s installation of 100 bonfires, with mysterious boats gliding through the darkness and haunting music spilling across the three rivers that converge in the heart of the city. But here’s the thing: The whole scene always works. There may be no better free event this summer.
Flame-colored kayaks are back on the city’s rivers for the third season, evidence that the Providence and the Woonasquatucket are the cleanest they’ve been since the industrial revolution. Paddling on your own or with a guided group isn’t just the most active and unusual way to admire Providence’s architecture and graceful bridges: If you scoop up five pieces of trash along the way, you’ll save $5 on your next rental … and keep the momentum to revitalize these celebrated waterways flowing.
America’s third-oldest zoo has been on an evolutionary fast track since a 20-year master plan was finalized in 2015. The latest addition: a glass-enclosed rain forest where exotic birds fly free, sloths dangle, howler monkeys wail, and giant river otters Fernando and Romo steal the show. No matter how you’ve traveled to this remarkably interactive zoo, you’ll leave with a critical understanding of the role you play in protecting our planet’s diversity. (Visiting Providence in October? Don’t miss the popular Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, featuring some 5,000 illuminated pumpkins displayed along the zoo’s wetlands trail.)
The sights, sounds, and scents of the bay accompany your walk or ride along this 14.5-mile shoreside path from Providence’s India Point Park to Independence Park in Bristol. Possible stops include a Crescent Park carousel ride, wildlife-watching at the Audubon Society’s Environmental Education Center, and Del’s frozen lemonade at Colt State Park.
Sit back, relax, think … oh, and maybe snap a quick pic with your smartphone. This is one of the best vantages of the capital city. There’s a statue of Roger Williams to keep you company and a grassy knoll where you can spread out a picnic.
Curator of cool, the Providence Flea is a juried outdoor urban artisan/maker market with a decidedly Brooklyn bent. Launched in 2013, the Flea quickly became a popular Sunday haunt for treasure seekers and lovers of all things vintage. Today you’ll find 60-plus local vendors as well as community nonprofits, live music, and food trucks. Outdoor markets (with free parking and admission) take place on Sundays from June to October. Check online for information about select winter and spring markets, too.
The beautiful 1846 Swan Point Cemetery is where Providence’s own horror master, H.P. Lovecraft, is laid to rest, and where Edgar Allen Poe’s beloved rejected his marriage proposal. This 200-acre plot on the banks of the Seekonk River is also a lush park for the living, where every turn on a walk, drive, or bike ride unveils moving art and epitaphs.
Comfy leather couches and access to adult beverages are reason enough to catapult the Cable Car into the winner’s circle. Throw in an unparalleled lineup of indie and foreign films, and you’ve got a real blockbuster.
Hungry? You’ve come to the right place. There are simply too many worthy places to eat in Providence, RI, to list them all here, but this editor-approved roundup (including the perfect bakery, brunch spot, and farm-to-table dining destination) should help get you started on your next great Providence restaurant adventure. For more ideas, check out our picks for the best restaurants in Providence.
Sin is a lively space — all white-washed brick, ductwork, and wood with a full bar and look-through window to the bakery — but it’s quite all right if you only have eyes for the guilty pleasures it displays. By day, you’ll want an oversize pastry, savory biscuit, or whoopie pie with your tea or coffee, which can be flavored with house-made syrups such as smoked honey. At night, seven seasonal dessert-and-cocktail pairings are as sinful as their names (Greed, Lust, Envy, etc.) suggest. Named a 2019 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Bakery, Sweets.”
SEE MORE:5 Great Providence Bakery Spots
Park your preconceptions at the curb: This isn’t Southern, Texas-style, or Midwestern barbecue. Jimmy James Caruso — chef, master of the flames, and unapologetic carnivore — is brazenly creating New England’s own slow-smoked cuisine with a spice profile unlike anything on the map. (That’s sumac, for example, giving the rib rub its mysterious zing.) Wow-sized specials, like the 46-ounce tomahawk steak, butter-aged for 45 days, and 10-hour confit local pig head with house-made molé are worth a road trip if you have a few adventurous friends with big appetites. Named a 2019 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Barbecue.”
In the tunnel-like 21-seat space where James Mark incubated his acclaimed restaurant, North (now in roomier Dean Hotel digs), the irreverently brilliant chef-preneur is back with a Japanese-inspired dining experience that is all about trust. You won’t find menus online. Make reservations anyway. Then, spend languid hours allowing well-choreographed chefs to deliver four or six courses or à la carte choices, with or without sake pairings. Dishes du jour are hand-scribbled in a notebook, whose back pages taunt foodies with missed opportunities: Salt Pond oysters, grilled pork and daikon, rock crab rice, almost-raw lobster. Named a 2019 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best New Restaurant.”
On-the-water dining isn’t a three-month phenomenon at this fine-casual restaurant moored in a brick Victorian bridge gatehouse. Heaters and awnings extend the alfresco season on the wraparound deck, and there are Seekonk River views from practically every indoor table, too. Brown University owns rights to this stretch below the Henderson Bridge, and that keeps the river quiet save for crew boats. It’s the perfect calming ambiance for savoring brunch or surf-and-wood-grilled-turf dinner specialties and selections from extensive beer and wine lists. Named a 2019 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Waterfront Dining.”
A tribute to Australia’s independent-coffeehouse culture, this newcomer turns usually ho-hum coffee shop fare on its head — try a Sapphire latte brewed with Blue Majik algae extract or the latest neon-shade lemonade. Home-baked goodies, seasonal salads, and dishes such as smoked salmon–topped avocado toast studded with watermelon radishes add even more color to your day. Named a 2018 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Café.”
So enormous, so artful, these doughnuts look as if they were handcrafted for a “food that’ll blow your mind” photoshoot. But they were baked in the wee hours for devoted fans waiting in a line out the door (thankfully, it moves fast). Each month’s new menu of limited-edition delights features both crumbly, cake batter–style doughnuts and brioche dough creations that are surpassingly fluffy. Local collaborations make every morsel — and sip of coffee — an only-in-RI experience. Named a 2018 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Doughnuts.”
The decor is off the chain, the ’90s hip-hop beats are uncensored — and there’s nothing curbing chef Jason Timothy’s creativity. The Johnson & Wales grad and his partners finally have a permanent venue for the authentic and accessible street food that’s made their Laughing Gorilla Catering a smash. Revival Brewing founder Sean Larkin is among the owners, so expect hyper fresh beers for washing down diverse global treats such as Korean short ribs; black bean falafel; spicy, melty pork belly banh mi; and the best tacos in the state. Named a 2018 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best New Restaurant.”
Imagine how tail-waggingly happy traveling canines are to find a pair of plush pet beds in this swanky boutique hotel’s lobby. But the Doggie Lounge, with its perpetually full jar of biscuits, is a mere hint of things to come. Rooms in this arts-and-literature-themed reinvented landmark are outfitted with snuggly beds and treats at check-in. And Yappy Hours in the restaurant’s courtyard on summertime Mondays feature specialty cocktails for you, a bottomless water bowl for your pooch. Named a 2019 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Pet-Friendly Lodging.”
Providence’s swankiest lodging property turns 90 this year—at least, on the outside. The grand marble-pillared exterior of the Renaissance went up in 1928, but the structure, designed as a Masonic temple, was left unfinished and empty for decades. Then in 2007, a monumental restoration project gave the city an instant landmark hotel; a recent facelift cemented the Renaissance Providence’s position at the top of the luxury scale. You’ll appreciate top-tier amenities such as plush bedding and all-day room service, but don’t sleep in: City highlights are right outside the door. Named a 2018 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Upscale City Stay.”
Think European hostel meets minimalist, midcentury American home inside an art professor’s apartment, and you’ll get the vibe at this sleek boutique hotel. Yes, you can snooze in bunk beds if you choose. Karaoke in the Boombox is also optional. The staff ’s genuine desire to assist makes this the ideal crashpad for city newcomers. Named a 2015 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best Capital Digs.”
Built in 1858, this handsome mansion strikes the right balance for guests who appreciate the individuality of a bed-and-breakfast yet crave privacy. Its elegant architectural details are complemented by handcrafted reproduction furnishings; its sun-splashed dining room is an inviting place to linger over locally roasted Borealis coffee and cooked-to-order selections such as waffles topped with fresh fruit. Upgrade to a “prime” room for more space, a gas fireplace, and midnight-snacking convenience: These bedchambers share a floor with the common room, which is stocked round the clock with home-baked pastries. Named a 2017 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best B&B.”
This 24-room hotel on historic Federal Hill has been smartly refurbished in a way that’s equal parts South Beach and quaint old Italian neighborhood. Bursts of citrus color accent the clean, bright rooms, which include popular balconied suites overlooking DePasquale Square’s lively cafés and glittering fountain. That’s Sophia Loren in pop art portraits behind the check-in desk and on stairway walls (Miami artist Ariel Cruz, who studied at RISD, was enlisted to paint the legendary actress). The best perk? The 20 percent you’ll save at sister restaurants Biergarten, Blend, and Caffé Dolce Vita. Named a 2017 Yankee Editors’ Pick for “Best City Hotel.”
Still wondering what to do in Providence, RI? Here’s some additional inspiration from our archives.
This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.