After living in Rhode Island for over 20 years, I’m still often surprised and delighted by our Creative Capital. Providence is ever-evolving with new boutique hotels, innovative restaurants, food halls, green spaces, public art, and fun ways to explore. I’ve put together some of my favorite things to do in Providence for first-time visitors looking for a weekend getaway.
When to Visit Providence
The best time to visit Providence is from May through late October. Of course, you can visit in the winter, and even enjoy deals during Restaurant Week in January, but you won’t want to spend as much time outside. If visiting from May through October, you may also luck out to time your visit with a Waterfire performance, Providence’s signature event.
June is a wonderful time to visit, especially during PVDFest, an arts and culture festival featuring artists, performers, makers, and local businesses. (Just double-check to see when it will return safely.) Definitely check the Providence event calendar when planning your trip because there is always something fun going on in Providence from street festivals to events like PRONKfest or Gallery Night Providence.
Fun Things to Do in Providence
Providence really has something for everyone, from history buffs to outdoor lovers. Home to a number of colleges, you have the academic pursuits of Brown University, the creative artists and makers from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and the culinary creations coming out of Johnson & Wales, along with the sports of Providence College and Brown.
Waterfire is a public art installation created by Barnaby Evans, which has been running annually since 2001. The sculpture features 81 braziers placed in the rivers that run through the heart of the city. At various lightings, typically from May through October, these braziers are filled with wood and lit at sunset. Music is piped up and down the river banks and the walkways and surrounding areas are filled with visitors taking in the sights.
There are many ways to enjoy Waterfire, from bringing a picnic to enjoy on the lawn in Waterplace Park near the river basin, to booking a gondola to get up close to the burning fires. There are also typically side events taking place, from live music and street performers to ballroom or salsa dancing.
We like to book dinner at a restaurant downtown that offers valet parking or a parking lot, like Hemenways, and then take a stroll along the river after. However, you can also park in the large garage at Providence Place Mall and grab food from some of the food trucks and street vendors.
Explore College Hill
Providence is claimed to have been built on seven hills, just like Rome, but the most prominent is College Hill. This is where you will find the campuses of Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design. Take a stroll along historic Benefit Street, to see the houses dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The country’s first Baptist Church can be found between Benefit Street and North Main Street, connected by one of my favorite streets in Providence, Thomas Street, which is worth checking out for the unique architecture and the Providence Art Club.
If you are exploring the Brown campus, be sure to take a selfie with the Brown Bear, outside of the recreational center and hockey stadium on Hope Street. You can then enjoy lunch and some boutique shopping on Thayer Street. Den Den Korean Fried Chicken is one of my favorite spots, as is the original Den Den Café Asiana on Benefit Street. Kabob & Curry on Thayer would be my pick for Indian food, but you will find many college-budget-friendly restaurants in this area.
Finish up your College Hill stroll with some freshly baked cookies at Insomnia Cookies and take in the view, especially at sunset, from Prospect Park on Congdon Street.
Visit Historic Sites
If you have come to Providence seeking history, you won’t be disappointed. Start off at the Roger William National Memorial, where you can learn the history of the founder of Rhode Island and his flight from the Massachusetts colony seeking religious freedom. (Be sure to check first to see if the Visitor’s Center is open.)
In addition to the First Baptist Church, the other famous historic landmark is the Providence Athenaeum. Opened in this location in 1838, this member-funded library offers self-guided or staff-led tours, as well as engaging salon events during normal times. You can learn the story of Edgar Allen Poe and his romantic entanglements in the Athenaeum, and even see his signature on an old Charging book.
Check with the Providence Preservation Society to see what walking tours or events might be taking place during your visit. You can also stop and see the John Brown House and the H.P. Lovecraft Square. In Downcity Providence, you can also find the country’s first indoor shopping mall, The Arcade. Here you will want to stop for lunch or brunch at Rogue Island.
Get Spooked on a Ghost Tour
If you want to explore Providence’s darker history, sign up for a Providence Ghost Tour to find out what spirits might still be lingering. Or, hear about the city’s dearly departed on a Haunted Boat Tour with Providence River Boat Company.
Get Artsy at the RISD Museum
Art lovers can hop on board the Art Trolley during Providence Gallery Nights, but if you aren’t in town when these tours are running, a visit to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is a must. The RISD Museum collection contains more than 100,000 works of art and design dating from ancient times to today including paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, costume and textiles, and furniture from all over the world.
Take a Boat Tour
The Providence River runs through the heart of the city and is a perfect way to explore. You can stroll along the pathways and under the bridges that line the river, or get out on the water. Providence River Boat Company offers narrated tours on a pontoon boat that tell the history of Providence.
Ride in a Gondola
Of course, the most romantic way to explore the river would be on a gondola ride with La Gondola, especially during Waterfire. Just remember to make a reservation in advance! Afterwards, you can enjoy a lovely lunch by the water at The River Social, or fine dining with a view at Cafe Nuovo.
Kayak the River
If you prefer something more active, Providence Kayak Company offers both kayak rentals and guided tours. Paddle under bridges, along the riverwalk and through Waterplace Park on the Providence and Woonasquatucket Rivers.
Eat Your Way Around Providence
Rhode Island Red Food Tours offers 3.5 hour food tours through Providence’s vibrant Downcity Arts District. In additon to great food, your guide will also point out hidden art, historic architectural gems, and share local stories along the way.
Unlike some cities, Providence isn’t a big shopping destination. If you are looking for name brands and designers, the three-story Providence Place Mall has some favorites, just don’t expect to find high-end designers here.
If it is boutiques and locally-owned shops that you are looking for though, you will find some scattered in various pockets throughout the city. On the East Side of Providence, Wayland Square is home to Books on the Square, Lululemon, West Elm, and clothing boutiques. Stop for lunch at Salted Slate or enjoy a glass of wine at its sister restaurant, Providence Wine Bar.
Hope Street between Rochambeau and 5th Street is another shopping district packed with local toy stores, craft stores, and boutiques like Frog & Toad, J. Marcel, Rhody Craft, Stock Kitchen, and Kreatelier. Stop for coffee and pastry at Seven Stars Bakery or a light lunch at Little Sister.
In Downcity, you will find more restaurants and shops lining Westminster Street. Homestyle is a great little gift shop where you can find uniquely Rhode Island products. Book lovers will enjoy browsing the shelves of Symposium Books. Stop for a beer and pretzel at Malted Barley or enjoy authentic Greek cuisine at Kleos.
Of course, there are other unique ways to shop in Providence. Providence Flea is a vintage and maker market, taking place outside along the river in the summer and at the Farm Fresh RI Market Hall in the winter.
On Saturdays, you can also enjoy fresh produce, baked goods, and other foods at the Hope Street Farmer’s Market. During the warmer months, you will find the market at Lippitt Park and in the winter, at the new Farm Fresh RI Market on Sims Street.
Last but not least, enjoy indoor shopping at Providence Place Mall and stop for a meal at Fogo de Chao or enjoy some entertainment at Dave and Buster’s.
Stroll Along the Providence Pedestrian Bridge
Providence recently installed a Pedestrian Bridge which spans the river at the end of South Water Street that has become a gathering place for locals and food trucks. It is also a perfect time to check out Plant City, Providence’s only plant-based food hall. In the warmer weather you can enjoy pop-up beer garden from The Guild.
Check out Providence Street Art
If you are a fan of street art, you will want to wander the streets and side alleys of Downtown Providence. One of my favorites is Still Here, by Gaia, which adorns the side of a building on Custom House Street. This features Narragansett tribal member Lynsea Monatari, surrounded by natural elements like flowers, berries, and blackbirds. She holds a Black and white photo of tribal elder Princess Red Wing, founder of the Tomaquag Museum.
You can find the latest murals and where they are located at The Avenue Concept site.
Like many cities, Providence and nearby Pawtucket have become hot spots for craft beer. You can hop on board the Rhode Island Brews Cruise for a guided tour, or pick up a Brewery Passport from the Rhode Island Brewers Guild and sample a few on your own. Naragansett Brewery has a huge space near India Point Park and Foolproof Brewing is worth crossing the border over into Pawtucket, I’m especially fond of their sours. Long Live Beerworks also has a beautiful space and you can usually find either a pop-up restaurant inside or food trucks nearby.
Federal Hill is Providence’s “Little Italy”. You will know you have arrived when you drive under the pineapple at the beginning of Atwells Avenue. While no longer a bastion of just Italian restaurants and markets, it is still the place to go for delicious ravioli or veal parmesan. During the warm weather months, DePasquale Square is bustling with outdoor dining and live musical performances encouraging festive dancing around the square’s fountain.
Pick up prepared foods at Venda Ravioli, enjoy coffee and dessert at Pastiche, or fill up on the gnocchi al forno at Pane e Vino. For classic Italian-American dishes, try Angelo’s, Andino’s, or Cassarino’s.
Providence Children’s Museum
If you are visiting with little ones, the Providence Children’s Museum offers an afternoon or morning of exploration and fun. Kids can enjoy water play, strengthen their muscles on the outdoor climbing structure, or practice building skills where learning feels like playing.
Bike Along the East Bay Bike Path
The East Bay Bike Path stretches 14.5 miles from India Point Park in Providence to Colt State Park in Bristol. Many stretches of this lovely path run along the water, offering beautiful views. Stop off in Warren for one of the best lobster rolls in Rhode Island at Blount’s Clam Shack on the water, just one block off the bike path. You can also stretch your legs for a short hike at the Audubon Society’s Environmental Education Center, or have a picnic and a Del’s frozen lemonade at Colt State Park before attempting the return trip.
Enjoy Roger Williams Park & Zoo
Stretching over 435 acres, the “People’s Park” is reminiscent of New York’s Central Park and offers miles of walkways, recreational ponds, public gardens, tennis courts, ball fields, playgrounds, public art, and several historic buildings. Families will enjoy the carousel at the Boathouse and frolicking on the playground.
We love strolling through the Japanese Gardens, taking a Swan Boat paddleboat, or exploring the indoor gardens at the Botanical Center. There is a small Museum of Natural History, but if it is animals you are interested in, spend half a day at the Roger Williams Park Zoo, home to over 150 animals from giraffes to elephants to the adorable red pandas.
See a Show
You can catch a traveling Broadway show at the historic Providence Performing Arts Center, enjoy a play at Trinity Rep, or relax to the movements of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra at The Vets.
Where to Eat in Providence
As I mentioned, Providence’s culinary scene has put the city on the map and the food options have evolved from its Italian and Portuguese roots. I’ve written before about my favorite restaurants in Rhode Island and the best brunch spots in Providence, but the following are some more of my favorite spots. Don’t miss trying some of Rhode Island’s must try foods.
Italian: Italian restaurants put Providence on the map, especially the grilled pizza at Al Forno. There are many options from classic to modern Italian but my favorite is Bacaro. Although for a special occasion, I enjoy the formal atmosphere at Capriccio.
Seafood: For the Ocean State, you would expect more seafood options in Providence, but alas, some of the better choices are closer to the beach. However, for special occasions when I want to splurge for a great lobster or fish dish, I head to Hemenways. When a lobster roll or clam cakes are calling my name and I don’t feel like driving to the beach, Dune Brothers Seafood is where I go (when they are open.)
New American: Nick’s on Broadway never disappoints with a locally sourced, seasonal menu. Oberlin is also a fan favorite with a small but innovative farm-to-table menu. I also love some of the small plates at Persimmon on the East Side.
Vegetarian: Vegans and vegetarians can rejoice at the options in Providence. While it used to be a very steakhouse-heavy city, there are some fantastic vegetarian options now including the aforementioned Plant City, a plant-based food hall. I love the General Tso’s Tacos at Garden Grille for a casual lunch and sister vegan bakery Wildflour are top choices.
South American: Peruvian and Bolivian restaurant Los Andes has received many accolades for its Latin flavors. I’m also a fan of casual Venezuelan La Arepa, although technically that is in nearby Pawtucket.
Mexican: When we first moved to Providence we thought we couldn’t find any good Mexican restaurants but it turns out, we just didn’t know where to look. Eventually, we discovered the delights of Dolores on Providence’s East Side. The casual take-out or outdoor dining of nearby Tallulah’s Tacos is also a favorite of ours.
Asian: The Asian options in Providence are a bit of a mixed bag. As I mentioned before, Den Den is a great option for Korean. My family likes the sushi at Haruki and for a new mix of Asian fusion in a beautiful setting, we head to Jackie’s Waterfront.
Casual: I love all the funky casual options that have cropped up in Providence over the years. The lively atmosphere of Ogie’s Trailer Park is great for drinks and comfort food. Bayberry Beer Hall has a robust beer selection, along with a limited but tasty food menu. For delicious burgers and fried chicken sandwiches, Chomp is my pick. Many people also love Troop, but I find it a bit loud for my liking — which is just showing my age.
Brunch: We love a good Sunday brunch and I’ve written about some of our favorites, including Rogue Island, The River Social, and Black Duck Tavern.
Drinks: There are plenty of fun places to meet for drinks. If you are looking for craft cocktails in a chic setting, head to Marcelinos. For casual drinks with a close friend, head to Tiny Bar. For drinks downtown, I’m partial to Needle & Thread, The Red Door, or The Eddy. But if you want a view, try the Rooftop at Providence G (go early before the crowds) or Mare Rooftop.
Donuts: You probably shouldn’t leave Providence without sampling some donuts. Skip Dunkin and try either PVD Donuts or Knead Donuts instead. I say try both and see if you can pick a favorite. I know I can’t.
Where to Stay in Providence
The accommodation options in Providence keep expanding, which is a good thing. If you are visiting on a college tour or want a hotel with a local feel, stay at The Graduate Providence, formerly the much more formal Biltmore Hotel.
The Aloft Providence Downtown has a great location for exploring the city and also a cool rooftop restaurant and bar (see my review of the Aloft Providence Downtown). If you are staying with a family, try the Homewood Suites for an unbeatable location.
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