11 amazing things to do in Providence
With miles of beautiful Rhode Island beaches on its doorstep and gorgeous architecture, Providence is the perfect escape for a long weekend.
Providence doesn’t clamour for your attention like New York, Chicago or LA. Just three hours north of NYC and an hour south of Boston, it’s a small city with big ideas. The former manufacturing powerhouse – once among the richest cities in America – has developed into one of the country’s coolest foodie destinations, thanks to an influx of young and ambitious chefs.
1) Sample dishes from America’s hottest new chefs
You don’t have to travel to the bright lights of New York to sample the best of American cuisine: Providence is home to Johnson & Wales, one of the leading culinary schools in the country. This has led to a plethora of new restaurants run by young and ambitious alumni – from Benjamin Sukle at Oberlin, who forages his own ingredients and serves the freshest flounder you’ll ever have the pleasure of tasting, to Champe Speidel at Persimmon, who indulges customers with multi-course tasting menus for a fraction of the price you’d pay in other US cities.
2) Eat hot dogs at Olneyville New York System
Slide into a Tango-orange pleather booth at Olneyville New York System and try one of Providence’s most famous meals – hot wieners. The hot-dog-esque dish is best “loaded” with mince and onions, with a side of coffee milk – Rhode Island’s official state drink (think sweet milk with a coffee flavour). Don’t dress up: old-school Olneyville is a diner-type restaurant that’s packed with families and spirited students at all times of the day.
3) Shop in America’s oldest indoor mall
Providence is crammed with excellent vintage shops (try The Vault Collective on Westminster Street) but to check out the oldest indoor shopping mall in the US you need to head to Westminster Arcade, an elaborate granite building built in 1828. Snap some pictures of the Greek-style architecture – towering columns support the exterior of the structure – then take a wander down the main hall inside, which is lined with small boutiques and vintage shops. Try Carmen and Ginger for smart coats, retro T-shirts and dresses in funky fabrics.
4) Bed down at the hippest boutique hotel in town
The hippest bed in town is at The Dean, a boutique hotel that’s decorated with neon signs and comfy velvet sofas. It’s also home to one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, North by James Mark, where Asian-inspired dishes are served on sharing tables. Another of the hotel’s big draws is The Boombox, Providence’s first and only karaoke lounge. Inspired by the karaoke bars of Tokyo, the red-walls, leather-sofa spaces are the perfect place to let loose – in the privacy of your own booth – with your personal rendition of Cher’s “Turn Back Time”. We’ve all been there.
5) Witness the WaterFire in the summer
You won’t last long in Providence without a local mentioning WaterFire – an award-winning fire sculpture installation on the three rivers in downtown Providence. The spectacle is the brainchild of local artist Barnaby Evans, and sees 100 bonfires blazing just over water level through the downtown area. Stroll along the water and you’ll see two-thirds of a mile of parks illuminated by the flickering firelight; hear live music and smell the scent of burning cedar and pine; and see flotillas of black-clad performers travel along the river on torch-lit vessels. What’s more, it’s free, so check the schedule between May and November, and clear your calendar for Saturday evenings.
6) Drive ice bumper cars in the winter
Make the most of the city’s chilly winter months by embracing the joys of ice bumper cars – yes, that’s skidding around on ice in an inflatable ring, bumping into other people on the rink. The sessions run from 10pm to 11pm most evenings between November and March at the Alex and Ani City Center at Providence Rink. Participants must be over six years old, and a healthy sense of humour is essential. It’s exactly as fun as it sounds, although if you’d rather take a more traditional approach, then ice-skating is also available.
7) Visit the Rhode Island School of Design Museum
Located in downtown Providence, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum is a brilliant maze of 93,000 artworks. These range from big-name artists including Picasso and Monet, to ancient Greek vases and 19th-century Japanese prints. Visit on a Sunday for free entry, and get there for opening time at 10am to have the museum virtually to yourself. On your way out be sure to grab a flat white from Café Pearl, which is run in conjunction with indie coffee connoisseurs Bolt Coffee.
8) Explore the Italian neighbourhoods
According to the New England Historical Society, 19% of Rhode Islanders claim Italian ancestry, a figure that leaps to 37% in North Providence. Visit the sleepy Italian neighbourhood of Federal Hill and you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time. Start at Venda Ravioli, an old-school deli with giant panettoni dangling from the ceiling and glass-fronted fridges crammed with meats and cheeses, then head to Gasbarro’s Wines – one of the first shops in the country to import Italian wines. Finish off at Scialo Bros Bakery, a small shop that’s run by two 60-something sisters who bake everything from extravagant cakes to cannoli.
9) Spook yourself on a ghost tour
Providence is home to the famous Brown University, whose alumni include Hollywood star Emma Watson and John F Kennedy Jnr, son of the former President. Forget a daytime wander – the best way to experience the neighbourhood and learn about the history of the city’s East Side, is on a Providence Ghost Tour. Your guide will lead the lantern-lit way along leafy backstreets, recounting the tale of the Two Phantom Women of Power Street (a story that was found buried in the archives of “The Providence Journal”) among other spine-chilling tales.
10) Devour dessert at PVDonuts
You only need to take one look at PVDonuts’ Instagram and you’ll be joining the queue that wiggles out this bakery’s door. The funky independent shop is run by two Johnson & Wales alumni, and is the go-to spot for giant, deliciously squidgy donuts covered in everything from multi-coloured sprinkles (that’s the Pop Rocks donut) to a coffee milk glaze. Locals leave with boxes buckling under the weight of their purchases, and it’s not unusual for the bakery to sell over 2,000 donuts a day. Don’t miss out.
11) Visit the grave of writer HP Lovecraft
Horror fiction fans descend on Swan Point Cemetery to visit the grave of celebrated writer HP Lovecraft. The author was born and raised in Providence, and although his work wasn’t hugely recognised in his lifetime (between 1890 and 1937), he has since become one of the most famous horror fiction writers in the world – inspiring acolytes ranging from author George RR Martin to director Guillermo del Toro. The park-like cemetery is on the banks of the Seekonk River, and his grave is located at the crossing point between Pond Avenue and Avenue B. Look for the inscription “I Am Providence”. (Photo by Will Hart licensed under CC BY 2.0)