NortheastCity TravelCity

Art of the City, Providence: New England’s Kookiest City Comes Into Its Own

By , October 26th, 2018

The first time I visited Providence, my friend took me to The Duck & Bunny for brunch. We slid down the icy sidewalks of Wickenden Street, and I stepped into a warm Victorian dining room. The tables were cozy, and the eggs Benedict were poached to perfection. The Duck & Bunny is a self-described “snuggery,” where patrons are encouraged to feel comfortable and savor a gourmet cupcake.

On the wall hung a painting, that famous self-portrait of Van Gogh in a blue suit. But instead of Van Gogh’s face, there was a bunny head. The moment I saw that playful pastiche, I knew I had found a special place – where traditional New England blends with kooky modern lifestyles as confidently as Van Gogh dabbed paint on canvas. In an instant, I knew I could live here. And not just live in Providence, but also love it.

Fall in Providence RI

Fall in Providence – N. Millard

Two years later, I am a zealous new resident. With a total population of fewer than 200,000 people, Providence is just the right size. The narrow rivers are lined with parks and crisscrossed with tiny bridges. On foot, you can walk the narrow streets of “Downcity,” stroll Waterplace Park, climb the colonial byways of College Hill – and on every oddly shaped block, you can step into shops and pubs, galleries and historic landmarks.

I’m adamant about this: If you visit the northeastern states, you must visit Providence. Boston has history. Maine has lighthouses. Vermont has maple syrup. As a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I delight in misty autumnal drives and the scent of the sea on a rocky beach. But Providence is the pearl of the region. It is everything New England strives to be – and with rapid revitalization and a growing tech industry, it’s only getting better.

Follow this list of things to do in Providence, Rhode Island complete with where to stay, the best restaurants, bars, art museums, and outdoor spaces to see the city like this recently-converted local.

 

Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence Hotels

Where to Stay in Providence

Like a lot of second-tier cities, Providence doesn’t have a lot of cheap lodging, and it’s hard to find a room for under $150 per night. But most other aspects of your trip, such as dining and entertainment, are very reasonable, so central accommodations near the hundreds of historic landmarks and cultural hotspots are usually the thing to splurge on.

The Dean

dean hotel room

The Dean is the quintessential “boutique hotel,” a paradise for discriminating bohemian travelers. This old brick building stands in the center of Downcity, with a vertical neon sign reading “Hotel.” The Dean contains an art gallery, a high-end cafe with quality coffee, and a variety of rooms. (I can vouch for the quaint and comfortable bunk beds). There’s also the Magdalenae Room, a slick cocktail lounge, and The Boombox, a small karaoke bar tucked into the side of the building.

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Providence Biltmore

providence-biltmore-hotel-room

Providence Biltmore, Go Providence

One of the oldest skyscrapers in town, the Providence Biltmore is a colossus of red brick and white trim, which has towered over the city since 1922. History buffs will enjoy the vintage elegance, while others may enjoy the largest Starbucks in New England and the McCormick & Schmick’s seafood chain located within. The views, from the building’s 18th story windows, also offer a vivid portrait of the architecture and street patterns of Providence. If you’re willing to spend $150 for a room, the Biltmore is a worthy destination.

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Providence Marriott Downtown

providence-marriott-downtown-pool-go-providence

Marriott is a respected chain, and you can expect quick and helpful service at Providence Marriott Downtown. The rooms are comfortable and afford scenic views of the Providence skyline. This Marriott isn’t located in the thick of Downcity, so there’s ample parking and a quiet atmosphere, and you’re only a quick walk to the sights. But the real selling point – especially in the summertime – is AQUA, the cocktail bar that horseshoes around a rooftop swimming pool. The pool is both indoor and outdoor, so you can swim from one section to the other, all the while sipping a piña colada. Such resort-like experiences are unusual in this part of Rhode Island, and while the Marriott is less unique than its counterparts, it takes lounging to new heights.

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providence ri restaurants

Restaurants in Providence, RI

dean-hotel-restaurant

You don’t even have to leave the Dean Hotel for a lavish, locally-sourced meal. North serves vegetables and seafood that are only raised in-state, and the ever-changing dishes are masterpieces of presentation – from the Autumn Ramen to the Pan-Roasted Almost Boneless Flounder. Such quirky and experimental dishes are just the tip of the iceberg, so if you’re staying a couple of nights in the city, bring an appetite.

Why? Because dining in Providence is transcendent. I am not exaggerating – this is a town of dynamic chefs and knowledgeable foodies, and you will find New York-quality restaurants (often operated by New York veterans) for a fraction of Manhattan prices. The city is constantly winning national attention for its cutting-edge cooking, yet each of the best restaurants remain accessible, affordable, and fun. The Dean and Biltmore Hotels are surrounded on all sides by independent restaurants, many of them renowned across the Northeast.

Granted, the city doesn’t have everything (ahem, Ethiopian) but what Providence serves, it serves extremely well, and the options range from seafood and gourmet sandwiches to an impressive array of vegan restaurants and East Asian bistros.

Westminster Street

Oberlin Restaurant

Oberlin

Westminster Street is a long corridor through the middle of Providence, where turn-of-the-century facades rise all around you, and every other building contains an exciting new dining venue. You can find brick-oven pizza, upscale Korean, and Oberlin, a cutting-edge neighborhood restaurant created by James Beard finalist Ben Sukle. The newest addition to Westminster is Yoleni’s, a two-story Greek market that also contains a cafe and restaurant; it’s the first American sequel to the acclaimed Yoleni’s in Athens, and its artisanal products are shipped all across the country.

Seafood and Beyond

Unless you have a deathly allergy, a visit to the Ocean State requires you to try the seafood. You’ve heard of oysters and mussels, and Rhode Island aquaculture specializes in both, but you should also try the littlenecks and quahogs, that briny shellfish that are the pride of Rhode Island waters. You can find seafood on a hundred menus across the city, but the establishments come in every variety. One of my personal favorites is Dune Brothers, a little red shack that serves fish and chowder from a little window; visitors eat at picnic benches.

On the other side of the spectrum is Hemenway’s Restaurant, a refined, white-tablecloth establishment with romantic views of the river. If you want top-quality seafood and aim to impress, this is a place to splurge. Like most places in Providence, though, Hemenway’s is unpretentious. You can confidently walk in wearing a polo shirt or sundress and feel perfectly at home.

The New Federal Hill

Massimo Providence Rhode Island

Providence garnered a lot of attention from the Crimetown podcast, an unflinching chronicle of the city’s vicious mobster past. Federal Hill featured prominently in this saga, and it’s true that a lot of racketeering and violence took place in this (surprisingly small) neighborhood. But the mafia heyday is long over; today, Federal Hill is a cosmopolitan patchwork of old and immigrant families, and the dining scene reflects this rich ethnic potpourri. Case in point, you can find trendy hookah bars, cool cafes, and a Japanese steakhouse.

But the Italian-American community is still the bedrock of Federal Hill, and the district is famous for its Italian eateries. I have a personal affection for Massimo, a cozy bistro with a robust wine list, top-notch wait staff, and entrees so beautifully presented that I felt pangs of nostalgia for a long-past sojourn in Rome. Authentic Italian cuisine wields an almost spiritual power, and Federal Hill is truly one of the best places in the country to experience it.

 

providence bars

Bars in Providence, RI

providence-marriott-downtown-rooftop-pool

On a sultry summer day, the AQUAholic Mojito is exactly what the doctor ordered: a blue-tinted cocktail in a bowl-shaped vessel, sipped poolside on the roof of the Marriot. Throughout the summer, thousands of Rhodies visit the hotel and grab a pool pass, just to lounge around at AQUA.

Providence is a port city and a former factory town, so you can bet the locals known how to drink – and dozens of them are within stumbling distance of The Dean and Biltmore. With great restaurants come great bars, and a spectrum of sophisticated craft beers and cocktails. Rhode Island also has its share of wineries, and local vintners like Gooseneck, Newport Vineyards, and Mulberry Vineyards are all worth trying out.

There are scads of dives, gastropubs, and lounges across town, and you only have to walk for a few minutes to find a place to roost. But if you need a firm destination, here are a couple of spots to wet your whistle.

Rogue Island and The East End

I’m fond of Rogue Island for many reasons: The bar is fashioned from reclaimed wood, the menu is sourced from local farms, and the cocktails are ingenious. It’s also the first place I ever came for an after-work drink, and I had such a good time yukking it up with the patrons and staff, I’ve made it a bi-weekly pilgrimage ever since.

Just across the river, on super-cool Wickenden Street, you’ll find The East End, an atmospheric pub with candlelit tables and a generous patio. The East End has decent food and some excellent cocktails, but its point of pride is a ludicrously comprehensive whiskey list – 300 distinct bottles.

Pawtucket and the Brewery Scene

If you really want to stray from the beaten track, head just north of Providence to Pawtucket. Rhode Island is flush with breweries, and you can find them all over the state. But Pawtucket has earned a solid reputation for craft and small-batch alcohol production. The reigning champion is The Narragansett Brewing Company, which has been hemorrhaging brews since 1890. But there are places like White Dog Distilling, a tiny tasting room that makes a variety of spirits, from whiskey to bona fide moonshine. In between, you’ll find The Guild, a single facility that houses no fewer than eight different breweries – and you can try any of their beers in Guild’s taproom (open Thursdays through Sundays). There’s plenty more to sample in Rhode Island, but Pawtucket is worth a quick trip on the “R” bus line.

 

providence parks

Roger Williams Park

Roger Williams Park – N. Millard

Providence is a surprisingly outdoorsy city, with 103 neighborhood parks and 1,400 acres of public green space. Keep in mind, the winters are long and chilly, and rainy weather can last for days.

But this is why Rhodies are obsessed with summer and fall. When the sun comes out, the leaves change colors, and lawns and gardens bloom with activity. Thanks to social media, amateur athletes have a robust catalog of organized get-togethers, like the running group at the Rhode Runner shoe store, or the Providence Project, which gathers exercise enthusiasts on the State House steps at the crack of dawn.

East Bay Bike Path

East Bay Bike Path

East Bay Bike Path

Many cities have excellent multi-use trails, but few of them extend halfway across the state. The East Bay Bike Path starts in India Point Park, right where downtown Providence meets the harbor. From there, the trail cuts through East Providence, Barrington, Warren, and Bristol, a 15-mile ribbon of pavement down the eastern shore. I’ve biked trails across the country, and few of them rival the East Bay Bike Path.

On a sunny day, the path is a veritable superhighway of solo riders and families pedaling to their hearts’ content. This is your chance to not only explore the fringes of the city but to coast through bucolic New England towns as well. The views of the water are sprawling panoramas of shipyards, lighthouses, and pebbled coast, and there are myriad restaurants and ice cream shops dotted along the route. If you really want to do it right, find yourself a cup of Del’s Frozen Lemonade. You can’t get more Rhody than that.

 

providence art

Providence Art

depasquale-plaza

DePasquale Park – N. Millard

On weekends and summer nights, you can hop in a cab (or better yet, a JUMP bike or scooter) at the Marriott and find art festivals, galleries, performance series, and comedy shows within 10 minutes of the hotel entrance. Buskers and street parties are common sights in June and July. And hardly a night goes by without an improv jam.

Providence is plucky, inexpensive, and off-beat – and there are half a dozen colleges – so it’s the perfect breeding ground for professional artists. There are traditional painters and crafters, of course, but Providence has a disproportionate number of avant-garde and contemporary artists. You’ll find abstract sculptors, pop art purveyors, provocative public murals, and Big Nazo, a performance art group that creates giant, extra-terrestrial body puppets. Providence is very proud of its artists, and although you could spend months immersing yourself in this dynamic and close-knit community, here are some venues for a short-term visit.

WaterFire

Water Fire Providence Rhode Island

There is something so primal about WaterFire – an arrangement of 86 bonfires burning in the middle of the Woonasquatucket River. Public art projects come and go, but WaterFire has wowed locals and visitors, luring them to the middle of Downcity, since the flames were first lit in 1994. Every summer, WaterFire attracts thousands of celebrants, along with buskers, musicians, and food trucks.

There is no way that artist Barnaby Evans could have anticipated the longevity of his project, but WaterFire has become its own nonprofit arts organization, headquartered in a massive warehouse space in up-and-coming Olneyville. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a summer weekend, the sheer good vibes of WaterFire will be worth the trip.

AS220

Smack in the middle of Empire Street, AS220 has a nondescript facade and a black-and-white sign that wouldn’t mean anything to out-of-towners. But this place is the throbbing heart of Providence’s arts scene: AS220 has a black box theater, an art gallery, a stage for musicians, classrooms for art workshops, and even a restaurant and bar (cleverly called “The Bar”). On any night of the week, you could sign up for a class, catch a comedy show, watch a seated reading, browse an art opening, or just grab a drink. If you’re only in town for a day or two, this is your one-stop-shop for local culture.

RISD Museum

RISD Museum

The Rhode Island School of Design is a pillar of creative education in the United States, just as it’s been since its founding in 1877. Notable alumni include Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, actor James Franco, and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, among countless other artists and designers.

The RISD Museum is also a local institution, and it’s as close as Providence will get to its own Louvre. Here you can see a mix of global art, the works of contemporary artists, and student displays; there’s even an Egyptian mummy under glass. Conveniently located on North Main Street, the RISD Museum is the perfect place to spend a chilly afternoon – and it’s free to visit on Sundays.

Performing Arts

When locals talk about “The Vets,” they’re talking about the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, a venerable stone theater perched on top of a hill, just west of the Rhode Island State House. The building isn’t actually very old – the much-delayed project was completed in 1950 – but the 2,000-seat concert hall has a lot of old world charm: multi-tiered seating, a painted ceiling, and velvet curtains. The Vets calendar is packed with performances; as I write this, David Sedaris, Cirque du Soleil, and Sesame Street Live are all slated to grace its stage.

Providence has several major venues, including Columbus Theatre and Fête Music Hall, where you can catch big-name concerts year-round. One of the most revered institutions is Trinity REP, one of the most respected regional theaters in the country. If you’re looking for provocative drama (or the beloved annual production of A Christmas Carol), Trinity is a trailblazer.

All images courtesy of GoProvidence

Best U.S. Cities to Visit — Art of the City
Check out more things to do in some of the best U.S. cities to visit by reading other editions of our Art of the City series.