10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Providence, Rhode Island
At the northern tip of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island's capital city is wonderfully compact, diverse, and eccentric. Its long history, from its founding by dissidents escaping Puritan Massachusetts to its colorful contemporary politics, may explain the eccentricities. These combine with its wealth of historic sights (entire neighborhoods are designated historic districts) and artistic highlights to make Providence fun to visit. In addition to offering a number of top tourist attractions and things to do, Providence is lively and full of character, a city of distinctive neighborhoods reflecting both its ethnic and cultural diversity. A high-powered student population from Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Providence College keep it young and vibrant, along with insuring a rich arts and intellectual scene. People here take their restaurants seriously, so be sure and ask locals for dining suggestions - you'll always get an informed opinion.
See also: Where to Stay in Providence
At least twice a month between mid-May and late November, braziers in the middle of the river are filled with bonfires that light Downcity Providence. During "Full WaterFire," more than 80 fires blaze from Waterplace Park to Memorial/South Main Street Park. "Basin Fire WaterFire" events are smaller versions lighting 22 braziers in the Waterplace Park Basin and five more toward Providence Place mall. During WaterFire, the four-acre Waterplace Park and Riverwalk become a festival of arts and music as young and old alike enjoy their city's revitalization and cultural vibrancy. This and other festivals are among the best free things to do in Rhode Island.
2 Benefit Street "Mile of History"
On this mile-long street traversing the steep hillside that rises from the river to the Brown University campus, you can see an architectural history of Providence. At one end are the restrained and elegant Federal period homes, beautifully restored with their doorways in a neat row close to the street, and as you walk farther, you'll see grand homes set back on their lawns, and later Victorian, even Arts and Crafts-style residences. Several of the city's attractions are among them - the Governor Stephen Hopkins House with its terraced garden, the Athenaeum (with Edgar Allen Poe connections), and the John Brown House. You can get details on the various buildings from an excellent Benefit Street walking tour booklet from the Providence Preservation Society.
3 RISD Museum of Art
Whether your artistic passion is for French Impressionists or Japanese prints, or your design tastes run to ancient Egyptian, early American, or cutting-edge contemporary, you'll find enough to keep you happy in the depth and breadth of this museum's collections. The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of America's top art colleges, reflects its own wide range of specialties in the objects chosen for its museum. Needlework and textiles, sculpture from ancient to Rodin, Asian art, videos, furnished Federal period rooms, and galleries of priceless paintings comprise dozens of individual collections. So many outstanding works are here that each of its separate collections would be enough to make a museum of its own.
Address: 224 Benefit Street, Providence
4 John Brown House
President John Quincy Adams described the 1786 home of merchant John Brown as "the most magnificent and elegant mansion that I have ever seen on this continent." From its lofty hillside setting he could keep an eye on his China Trade ships and warehouses at India Point, the source of his considerable wealth. That he was a man of taste as well as wealth and prominence is clear from the house, with its French wallpapers, finely worked decorative detail and moldings, and original Brown family furniture. For an unparalleled view of 18th-century life for the Providence aristocracy, as well as a look at some of the best pieces by Rhode Island cabinetmakers that you'll find anywhere, don't miss this magnificent home.
Address: 52 Power Street, Providence
5 Brown University
The Brown University campus crowns College Hill and has since 1770; its oldest building and still the center of the campus is University Hall, which served as a barracks and hospital during the Revolution. The impressive Van Wickle Gates open only twice a year, on the first day of classes and for the commencement procession in May. Stamp collectors will want to see the complete collection of US postage stamps in the John Hay Library; the John Carter Brown Library has a collection of rare early maps. The free David Winton Bell Gallery has excellent changing exhibits of contemporary and historic art. For student-led campus tours, visit the Corliss-Brackett House. Here's a secret you probably won't hear about on the tour: Brown's Environmental Center has a conservatory on Waterman Street, a glass house with a jungle of plants and exotic flowers thriving inside through the coldest of winter days. Few know about it, but the center advises that "Artists, gardeners, tinkerers, dreamers, readers, thinkers, general plant lovers, and green and brown thumbs are encouraged to visit."
Address: Corliss-Brackett House, 45 Prospect Street, Providence
6 Roger Williams Park and Zoo
Roger Williams Park covers 435 acres with gardens; a lake with a 1915 bandstand; an amphitheater; greenhouses; the 1773 Betsy Williams Cottage; and a children's area with a carousel, trackless train rides, and other activities. Also in the park is a Museum of Natural History with insects, minerals, fossils, and the state's only planetarium. But what draws most visitors is the 40-acre Roger Williams Park Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the country, but a paragon of modern zoo design and concept. At this kid-friendly and largely cage-free place you can meet a snow leopard, giraffe, elephant, zebra, wildebeest, alligator, kangaroo, and red panda, and small-fry can climb into the treehouse or go for a camel ride. If you don't like the notion of caged animals and want to learn something about them and their habitats instead of just parading past, this is the zoo for you. Seasonal activities such as the October "Spooky Zoo" and pumpkin spectacular make it even more fun for kids.
Address: 1000 Elmwood Avenue, Providence
7 Governor Henry Lippitt House
Even in this posh neighborhood of grand old homes, the 1865 mansion of Governor Henry Lippitt stands out. The 30-room Renaissance Revival villa/Italian palazzo is even more impressive inside, where the stenciling, stained, and etched glass and faux wood and marble finishes make it one of New England's finest interiors - arguably the best in terms of Victorian decoration. The ornate woodwork, original family furnishings, and mechanical systems that were revolutionary for the mid-19th-century combine to make it a museum of Victorian interior decoration and a window into the life of a prosperous Victorian family. Generations of the Lippitt family - they were heirs to a RI textile manufacturing fortune - lived in the house for 114 years, and their story comes alive in the excellent guided tours, the only way you can see the exuberant interior. Changing year-long exhibits delve more deeply into some aspect of life in the Victorian era, going behind the scenes to explore the role of household staff, etiquette, and social customs of the times.
Address: 199 Hope Street, Providence
8 Federal Hill
Atwells Avenue atop Federal Hill, the hill that rises to the west of Downcity, is the vibrant heart of Providence's large Italian American community. That community now spreads throughout the city, but the concentration of restaurants, cafés, and shops selling Italian foods along Atwells Avenue and its adjacent streets and squares stems from the days when immigrants grouped closely with others who shared their language and traditions. Today, Italian cooks shop in its delis and bakeries to find fresh-made mozzarella, tangy pickled cherry peppers, imported cured meats, and golden panettone. Come here to eat an Italian meal, whether it's spaghetti and red sauce (called simply "gravy" here) in elbow-bumping conviviality or northern Italian dishes served in a linens-and-crystal setting. It's also the place to linger over cappuccino or a dish of gelato at a sidewalk cafe, or join in a boisterous street festival on Columbus Day.
9 Boat Tours along the Waterways
People still have trouble pronouncing the names of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket, two narrow rivers that wind through Providence, but at least they can see them now. This was not always true - for decades they were hidden by what may have been the world's widest bridge, until they were once again revealed in the 1990s. In a major revitalization of the entire area, the rivers were uncovered and their banks lined with walkways, benches, gardens, and trees. Instead of a solid bridge of highways and traffic congestion, the rivers are now spanned by graceful bridges patterned after those in Venice. During Waterfire, centered in WaterPlace Park, the river is alight with bonfires.
You can explore these waterways in the daytime, on a sunset cruise, or during WaterFire in an open-air boat ride that gives a new perspective on the city and some interesting sidelights to its attractions and history. Tours include the rivers and the upper parts of Narragansett Bay, revealing some new views of the city's architecture and skyline. You can also ride in an authentic Venetian gondola; especially in the evening or during WaterFire, this has to be one of the most romantic things to do in all Rhode Island.
Address: 575 S. Water Street, Providence, Rhode Island
10 The Arcade and Downcity
Spared the ravages of urban renewal that robbed so many American cities of their early 20th-century architectural heritage, Providence was too poor to tear down old fashioned commercial blocks of its old downtown (called Downcity here), so instead they "modernized" by covering the facades with wood to imitate the popular bland '70s style. This benign neglect saved what other cities now regret having lost - beautiful and astonishingly well-preserved decorative details and priceless period architecture. Interiors fared well, too, and the magnificent banking halls, many of whose elaborate high ceilings had been covered, are again resplendent and put to new uses.
Amid the Art Deco and Beaux-Arts buildings and late Victorian terracotta facades stands Downcity's icon, The Arcade. Open again and refurbished after a five-year closing, this imposing granite building was America's first shopping mall, built in 1828. After you step inside to browse in its shops - all local businesses -- be sure to look at both its facades. The two owners couldn't agree on the style, so each hired his own architect to design one end. The oldest building in the area, the Beneficent Congregational Church on Weybosset Street, was built 20 years before The Arcade, although its portico and dome were not added until 1836.
Where to Stay in Providence for Sightseeing
We recommend these convenient, centrally-located hotels and guesthouses in Providence, Rhode Island:
- Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel: 4-star luxury, historic building from the 1920s, chic decor, plush pillow-top mattresses, valet parking.
- Providence Biltmore, Curio Collection by Hilton: great-value rates, landmark 1922 hotel, sweeping city views, traditional decor, pampering spa and salon, rooftop grand ballroom.
- Hampton Inn & Suites Providence Downtown: mid-range rates, great location near Brown University, historic building, two-story atrium lobby, complimentary hot breakfast, free shuttle service.
- Christopher Dodge House: great-value B&B, historic three-story mansion, cozy guest rooms with fireplaces and handcrafted furniture, delicious hot breakfast.
More Must-See Destinations near Providence
Not far from Providence, the other major destination for tourists in the small state of Rhode Island is Newport, with its fabled mansions. Less than an hour away by train is Boston, in the state of Massachusetts, which has a number of attractions that are easy day trips from Boston or Providence. The colonial town of Plymouth, where the Pilgrims landed, is nearby, and Cape Cod is only an hour from Providence. New Haven, in Connecticut, is less than 90 minutes from Providence by train, and New York City is only three hours away.