16 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Providence, RI
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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.
Visitors who love architecture will be happy in Providence, whose old downtown (called Downcity here) is filled with priceless period architecture. Art Deco and Beaux-Arts buildings and late Victorian terra-cotta facades were spared the ravages of urban renewal and retain beautiful and astonishingly well-preserved decorative details. Downcity's granite icon, The Arcade, was America's first shopping mall, built in 1828. Filled with locally owned boutiques and galleries, it's still a favorite for shopping.
A high-powered student population from Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and Providence College keep Providence 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.
For more ideas on things to see and do, read our list of the top attractions in Providence, Rhode Island.
See also: Where to Stay in Providence
1. Roger Williams Park Zoo
The 40-acre Roger Williams Park Zoo is not only one of the oldest zoos in the country, but it's 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.
The Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park is New England's largest public indoor display garden, with 12,000 square feet of gardens that include two main greenhouses and three smaller ones, as well as an outdoor garden.
Roger Williams Park has a lot more, and it's easy to see why it is one of the city's favorite places to visit for families. Covering 435 acres with gardens and a lake, the park has a 1915 bandstand, an amphitheater, the 1773 Betsy Williams Cottage, and a children's area with a carousel and trackless train rides. Also in the park is a Museum of Natural History with insects, minerals, fossils, and the state's only planetarium.
Address: 1000 Elmwood Avenue, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: http://www.rwpzoo.org/
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.
The four-acre Waterplace Park and Riverwalk become a festival of arts and music during WaterFire, 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.
Official site: http://waterfire.org/
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
Official site: www.risdmuseum.org
4. Rhode Island State Capitol
A Providence landmark, the white marble Rhode Island State Capitol dominates the city with the world's fourth largest self-supported dome. The neoclassical building was designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, and completed in 1904. You can visit the building on your own or with a free guided tour.
You'll see the painting entitled The Four Freedoms by James Allen King, inside the dome, and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. There's also a gun from the battle of Gettysburg and a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Address: 82 Smith Street, Providence, Rhode Island
5. Federal Hill
Atwells Avenue crowns Federal Hill, the hill that rises to the west of Downcity, and 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 café in DePasquale Plaza, or join in a boisterous street festival on Columbus Day.
Official site: http://atwellsave.com
6. Relax in Waterplace Park
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 in a riverside corridor known as WaterPlace Park and Riverwalk. 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, and from spring through late autumn, the area is alive with walkers, bikers, joggers, people enjoying the summer concerts, and public art installations.
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 La Gondola, 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
Official site: https://www.providenceriverboat.com
7. Providence Performing Arts Center
A prominent feature on lively Weybosset Street for nearly a century, the Providence Performing Arts Center occupies the former Loew's Movie Palace. The stunning Beaux Arts theater was designed by George and C.W. Rapp of Chicago, who designed many of the most opulent theaters of the time.
The interior is as sumptuous as it was when it opened in 1928, with marble columns, detailed plaster work, a richly ornamented ceiling, and crystal chandeliers. Periodic renovations have modernized its facilities without losing the opulent interior.
The highly respected Trinity Repertory Company is another venue for plays, musicals, and films, with two theater stages.
Address: 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: https://www.ppacri.org/
8. Walk Benefit Street's "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 tourist 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.
9. 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
Official site: https://www.brown.edu/
10. Stephen Hopkins House
A signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of the Colony of Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins bought this 1707 home on the corner of Benefit Street in 1743. He added the two-story house at the front, leaving the original building as an ell.
The eight-room house is furnished authentically to Hopkin's period, and contains original artifacts and family pieces. In addition to the house full of antiques, visitors will see a room where the family's slaves lived, and the bedroom where George Washington slept on his visits to Providence. A gallery displays a fine collection of 18th-century embroidered samplers.
The restored parterre garden is open, even when the house is not, and offers good views of the city from its terraces.
Address: 15 Hopkins Street, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: http://www.stephenhopkins.org
11. Rhode Island Children's Museum
A large green dragon looks down from the roof, alerting passersby that this is no ordinary brick building. Inside are original and creative ways for children ages 1 to 11 to explore the worlds of science, art, technology, physics, architecture, botany, engineering, and world cultures.
The hands-on play exhibits are designed not only to entertain as they teach, but to stimulate each child's curiosity and creativity, whatever their abilities or learning style. "Water Ways" is a favorite for all ages, exploring water in all its forms, from mist to ice. Other exhibits explore the immigrant experience, teach the use of common tools, and use puzzles to explore shapes and spaces.
Address: 100 South Street, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: https://providencechildrensmuseum.org
12. Providence Atheneum
One of the oldest libraries in America, the Atheneum is not only a delight to those of a bookish nature, but a pilgrimage site for devotees of Edgar Allen Poe. The poet courted Sarah Whitman in its secluded alcoves.
Collections include rare medieval manuscripts from the 1300s, rare editions of works by New England's best-known literary figures, a complete folio of Audubon's Birds of America, and even early children's books. Rare books are displayed in changing exhibits. Although it is a membership library, anyone can join, and the public is welcome to browse and read here.
The Atheneum has a full schedule of literary, musical, and other cultural events, including programs with well-known authors and leading cultural figures.
Address: 251 Benefit Street, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: https://providenceathenaeum.org
13. Explore the Rivers and Narragansett Bay by Boat
You can explore the rivers on a Providence River Boat Tour in the daytime, on a sunset cruise, or during WaterFire in a 14-passenger open-air boat 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.
Maritime history fans will enjoy the tour of Green Jacket Shoal, Rhode Island's largest ship graveyard, guided by an underwater archaeologist who has discovered 26 wooden-hulled vessels there. You can see more of Narragansett Bay on the one-hour Seastreak Ferry between Providence and Newport.
Or you can take the Seastreak as far as the stop in Bristol to explore its shops and historic Main Street. A free RIPTA shuttle service connects the Providence Ferry Terminal to Providence Station, Kennedy Plaza, and the Providence Convention Center.
Address: Providence River Boat, 575 S. Water Street, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: https://www.providenceriverboat.com
14. Stroll through Swan Point Cemetery
The largest green space in the city of Providence, the 200-acre Swan Point Cemetery was established in 1846, but redesigned in 1886 as a cemetery park. Its design was inspired by Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the work of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.
The landscape varies from open lawns shaded by mature trees to wooded groves and bosky paths bordered by laurel, rhododendrons, and azaleas. The land slopes, steeply in places, to the river. Throughout the cemetery are elaborate tombs, vaults, Victorian and Art Nouveau figural sculptures, simple early stones, and large family plots walled and landscaped like little gardens.
Fans of Gothic fiction seek out the tomb of H.P. Lovecraft, the greatest master of the horror tale since Poe. His grave is inscribed "I am Providence." The Swan Point Cemetery Perimeter Loop is a 2.4-mile trail that's popular for walking and bird-watching; about one-third of it borders the river.
Address: 585 Blackstone Boulevard, Providence, Rhode Island
Official site: https://swanpointcemetery.com
15. 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, Rhode Island
Official site: www.rihs.org
16. 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, Rhode Island
Official site: http://www.preserveri.org/visit-lippitt-house-museum
Where to Stay in Providence for Sightseeing
Apart from those in Roger Williams Park, the top tourist attractions in Providence are within walking distance of Downcity, where many of the hotels are located. If you're planning a trip to Providence in the spring, be aware that lodging is very tight in May, when several colleges hold their commencements. You will need to reserve well in advance and be prepared for higher rates then. We recommend these convenient, centrally located hotels and guesthouses in Providence, Rhode Island:
- The 4-star Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel is just as elegant on the inside as you'd expect from its grand façade of marble pillars. While the building is nearing its 100th birthday, the hotel inside is 21st century and sports a chic décor and all the mod-cons. Pillow-top mattresses and plush linens, all-day room service, and valet parking are luxury perks, and the hotel is right in the center of the city.
- The resort-like atmosphere of the Providence Marriott Downtown and its connecting indoor and outdoor pools make it a favorite for families. Conveniently located between the Downcity attractions and those on "The Hill," the hotel provides free parking and free use of bicycles. A full-service spa, restaurant, and impeccable service make this a getaway destination with the city as its backyard.
- A city landmark, Graduate Providence is an Art Deco hotel with a stunning lobby and grand staircase. Rooms are unusually large, with king-sized beds and sweeping city views; more than half of them are suites. The location doesn't get any better, five minutes from shopping and restaurants.
- In another historic building with a soaring two-story lobby, convenient to Brown University and the attractions on Benefit Street, Hampton Inn & Suites Providence Downtown offers guests complimentary hot breakfast and free shuttle service.
- In a historic three-story mansion, Christopher Dodge House is a hospitable B&B with cozy guest rooms with fireplaces and handcrafted furniture. A hot breakfast is included in the budget rates.
- Only a 15-minute walk from the center, Providence Hostel & Guesthouse has comfortable private rooms and dorms. There is a kitchenette for guests' use, and Wi-Fi is free.
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Places to Visit near Providence: Its central location means that you can easily use Providence as a base for visiting all the many tourist attractions in Rhode Island. These include the marvelous Gilded Age mansions and other highlights of Newport, or you might want to swim at one of Rhode Island's beautiful beaches. For more ideas on planning a beach getaway, refer to our page on Rhode Island's top-rated resorts.
Where to Go from Providence: With only a short train ride, you can visit the historic attractions of Boston and Cambridge, or you can head to nearby Cape Cod. Our page on where to stay in Cape Cod will help you select a hotel or inn there. Only a short ferry ride from the Cape, you'll find plenty of things to do on the island of Nantucket.