12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Rhode Island

For such a small state, "Little Rhody" is packed with some of New England's most popular tourist attractions. Newport, America's best-known playground for the super-rich in the halcyon days of the early 20th century, is the state's major draw, with its fabled mansions built to rival (and often imitate) the grand palaces of European royalty. But Providence, too, is filled with the history of an earlier period, when its merchants grew rich on the slave trade and other lucrative commerce. Add miles of beautiful beaches -Rhode Island has an extensive shoreline - a rich industrial history, and an idyllic island, and you'll see why Rhode Island should be on any New England itinerary.

1 The Breakers, Newport

The Breakers, Newport
The Breakers, Newport Kimberly Vardeman / photo modified

Newport's most celebrated - and showiest - Gilded Age mansion was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1895 and reflects the unimaginable wealth of the Vanderbilt family. The Italian Renaissance "summer cottage" has 70 rooms, including a grand three-story dining room, and was built using imported French and Italian marble and alabaster. Ceiling paintings, mosaics, marble columns, fine wood paneling, and carved stucco decorate its rooms lavishly and ostentatiously, as was intended by the Vanderbilts, who never risked being outdone by their wealthy competitors.

2 Cliff Walk, Newport

Cliff Walk, Newport
Cliff Walk, Newport Eric Savage / photo modified

Despite past efforts of mansion owners on the preferred ocean side of Bellevue Avenue to close off access, Newport's Cliff Walk has remained a public walking path since the days when the great palaces were at their prime. The pathway along the rocky shore provides walkers with views of breakers crashing on the rocks below as well as the mansions' gardens and sea-facing facades above, and is one of the most popular - and free - things to do in Newport. The Cliff Walk begins well before The Breakers, the first major mansion it skirts, and after 3.5 miles, it passes by Rough Point, at the end of Bellevue Avenue. The exotic Tea House at Marble House stands just above the path.

3 The Elms, Newport

The Elms, Newport
The Elms, Newport Matthew Elmore / photo modified

Philadelphia coal magnate Edward J. Berwind commissioned his mansion to be based on the mid-18th century Château d'Asnière, near Paris. Completed in 1901, the Berwinds' summer home was embellished with Venetian paintings and furnished in French antiques from the period of the chateau it was modeled after. Be sure to allow time to visit the recently restored Classical Revival gardens, especially the lower gardens, which feature fountains, a sunken garden, and marble pavilions.

4 WaterFire Providence

WaterFire Providence
WaterFire Providence liz west / photo modified

The four-acre Waterplace Park and Riverwalk border the Woonasquatucket River as it winds through Downcity, Providence. Several times during the spring, summer, and fall, the city celebrates this river, which until late in the 20th century, was completely covered by roadways. More than 100 bonfires are lit in large iron pans in the river's center and kept blazing throughout the evening as residents and tourists stroll along the brick riverside walkways and footbridges. Street performers, vendors, and world music highlight these family-friendly celebrations.

5 Benefit Street Mile of History, Providence

Benefit Street Mile of History, Providence
Benefit Street Mile of History, Providence Josh McGinn / photo modified

Benefit Street was the social, cultural, artistic, civic, and intellectual heart of Providence in the colonial and early Federal periods, and today it's the most famous street in Rhode Island. You can immerse yourself in these exciting times for the young country just by walking this mile of stone- and brick-paved street. What makes Benefit Street especially interesting is that it is not a frozen-in-time museum street but a vibrant neighborhood, where later additions of Victorian and a few 20th-century buildings keep it in the here-and-now. Some of Providence's most interesting architecture is here, and a stroll along it will reveal beautiful gardens, a family burial ground, and churches, as well as period homes.

6 RISD Museum of Art, Providence

RISD Museum of Art, Providence
RISD Museum of Art, Providence angela n. / photo modified

The Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence is remarkable not only for the staggering numbers of its collections, but for their breadth of scope. The historical and contemporary textiles and dress collection alone totals more than 26,000 objects, from ancient Egyptian clothing fragments and Elizabethan needlework to 20th-century American designers and Japanese Noh theater robes. Other collections are equally impressive, including Decorative Arts and Design; Asian Art; Contemporary Art (which includes pioneering video arts); Ancient Art (complete with a mummy and coffin); and a Painting and Sculpture collection featuring works by Copley, Homer, Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Maxfield Parrish, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The museum's shop is always a good source of gifts and household items that are unusual and reflect cutting-edge design.

7 John Brown House, Providence

John Brown House, Providence
John Brown House, Providence Adam Jones / photo modified

The first to build a fine home outside the tight confines of the waterfront, prosperous colonial merchant, John Brown, chose this site high on the hill so he could see his wharves at India Point, from which his ships plied their profitable China trade. The elegant home is still filled with the original Brown family furnishings, which include some of the finest examples of works by Rhode Island's famed cabinetmakers, as well as early decorative arts. If you can see only one colonial home here, make it this one.

8 Herreshoff Marine Museum, Bristol

Herreshoff Marine Museum, Bristol
Herreshoff Marine Museum, Bristol Pat David / photo modified

Sailing, and most particularly the America's Cup race, is deeply ingrained into Newport culture and history. To gain a sense of this, and to see models and actual restored boats - including one that's considered the most beautiful hull form ever created - visit the museum commemorating the Herreshoffs and their boat designs. Their most legendary feat was designing and building eight consecutive successful defenders of the America's Cup, from 1893 to 1934. The America's Cup Hall of Fame is part of the museum, which features more than 60 sailing and power yachts along with displays and videos on boat building and sailing.

Address: One Burnside Street, Box 450, Bristol, Rhode Island

Official site: www.herreshoff.org

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bristol

9 Narragansett Bay Beaches

Narragansett Bay Beaches
Narragansett Bay Beaches

If long stretches of fine white sand beckon you, head for the towns of Narragansett and South Kingstown, south of Providence, to find a string of public beaches on the protected waters of Narragansett Bay. Matunuck Beach State Park, East Matunuck State Beach, Roger W. Wheeler State Beach, Scarborough State Beach, and Narragansett Town Beach all have changing facilities and parking. The latter is within walking distance of the old beach resort town of Narragansett Pier, where you'll find both lodging and restaurants. Farther south, more beaches face onto Long Island Sound, where the surf can be a bit heavier. Watch Hill is a delightful old-fashioned resort town with an excellent beach, a lighthouse, and a historic carousel.

10 Block Island

Block Island
Block Island

Ten miles offshore, Block Island is reached by ferry from Point Judith (Galilee), on the south coast. From laid-back little New Harbor, where you'll find lodging and dining, you can bicycle or walk to several beaches or to the Victorian Southeast Lighthouse. So solidly does this brick building and its light tower sit atop its bluff, you'll be surprised to hear the story of how it was moved in 1994 to keep it from falling off its eroding bluffs into the sea. Mohegan Bluffs are a three-mile stretch of coastal cliffs with a 200-foot drop to the ocean. At the foot of these is a beautiful beach, although the prospect of climbing back up the 151 steps might discourage you. At the northern tip of the island is the 1867 North Lighthouse, where there is an interpretive center. Miles of trails crisscross the island and are popular with birders who come to spot the more than 150 species stopping here in the fall. A weekend on this island with its far-away feeling is one of the most romantic things to do in Rhode Island

11 Blithewold, Bristol

Blithewold, Bristol
Blithewold, Bristol liz west / photo modified

Overlooking Narragansett Bay, Blithewold was built in 1908 for Augustus Van Wickle, and resembles a 17th-century English country manor. Its 45 rooms are furnished much as they were when the family lived here and decorated with their collections of Baccarat crystal, Gorham silver, more than 30 sets of fine china, several Tiffany lamps and dolls, along with objects collected in their travels. The house was designed with large windows facing the water and overlooking the estate's 33 acres of gardens. Among the finest New England gardens open to the public, those at Blithewold include a water garden, an enclosed garden, display gardens, a rock garden, and a rose garden. The more than 500 different varieties of trees, shrubs, and plants include the east coast's largest giant sequoia and a bamboo grove.

Address: 101 Ferry Road, Bristol

Official site: www.blithewold.org

12 Rough Point, Newport

Rough Point, Newport
Rough Point, Newport Reading Tom / photo modified

Unlike most Newport heiresses, Doris Duke neither followed the fashions and trends of the day, nor tried to set them. The art and antiques she collected for her summer home, an 1887 mansion built by a Vanderbilt and which she inherited - along with a sizable fortune -- at the age of 12, reflect her own taste and a discerning collector's eye. She chose them to live with and enjoy, and on her death, she willed Rough Point and its contents to become a museum open to the public. Touring the house with the well-informed guide will leave you with the feeling that you had met Doris Duke.

More Fun Things to See and Do near Rhode Island

Although with both Providence and Newport, there's plenty to do in Rhode Island, Boston is an easy day trip from Providence by train. Also in Massachusetts are historic Plymouth and Salem, and Cape Cod is only an hour from Providence via Interstate-195. Throughout Massachusetts are more historic towns and scenic regions, such as the Berkshires. Connecticut borders Rhode Island on the west, with its lively cities of Hartford and New Haven.

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