Tucked away on the northern Atlantic Coast, the capital of Rhode Island is a fascinating mix of history and college culture. Providence was founded by those who escaped Puritan Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for what has since become an eccentric city.
It found its way onto the proverbial map when Brown University opened in 1764, becoming one of the leading education institutions in the country. As the student population grew, Providence became a vibrant and diverse city best reflected by its art scene and theater scene. Besides exploring these things to do in Providence, visitors can also enjoy its breathtaking local architecture – an aspect of the city best discovered on foot.
12. Thayer Street
For a fun and lively atmosphere, day or night, wander down the popular Thayer Street. A top hangout for locals and college students, you’ll find plenty to do here, including making your way to each of the 70-plus unique stores and restaurants.
The main section of the bustling street lasts for six blocks and is teeming with retro stores and thrift shops, along with a wider variety of cuisine and cheap eats. Find everything you need to satisfy your cravings, from Greek to specialty desserts and chic cafes.
Alongside shopping and eating, check out an indie or international film at the renowned Avon Cinema, which has been entertaining locals since the 1930s.
11. Providence Performing Arts Center
Downtown Providence is the heart of the city’s entertainment district. It’s where you’ll find the happening Weybosset Street and the Providence Performing Arts Center. The beautiful theater opened in the 1920s and has grown an international reputation along with finding itself on the National Register of Historic Places.
The theater continues to approach its 100th birthday, but has lost none of the allure that brought through its first theatergoers. Its packed calendar features a whole host of Broadway shows and comedy, while seating up to 3,000 attendees. So be sure to check out what’s on when you’re in town.
10. Providence Children’s Museum
If the young ones are getting restless from time spent exploring museums and universities, then take them along to the Providence Children’s Museum. The space opened in 1976 and in the years since has been at the forefront of inspiring young minds through interactive exhibits.
The museum is the only one of its kind on Rhode Island, and will stoke curiosity among all children who can explore the world we live in. Each hands-on exhibit focuses on a specific aspect of the human experience, including culture, arts, science, and technology. The exhibits take a wide range of approaches, so all learning styles are represented. Popular attractions include “Play Power” and “Water Ways”.
9. Stephen Hopkins House
Found on the iconic Benefit Street, the Stephen Hopkins House deserves its spot in the annals of U.S. history. It was here that the state’s governor, Stephen Hopkins, signed the Declaration of Independence that helped split the United States with Britain.
The home was built decades before this historic event, making it an attraction in itself. The beguiling building was built in 1707 and has been maintained in the centuries since and was even visited by George Washington on several occasions. Today, you can visit the home complete with period furnishing and intriguing artifacts befitting such an important home.
8. Benefit Street
Rising from the banks of the Providence River to the top of College Hill, Benefit Street is a historic stretch of road that unveils the past. It’s the perfect place to begin your travels to Providence or enjoy a morning stroll. Benefit Street is laden with gorgeous architecture that showcases each era in local life.
The cobblestone street has one of the largest assortments of Colonial buildings in the United States. You’ll find a collection of Federal-era homes preserved in a state of eternal grandeur. They soon make way for elegant mansions with opulent front yards. Among them are a number of famed buildings, including the John Brown House and the Athenaeum.
7. Roger Williams Park Zoo
Despite being one of the oldest zoos in America, the Roger Williams Park Zoo has a refreshing take on the experience. Here, animals can roam relatively free without the confines of a tight space. The zoo has also undergone consistent renovations to maintain its modernity, enabling a better time for its animals.
The range of wildlife includes your favorite large animals, from giraffes to elephants and alligators. While you can get an amazing look at red pandas and kangaroos. Aside from the animals, the zoo is great for families thanks to its many interactive experiences. Explore the space on top of a camel or go climbing in the zoo’s treehouse.
6. Brown University
The crown jewel of College Hill, Brown University, has been a fixture of Rhode Island life since 1764. The campus is a sight for sore eyes, while your first steps here will be met with a sense of history. University Hall is the campus’ oldest building and has stood here since 1770. Since then, it has been a barracks along with a hospital during the Revolution.
Continue exploring the campus to find the Wickle Gates, which first appeared in 1901. Now they swing open only twice a year.
Alongside beautiful and historic architecture, visitors should pay a visit to the Herbarium. Since the 1800s, Brown University has studied over 100,000 types of plants offering plant lovers a fascinating look into flora from around the world.
5. Rhode Island State House
The striking Rhode Island State House is an arresting sight whenever you walk by. The stunning building was completed at the beginning of the 20th century, and has been the city’s centerpiece ever since. Its gilded stone facade leads to archways and towers that eventually guide your eyes to the fourth biggest self-supporting dome on earth.
While you can spend all day gawking at the architecture and enjoying the green lawns, the state house is even better inside. Join a free guided tour of the building or simply wander around on your own.
As you stand under the historic dome, look up to find “The Four Freedoms” painted within. The state house is also laden with history and is home to a portrait of George Washington, a replica of the Liberty Bell and a gun from the battle of Gettysburg.
4. Waterplace Park & Riverwalk
Several projects have made up the revitalization of Downcity Providence, but perhaps the best example is Waterplace Park. For years the two major rivers, Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck, snaked through town but were mostly covered by large-scale bridges. Recently they have been replaced, adding a breath of fresh air to the local landscape and turning a new leaf for locals and visitors alike.
Now you can roam the banks of either rivers flanked by the lush Waterplace Park along the Riverwalk. The old bridges were replaced by dainty structures similar to those found in Venice. It makes for a pleasant stroll, and you can also travel along the river on a romantic gondola ride or sunset cruise. From May to October, return to the Riverwalk to experience WaterFire.
3. RISD Museum
The Rhode Island School of Design is one of the preeminent art schools in the United States. The college’s showpiece is the RISD Museum, which showcases work from around the world while representing the styles and genres that best reflect teachers and students.
The range of art shows the standing held by the school, with each collection worthy of its own exhibition. As you wander around the RISD Museum, you’ll come across work from ancient Egypt, historic work by French Impressionists, and pioneer-era America, along with embellished period furniture and contemporary art.
Art aficionados will appreciate the quality of works on display. While casual art fans will enjoy the range of genres and eras within the museum.
In 1995, the first WaterFire event took place, marking the beginning of arguably the most revered tradition in Providence. It was started by Barnaby Evans, who created a series of bonfires that are placed along various rivers around town. From May to October, these bonfires are lit up, illuminating the river banks while adding a splendid atmosphere to the surrounding streets.
WaterFire occurs twice a month during this span with the night beginning with a ceremonial gong followed by the lighting. Under the pitch black sky, the fire sparkles against the river.
To best appreciate the art, walk along the river from Waterplace Park to South Main Street Park. Alongside the river, you’ll discover a festival of art and live music to accompany the wondrous installation.
1. Historic Federal Hill
As one of the best neighborhoods in town, no visit in Providence would be complete without exploring Federal Hill. The historic district rose to fame as the home of the city’s large Italian community in the late 19th century.
While the community has dispersed, its influence can still be felt within the neighborhood’s exceptional restaurants and artisan shops.
You can arrive in the area also known as Little Italy by driving under an ornate arch with an eye-catching bronze pine cone fixed to the center. Soon you’ll reach the crown jewel of Federal Hill, Atwells Avenue, where you can indulge in the best of Italian cuisine or nurse a coffee in neighboring cafes. Afterwards, grab some gelato and kick back at DePasqualle Plaza.