The charming Rhode Island city offers a vibrant art scene, top-notch dining, unique shopping, history and romance.
“Providence is the next Austin,” a discerning local told me soon after I set foot in Rhode Island. Like the Texas city years ago, he said, bright young professionals are moving to Providence from bigger cities like New York, drawn to creative opportunities, low rent and a cosmopolitan vibe. After a weekend in the city, I certainly see the appeal.
Before my visit, I knew Providence only for its colleges: the Ivy League Brown University and the highly ranked Rhode Island School of Design, among others. Once I arrived, though, I found that Providence is so much more than a college town.
Foodies of all ages come to enjoy the amazing, yet unpretentious, culinary scene; art lovers for the impressive museums and public exhibitions; and couples for the scenic, laid-back romance of the walkable bayside city. For the smallest state, Rhode Island has a lot to offer, and you’ll never be bored in its capital city. Check out my picks for a weekend in Providence–and you just might decide to relocate there yourself.
WHAT TO DO
Providence was once rumored to be “a mafia town,” so it’s no surprise that it boasts what Mario Batali regards as one of the top-5 Little Italy’s in the U.S., located in the Federal Hill neighborhood. I highly recommend signing up for a “Savoring Federal Hill” insider’s wine and food tour, led by former pastry chef and Johnson & Wales University instructor Cindy Salvato. The fabulous three-hour walking tour includes stops at classic Italian markets, restaurants, bakeries, wine stores and even a poultry shop that’s been in the same spot since 1853. The tour includes bites and drinks along the way (with plenty of cheese, prosciutto and calamari), plus lessons on true Italian cooking. You’ll even learn the trick to distinguishing real balsamic vinegar from the fakes.
The 20th largest art museum in the U.S. is affiliated with the art school and houses, among other treasures, a celebrated collection of historical textiles and costumes, regarded as one of the best in the country. The current exhibition, “All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion,” is a must see for fans of the iconic ’90s designer. The first major retrospective of Oldham’s work features more than 65 full ensembles, including a colorful couture ball gown that Oldham worked with RISD textile students to create, a cocktail dress covered in hand-molded Swarovski crystal brooches and a bright red dress made entirely of pipe cleaners. If textiles aren’t your thing, there’s a wide variety of ancient art and contemporary works that add up to more than 91,000 objects.
You must take the time to walk the cobblestone streets of Providence alongside the three rivers that run through the city. Try to visit during WaterFire, when, several times a year, 80 sparkling bonfires light up the waterways and illuminate downtown Providence in a magical display of public art. The popularity of WaterFire, which launched in 1997 and has now brought more than ten million visitors to the city, shows how much the city continues to value art. I happened to visit during the second annual PVDFest, an arts and culture festival held every June. I was impressed by the quality and scope of public art across the city and its enthusiastic reception from residents. You can spot art across the city at any time of year, including sustainable art organized by The Avenue Concept.
Bring your beau and a bottle of wine on board La Gondola Providence, the most romantic experience in town. Drift up and down the Providence River on an authentic Venetian gondola equipped with complimentary wine glasses, corking and homemade Italian wine biscuits for passengers. It’s BYOB, so bring your own wine (and if you have time, purchase that wine from Gasbarro’s, for the best selection in town). Bonus: friendly owner Marcello will sing lovely Venetian ballads when you pass under bridges and point out all the sites of his beloved city.
From the country’s oldest indoor shopping mall to vintage stores popping up across the city, Providence is an indie shopper’s dream. Give yourself a full afternoon, if not an entire day, to make your way around the shops. The Arcade (that historic shopping mall) carries unique pieces from local designers, including “Project Runway” winner Jonathan Joseph Peters. The recently opened Vault Collective carries quality vintage items from eight different retailers — you’ll find anything from 1950s cocktail dresses to 1990s pop culture throwback tees. For those really looking for a deal, hit up the Providence Flea on Sunday morning and shop with the locals — complete with food trucks and live acoustic music.
Garde de lar Mer: Fresh local seafood melds with French technique at this sophisticated spot that boasts a raw bar along with exceptional dishes including duck confit French toast, the most unexpected and delicious brunch option I’ve tasted in a long time.
Gracie’s: This fine dining spot offers locally sourced New American cuisine in a cozy atmosphere with friendly, knowledgeable staff. The menu changes seasonally and many ingredients are harvested from the restaurant’s own rooftop garden. For a full taste of what Gracie’s offers, I suggest indulging in the chef’s tasting menu with wine pairings. The beet salad appetizer, marinated pork tenderloin entree, and red currant and chocolate torte dessert were flawless.
The Eddy Bar: This stylish cocktail bar has the perfect ambiance to enjoy a pre-dinner drink or two. Mingle with locals at the bar or get a table for two at this sophisticated joint that looks like it stepped out of New York City, but without the big city prices. Highlights from the fun, flavorful menu include the “copa banana” (a tasty creme de banana concoction), a classic sazerac and the “jackaloupe,” a cucumber vodka drink made excellent by the chili salt lining the rim.
Late-Night Drinks & Eats
In true college town fashion, bars bustle across Providence into the wee hours, and they offer a little something for everyone. For an elegant stop with an older crowd, stop by The Dorrance for craft cocktails and European-influenced fare located in a historic bank building. Local favorite Hemenway’s is a fun spot for no-frills drinks and a good bowl of authentic New England clam chowder. And for a nice rooftop view and lounge scene with a young, stylish crowd, check out the Rooftop at ProvidenceG.
Visit GoProvidence.com for more on planning your visit, and show love on social media with #GoProv.