Some were surprised that Providence made "The New York Times" list of "52 Places to Go in 2016." After all, the large (by New England standards) yet quaint Rhode Island city joined exotic locales such as Mozambique, Abu Dhabi, and Cesme in the ranking. We were surprised, too -- but just because others were surprised! We hate to brag, but we've been smitten with Providence for a long time. The proof? We've made numerous trips to the RI capital, and have photographed and reviewed over a dozen hotels there in the process. So we're experts on Providence, and know all the ins and out that make this New England destination a very special place. If you're Providence-bound, or even just thinking about it, here are nine cool things to do once you're there.
1. Take a boat tour.
A boat tour is a solid means of getting a good view of a city's landscape, and the one that floats along the Providence River is top-notch. Launching from The Hot Club (where a scene from "There's Something About Mary" was filmed), this daytime cruise is helmed by knowledgeable tour guides, many whom have been with Providence River Boat Company for decades. Forty-five minutes long, it's a popular pick among families; kids stayed entertained, parents learn interesting tidbits about Providence's history, culture, and architecture, and everyone gets some nice outdoors time. If you'd prefer a more romantic paddle down the river, gondola rides are also available.
2. Visit the RISD Museum.
It's pretty impressive that a design school with just over 2,000 undergraduate students is home to the twentieth largest art museum in the country. It's also one of the best, covering a wide variety of genres to appeal to all types of visitors -- it's collection of European art is particularly well-known. Other collections include Ancient Art, Contemporary Art, Asian Art, Prints and Photographs, and Costumes and Textiles. Rotating exhibits often highlight successful Rhode Island School of Design alumni; be sure to stop by the museum's store on your way out, as much of what's sold are the works for current and former RISD students, as well as local artists.
3. Go to a show.
Since Providence is one of the largest in New England, many worldwide shows travel through the area -- the fact that it's a big college town doesn't hurt either. Any given week, locals and visitors can attend musicals, ballets, comedy performances, and concerts at a handful of venues, many of which are beautiful historic structures. For example, the Providence Performing Arts Center hosts the majority of Broadway shows for the city; the 1920s theater was fortunately saved from being torn down in the 70s, and has since been restored to its former glory. It, along with the Trinity Repertory Company (shown above), is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
4. Dig for cool vintage pieces.
In "52 Places to Go in 2016," "The New York Times" describes Providence as the East Coast's answer to Portland, OR -- largely in reference to the town's lively culinary scene. But it also resembles its western hipster sister's vibe in its love of vintage flair. Appealing to the student community, many shops in the downtown Providence area offer cool, inexpensive vintage pieces -- everything from hats to gowns to scarves. If you dig digging into heaps of vintage apparel, head to the Arcade. The first enclosed shopping mall in the country, this imposing historic building houses vintage shops, art boutiques stocked with local works and trinkets, a coffee shop, and a bar offering regional brews.
5. Join a Federal Hill food tour.
As previously mentioned, Providence is in the midst of a foodie revival; restaurants receiving national acclaim include Birch and Persimmon. But food has always been an important part of the city's culture, perhaps most clearly in Federal Hill. Akin to New York's Little Italy (sans the teems of people and maitre d's armed with menus lining the sidewalks), the neighborhood -- though originally inhabited by the Irish -- is where Italian immigrants settled in the 1870s. Their influence on the area is remains abundantly clear, particularly in the shops and restaurants which offer authentic Italian treats such as fresh-made pasta and cannoli.
If you're interested in a local's culinary view of "the hill," Chef Cindy Salvato of Savoring Rhode Island leads a delicious, laid-back tour which hits up four to five shops and restaurants. Highlights include instruction on distinguishing a high-quality olive oil from a low-quality one, and a visit to Antonelli Poultry Co (shown above) where customers can pick from their live poultry.
6. Amble around Brown's campus.
With RISD, Johnson & Wales, Providence College, and Brown all within less than five miles of one another, Providence is most definitely a college town. And while we love the museum at RISD, we just might love Brown's campus even more. With a prime spot on the hill (meaning the "freshman fifteen" is more like the "freshman five" here), Brown University boasts magnificent views of the city and river. It also has that classic Ivy League look that makes it so easy to amble for hours -- stately brick buildings, verdant lawns, and nose-in-a-book students and professors in transit between classes.
7. Find a tranquil park.
Providence experiences classic New England winters -- pretty on postcards, pretty brutal in reality. But with four true seasons, parks here are popular spots for relaxing and lounging during fall, spring, and summer. Downtown's Burnside Park (shown above) almost looks like a scene out of Savannah; at its center is a bubbling fountain, gifted to the city by Italian Diplomat Signor Paul Bajnotti in 1902. During the summer, the park is the site of free weekly concerts (where locals and visitors can also enjoy an outdoor biergarten). In the winter, the adjacent ice-skating rink opens for the season.
On the National Register of Historic Places, Roger Williams National Memorial is also a quaint landscaped park in the downtown area. Covering just 4.5 acres, it's the twentieth smallest national park in the country. Here visitors can find a memorial to Roger Williams, who founded Providence as a stand for religious freedom in 1636 in response to being banned from the Massachusetts colony for his beliefs, as well as a small exhibit at the park's visitor center.
8. Soak up some history.
One of the original thirteen colonies, Providence is replete with historic significance -- no big shocker here. So it's easy to get your fill of history while in town, whether that means visiting museums or simply walking around the city, reading the plaques of various memorials and monuments. After all, there are 13 National Historic Landmarks in the city. It's also home to numerous "firsts" (like the First Baptist Church in America, shown above) and if the weather turns, you can seek shelter in the many historic houses that dot the city; among our favorites are the Governor Stephen Hopkins House (where the former governor, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, lived) and the John Brown House, which was Providence's first mansion when the merchant built it in 1786.
9. Book a day trip to Newport.
Okay, so this isn't in Providence. But one of Providence's highlights is its proximity to so many other destinations -- Boston, New York City, and Newport. An hour's drive from Providence, Newport is a popular pick for a day trip among Providence visitors staying for a long weekend, or even a week-long vacation. The famous resort town has been the summer home of the nation's elite, from business magnates to Commander-in-Chiefs: Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy both had "Summer White Houses" here. The only reminder you need of Newport's historic chichi status is a drive down mansion-studded Bellevue Avenue: colossal homes (cheekily known as "cottages") line the cliffs, built by families such as the Astors and Vanderbilts during the Gilded Age. Or of course, you can walk the historic Cliff Walk (shown above).