A Local’s Guide: The Best Things to do in Providence, RI

If you are looking for a day trip from Boston or are spending a few days exploring the US’ smallest state, be sure to see what Rhode Island’s capital, Providence, has to offer. Providence is one of the US’ oldest cities, founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. The city’s name refers to God’s Providence. Roger Williams was thankful to God for giving him a place to support his ideals of religious freedom for all. It is now a haven of great food, art, and historical buildings. The Providence River running through its center makes it feel a bit like a European city, and you can palpably feel its strong immigrant history. I have lived near for over 15 years, so I hope that you enjoy my ideas for the best things to do in Providence, Rhode Island.

36 Hours in Providence, Rhode Island

Table of Contents

Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island

Visit College Hill, Providence RI

RISD Museum

One of Providence’s claims to fame is the world-renowned art school of RISD or Rhode Island School of Design. Not only does it train some of the best artists in the world, but it has a fabulous museum that is free to visit on Sundays and the third Thursday of every month.

Brown University

one day in Providence, Rhode Ilsand
Visit the telescope at Brown’s Ladd Observatory. Brown also has a museum of anthropology that is open to the public.

Walk through the ivy league grounds of the first US-college to accept students regardless of their religion, which is one of the ideals on which Rhode Island was founded.

Thayer Street

Bring yourself back to your co-ed days by hanging out where the nearby Brown college students hang out. Here you can find clusters of fantastic ethnic food and shopping.

Benefit Street

Stroll along the 18th- and 19th-century residences on this street in Providence’s east side.

“The Hill”

Atwells Avenue

things to do in Providence, Rhode Island, Exploring federal hill providence
Many people think that the sculpture under the Gateway Arch welcoming visitors into Federal Hill is a pineapple, but it is la pigna or a pine cone. It is an Italian symbol for welcome, abundance, and quality.

Almost 20 percent of Rhode Islanders claim Italian ancestry, so you can imagine that we have a fabulous Little Italy. Our centers around Atwells Avenue, where you can’t go wrong with any of the multiple Italian restaurants. Other ethnic foods are also beginning to show up on this popular avenue, perfect for walking along.

DePasquale Square

providence rhode island points of interest

Take in a meal or dance to a live Italian band in this square which will make you feel like you are in Europe. The restaurants on the square have outside seating in season.

Downtown Providence

This area is small enough to get around on foot. You can walk along the Providence River or among the tall buildings of our Financial District.

Superman Building

11 Westminster Street is the tallest building in Rhode Island. It gets its nickname because it looks like the Daily Planet building, but it was not in the movies.

The Arcade

Eat or shop in the oldest indoor mall in the country built in 1828. It has been on the National Historic District Registry since 1976.

Museums in Providence

RISD Museum

Associated with Rhode Island School of Design, this museum contains both local and global art. It is the 20th largest art museum in the US. Admission is free every Sunday and the third Thursday evening of each month.

Museum of Natural History and Planetarium at Roger Williams Park

This museum houses the state’s only public planetarium.

John Brown House

Providence’s first mansion, nearby Brown University, got its name from the house’s owner.

Street Art in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence is a city inspired by art, and much of it is on display through our streets. Here are a few of my favorites.

street art in Providence, Rhode Island.
This wonderland is located in a parking garage off of Washington Street, across the alley from Rosalina’s restaurant. It was painted by Natalia Rak, who was engaged to the man who painted the mural across the lot. Rosalina’s has an incredible appetizer of bread with cheese and red sauce.
points of interest in Providence, RI
“She Never Came,” by the artist BEZT about a man who is being stood up when he is planning to propose to his girl.

Theater in Providence, Rhode Island

Being a creative town, here are a few of our theaters.

Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC)

Take in a world-class Broadway show in this gorgeous theater opened in 1928 as Loew’s State Movie Palace.

Trinity Rep

If you prefer plays, rather than musicals, the smaller Trinity Rep may be more your taste.  A Christmas Carol has been playing here for the last 40 years.

Wilbury Theatre

Showing darker plays in an intimate setting, you will be surprised how good the shows are. And the tickets are cheap without a bad seat in the house.

Waterfire Providence

Waterfire is my favorite thing about Providence. It is an art instillation on the Providence River. At sunset, black boats slide through the water, lighting the bundles of aromatic woods in baskets in the canal. More wood is added long into the night. Piped in music complements the grace of the boats. Flocks of pedestrians meander along the waterfront under our candelabra-lit bridges. Many find a place to sit and watch.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Waterfire

  • Expect crowds, no matter the time of year. The only time I have been without crowds was late at night. It is less crowded the farther you get away from the Providence Place Mall.
  • Make reservations at a restaurant where you can sit and watch the fires, or at least walk from without having to move your car. My go-to’s are Cafe Nuovo, which has a patio right on the canal and Heminways whose windows overlook the end of the canals. Heminways will only have you close to the fires on full lightings. Some nights only the area around the basin is lit.
  • There are concrete bleachers to sit on around Waterplace Basin. It is a wonderful view, but the most crowded area.
  • Bring a blanket and sit on the grass across the canal from Cafe Nuovo.
  • Park in the Exchange Street lot, bring a chair and set up a picnic on the lawn.
  • Walk the whole way down to the end of the canals. There is a park in front of Heminways where there are often street artists or installations.
  • Around Steeple Street, you can often find a Del’s truck for a sweet treat. Just remember spoons and straws are for tourists.

Where to Park for Waterfire

  • Just out of the sheer convenience of it, I usually park in the huge lot at Providence Place Mall. It is easy to get to and from the highway.
  • Park at the lot between Exchange street and Cafe Nuovo.

Roger Williams Park

This 102-acre park in the middle of the city is named after Rhode Island’s founder. It has botanical and Japanese gardens, a zoo and lakes on which you can ride swan boats. Around Halloween, it hosts the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, which truly lives up to its name with thousands of intricately carved pumpkins on display.

Best Restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island

Best Atmosphere in Providence

The Dorrance

Set in a 1901 bank building, a meal at The Dorrance is all about the atmosphere with stained-glass windows and expansive golden ceilings.

Most Rhode Island Restaurants

New York System

Foods to eat in New England
These greasy logs of love are just one of the many reasons you need to visit Rhode Island. Onions are one of my least favorite foods, so they are missing from my wiener. A New York System Wiener has uniquely spiced meat, mustard, onions, and celery salt.

The name makes this one confusing, but NY system hot wieners are uniquely Rhode Island, and this restaurant in Olneyville is where they were created. Check out the bar next door after for unlimited old-school video games while you grab a drink.

Cappricio’s (Also Most Gangster Rhode Island)

So old school, but so good. White table cloths, fine cuisine prepared table-side. This is one of our go-to’s for an elegant night out.

Old Canteen

Located on Federal Hill, my great-grandmother ate here as a child. It is old-school authentic Italian, upscale, but not stuffy.

Best Italian Restaurant in Providence

Best places to eat in Providence, Rhode Island
Simple, super-fresh ingredients are critical to the sublime food at Umberto’s Enoteca in Providence, Rhode Island.

Enoteca Umberto

Although we have many Italian restaurants, this is our favorite. Its a husband and wife show in a small restaurant using ingredients from Italy or sourced locally. Reservations are required months in advance, and we don’t bother with a menu, just let Umberto chose what we will eat.

Best Place to Hang with the Girls

Duck and Bunny, a Snuggery

Enjoy a cute afternoon tea in this old house on the happening Wickenden Street. If you would rather, enjoy lunch in their English garden.

Best Ethnic Food in Providence

Los Andes

We have a lot of choices for unique foods, including Mexican, Portuguese, and Dominican cuisine, but our Peruvian is phenomenal. Read all about why I love Los Andes.

Most Mod Eats in Providence

Ogie’s Trailer Park

Siddle up to the bar, order a Moscow Mule and get transported back into the times of Mad Men. When you are done feeling fancy, pull up to the trailer and order food that reminds me of eating in front of the TV as a kid- Frito pie, loaded tater tots, perogies. Eat it out on the picnic tables in the trailer park.

Where to Stay in Providence

It is easiest to stay right downtown, which is walking distance from most of Providence and close to the train station.

things to do in Providence RI
The Providence Public Library was built in 1880 and is privately owned.

The Biltmore

The Biltmore, built in 1922, is on the National Registry of Historic Places and National Registry of Historic Hotels. Sleep in a bit of Providence history by booking your room here.

The Dean

At this hipster boutique hotel, dream of both the religious and lascivious past of this building. Do I have you curious? It was both a mission, then a strip club. You can find out for yourself by booking a room here.

Where Stay in Providence with Kids

Hampton Inn and Suites

I find this line of hotels very easy to stay in with my family. I can generally find suites for a reasonable price with breakfast included. Find one for your family here.

How to End Your Night in Providence, Rhode Island

The Boom Box

Sing yourself to sleep (or wide awake) with karaoke and sake cocktails underground in the basement of the Dean Hotel.

The Arcade Bar

This is the bar I mentioned above, in the Olneyville section of Providence– drinks and video games.

Lupos

Catch a big-name show in this small venue.

Haven Bros. Food Truck

Eating late-night diner food out of this food truck is something every Rhode Islander has done at some point.

Things to Do in Providence RI with Kids

  • Check out RISD’s Tours for Tots.
  • Providence Children’s Museum
  • Roger Williams Park- zoo, museum or swan boats

Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or ideas that I missed. Enjoy your day in Providence!

Continue exploring Rhode Island with 48 Hours in Rhode Island or The Best of Newport, Rhode Island.

 

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19 thoughts on “A Local’s Guide: The Best Things to do in Providence, RI”

  1. Love the food truck in downtown, Haven Brothers with eclectic atmosphere ?

    The last time we stayed at the Biltmore, in a wonderful suite, we had jewelry stolen , a young daughter tore her contacts. That was only 40 years ago.

    Reply
  2. I have yet to visit RI and plan on doing so someday. I love seeing water fountains and I almost always spot them in towns that have a Little Italy. Nice to see there is a Little Italy in RI. The Boom Box sounds like a fun late night activity 🙂

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  3. Providence has a lot to do and eat, yummy! I’ve only been to Newport and it was only for one day so clearly I need a trip back to RI! I’m highly interested in Waterfire, it looks SO cool!! And of course, I want to see the building that looks like the Daily Planet even if it wasn’t used in the movies. 🙂

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  4. I’ve never been to RI, but it looks like it’s got a number of things to explore as a visitor. I especially love the street art. This is a really great guide if we ever make it there ourselves one day.

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  5. Reading this post brought back some great memories but also at the same time, I missed out on a lot! I was only there for a short time on my only visit to Rhode Island but looks like I need to go back. I remember the shopping mall in downtown and watching a film there, my first experience of an American movie theatre. 🙂 I think i went there as the Providence skyline is used in the background of Family Guy and wanted to see it for real 🙂

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  6. Providence seems like an amazing place with so much to see and do. I found the street art and the Waterfire thing the most interesting. I would definitely love to visit this place someday

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  7. I would tend to agree with you. on Waterfire being the highlight of Providence. Watching the art instillations on the river would be pure delight. I will keep this in mind, for when we go to this area.

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  8. Would love to visit Providence as it is one of the US’ oldest cities and good to know that it refers to God’s name. De Pasquale looks very colorful region here and loved those huge street art here. I would surely visit this area.

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  9. Rhode Island is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, mostly from watching TV shows growing up set in the seaside towns of New England. We’ve visited Boston and have Providence next on our list. We loved the culture and history of Boston so I think we will absolutely love RI as it seems so charming but also less crowded.

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  10. Providence seems like a lovely place to spend a weekend. It’s great to know that there is so much to see and do, also the yummy food. I am a sucker for street art so Waterfire would be one of the top places I’d love to go!

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  11. I went to Providence many years ago for a wedding. Didn’t get a chance to look around the city but knew I wanted to return. Rhode Island was very beautiful. Need to think about visiting again soon.

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  12. I’ve been to Boston a few times but not made it out to Providence, so that’s a good one to remember for my next trip to the region. I’d probably try and spend a couple of nights there to make the most of everything to see, though I’m most drawn to the natural landscapes, the street art and the excellent restaurants, especially Los Andes!

    Reply
  13. I’ve driven past Providence on 95 several times AND have friends who live there, but I’ve never taken the time to explore it! Clearly I’m missing out – there’s so much jam-packed into such a small city!

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  14. I was always wondering about Rhode Island. Didn’t know that Providence is one of the oldest cities in the US.
    It would be interesting to sit at the De Pasquale Square, I’m always thrilled about the European charm. And you say that Peruvian food is one of the best here? Oh well, that would be my first choice then. Thanks for the idea. 🙂

    Reply

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