By Bob Glaze
Providence is the capital and most populous city of the state of Rhode Island and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. It is home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, whose RISD Museum displays American art and silver. Nearby, 18th- and 19th-century homes line the streets of College Hill. In addition to these sites, there are a growing number of great restaurants and new hotels to choose from. You can fly into Providence but it is also easily accessible by car or train from Boston.
It is a great walking city. I loved staying downtown and exploring the historic building, seeing the beautiful homes in College Hill, visiting the East Side, RISD and Brown for the first time and spending time on a Sunday in the Federal Hill neighborhood and experiencing their neighborhood Summer Festival.
What to Do in Providence, RI
While in Providence make sure to visit:
Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design RISD: For many years I have heard about RISD and have taken art classes from a former professor, but had never been. So when in town on my recent trip, I made it a point to visit the campus and their art museum. The museum has a very impressive collection including paintings by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and Renoir in its European collection. In addition to paintings, you will find costumes, Asian art, Greek and Roman, decorative arts and design along with 18th and 19th Century American, prints drawings and photography. You will also find works by Jackson Pollock and Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass.I enjoyed Pendleton House, a two story house with great antiques and several paintings by John Singleton Copley. There is also Cafe Pearl onsite.
Additionally, there are a number of events during the year. In June you will find Super Art Sunday which has several programs for families and children throughout the museum. 20 N. Main St.
The David Winton Bell Gallery at 64 College St., on College Hill, is the Brown University’s contemporary art gallery and home to an important part of the university’s permanent art collection. The collection consists “of more than 6,000 works of art, dating from the 16th century to the present, with particularly rich holdings in contemporary art and works on paper. Significant prints and drawings include works by Rembrandt, Goya, Matisse, and Motherwell. The painting and sculpture collection holds important works by Frank Stella, Lee Bontecou, Diego Rivera, Alice Neel, Richard Serra, and Joseph Cornell. Particularly strong in mid-century documentation, the photography collection features significant work by Walker Evans and others.” They also feature contemporary exhibitions throughout the year. The building was designed by internationally renowned architect Philip Johnson.
John Nichols Brown House Museum: The John Nicholas Brown House Museum, run by the Rhode Island Historical Society, is located in a home built “in 1788 by merchant, patriot, politician, and slave trader John Brown…He and his family were some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the colonies and, then, the United States. The Browns are the namesake of Brown University.” 52 Power St.
The Providence Athenaeum: The Providence Athenaeum was founded as “The Athenaeum” in 1836 as an independent, member-supported library open to the public.You can visit, take a tour, attend an event or see an exhibition. Unfortunately it was closed on Sunday when I was there. 251 Benefit Street.
Summer River Bonfires: Every other Saturday evening from May through November, the WaterFire event lights up downtown Providence. Bonfires glow on the city’s three rivers. On land, there are fire spinners, living statues, an art show and a light installation in Memorial Park. It starts at sundown and goes until midnight.I was able to catch some of the bonfires on my first night in town!
Federal Hill Summer Festival. This is an annual summer fest in late June in Providence’s Federal Hill or LIttle Italy neighborhood. Just west of downtown, this neighborhood was the original hub for the city’s Italian immigrants and today has some great classic Italian restaurants. During the festival, you can walk the streets, visit the local restaurants and businesses, listen to music or explore one of the several food and retail vendors along Atwells Ave.
The Arcade Providence: Located in the center of downtown, The Arcade Providence was built in 1828 and it is the oldest indoor mall in the United States. After an extensive renovation, it is now home to 48 micro-loft apartments on the upper two floors, with a first floor of small independent retailers with local roots, including a full service local foods restaurant, a coffee shop/whiskey bar, casual dining, and several unique retail shops. 65 Weybosset St.
Where To Stay in Providence, RI
I recommend staying downtown so you can walk to restaurants and to the College Hill and Federal Hill neighborhoods. My top recommendations include:
The Dean Hotel: After reading many great reviews in the press, I chose to stay at this hip, boutique hotel in downtown Providence at 122 Fountain St. It is located in an historic building that was converted to a 52-room hotel. It has as Bolt Coffee bar, a popular restaurant called North that features vegetables, seafood and meat that are sourced from local farmers and fishermen plus a karaoke bar called The Boombox. Make sure to request a room on a high floor away from the restaurant. Also, if you want more than coffee and pastries for breakfast, you will have to go outside the hotel as North is not open for breakfast. It is in a great location from which to walk and explore the city.
The Graduate Hotel: The former Providence Biltmore Hotel has been totally refurbished and transformed into The Graduate Hotel. Here you will find a beautiful, classic design with updated and contemporary details and art. The Graduate Hotels Collection is “a thoughtfully crafted collection of hotels that reside in dynamic university-anchored towns across the country.” It is located in the center of downtown, close to the campuses of Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, Johnson & Wales University and Rhode Island College.” Onsite in the lobby you will find the Poindexter Coffee cafe. 11 Dorrance St.
Where to Eat in Providence, RI
Providence is becoming a popular destination for great food and one of the best restaurant cities in the Northeast according to recent articles. It has everything from casual cafes to fine dining restaurants. Several of its chefs have been recently recognized by the James Beard Foundation in its annual nominations and awards. My top recommendations after my recent trip include:
Persimmon: I had a wonderful meal on my first night in town. Helmed by three-time James Beard semi-finalist Champe Speidel,it is known for its “modern American dishes with global influences.” I really enjoyed the scallops in a creamy sauce with asparagus along with a sweet pea angnolotti pasta with burata, prosciutto, peas and mint. I highly recommend it. It located on the East Side of Providence at 99 Hope St.
Hemenway’s: Thanks to a close friend who went to Brown, I wanted to try Hemenway’s which is known for its seafood. I went for lunch after exploring College Hill, Brown and the RISD Museum I had an excellent salad with shrimp, crab and lobster along with the best key lime pie! The design is bright and attractive. 121 S. Main St.
Small Point Cafe: At 230 Westminster St. downtown, this is a colorful cafe for coffee, pastries, breakfast items. I enjoyed my breakfast there while staying a short walk away.
Kleos: This is a popular downtown spot in a contemporary setting that features contemporary Greek specialties.The menu is classic, with mezze platters, gyros, moussaka and Greek lasagna. I enjoyed dinner there on Sunday night while I was in town.
Oberlin: Benjamin Sukle nominee Best Chef Northeast Semifinalist 2019. It is a downtown neighborhood restaurant and wine bar. They are known for their wines, cider, drinks and small plates.186 Union St.
Owned by the same team at Oberlin, birch at 200 Washington St. is an intimate New American restaurant featuring a seasonal, locally sourced menu. The local ingredients include whelks (large sea snails), quahogs (deep water clams) and foraged herbs. It was included in Bon Appetit’s list of Top 50 Best New Restaurant in the Country in 2014.
The Dorrance: Located in the heart of downtown in a former Federal Reserve bank building at 60 Dorrance St.,The Dorrance is an elegant restaurant featuring a European-influenced menu and craft cocktails. It has ornate ceilings and classic design. The restaurant has has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Restaurants in the United States by Opinionated About Dining; Top Bar/Cocktail List two consecutive years by Rhode Island Monthly; Bon Appétit’s Top 50 New Restaurants and a James Beard Foundation Semi-Finalist for Best New Restaurant in the country.
North: Located in the hip Dean Hotel in downtown Providence, this is a modern Asian hot spot by James Mark, a David Chang protégé. It is very popular and they don’t take reservations, so I recommend going early. Mark opened the Japanese-inspired Big King in June, 2018 in the West Side of Providence. The neighborhood is home to a mix of residences, youth arts organizations and some of the city’s best brunch spots. North previously occupied the space that Big King now does. 231 Carpenter.
PV Donuts: After reading about PV Donuts in several articles, I had to try it on the way back from Newport. So glad I did. It is known for coffee and gourmet donuts! It is located at 79 Ives St. in the Fox Point neighborhood on the city’s east side.
Trinity Brewhouse: At 186 Fountain St. near the Dean Hotel, this is casual brewpub, started in 1994 and offering pub food and a selection of their own porters, ales, IPAs, sours and stouts brewed on the premises.
Bolt Coffee Company: This is a local coffee roaster. You can find a small location on the first floor of the Dean Hotel. They also have locations at the RISD Museum on College Hill and a third in the Jewelry District.The offer coffee, tea and food items.
After my recent trip to Providence, I read about Aleppo Sweets. In September, 2019 it was included in Bon Appetit’s list of Top 50 Best New Restaurant in the Country. It is a Syrian bakery and cafe with baklava as a specialty. I will definitely add it to the list for my next trip.
Federal Hill, just west of downtown, was the original hub for the city’s Italian immigrants and today has some great classic Italian restaurants. Highly recommended are Joe Marzilli’s Old Canteen since 1956, at 120 Atwells Ave., featuring Italian cuisine and famous for its lobster, veal, steaks and chops and Camille’s at 71 Bradford St. a landmark from 1941 for classic Italian fare. Other spots include Trattoria Zooma at 245 Atwells Ave., Cassarino’s at 177 Atwells Ave.from 1988, Angelo’s Citiva Farnese from 1924 at141 Atwells Ave., and Ristorante Roma. Here Italian standards are offered at this traditional corner eatery, market, bar & bakery. 310 Atwells Ave.
Enjoy your visit to Providence. I hope that my recommendations help make it a wonderful experience!