If you're looking for a big-city restaurant scene with small-town charm, Providence, Rhode Island, meets the criteria with its seemingly endless collection of local-run eateries, adorable shops, hip bars, and a world-class art scene. The capital city of the nation's smallest state, Providence is often overlooked in favor of nearby Boston and Cape Cod, but the academic and artistic communities of both Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, along with the bevy of passionate and welcoming locals, have turned the city into an exciting collection of diverse and cultural neighborhoods.
For a great introduction to Providence cuisine and hospitality, head to Wickeden Street for lunch at The Duck and Bunny, a self-proclaimed "snuggery." At this cozy and indeed snuggly café that’s also a tea shop, bar, creperie, and dessert haven, you can sip on a cranberry mimosa or sweet honey coffee while deciding between all-day brunch selections, the famous crepes, or decadent cupcakes.
Walk off the calories by strolling down Wickeden and checking out the quirky vintage shops and antique stores as you make your way to the RISD Art Museum, where highlights include paintings from major figures like Degas, Manet, Picasso, Warhol, and van Gogh, as well as rotating exhibits covering everything from graphic design to sculpture. Be sure to stop by the risd | works gift shop; all of the unique items for sale are made by former RISD students.
Once you work up an appetite again, the next stop is historic Federal Hill on Atwells Ave. The Little Italy of Providence is a fresh breath of real Italian air, thanks to the legions of family-run businesses that are still going strong, some for nearly a century. For dinner, kick back at Angelo's Civita Farnese, which has been serving its classic red sauce pastas in the same spot since 1924; not only does the original owner's granddaughter run the kitchen, but she and her mother still live just across the street.
If you want to experience Providence's hip, collegiate side, grab a drink at The Eddy, a dark and casual cocktail bar whose friendly bartenders will happily concoct drinks like the Royal Crown (cucumber vodka, pineapple juice, and vanilla), a refreshing after-dinner concoction.
Fuel up for the day ahead with a quick stop at Ellie's Bakery on Washington Street, where you can pick up a coffee from specialty roasters New Harvest (a local favorite) and a fresh pastry before making the walk to Brown University. The seventh oldest college in the nation has the gorgeous architecture you've come to expect from Ivy League universities; stroll the grounds at your leisure or take a free student-run tour. There are also plenty of museums on campus to occupy you for a few hours, like the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology or the David Winton Bell Gallery.
This is New England after all, and no trip would be complete without a seafood feast, so lunch today is at Hemenway's Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar. As you enjoy the view through the high windows, enjoy the impossibly creamy lobster bisque, the bacon and scallion wrapped scallops, and tender grilled swordfish, along with any other delicacy from the sea you can imagine.
Get ready to explore yet another neighborhood as you make your way to DownCity, as the downtown section of Providence is known. Reminiscent of a bustling big metropolis, there are plenty of old buildings and art galleries here (it's also considered the city's arts district). The Arcade on Westminster is the oldest "mall" in America, dating back to 1828. Other key sights in this neighborhood include the State House (with the fourth largest self-supporting dome in the world) and City Hall. If you're around when the sun sets, be sure to catch WaterFire, which takes place every Saturday in the summer from dusk until midnight at Waterplace Park. At key points along the waterfront, nearly 100 braziers are lit, setting the river on fire and creating a beautiful and almost magical sight.
Dine at Gracie's, a romantic and intimate spot where a $40 three-course prix-fixe menu will get you choices like Hudson Valley foie gras, an all-natural ribeye with potato croquette, white asparagus, and black garlic fondue, and a Madagascar vanilla bean crème brulee—all made with local ingredients. After dinner, cross the street to end your night with a show at the Trinity Rep, housed in the historic Lederer Theater and featuring both classic and contemporary plays.
Begin the last day of your stay with a trip back to Federal Hill to wander the streets in the daytime and grab breakfast at one of the sublime bakeries. A good start for a pastry and espresso is the classy café, Pastiche; take your brunch to-go as you swing around to DePasquale Plaza, a piazza that stands at the center of the neighborhood. With a fountain and al fresco dining from surrounding restaurants, you could just as easily be in the middle of Venice. Check out Venda Ravioli next door, an Italian grocery with loads of imported Italian foods and goods.
Insider tip: If browsing Venda Ravoili inspires you to cook your own meal tonight, cross the piazza to Antonelli's, an old school live poultry shop, where a backroom filled with live chicken, ducks, and sometimes rabbits lets the non-squeamish select and weigh their night's meal. Come back in a half-hour to pick up your fresh meat, or even watch the butchering process yourself if you can stomach it.
Last stop is the oldest Italian bakery on the block, Scialo Bros. Bakery, owned by the same family since 1916. Pick up a cannoli, or seven, along with Italian cookies and tiramisu whoopie pies.
The famed sign of the historic Providence Biltmore has graced the city skyline since 1922, and a recent renovation has kept the old-school grandeur intact while also introducing gorgeous modern rooms and exceptional service. It's located in the middle of downtown, within walking distance of nearly every major sight, but a hotel car is ready to take you anywhere in the city for no additional charge. Any free time you have should be spent in the luxurious and intimate spa at the Biltmore, making this the only hotel in the city with a spa on-site. Those looking for a smaller place can try Hotel Providence, a boutique hotel in the heart of the art gallery district.
Lou Hammond PR and Providence and Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau (Providence Skyline, RISD Museum, WaterFire, DePasquale Plaza); Courtesy of CM Communications (Providence Biltmore interior)
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This is a nice overview of Providence. Unfortunately, Waterfire no longer takes place every week. You may check the schedule at www.waterfire.org