Providence, Rhode Island, New England's second-largest city, is an old city, established in 1636 by Roger Williams; but Providence is also young in spirit, with a youthfulness replenished by a steady flow of immigrants.
The hub of culture, governance and commerce in Rhode Island, Providence is also very accessible to other travel destinations in New England, making it both a convenient gateway city as well as an attractive place to live for young professionals, empty-nesters, and Boston and New York refugees.
Six universities call Providence home, including the prestigious Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design; both are located on the East Side, one of more than a dozen walking neighborhoods in the city. On Smith Hill, you'll find the Rhode Island State House, which has the world's fourth-largest self-supported marble dome. Perched atop Providence's gleaming white Capitol is a bronze statue of The Independent Man—a 10-ft/3-m reminder of Williams and the small band of nonconformists who followed him and founded Providence. In the shadows of the State House building, you'll see massive, centuries-old four- and five-story homes.
Providence is also known for dirty politics, potent organized crime and other assorted controversies. One of Providence's most flamboyant characters is Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., the former and longest-serving mayor, who held office for 20 years. Cianci served five years in a federal prison for a 2002 racketeering conviction. (He also bottled his own pasta sauce.) Another mayor, David Cicilline, is the son of a reputed Mafia lawyer and was also the first openly gay mayor of a U.S. state capital.
Since the 1970s, downtown Providence has been the focus of a large and successful urban renewal project. At its heart are the upscale Providence Place Mall and WaterPlace Park, a 4-acre/2-hectare public area with riverwalks, an amphitheater and a tidal basin created at the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers. The renaissance has placed the city on any number of best-cities lists, and whether you're interested in early U.S. history, the arts, authentic Italian food or just hanging out on popular Thayer Street, with its trendy bookstores, eateries and shops, Providence is well worth a visit.
Providence, called Downcity by some, nestles in a bowl circled by College Hill (the neighborhood home of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design) and the East Side and Smith Hill (with the marble-domed Rhode Island State House) and Federal Hill (known as Little Italy). South of the city, past the Jewelry District—now known for its nightclubs and converted factories—lie the upper reaches of Narragansett Bay. The small Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers slip along either side of Smith Hill, meet at what is now WaterPlace Park, join together as the Providence River and flow south to join Narragansett Bay at India Point Park. Another finger of the bay, the Seekonk River, marks the eastern boundary of the city.
The major arteries include Interstate 95, which runs north and south, connecting the city to Boston to the north and New York City to the south; I-195, which begins at downtown Providence and runs east across the Washington Bridge through East Providence and onward toward Cape Cod; and the 6-10 Connector, an inner-loop bypass of I-95.
Exiled from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony for preaching religious tolerance and Native American ownership of the entire New World, Roger Williams established Providence in 1636. He divided up a mile-/kilometer-long stretch of riverfront and hillside among his followers and established the first Baptist church in North America. With official recognition of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations from King Charles II, Providence flourished as a haven for people who thrived in an atmosphere of tolerance.
Although tracts of the state had been purchased from the Narragansett Indians, many Europeans moved into Native American lands in violation of treaties, eventually provoking a 1675-76 uprising led by Wampanoag chief King Philip. The conflict, called King Philip's War, resulted in tremendous loss of life on both sides. Providence was spared complete destruction through the personal intervention of Williams, who called on his friendship with the local natives and his solid reputation for honesty and integrity. After the wholesale massacre of the Pequot and Narragansett tribes, many of the Pequot warriors were enslaved and later traded for black slaves in the West Indies. This marked the beginning of the triangle trade of slaves, rum and molasses upon which many Rhode Island fortunes were based.
The 1772 sacking and burning of the British tax ship Gaspee by Providence Sons of Liberty near the village of Pawtuxet was one of the first acts of violent rebellion against British rule. Rhode Island later became the first of the American colonies to declare its independence, via passage of the Rhode Island Independence Act on 4 May 1776. Until the American Revolution, Providence had been a poor cousin to nearby Newport with its excellent harbor, but the British occupation and near-destruction of Newport made Providence the dominant city in the state. Following the Revolution, global trade expanded rapidly, and merchant ships embarked on lengthy journeys to the Mediterranean, through the Middle East, and to China and the Far East.
This dominance was solidified with the establishment of water-powered textile mills along the Blackstone River in the 1790s, making Providence the most practical port for imported cotton and exported cloth. Providence became a center of manufacturing and commerce well into the 20th century.
Since the 1970s, Providence has been abandoning its industrial roots. Old factories have been renovated and turned into offices, artists' studios and lofts; docks have been removed; a convention center and hotels have been constructed downtown; and the Providence River (formed by the joining of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers) through downtown has been opened up into WaterPlace Park.
Most Providence sightseeing is done best on foot and at a leisurely pace, paying special attention to three centuries of history. The best points of interest are open Tuesday-Friday in the morning: Wander up to the Rhode Island State House on Smith Hill, down to WaterPlace Park and Riverwalk, then visit the nearby First Baptist Church (which is really the first Baptist church body founded by Roger Williams) and climb College Hill to visit historic Benefit Street. Along the way, you can visit historical buildings, museums, galleries and shops.
Alternatively, book a visit on the Splash Duck Tours, offered mid-May through mid-October. One-hour narrated tours take place in an amphibious duck vehicle, which takes in the major sights of Providence by land before splashing into the river for a chance to see Providence from the water.
WaterFire Providence is a world-renowned community arts installation of nearly 100 bonfires set to instrumental music along the downtown rivers. This free event takes place on select evenings May-October. Phone 401-273-1155. http://www.waterfire.org.
Providence's nightlife is concentrated in the Jewelry District, the west side of the downtown area, and in the South Main Street area. The standout in the live-music category is Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel. Ri-Ra is a popular Irish pub that features its own performers, and many Providence restaurants turn into nightspots after dinner crowds depart.
The dining scene in Providence benefits from the presence of Johnson and Wales' culinary arts school—the school's interns are a source of highly motivated kitchen staff, and many of the students remain in the city after graduation to open their own innovative restaurants. The fierce competition keeps Providence restaurants on their toes, and there are always new restaurants to visit and enjoy.
Expect to find a variety of cuisines in Providence—French, Thai, Japanese, Indian and Mexican. However, the city is best known for its authentic Italian food. Restaurants in Little Italy, in Federal Hill, serve meals as authentic as any you'll find in the old country. DePasquale Plaza features a cluster of excellent Italian restaurants such as Constantino's.
The East Side mostly caters to students (some 26,000 students study at the six colleges in the city). Super-fresh sushi is the trademark of Haruki East on Wayland Avenue. Andreas on Thayer Street serves excellent Greek food. Just off Thayer Street, the Meeting Street Cafe serves sandwiches too large to eat in one sitting. And the buzzy Red Stripe on Wayland Avenue prides itself on international brasserie classics: moules frites (mussels with fries) and stout-battered fish-and-chips.
For the adventurous, both in terms of eating and travel, there are several ethnic restaurants outside of the downtown area worth noting, including Apsara on Public Street, a Vietnamese-Thai-Cambodian restaurant; and Don Jose Tequilas Restaurant, for cheap and cheerful Mexican food, on Atwells Avenue.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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