Finding unusual culture in Providence is not difficult if you know where to look, but without the right guide, many visitors feel lost. There are plenty of tourist destinations in RI and choosing between historical museums and botanical garden centers can be overwhelming. To discover the inside scoop of Providence, you have to probe deeper.
What is there to do in Providence?
In addition to the more traditional hot spots, Providence has several lesser-known gems for its visitors. From authentic Greek food found at Yoleni’s to the sprawling Colonial homes along Providence’s Mile of History tour, there are multiple options to explore.
Providence, Rhode Island is known for more than just its prestigious colleges. It is one of the most vibrant small cities in America.
In addition to the first indoor shopping center, horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft have found a home here. While visiting the zoo is one of the most popular attractions in Providence, other adventures can be just as exciting.
At the Rhode Island School of Design, I learned how to navigate several sections of the city just by using the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. From the Italian bakeries in Federal Hill to the Westminster Arcade, Providence is packed with culture.
A Brief History of Providence, Rhode Island
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States. The “Ocean State” was originally known for its shopping port in the early 1900s, but is now known for the city of Providence.
Providence played a leading role in the industrial revolution. Jewelry and textile manufacturing was a key part of Providence’s local economy. Companies such as Brown & Sharpe, Babcock & Wilcox, and Fruit of the Loom were based in or around the community.
“The Renaissance City”
During the late 1970s, Community Development funds were invested throughout Providence. $606 million helped revive the arts and a significant section of the underground railroad.
By the new millennium, Providence, Rhode Island had established an “Innovation & Design District”. This became the educational hub for STEM studies.
Providence looks different now than it did during the year 2000. Since then new luxury condos and hotels have sprouted throughout downtown. The new leading companies are now GE digital and Virgin Pulse.
Transportation has also changed. Bicyclists and pedestrians have a much easier time getting around than they used to. To encourage walking, a greenway was built in Roger Williams Park. This allows people to safely walk through the historic district without facing traffic.
The Providence Historic District Commission
The Providence Historic District Commission (PHDC), was first founded in 1960 to preserve Providence’s visual character. Through numerous City Council meetings, the commission was able to establish zoning districts for historical areas of the city.
Today there are nine local districts with over 2,000 properties. The buildings are preserved to represent historical architecture developed for churches, housing, and factories. In addition to the upkeep of structures, landscape designs remain the same. This is a unique characteristic of Providence that many other cities can’t share.
The Armory Historic District hosts over 500 properties and is located on Cranston street in the West End. These houses are typically two-family houses built in the 19th century.
The area looks similar to a fortress and is located near what was once a military training property. For those who are a fan of Greek Revival architecture, this is a fascinating historical preservation.
The Providence Landmarks District is slightly smaller. It has just over 300 properties with the majority as commercial factories. Industrial buildings stem from the mid19th century and can be found throughout Providence.
The College Hill Historic District is the oldest historical area in Providence. This is the site of the original settlement built in the early 1600s.
Housing is mostly residential and is located along the river. This is probably the most popular backdrop of Providence because of the universities it is associated with. These include Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design.
The Broadway Historic District is the smallest of the districts. It has less than 200 properties and is located in the Federal Hill neighborhood.
Although there aren’t as many historical structures to view, the area is one of my favorites. Federal Hill is close to downtown and sports several Greek Revival mansions. Wealthy manufacturers once populated this neighborhood.
The history of Providence is rich with architectural design. Even non-historical neighborhoods have an artful character about them. For a small New England city, Providence is one of the most historically dense areas in the region.
The Best Historical Attractions in Providence
There’s a lot to see in Providence. Many visitors prefer to see the historical sites before choosing lesser-known spots. Since Providence is known for both history and local entertainment, there are several options to choose from.
The Mile of History
The Mile of History walking tours are designed to open the creative mind. Guided tours are available for specific historical homes throughout the area. The 1707 home has been preserved for over three decades.
Even when the house is not open to the public, the gardens are still accessible most of the time.
The First Unitarian Church of Providence can be seen with or without a guide. It’s one of only two churches designed and built by John Holden Greene. Though it has been restored, the design is preserved.
Another historical site in the Mile of History is the Marine Corps Arsenal. This is located on 176 Benefit street where the Armory Historic District is found. Even if you’re not interested in the politics of war, the armory is fascinating.
Artillery units were used during the Civil War and the Arsenal still displays the original military portraits. Unlike the Unitarian church, this is an appointment-only site.
At the eastern border of the Mile of History sits Prospect Terrace Park. The terrace allows visitors to see all of downtown Providence including the Rhode Island State House. For a sunset walk, this is the perfect place to end up. Just look for the huge statue of Roger Williams.
Barker Playhouse is located within the Historic East Side but isn’t necessarily about history. For short, residents usually refer to this as “The Players”.
The Players perform a variety of plays from Shakespeare, Sonheim, and other famous writers. The group is primarily amateur but has a professional quality to every scene. Although it was originally invented in 1909, it has continued to provide top-notch productions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
If you travel to Providence between October and May, I highly recommend seeing one of their five productions. This is only available on the weekends, so it’s important to buy tickets in advance.
The Barker Playhouse is considered “America’s Oldest Little Theatre”. It has stayed in business throughout The Great Depression and The Great Recession.
Roger Williams Park Zoo
Roger Williams Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in America. It houses over 150 species. Rare and exotic animals like giraffes and snow leopards are kept in its 40 acres of land.
Since this zoo is smaller than most it’s also easier to navigate. This can be particularly beneficial for rambunctious kids that aren’t always easy to keep track of.
For children with sensory processing disorders, the zoo also provides alternative resources. Quiet rooms and headphones are available.
During the fall I went to the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular because I heard the music was unbeatable. For a small operation, I was incredibly surprised by the quality of sound and equipment. Not only is the dancing fun, but creatively-carved pumpkins decorate the entire place.
For those who are on a budget, but want to do something unusual, this is the place to be. Tickets are under $20 for adults.
The WaterFire sculpture was created by Barnaby Evans in the mid-’90s. Although it’s only been around for a few decades, the tradition surrounding it is widely known throughout New England.
Although the WaterFire is a statue, it’s also considered a performance piece. The WaterFire festival evenings are located downtown by the Woonasquatucket River. Over eighty braziers are lit and can be seen above water.
Some of the braziers are placed on bridges or piers. When walking around the area, flickering light can be seen no matter where you’re standing.
The smell of wood mixed with food stands and incense is an all-encompassing feeling that I’ve never felt anywhere else.
This is a popular attraction and draws crowds of over 30,000 people. The staff is mostly made up of volunteers, including the firefighters. Since it’s an outdoor attraction, many people feel it is safer during COVID, but the environment may be misleading. Depending on the circumstance, it may be necessary to mask up before heading downtown.
Providence Performing Arts Center
The Providence Performing Arts Center was once considered the “Jewel of Weybosset Street”. Built-in 1928, the building is architecturally unique compared to modern-day performing arts centers. Indoor, the decor is extremely elegant.
Crystal chandeliers are hung throughout the building to give it a traditionally glamorous aesthetic.
Molding and columns are kept in pristine condition to preserve the original look. As with many extravagant buildings of that era, imported marble is used for both structure and design.
In addition to hosting traveling Broadway performers, the Providence Performing Arts Center also features the Philharmonic. Regardless if you’re interested in plays, musicals, ballets, or comedy, the Providence Performing Arts Center has it all. Unlike a lot of other popular playhouses, this performing arts center also hosts local talent.
The Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park
The Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park has more than just outdoor gardens. In addition to sprawling trees and shrubbery, indoor arrangements can be seen regardless of the weather.
For a rainy day with a loved one, this makes for a perfect romantic outing. Roger Williams Park has one of the largest indoor gardens in the New England area. It has two expansive greenhouses with over 100 species of plants.
Depending on what you’re looking for, there are two main areas: The Conservatory and the Mediterranean room. Plants range from cacti to palms with everything in between.
The indoor gardens span 12,000 feet and feature more than just plants. Stone sculptures and hidden fountains are tucked away in the corners of the Mediterranean Room.
This is an ideal spot to visit during the colder months because of its regulated temperature. Because balmy plants need moisture, the humidity is enough to keep you warm.
Exotic plants that do not naturally grow in this environment thrive in the greenhouses. Venus fly traps, which albeit do look scary, are contained with dewy tropical plants surrounding them. If you squint, you might be able to see them eating small, flying insects.
Frogs, koi fish, and even baby turtles can be found in the botanical gardens. Both outdoor and indoor plants have their own unique environment curated just for them.
Another interesting point regarding the Botanical Center of Roger Williams Park is its hospitality to people. When I was at the Rhode Island Institute of Design, I frequently used the center as a place to study. They offer free Wi-Fi and tables during the day.
Museum of Natural History and Planetarium
If learning about the planets isn’t your cup of tea, just wait. The Museum of Natural History and Planetarium is unusual in its ability to intrigue even those who aren’t drawn to astronomy. I originally went because of a friend and was surprised at how much I liked it.
The actual museum was founded in 1896, but it has been updated over the years. Still, the architecture looks like something out of a fairytale.
At first glance, the building appears caught between an ancient palace and a French church. It is one of the most profound architectural designs in Providence.
A Zeiss star projector is used inside a domed room to accurately project the sky. Through planetary exhibits and cultural objects, natural history is interpreted by highly educated scholars. Although there is a tremendous amount to learn, I could easily understand what was being taught. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and comfortable with questions
The planetarium gives tours to both adults and children and operates throughout the week.
To really see the city, you might have to get out of it. But just for a moment. The Venetian gondola is an incredibly romantic way to celebrate an anniversary or just a regular Saturday night.
The crew is professionally trained and can be as social as you want. Because they are paddling from the back of the boat, it doesn’t feel as if you need to make small talk. There are also trained musicians on board that can make you feel like you have a soundtrack to your evening.
The actual boat is 28ft long. Six people can comfortably fit inside, but if you bring children you might want to rent the entire boat.
Regardless of who you bring, dinner is served on three miniature tables. This is supposed to represent the same type of setting you would find in Venice.
Combining the Gondola experience with the WaterFire festivals is a beautiful way to take in the scenery. It feels almost mystical. If you hire a boat for the morning hours, fog doubles the adventure.
To truly see Providence, Rhode Island from a local’s point of view, there are a few key places to go. From hole-in-the-wall restaurants to boutique shops, Providence has a variety of activities for every kind of traveler.
College Hill is one of the most popular places in town due to its high volume of students. Even those who aren’t in college will head to this neighborhood for top notch bars and restaurants. The age range is typically from late teens to late thirties, but you’d really have to try to feel out of place.
Durk’s Bar-B-Q is one of the hottest places in the city. It’s based on traditional Texas barbecuing and offers slow-cooked meats with a mysterious (but delicious) signature spice sauce. The only issue with Durk’s is the size of their burger. Once it’s in your hands, it’s best not to put it down.
The Great Northern BBQ Co. is another local burger place. Brisket nachos and fried Brussels are just a few of the eclectic foods found on their menu. If you have a chance, try their White Lodge cocktail. It combines Creme De Cacao and Nutmeg with Creme de Violette and dark rum.
For an all-you-can-eat BBQ, Lekker offers a wide variety of food. Lekker’s is also nice if you’d rather order in. The prices are higher than both Durk’s and The Great Northern BBQ, but they serve dishes like spicy Bulgogi beef and thick cuts of pork belly.
Another local favorite is Harry’s Bar and Burger. This is a chain restaurant, but only in Rhode Island. They have four different restaurants and two can be found in Providence. The decor is simple as is the menu.
They concentrate on quality food rather than bells and whistles. Harry’s serves 100% Hereford beef with local produce. As far as the bar, they have over 50 craft beers to try.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Home
For lovers of horror fiction, visiting H.P. Lovecraft’s house is a must. Most people don’t think about the horror genre when visiting other cities, but for Providence locals, it’s an obvious attraction.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft wrote horror, fantasy, and science fiction books in the early 1900s. Although he was almost always featured in pulp magazines, he wasn’t well-known at the time. Recently H.P. Lovecraft has become a sort of fascination.
Lovecraft’s Providence home looks like the way you’d picture a horror writer’s house to look. It’s spacious and Victorian with high ceilings and hardwood floors. Inside the house is a small apartment with one bedroom, a living area, and a kitchen. It can be rented out on a nightly basis for those who aren’t afraid.
Located approximately five minutes from Brown University it’s now an easy place to access. The original home was located on College Street, but was moved due to the expansion of the university. The house is now located at 65 Prospect Street and was preserved during the move.
Prospect Park is extremely close to the house. Visitors who enjoy the tour are encouraged to have a picnic where they can overlook Providence. The Roger Williams statue is there, with his remains inside.
India Point Park
India Point Park is located in what’s known as the Fox Point neighborhood. This is a historical area found on the East side of Providence.
From here you can see the entire Providence Harbor. It’s one of the most serene places in Providence, Rhode Island.
Although it is not as popular as some of the other parks, it’s well-known by locals. During the afternoon you can see students studying on the grass or walking along the pedestrian bridge. The ceremonial dock is easily accessible from the playground area.
India Point Park hosts their own annual 4th of July fireworks show. Local musicians play concerts along with professional acts. Other smaller festivals take place throughout the summer and include arts and crafts projects for kids.
If you’re ever bored on a sunny afternoon, I highly recommend taking the ferry to Newport. The ride is smooth so that passengers prone to sea sickness do not have to worry. Seastreak & RIPTA have been operating the ferry for years.
John Hay Library
Who doesn’t love the library? It’s public, it’s entertaining, and it’s a great place to visit when it rains. This particular library is unique in the fact it’s located in Brown University. If you schedule an appointment, you can visit The Gildor Family Special Collections Reading Room.
Rare manuscripts can be found in the University Archives as well as faculty publications. Regardless of what you’re looking for, John Hay Library will have something on the topic. The library is filled with eclectic entertainment including a few strange exhibits.
Exhibitions of the past have included British and French Tabletop Games from the 18th and 19th Centuries. American Revolutionary War Prints have also been showcased as well as stamps from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Not only are there dozens of book genres to choose from, but the John Hay Library also has copies of out-of-date journals and articles. To access their database all you need to do is ask one of the librarians available. The subject librarian specializes in specific areas of interest for more defined searches.
The Museum of Culinary Arts
There are several historical museums located in Rhode Island, but The Museum of Culinary Arts is my favorite. It is located at Johnson and Wales University in Abbot Park Place where dozens of historical artifacts can be found.
Food and history blend seamlessly in this museum. They showcase antique cookware in addition to vintage cooking appliances. In addition to home cooking, they have plenty of information about ocean liner cuisine.
The history of culinary arts spans several decades and includes a portion of fast food. The diner establishments had their start in Rhode Island and have influenced cooking ever since. The experience of cooking, eating, and dining as a social activity is multifaceted and well-examined at The Museum of Culinary Arts.
For a small city, Providence attracts highly popular comedians. The Comedy Connection has been known for its consistent big name comedians since the early ‘90s.
This is not your run-of-the-mill comedy night at a local bar. The Comedy Connection has over 200 seats and a fantastic reputation. It’s located in a vintage bank, but the inside is clearly designed for comfort. One of the best parts of the venue is its ability to showcase comedians from every chair. Michael Che and Pete Davidson from Saturday Night Live have both performed here as well as Mike Mulloy, Shapel Lacey, and Mo Welch.
The Southside Cultural Center is another acclaimed Providence comedy venue. This type of comedy is slightly different from most stand-up clubs. They focus more on sketches and improvisation. Unlike The Comedy Connection, tickets are much less expensive. This can make for a very enjoyable Thursday night.
Field House Pub is yet another different brand of comedy. This bar is not as formal as a sit-down show and attracts a variety of talent. Even at 8 pm, Field House can be packed with eager patrons. The club is not dedicated to comedy, but does have a regular comedy night where stand-up is welcome.
One experience I will never forget is the time I visited the murder mystery comedy club. The Dinner Detective is a performance art theater that merges problem-thinking and hilarity. Just to warn you, this is an interactive comedy show that may request your participation throughout the evening.
The Dinner Detective asks its audience to help solve a mystery while eating dinner. The suspect is a member of the audience and is not dressed in any sort of specific way. Throughout the night it is your job to figure out who the criminal is while discovering multiple surprises along the way.
Boutique Shopping Experiences
Providence has an eclectic mix of shops located throughout the city. Hope street is just one area where small businesses thrive. Wickenden street and Westminster street also have a reputation for special retail stores.
Riff Raff Bookstore and Bar is a great place to meet people. They encourage both intellect and mixed drinks. The shop can be found in the neighborhood of Olneyville, but it doesn’t look like your typical book store. The building used to be an industrial mixed-use warehouse.
Peter Pots Pottery is a local shop that sells handmade vases and pots. They have withstood the test of time with their natural materials and perfectionism. Since it opened in 1948, the shop has held a collection of work by local artists.
Antiques can also be found in the back of the store.
For a truly local experience, you can’t miss the Brown and Hopkins Country Store. Brown and Hopkins is one of the oldest country shops in the United States and still carries wooden trinkets and jarred gifts. Not to mention, the hospitality can’t be beaten.
Small City Charm
Providence, Rhode Island has the distinct feel of a small town in a big city. While there are plenty of nightclubs and museums to visit, it also provides a down-home atmosphere. This could be because of its famous diners or due to the multiple country stores that still operate within Providence.
The best things to do in Providence, RI are easily accessible regardless of where you’re located.
Unlike a lot of small cities, the public transportation system is easy to navigate with lots of routes. If public transit isn’t your thing, Providence is extremely pedestrian-friendly. Bike riding and walking are encouraged.
Providence, Rhode Island is a historical city that offers much more than just shopping. For a unique experience that involves a little bit of everything, Providence has it all.