Providence, founded in 1636, one of America’s oldest cities, is the capital of Rhode Island, the smallest state in the USA. It’s in New England on the east coast, not far from Boston and an easy three-hour train ride from New York City. It’s a nice break from the big city, a bit like Boston in miniature, and it’s nice and compact and easy to walk around. Also, despite being so old, its two universities mean it has a very young, arty vibe, with lots of quirky cafes and boutiques.
I paid the city a flying visit in June 2018. Here’s some stuff I got up to (and something I wished I’d seen):
One of the first things I did when I arrived, shattered after my long-haul flight, was visit the Haven Brothers Diner. Haven Brothers Diner is a Providence institution. It says so on the side of the van, which is parked outside the city hall every day, selling burgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes. I went for a hotdog – because it’s famed for its dogs and burgers – and, meh, I wasn’t impressed. It was flaccid and flavourless – a limp frankfurter in a pale bun, really disappointing. My salted caramel milkshake tasted like sweet frozen gloop. Still, I’m glad I went, because ‘it’s a Providence institution’. It’s been going since 1893, so it must be doing something right, mustn’t it?
Better than Haven Brothers are the many artisan cafes you’ll find down the side-streets, here the service is friendly and the food much better. When I visited midweek in the morning, they were busy but not rammed.
I took this (really bad) photo because I thought I was standing across the road from the ‘Superman’ building, you know, the one that inspired the Daily Planet in the comic book? If you look at a slightly better photo of the actual building, it does look like it, no? Well, it’s not. Turns out that Superman creator Joe Shuster got his inspo from the buildings in his home city of Toronto, so don’t bother standing in front of this one with your selfie stick and posing like a muppet like me. This building, the tallest on Rhode Island, is actually the Industrial Bank, and it is one of Providence’s most iconic sights. And it does have a small claim to fame as it features heavily in the American TV animated sitcom Family Guy. So now you know.
Providence has lots of other really beautiful and historic buildings, dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Biltmore is another of Providence’s best-known buildings, having opened downtown as an upscale hotel in 1922. It’s now the Graduate Providence. I didn’t stay there (I stayed at the Omni Providence two minutes’ walk away) but it looked lovely from the outside. Try and pop in for breakfast or just a coffee to soak up the historic vibe.
On the right is the city’s early 20th century theatre opened by the vaudevillians in 1917 and now the home of Trinity Rep.
You can see lots more downtown attractions on a walking tour.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can take a kayak tour along the city’s rivers, which you take from Waterplace Park, right in the city centre, with Providence Kayak. Waterplace Park is just a short walk from many of the downtown hotels all equipment is provided. You don’t need any experience – the staff give a little demo and you’re off.
Kayaks cost from $20 for 40 minutes. You won’t go far in that time, but it’s interesting to see the city’s historic buildings from the water. You can hire a kayak for 1.5 hours for $30 and go a bit further into the open water. Dress in shorts or jeans – you’re not likely to get really get wet, unless you fall in or someone splashes you, but the water is pretty calm, although Providence Kayak does warn that you might get wet and you’re advised to ‘dress accordingly’. They have large plastic containers at the departure point where you can leave your shoes and belongings. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a gondola and a gondolier singing for a tip, just like in Venice. Nothing else in Providence, even the canal, is remotely like Venice.
Sadly, kayaks are only available for hire from Friday to Monday, sometimes only Sat-Sun, from May to October. Hire isn’t available in the winter. Here’s a little video I made of my kayak experience in Providence.
Talking of the river in Providence, I’m pretty gutted to have missed WaterFire, a monthly event that takes place throughout the summer where bonfires are lit on the water at dusk and entertainment is provided along the river banks. You can also take a boat tour along the rivers to see the bonfires close up. The fires are lit one Saturday a month from May to October. Here’s a photo on the left of what I didn’t see.
I did, however, take a bike tour. The highlight was seeing the first Baptist Church in America in N Main Street.
My taxi driver told me that I must go to Federal Hill in the evening, so I did, after all, it’s just a short stroll from the downtown hotels. It’s an area largely settled by Italian immigrants, so there are lots of great Italian restaurants lining the main drag, Atwells Avenue.
On a Friday night it was really buzzing, with tables lining the streets and a bit of a party atmosphere. Oh, and it has the friendliest policemen.
Have you been to Providence, Rhode Island. Do you have any tips? If so, please feel free to share in the comments.
Full disclosure: Some but not all of the links in this article are affiliates, from which I earn a small fee if you make a booking as a thank you for the info. Thank you!