It’s no secret that we’re fans of the concrete jungle, but the lights don’t always have to be bright and the city doesn’t always have to be big. Providence, RI spans about 20 square miles, but it packs a lot of punch. The walkable city is home to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the best art colleges in the country, as well as Brown University, an Ivy League school. Colleges don’t just offer lush greens and elegant buildings, they also promise an abundance of great bookstores and coffee shops. Providence’s legacy as one of the oldest US cities can be felt everywhere, and its homegrown talent contributes to the city’s rich public art landscape. Combine all that with a burgeoning culinary scene, and you’ve got a great travel destination. You don’t even need a lot of time. Here’s how to spend a weekend in Providence.
Where to Caffeinate in Providence
We tend to include coffee shop recommendations in our guides. Why? Because we often need it in the mornings and want it in the afternoons. And when we’re traveling, we love sampling the wares of local roasters and coffee shops. Dave’s Coffee is a hometown favorite, with an admirable selection of beans from their Narragansett-based roastery. Whether your preference is espresso or cold brew, you’ll find that the quality and variety here are top-notch. But there’s another reason to stop by Dave’s Coffee when you’re in Providence. It’s a fantastic place to try out one of Rhode Island’s specialties: Coffee Milk. Coffee Milk is Rhode Island’s answer to New York’s Egg Cream. Basically, it’s ice-cold milk mixed with a sweet coffee syrup. It’s a delicious beverage, and Dave’s Coffee makes an excellent version, using a syrup they make in-house.
Pro Tip: Snag a bottle of their Coffee Syrup to take home with you. It has myriad uses: as a meat glaze, to make a martini with a jolt, or with ice cream to make another local specialty, a Coffee Cabinet.
What to See and Do in Providence
Street Art, Murals and Other Public Art Installations
You know the phrase “You can’t throw a stone without hitting one”? In Providence, they’re probably referring to artists, because there are LOTS OF THEM.
[Just to be clear, please don’t throw stones at artists.]
RISD students and alumni make up a fair share of the artist population in Providence, but the city has also become a destination for established creators from around the world. RISD graduate Shepard Fairey returned to paint his 100th mural in 2019. The Avenue Concept funded and supported the creation of 170 public art installations. There is a core belief here that art should be accessible. The result? A free outdoor art gallery that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Here are a few we really enjoyed:
Still Here by Gaia
We became well-acquainted with the artist Gaia in his hometown of Baltimore, and we were thrilled to discover his stunning mural titled “Still Here” in Downtown Providence. Created in partnership with the Tomaquag Museum, the piece features a young indigenous woman holding the portrait of Princess Red Wing, the museum’s founder. The Tomaquag Museum works to bring indigenous voices and stories to the forefront, and the mural celebrates their mission.
Misty Blue by Andrew Hem and Peeling Facade Mural by Jojan Bjurman/Painted Signs
Los Angeles-based artist Andrew Hem is the son of Cambodian refugees, and his mural “Misty Blue” features a young girl he met in Cambodia. His artwork often conveys a childlike innocence, and this special mural has the same guileless quality. If you happen to find yourself there admiring his work, don’t miss one of our favorite uses of trompe l’oeil behind it. The Hanley Building Peeling Facade Mural was originally painted in 1987 by Jojan Bjurman. It creates the illusion of windows, cornices and other architectural elements, but the lower right corner hints that the facade may be…temporary. The unforgettable piece of street art was restored in 2017 with the help of sign and mural company Painted Signs.
Seen/Unseen by Mary Beth Meehan
While we were strolling along in downtown Providence, we also “met” a few locals through Mary Beth Meehan’s portrait project called Seen/Unseen. It debuted at the Providence International Arts Festival in 2015. As the name suggests, the art installation features some of the city’s less prominent members and seeks to open a dialogue about race and cultural equity.
Street art is often ephemeral by nature, but we also noticed that murals, sculptures and other art installations seem to hang around a lot longer here. Again, it speaks to the inherent respect and appreciation the community has for the works that beautify their surroundings.
WaterFire by Barnaby Evans [seasonal]
WaterFire is one of Providence’s premier public art installations that draws almost a million visitors each year. On select evenings from May through November, the city is illuminated by one hundred bonfires aloft on the three rivers of downtown Providence. The award-winning sculpture by Barnaby Evans is accompanied by music, but events often include additional special performances. If you’re planning on attending, check the schedule to get the most out of the popular event.
Pro Tip: If you want to enjoy WaterFire in a more intimate setting, make a reservation at Hemenway’s, an elegant, centrally located restaurant serving upscale fresh seafood. It offers a prime viewing spot for the festivities. Be sure to try their Rhode Island Calamari, the state’s official appetizer.
In case you couldn’t tell from our Ultimate Book Lover’s Guide to New York City, we really, really like books. And when we travel, we’re naturally drawn to libraries and bookstores too. Losing ourselves among volumes of the written word is one of the fastest ways to feel at home. And you couldn’t ask for a more perfect sanctum than the Providence Athenaeum.
The library’s 1838 elegant Greek Revival home was crowned the most well-designed building in Rhode Island by Architectural Digest. A fountain outside carved with the words “Come here everyone that thirsteth” invites you to the bounty of literature that lies within. The Ath–as it’s affectionately known–has notable associations with Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, but its storied history goes way beyond its famous visitors. Take the self-guided Raven Tour, which acquaints you with the space and its past. Then claim your spot in the Reading Room downstairs. Just don’t get too comfortable, or you may never want to leave.
Pro Tip: While you’re visiting the beautiful College Hill area, be sure to make a stop at Prospect Terrace Park, where you’ll find a statue of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. As local lore tells it, an apple tree root invaded Roger Williams’s casket in his original resting place and partially “ate” his remains. What was left was disinterred and moved beneath this monument. Whether you believe you’re in Williams’s company or not, it’s a beautiful spot to take in the Providence skyline.
The RISD Museum is almost 150 years old, which is reflected in its vast collection spanning a variety of regions and periods. But being connected to such a prestigious art school gives the RISD Museum a unique perspective. Its adamant support for creators and its thoughtful delivery makes art feel more inclusive. Events and exhibits are plentiful, so you never know what you’ll find on your visit. Allow yourself to be surprised, and you’ll likely discover something new. Feeling a stroke of creativity? There are lots of workshops too. You may find yourself learning about an artist, art in general, or yourself. The opportunities are endless.
Pro Tip: Another reason to visit the RISD Museum during your weekend in Providence? Admission to the museum is free on Sundays.
Downtown Providence is a fun blend of old and new, thanks to the city’s amazing preservation efforts. One of the historic buildings that continues to keep a piece of Providence’s past in its present is the Arcade. Built in 1828, the Arcade is the country’s oldest indoor shopping mall and a National Historic Landmark. Stepping inside the beautiful structure, one can easily imagine a time when ladies in their Sunday Finest would drop by to pick up roses from the florist.
The Arcade now includes a mix of restaurants and retail, and many of its occupants have unique personalities befitting the space. There’s New Harvest Coffee and Spirits, a coffee shop that transforms into a whiskey bar at night. And there’s Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council, the self-proclaimed “headquarters for fans of H.P. Lovecraft and related weird fiction and art.” If being at the Arcade gives you a new appreciation for years gone by, visit one of the many vintage stores for a piece of the past to call your own. And unlike the shopping malls of today, you won’t need a full day to explore it.
Where to Eat in Providence
Blount Clam Shack
Rhode Island isn’t actually an island, but it is an oceanfront state. Fresh seafood is abundant and a key ingredient in many of the state specialties. Options are particularly plentiful during the summer, when tourists flock to the state’s beautiful coastal areas. But regardless of when you’re visiting, you can get amazing seafood at Blount Clam Shack. Blount is the largest producer of clam chowder in New England and the largest manufacturer of lobster bisque in the country, so you know you’re in good hands. During the summer, Blount Clam Shack has two outdoor locations on the waterfront and in Crescent Park. But if you’re visiting off-season, visit them at their market in Warren. If you’re as obsessed with lobster rolls as we are, the Giant Lobster Roll is a steal.
Serendipity is our favorite part of any trip, and Aleppo Sweets was the happy accident we experienced during our visit to Providence. We were in Fox Point to visit a donut shop. Patting ourselves on our savvy backs, we’d ordered ahead from the popular spot. But when we stepped up to the counter to pick up our haul, we realized immediately that we’d way over-ordered. (Ordering six of anything always seems more reasonable online than in person.) Then we sampled the goods, and it just wasn’t to our taste.
Dejected, we returned to our parking space nearby and noticed a menu board outside of a cafe. Aleppo Sweets was just opening as we ventured inside. We found a charming, teal-colored space decorated with copper tea pots, mirrors, and lanterns. The first thing we noticed was the heavenly smell of Turkish-style coffee. The second was the prominent case holding an array of baklava perched on the bar.
Aleppo Sweets is a owner-operator collaboration between the Akhtarini family, immigrants from Syria who fled the civil war there, and Sandy Martin, a volunteer with the resettlement agency that had assisted them. The result is a charming cafe serving traditional Syrian food, which was listed as one of Bon Appetit’s 50 best new restaurants in the country in 2019.
What followed for us was three separate visits to the cafe: once for dinner and twice for the amazing Turkish-style coffee (with a pinch of cardamom and a dash of sugar) and the heavenly baklava, which obtains its balanced sweetness through sugar as opposed to honey.
There are some places that evoke a feeling, and Ellie’s feels like a warm embrace. We have a nose for pastries–particularly those of the French variety–and that’s what brought us here. With our faces almost pressed against the pastry case, we picked out cannelés and bouchons to enjoy with our coffee. But the quaint, cozy space is also a popular brunch destination, serving excellent light fare in addition to the delectable pastries and artisan cakes. Many ingredients are sourced locally from farmers, growers, artisans and purveyors around Southern New England. Inspired by a trip to Paris, the food and decor at Ellie’s has a decidedly French touch. Case in point: pommes frites are served with your choice duck gravy, truffle ketchup or garlic aioli. We’re drooling just at the thought of it.
Doughnuts or “donuts”, thanks to the Americanized spelling popularized by Dunkin’, are one of our favorite guilty pleasures. And the rise of gourmet or craft varieties over the years has elevated the staple breakfast dessert to another level entirely. But there’s good and bad that comes from the elevation of anything. For doughnuts, the good has been a fresh take on flavors and textures. The bad has been, in certain cases, exorbitant pricing and overly complicated presentations. Knead Doughnuts falls squarely (or circularly) in the good camp. We were pleased to find a wide, though not excessive, variety of extremely tasty doughnuts. Whether you go with yeast or cake, their subtle, balanced and intriguing flavors mean you pretty much can’t go wrong. There’s even flour-free and vegan options, should you be so inclined.
DePetrillo’s Pizza and Bakery
To be honest, our first reaction to the notion of Pizza Strips was a healthy dose of skepticism. Pizza Strips are thick, porous focaccia-like slices of bread topped generously with a reduction-thickened, jam-like tomato sauce, flecked (in some cases) with parmesan cheese and served (gasp!) at room temperature. We prefer our pies fresh out of a coal-fired oven, and as a general rule, eschew takeout completely. But we’re happy to admit and report that Providence schooled us on the finer points of the state’s beloved delicacies.
Rhode Island Pizza Strips are ubiquitous, but only in Rhode Island. You can find them nearly everywhere, from grocery stores to convenience stores, and–we’ve heard it told–even gas stations. There are, however, a few names in the game that are bandied about as offering excellent versions of the affordable snack (or meal, if you like–we don’t judge).
DePetrillo’s Pizza and Bakery is one of those names. It’s a fairly unassuming, no-frills, busy little bakery. And, in our case, it was a bit out of our way. But here’s the bottom line: we really enjoyed pizza strips during our visit to Providence, they’re definitely worth trying out, and DePetrillo’s makes, among other things, some pretty darned tasty ones.
Where to Stay in Providence
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There are so many considerations when you choose a place to stay, but for a weekend in Providence, location is usually top of mind. Located in the heart of Downtown Providence, The Dean checks off that box and so much more. The Octopus Song mural by Sam O White outside the Boombox Karaoke Lounge greets you on your entrance and exit. Bolt Coffee is located right in the lobby to fuel you up. The artwork is local, and the design is thoughtful. There’s a stylish simplicity to The Dean.
Offering a similar convenient location in Downtown Providence, Graduate Providence is the opposite of simple. It was previously the historic Providence Biltmore, but the 2019 redesign breathed new color and life into the space. The uber-trendy Poindexter Cafe is the only on-site dining option, but the great location means you can step outside and find numerous alternatives. The antiquated heating and cooling system could be finicky, but if you’re looking to experience a piece of Providence history, then this is a great option.
When we plan a visit to a city, any city, we generally know what we’re in for. Why? Because we’ve done the planning and have a pretty clear idea of what we’re going to see, do and eat. What we don’t know is whether we’ll like a city’s vibe, and invariably, each has its own. Nor do we know if a city will meet or exceed the often lofty expectations that build up over the planning phase. The outcome generally falls into three categories: Never Again, Once Is Enough, or Can’t Wait To Go Back. Our weekend in Providence was an absolutely pleasant surprise, and we can’t wait to go back.
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