Art, culture, and a sublime food scene may not be the first things you would think of when Rhode Island is mentioned but maybe they should. Known mostly for its white-sand beaches, Newport mansions, and sailing regattas, the state has a coastline of over 400 miles despite its small stature, and was aptly given the name “The Ocean State.” Nestled in the southeast corner of New England, just under Massachusetts and to the east of Connecticut, the Atlantic’s waves lap against the vast shoreline. Also not an island, it is connected to the mainland with several islands just off the coast.
“Rhode Island” is a nickname in itself as its proper name is, in fact, “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” This original colony was founded in 1636 by Puritan minister and author Roger Williams sometime after he was banished from Massachusetts for his nonconformist views. He purchased land from the natives, and founded the town of Providence (now a city) and the colony of Rhode Island, for the religiously persecuted.
Rhode Island has drastically changed since the days of Roger Williams, becoming a melting pot of mainly Italian, Irish, and Portuguese immigrants. With the tight-knit communities created by these cultures, there is no shortage of fantastic restaurants and cultural events throughout the state.
The capital city of Providence is a bit of a college town with educational institutions Providence College, Rhode Island College, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Johnson & Wales, and the Ivy League-accredited Brown University. More recent history in the past few decades has brought about a renaissance of the capital city, revitalizing it after years of dire financial troubles, organized crime, and corruption. Led by former mayor Buddy Cianci (AKA The Prince of Providence), the art scene was revived, Providence Place Mall was built, and businesses started to thrive again. With the city rejuvenated, it has become a destination.
And then there is Newport which is located on Aquidneck Island and connected to the mainland by the Newport Bridge. This seaside city has often been host to the America’s Cup, has one of the few grass tennis courts in the country located at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and is home to several astonishing historic mansions built along Bellvue Avenue during the Gilded Age. It is a breathtaking little city with plenty of restaurants, shops, pristine beaches, and ways to relax.
Rhode Island may be small in stature but it sure packs a huge punch when it comes to things to do, and more importantly, places to eat as there’s no shortage of excellent restaurants here! RI as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why I can’t just talk about my hometown of Smithfield but rather the entire state which feels like one large town. It’s a place where everyone seems to know each other and community bonds are strong. I feel so lucky to have grown up in this state – there’s nowhere else quite like it with its unique dialect and accent, its vibrant diversity, beautiful beaches, places to eat, and culture. I wish for everyone to experience the Ocean State of mind at least once in their lives.
The Best Sights in the State:
Roger Williams Park Zoo (RWPZ): This zoo is named after RI’s founding father and is the third oldest zoo in the United States, which opened in 1872. It houses a wide variety of animals including elephants, anteaters, barnyard animals, and a komodo dragon. Outside the zoo and in the park, you can take an amphibious vehicle tour, ride a carousel, or even go hiking. It’s a spectacular place for the whole family. If you are visiting in the summer, check the calendar for special events such as their annual Zoobilee fundraising event where you can sample a variety of cuisine and beverages from restaurants around the state as you listen to music and socialize. Address: 1000 Elmwood Ave., Providence, RI 02907
Waterfire Providence: What started as a small commissioned art installation to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the city’s First Night event has grown into a regular seasonal event that draws thousands upon thousands of people to Waterplace Park. Artist Barbary Evans created sculptures that are filled with firewood and lit, producing mesmerizing bonfires that look as though they are floating along the three rivers downtown. From the first Waterfire in 1994 with just eight sculptures to today, it has now grown to over 100 of these bonfires! Check the online calendar for dates. Waterfire is held throughout summer and during special occasions throughout the year. Address: 4 N Main St, Providence, RI 02903
Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC): first opened in 1928 and was once known as the Loews Movie Palace. It has since become a historic landmark playing host to the best of Broadway shows, musicians, and comedians over the decades. If you’re in town, check the schedule online, purchase tickets, and plan to have dinner at Capriccio beforehand for a perfect night out! I have been coming to this theatre since I was a child and I can’t recommend it enough. Address: 200 Weybosset St., Providence, RI 02903
RISD Museum: With over 100,000 in its collection, ranging from ancient art to art pieces from today, this museum is part of the Rhode Island School of Design and a staple in the state. It was established in 1877 to support the flourishing art community of the time and the art scene in Providence is as strong as ever today! Address: 20 N. Main St., Providence, RI 02903
Newport Polo: Attend a match between the first polo club in the United States and a team from another part of the country or world. Bring a picnic and drinks (or purchase drinks at the event) and join in on the traditional divot stomping during half-time! Address: 250 Linden Ln., Portsmouth, RI 02871
Newport Mansions: A trip to RI cannot be complete without visiting at least one of the historic Newport mansions. Located mostly on Bellevue Avenue, these grand mansions were mainly summer homes to some of the country’s elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during Newport’s Gilded Age. The Breakers is perhaps the most well-known, but you will enjoy touring any of them and seeing how the wealthy lived back in the day. Address: Bellevue Ave., Newport, RI 02840
Cliff Walk: As one of the top attractions in Newport, this 3.5-mile path will take you along the top of the cliffs overlooking the water on one side and the backyards of several mansions on the other. Bring good walking shoes as portions of the trail are a bit rocky. You can pick up the trail at either Easton’s or First Beach or down one of several small side streets.
Sail Newport: Whether you are a sailing aficionado, a beginner, or just want to try, take a sailing lesson or charter a boat with Sail Newport. Sailing is one of the most popular sports in the state and why not make your trip more memorable by sailing the beautiful Narragansett Bay? Address: 72 Fort Adams Dr., Newport, RI 02840
Jaswell’s Farm: I’ve been coming to this farm since childhood (and I happen to know the owners quite well). Gourmet candy apples. Cider donuts. Farm fresh apple cider. Pick-your-own apples. Fresh produce. What more could you want? This family-owned and operated has been run by four generations since 1899 and is located in the heart of Apple Valley in Smithfield. Head to the website for pick-your-own information. Fall is the best time to visit. Address: 50 Swan Rd., Smithfield, RI 02917
Block Island: With 17 miles of pristine beaches and a beautiful lighthouse overlooking the bluffs, Block Island is worth a ferry ride from the mainland. When you arrive, rent a bike or moped to cruise around this 7-by-3-mile island. Along the way, stop to take a nature walk, visit one (or more) of the 365 ponds around the island, or take a dip in the ocean. After your trek around this Atlantic gem, stop for a bite and a beer in the town of New Shoreham before you get back on the ferry to the mainland. You can take the ferry from Point Judith located at 304 Great Island Rd., Narragansett, RI 02882
The Best Places to Eat in Rhode Island:
The following are some of the most incredible and top-rated places to dine around the state. Of course, there are many more! Maybe you should consider taking a Rhode Island food tour to fully explore the state’s gastronomic side.
Capriccio: As one of the best restaurants in the city of Providence, Capriccio’s unexpected location in the basement of a historic building makes it all the more alluring. With a stone fireplace, stone and brick walls, and elegant linens covering the tables surrounded by high-back chairs, the ambiance hints at the quality of food and service before you even sit down. Homemade pasta and tableside flambées are a well-known part of their seasonally rotating menus of classic European fare. Served by tuxedo-clad career waitstaff catering to your every dining need, your experience here will be hard to beat. If you have theatre tickets in the area, come here for dinner beforehand and enjoy their three-course pre-fixe menu. This is my favorite restaurant in the state! Address: 2 Pine St., Providence, RI 02903
Camille’s: Opened in 1914, this Federal Hill restaurant has become a RI institution. Known for its classical Italian fare that’s paired with excellent service and atmosphere, dining here is sure to be an unforgettable experience! Address: 71 Bradford St., Providence, RI 02903
CAV Restaurant: If you are looking for a completely unique dining experience, look no further than CAV Restaurant. With its eclectic decor of antiques and mismatched chandeliers adorning the ceiling, there’s quite a bohemian flair here. Any dish you order is sure to be delicious and as varied as the furniture surrounding you. Cocktails and coffee alike are all handcrafted and excellent. It’s a great place for a boozy brunch and if you’re in the mood to shop, just about everything here is for sale. Address: 14 Imperial Pl., Providence, RI 02903
Jacky’s Waterplace & Sushi Bar: The location is perfect, especially if you can snag a reservation during a Waterfire night. Located along and with a bird’s eye view of the river, Jacky’s is high on my list of places to eat in the city. It is tastefully decorated with modern decor and some stunning chandeliers, and the way the Asian-fusion food is plated matches the restaurant’s beautiful decor (not to mention that every bite of food here is heavenly). Address: 200 Exchange St., Providence, RI 02903
Iggy’s Doughboys & Chowder House: To really get to the heart of the Rhode Island food culture, a trip to Iggy’s is a must! Here you will find local favorites such as clam cakes (think a savory donut with clams baked inside – trust me, they are delicious!), doughboys (fried dough), clams in a variety of other forms like strips or on a roll, and many other seafood favorites. Iggy’s boardwalk is their takeaway place accessed from the sidewalk and is a good option if you want to eat at the beach just down the street, or you can dine in at the main restaurant which also has outdoor seating. It touts itself as “A Rhode Island Tradition” and that’s exactly what Iggy’s is! Address: 889 Oakland Beach Ave., Warwick, RI 02889
The Best Places for Desserts in Rhode Island:
Wright’s Dairy Farm: As a family-owned and operated dairy farm located in the northern part of the state, you can witness cows being milked (between the hours of 3-4:30 p.m. daily) before heading into the large bakery where you can grab some milk, lunch, and treats to go. Snag RI favorites like a spinach pie or pizza strip for lunch, a hermit, radio bar, or lemon square for dessert, and coffee milk to wash it all down. Address: 200 Woonsocket Hill Rd., North Smithfield, RI 02896
Pastiche Fine Desserts: You’ll feel as though you’re in Italy sitting in this charming cafe as you sip espresso while savoring forkful after forkful of one of their mouthwatering pastries. Located in the historic Federal Hill known for its Italian restaurants and emporiums, an after-dessert stroll may be in order. Address: 92 Spruce St., Providence, RI 02903
Del’s Lemonade: A trip to RI in the summer months is not complete until you’ve had a Del’s Lemonade, a lemon slush made of ice, lemons, and sugar. Although there are other flavors, the original is still the best! Take some to go and mix with an alcohol of your choice for a refreshing summer adult beverage. Visit one of their lemonade stands/stores around the state.
The Best Places for Drinks:
Just as there’s no shortage of restaurants around the Ocean State, there’s no shortage of places for an adult beverage. Check out some of the best places to imbibe around the state!
Besos Bistro: Not only is this East Greenwich eatery home to an incredible brunch but it’s the place to go for some craft cocktails using locally sourced ingredients. It’s a place where bartending is an art and they take it seriously. Innovation is key to creating new drinks so you will always be surprised by what they come up with. But they also make the old standbys if you prefer to play it safe. Address: 378 Main St., East Greenwich, RI 02818
Oberlin: Sometimes the best bars are located inside the best restaurants which is what you will find at Oberlin. With its extensive wine, sake, and draught beer list along with the cozy, intimate atmosphere, you can’t go wrong coming here. Address: 186 Union St., Providence, RI 02903
The Avery: If you want to imbibe in a place with a speakeasy vibe, The Avery in Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood is the place to go. You will be surrounded by art-deco-style decor as you sip on a hand-crafted cocktail or locally brewed beer. Address: 18 Luongo Square, Providence, RI 02903
Best Places to Stay:
Hotel Providence: This boutique hotel has kept some of the 19th-century New England charm and matched it with a European flair. Tastefully decorated with vintage furnishings and art, you will sleep comfortably in your spacious room after a night out on the town. Address: 139 Matthewson St., Providence, RI 02903
Ocean House: If you are looking to stay at an iconic New England gem that is continuously rated as one of the top hotels in the country, then you must stay at Ocean House. Part of the Relais & Chateaux hotel group, you will encounter the best in food, service, and luxury. There’s an award-winning spa on the property to be pampered at, so be sure to book yourself a massage or a facial here. With no shortage of amenities, including a private beach (and if you take a walk down this beach you can get a peek at Taylor Swift’s beach house/mansion that sits high up on a hill overlooking the ocean), you may still want to leave the property. If you do choose to venture out, you can borrow one of the Mercedes Benz available to hotel guests (although chances are, you may never want to leave — I almost cried when I had to check out). This place is absolutely incredible! Address: 1 Bluff Ave., Westerly, RI 02891
Castle Hill Inn: As another highly regarded Relais & Chateaux property, Castle Hill Inn is located on a peninsula in Newport, with sweeping water views that will send you into a deep state of relaxation. Once a summer home to Harvard University biologist and naturalist by the name of Alexander Agassiz in the late 19th century, it housed naval officers during World War II and functioned as a base. After the war, Castle Hill became a summer hotel that hosted Grace Kelly during the filming of the aptly named movie High Society in the 1950s. Eventually, Castle Hill became a year-round hotel for guests to enjoy. Walking into the hotel, you get a sense of the history and quickly learn why it’s a destination on its own. The comfortable, well-appointed rooms will leave you feeling relaxed. Exceptional, world-class cuisine is served in the dining room and al fresco on the terrace during the summer months. You may also grab a drink and head outside to enjoy sitting on an Adirondack chair for views of the water and the Newport Bridge. Castle Hill Inn is a heavenly place for a getaway. Address: 590 Ocean Ave., Newport, RI 02840
Sarah Kendall House Inn: If you want a phenomenal stay at a bed and breakfast with walkability to the heart of Newport, Sarah Kendall House Inn is the place to book. You will be greeted by attentive innkeepers who will give you the history of the house. The rooms are spacious, clean, and updated while keeping an air of the inn’s past. Walk to all the action on Thames Street and Goat Island from this location. And enjoy a delectable breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, yogurt, pancakes…just about anything you want, all served on antique china. The tremendous hospitality will make you want to stay forever. Address: 47 Washington St., Newport, RI 02840
As you can see, there’s no shortage of things to do, see, or eat in the state of Rhode Island. From city to shoreline and all the places in between, the Ocean State has something to offer to everyone who visits and will surely provide a time to remember! So, how about putting yourself in a Rhode Island state of mind?
Planning a trip to Cape Cod? Check out my post on the 13 Best Things To Do In Provincetown!
(Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the online magazine, Alluring Travel Magazine. Unfortunately, Alluring Travel is no longer.)
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