When you think of Rhode Island, the first thing that may come to mind
is the colonial charm of its island town of Newport. But if you haven\’t
been to the capital city of Providence, you\’re missing out on a city
that has enough big-city attractions to keep any urbanite happy, but
with the small-town feel that makes you instantly feel right at home.

I\’ve been to Providence several times and I never fail to be won over
by the friendliness of its residents, the top-notch caliber of its
thriving arts scene—from galleries to museums to theater—to its
first-rate restaurants—and just about all within walking distance from
any downtown hotel.

If you remember your American history classes, Providence was founded
in 1636 by Roger Williams as a “lively experiment” in religious liberty
and separation of church and state. Williams named his new home
“Providence,” in thanks to God for protecting him during his exile from
Massachusetts.

Early on Providence was a major seaport in the New World, but by the
1970s, this once thriving industrial center (which has been the jewelry
manufacturing capital of the U.S. since the 19th century) had fallen on
hard times, hit by both hurricanes and general neglect.

In the late ‘70s though, business and government leaders started
upgrading the infrastructure of the city, the centerpiece being the
development of the area around the two rivers—the Moshassuck and
Woonasquatucket—that run through downtown. Today, the rivers are edged
by cobblestone walkways, park benches, trees and flowering plants, and
bisected by a series of graceful Venetian bridges that connect downtown
Providence to the east side of the city (where you\’ll find Brown
University).

The centerpiece of this revitalized district is WaterPlace Park, which
features a stone-stepped amphitheater for summer concerts, and is also
the starting point for Providence\’s world-famous WaterFire, a
multi-sensory art installation of 100 bonfires winding along the city\’s
rivers.

With the urban renewal sparked by the riverfront development, the city
continued to move forward, constructing the Rhode Island Convention
Center in 1993, the Providence Place Mall in 1999, and many elegant new
hotels and acclaimed restaurants.

Providence is also a thriving cultural center, with the Tony
Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company and the Providence Performing
Arts Center—both historic landmarks that feature Broadway musicals,
children\’s performances, seasonal ballets, opera, plays and musical
concerts. The city\’s intellectual life centers around Brown, Providence
College, Rhode Island College, Rhode Island School of Design, and
Johnson & Wales University, the world\’s largest culinary
educational institution (its no surprise then that Providence boasts a
wealth of nationally recognized restaurants).

One of Providence\’s many advantages is that it\’s easy to get around—you
can walk almost any—and every—where, but the convenient trolley
system—the Providence Link—can literally link you from one side of town
to the other. Buy a full-day pass and hop on and off the trolley, or
any of the city\’s buses, as much as you want.

Providence offers something for everyone—from arts lovers to sports fans to children. Here are a few of my favorites:
• The RISD Museum of Art,
part of the Rhode Island School of Design, houses more than 80,000
works of art from antiquity to the 21st century. The museum also offers
special exhibitions, lectures, tours, concerts and other programs.
• The Roger Williams Park
Zoo is the third oldest zoo in the country, having opened in 1872, and
is one of the city\’s prime attractions. The 40-acre zoo has nearly
1,000 animals, many—such as the Masaii giraffe, the African elephant,
and the cheetah—roaming through natural settings.
• Roger Williams Park,
designed by Horace Cleveland, one of the same landscape architects who
created New York\’s Central Park, has been cited by the National Trust
for Historic Preservation as one of the country\’s most outstanding
urban parks. Its 430-plus acres include waterways, walks, outdoor
gardens, a Carousel Village (ideal for a break with the kids who can
enjoy a vintage carousel, pony rides, themed miniature golf course and
kiddie go-boats), Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, and the
Zoo.
• The Providence Athenaeum, one
of the country\’s oldest libraries and cultural centers, dates back to
1753. The building, constructed in the Greek Doric temple design,
houses rare works including an extensive collection of travel and
exploration books by robert Burns and the seven volumes of the original
double Elephant Folio edition of John Audubon\’s “Birds of America.” One
of the Athenaeum\’s more famous patrons—Edgar Allen Poe, who frequented
the library while in Providence to court Sarah Helen Power Whitman.
• Benefit Street, often
called the “Mile of History,” is said to be the most impressive
collection of original Colonial homes in the U.S. It boasts 200 18th
and 19th century buildings, brick sidewalks, and antgique gas lamps. If
you\’re a history buff, you\’ll also recognize the names of many
significant Colonial figures on the plaques that note the house\’s
original owner and construction date.
• The John Brown House,
home to John Brown—businessman, patriot, politician, China trade
pioneer, and slave trader—was one of this country\’s grandest mansions
when it was built in 1788. Trained guides provide informative—and
entertaining—hour-long tours through the restored mansion.
• Wickenden Street and
Thayer Street are two of Providence\’s trendy shopping areas. Wickenden,
on the edge of downtown Providence, is located near the Rhode Island
School of Design, and is the place to go if you want to poke into
galleries, antique shops, funky bistros and coffeehouses. Thayer
Street, on the edge of Brown University\’s campus, is home to
bookstores, hip boutiques, restaurants, coffee and teahouses, and a
movie theater that features the best in independent films. (Don\’t
overlook Providence Place mall either, which is connvected via a
Skybridge to the Westin Hotel, which in turn, is connected to the Rhode
Island Convention Center. Providence Place is anchored by Nordstrom\’s
and Filenes, and also has more than 100 specialty shops and boutiques,
full-service restaurants, a 16-screen movie complea and a 400-seat IMAX
theater. And if you\’re really a mall devotee, you might want to visit
The Arcade, the oldest indoor shopping mall in the country (built cirac
1828), which is now a National Historic Landmark.)
• Waterfire, Providence\’s
popular multimedia fire installation by longtime resident Barnaby
Evans, is a must-experience event if it takes place when you\’re in
town. Originally an experimental art installation, WaterFire is now the
number one free tourist attraction in the entire state of Rhode
Island—and well worth a visit. At dusk on select evenings throughout
the year, approximately 100 wood-filled braziers floating on
Providence\’s city rivers are lit on fire. You can enjoy the spectacle
from the walkways along the river, or you can take a gondola ride for
an “up close and toasty” (especially welcome on a chilly autumn evening
when I was there!) experience. Speakers hooked up under the bridges
provide set the mood with varying musical tracks.
• Gallery Night Providence takes
place on the third Thursday of every month from March through Novmber
when 27 of the city\’s arts/crafts galleries stay open until 9 p.m. and
host new exhibitions, artist talks and demonstrations, live music and
informal discussions. Take the “Art Bus” that goes from gallery to
gallery or join one of the Celebrity Walking Tours which focus on the
personal opinions of the individual tour guides. With Providence being
home to the talents of students and faculty from the Rhode Island
School of Design, you won\’t want to miss this aspect of the city\’s
thriving visual arts scene.

If You Go

Providence is easily accessible no matter how you choose to arrive. I flew
(Southwest offers daily nonstop flights from my home airport,
Baltimore-Washington International), while my friend took the train
from her home in New Jersey.

There are any number of lodging choices—from B&Bs to small boutique
hotels to larger, contemporary hotels. We stayed at the Providence
Biltmore, one of the city\’s landmark hotels. First opened in 1922, it
was designed to re-create the high standards of living at the
Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. The hotel is located just
a short walk from both Providence Place mall and Kennedy Plaza, where
you can pick up a city trolley or bus. It has recently been renovated
and our junior suite was stylish, elegant, and comfortable (hotels seem
to be paying a lot of attention to beds these days, and the Biltmore\’s
no exception—think of being enveloped in a fluffy white cloud!).
There\’s a McCormick & Schmick\’s Seafood Restaurant in the hotel
lobby, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of planked salmon; you can
also have breakfast and lunch there, and if you can\’t leave without a
cup of coffee in hand, there\’s a Starbuck\’s connected to the lobby
(with free Internet access if you buy something to eat or drink). A new
Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa is also a treat—a massage after a long day
of walking around the city (which, surprisingly, is hillier than you
may originally think) is welcome.

Providence is also home to a number of outstanding restaurants. Two of
my favorites are Mediterraneo, in the city\’s Italian Federal Hill
neighborhood (you\’ll know you\’ve arrived in Federal Hill by the
pineapple—signifying hospitality—above the neighborhood\’s arched
gateway), and CAV, one of the most stylish restaurants I\’ve ever seen;
located in a historic loft with brick walls and 12-foot ceilings, CAV
is a restaurant/gallery with objects from around the world, including
handwoven kilim rugs adorning both tables and walls, handmade oil
lamps, African sculptures, and Asian bronzes—what\’s more, everything is
for sale, so you can eat and shop all at the same time (my kind of
place!).

Carol Sorgen is a nationally recognized writer, editor, and public relations consultant. Her articles—on subjects as diverse as travel, health care, education, architecture, interior design, the arts, and business—appear in both print and on-line publications including The Washington Post, DC Style, Resort Living, The Baltimore Sun, European Homes & Gardens, Decorating Spaces, Chesapeake Home, WebMD, Baltimore Jewish Times and Washington Jewish Week…to name just a few.