Most tourists find themselves in Providence, Rhode Island on the way to somewhere else. However, this little city is absolutely worth a visit of its own. Contributor Lilit Marcus looks at what’s great on and off campus.
Rhode Island, known affectionately to the locals as “Lil’ Rhodey,” is America’s smallest state. But what the state lacks in size it tries to make up for in brainpower and creativity. The capital, Providence, boasts several universities, most famously Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). And the once-maligned city, which was known for urban blight in the 1970s and ‘80s, is now experiencing a little renaissance. It makes a great side trip from New York or Boston, so head over to the Creative Capital for some coffee and culture – minus the crowds.
For a first-person sense of how Providence has transformed its downtown, look no further than the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel. It’s within walking distance or a short drive of the train station, and this hotel serves as a living reminder of how the city has changed. The property used to be an eyesore covered in graffiti and was sold to Marriott for a dollar. The hotel chain cleaned up the space and built the hotel, but as a gesture of goodwill they invited many of the graffiti artists whose work had been torn down to do paintings for the rooms. Finally, good hotel room art!
First things first: head to the university district, where RISD and Brown are turning out some of the country’s best designers. At the RISD Museum, you can spend hours looking at everything from masterworks by Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly to Eames chairs and even a side room full of miniatures and dolls. The museum’s store only sells products made by RISD students and alums, so stock up on Baggu backpacks and bracelets made of real fruit by Deborah Tuch. To get some culture, hit the Providence Athenaeum down the street. It’s a lovely little library that focuses on work by local authors – plus there’s a bust of hometown fantasy writer hero H.P. Lovecraft. Bonus: it’s also a beautiful building dating to the 1830s.
One of the pluses of being near a college is a wide range of cheap eats. If you head up to Thayer Street, the main drag of Brown, you’ll find everything from Greek food to Indian food to pizza, with options at the higher and lower ends of the price spectrum. There’s also the Brown University bookstore, where you can buy that Hello-Kitty-in-a-Brown-sweatshirt doll you’ve always wanted.
For a quieter afternoon, hit one of Providence’s many coffee shops to stay warm. Duck & Bunny, in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Fox Hill, offers afternoon tea as well as tea-and-coffee-infused cocktails, a cupcake menu that changes daily, and very good free Wi-Fi. Then, combine your love of shopping with your need for an afternoon caffeine jolt by visiting the Alex & Ani store in the Wayland Square neighborhood. This jewelry brand, now carried at Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, started right here in Providence, and the founders are keeping their roots local with a coffee shop next door, Teas and Javas. Get a pile of bangles customized with your favorite university or pro sports team, then sink in for a coffee before the buyer’s remorse can hit you.
At night, people from Providence (no one says “Providencians,” and they will look at you weirdly if you do) head to some of the city’s best restaurants for Manhattan-quality food at more Queens-level prices. Make a reservation for the gastropub Cook & Brown Public House. This European-inspired restaurant’s menu changes seasonally, but no matter what’s on offer you can count on chef Nemo Bolin to put together elegant comfort food. The drinks menu, with modern variations on classic cocktails, is also worth it – get the G&T with grapefruit bitters or the Salted Negroni. Or both.
For more college town ideas, check out:
- There’s More to New Haven than Yale
- Travel Tip: College Town Travel
- Ask the Locals: Madison, Wisconsin
- Spotlight on New Haven, CT
By Lilit Marcus for PeterGreenberg.com. Lilit is a freelance writer who lives on the Lower East Side and tries to get out of Manhattan as much as possible. Her work has also appeared in Glamour, The Daily, and Jaunted.com. Follow her on twitter at @LilitMarcus.