It was a familiar slogan in an unfamiliar place.
We were browsing inside of Craftland, a downtown Providence gift shop dedicated to supporting the local arts community, when we saw it — a postcard featuring an outline of the state of Texas with an outline of tiny Rhode Island inside and the words, “Don’t mess with Rhode Island either.”
During a recent trip to visit family, we would learn that whatever Rhode Island lacks in size, it more than makes up for in personality. This is showcased perfectly in the capital city of Providence, home to everything from innovative food to thought-provoking murals to quirky festivals.
Here are some things to do during a visit to Providence, R.I.
Celebrate the diner
Providence claims to be the home of the diner, which was said to have been founded in 1872 by Walter Scott, who sold food out of the windows of his horse-pulled wagon to workers at the Providence Journal. Since then, the city’s diner scene has exploded, and perhaps no place offers a better representation of the beloved steak-and-eggs institution than West Side Diner. Housed in a prefabricated diner car that dates back to 1947, West Side Diner serves up classics as well as newer fare ranging from omelets and French toast to tofu scrambles and “Twisted S’mores” waffles. While you’re there, don’t miss the opportunity to order a “coffee milk,” the official state drink of Rhode Island that’s like a rich, creamy chocolate milk but uses coffee syrup instead.
Info: 1380 Westminster St. westsidedinerri.com
Hit the water
One of the most fascinating ways to explore Providence is via a boat tour that winds you through popular locations including the Riverwalk, Waterplace Park, the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier and the Providence Harbor. Our 50-minute narrated tour with the Providence River Boat Company touched on a variety of historical points of interest, including the statehouse, as well as some fun pop culture tidbits, including that “There’s Something About Mary” was filmed partially in Providence. (Once your tour ends, stop for a drink inside the adjacent Hot Club, a restaurant-bar where some of the movie’s most famous scenes were shot.) We particularly enjoyed learning about the city’s beloved WaterFire events, in which a series of nearly 100 bonfires illuminate two-thirds of a mile along the water in downtown Providence. WaterFire events are typically held May-November, usually once or twice a month on Saturday evenings.
Info: Tours launch from 525 S. Water St. 401-580-2628, providenceriverboat.com
Nuts for doughnuts
Brioche doughnuts, where have you been all my life? Despite being a lifelong doughnut connoisseur (when my husband proposed, he put the ring inside a Krispy Kreme box), it wasn’t until Providence that I first tasted this light, heavenly variety. Brioche-style doughnuts contain more butter than sugar, giving them an airy texture that’s ideal for toppings and fillings, which, at PVDonuts, include everything from churro-waffles to cookie butter to Pop-Tarts. Each doughnut is hand-cut and hand-decorated, meaning no two look alike. They’ve also got vegan, cake, old-fashioned and flourless options, as well as fritters, crullers and monkey bread. The sprinkle-covered walls add to the fun. They frequently sell out, though, so go early.
Info: 79 Ives St. pvdonuts.com
Home to both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence courts creative types. Get those creative juices flowing at the RISD Museum, which was established in 1877 and is home to more than 100,000 works of art and design. From famous pieces from the likes of Renoir and Monet to dresses from Chanel, there was something to fascinate each member of our group. We particularly liked the Gelman Student Exhibitions Gallery, where pieces such as breakfast-scape that incorporated a 2-foot-tall coffee mug and giant cereal pieces captured our imaginations.
Info: 20 N. Main St. 401-454-6500, risdmuseum.org
It may not be the largest zoo in the country, but the 40-acre Roger Williams Park Zoo is home to more than 160 species of animals and offers an accessible and mesmerizing stroll through nature that entertained our family for a full day. During our visit, we touched turtles. We brushed goats. We pet donkeys. We fed giraffes. And, perhaps most memorably, we met a seal named Bubba who was on antidepressants after recently losing his partner of more than 20 years and undergoing cataract surgery. We’ve all got our struggles, man. After the zoo, we spent time in Roger Williams Park, where we were charmed by a life-size Candy Land trail and an enormous Mr. Potato Head, both nods to their creator, Hasbro, which is headquartered in Rhode Island.
Info: 1000 Elmwood Ave. 401-785-3510, rwpzoo.org
Hit the beach
Rhode Island is nicknamed the Ocean State, so unsurprisingly, it’s a great place to hit the beach. With more than 400 miles of coastline, you can choose from everything from sleepy beach towns to surf havens. One popular day trip is to spend the afternoon in the sand at Narragansett, located about 45 minutes from Providence, with a stop by Aunt Carrie’s for a Wicked Ice Cream Sundae on the way home
Under the sea
Another benefit of Providence’s proximity to the ocean is its fantastic seafood, which was showcased during our dinner at Hemenway’s, a meal that easily goes down within the top 10 of my life. From the briny and delightfully supple oysters with tangy mignonette to the perfectly mashed potatoes, the entire meal was a knockout, made even better thanks to our waiter’s careful attention to my daughter’s gluten allergy and the menu’s many gluten-free options.
Info: 121 S. Main St. 401-351-8570, hemenwaysrestaurant.com
Imagine if you took a food hall but centered it on plant-based food. That’s what you get when you walk into Plant City, a 10,000-square-foot, two-story eatery that opened in Providence in June and is the brainchild of chef Matthew Kenney. Expect everything from quick-serve meals to a coffee shop to full-service dining, all of it, yes, plant-based.
Info: 334 S Water St. matthewkenneycuisine.com/plant-city-pvd
While in Providence, plan out an evening to spend at Federal Hill, Providence’s hub of Italian restaurants. We loved our dinner at Trattoria Zooma, where the freshly made pasta was served perfectly al dente and the artwork adorning the walls was inspired. After dinner on Federal Hill, be sure to stroll by DePasquale Plaza, where it’s not uncommon to stumble upon live music.
Info: 245 Atwells Ave. 401-383-2002, trattoriazooma.com
Make yourself at home
If you’re looking for a family-friendly place to stay, don’t miss the Providence Marriott Downtown, where the sprawling, sparkling pool and decked-out, recently renovated rooms will delight the kids. Rates start around $150 per night.
Info: 1 Orms St. 401-272-2400, marriott.com/hotels/travel/pvdri-providence-marriott-downtown
Find more about things to see and do in Providence at goprovidence.com.