12 Best Things to Do in Rhode Island

Rhode Island may be the nation's smallest state, but the tiny state offers a wondrous number of things to see and do. Founded in 1636 by religious dissenter Roger Williams, who preached religious tolerance and advocated for the separation of church and state, Rhode Island belongs on your must-see list if you are a fan of history, architecture, or the arts.

It's also a beach lover's heaven, a foodie's delight, and, with its proliferation of B&Bs, the perfect place to spend a romantic night.

01 of 12

Get Impressed by the Mansions

Marble House Newport Mansion
© 2010 Kim Knox Beckius
44 Ochre Point Ave, Newport, RI 02840-6906, USA
+1 401-847-1000

Monuments to early 20th-century excess, the spectacular seaside mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, provide a glimpse of the unimaginable wealth enjoyed by captains of industry with names like Morgan, Astor, and Vanderbilt. Remarkably, these architectural gems were occupied only for a brief summer stint each year.

You'll have trouble choosing which palatial homes to tour. Favorites are the incomparable Breakers and Rough Point, inherited by Million-Dollar Baby Doris Duke. Be sure to stroll the Cliff Walk and appreciate the mansion owners' view. At Christmas, the mansions take on a festive air with holiday decorations and lights.

You can even spend a night in a Newport mansion: The Chanler at Cliff Walk has been transformed into a luxurious boutique hotel.

02 of 12

Catch a Wave at the Beaches

Watch Hill Beach RI
© 2006 Kim Knox Beckius
Misquamicut State Beach, Westerly, RI 02891, USA

Rhode Island is nicknamed the Ocean State for a reason. With more than 40 public beaches, the compact state is the perfect place to catch a wave, and there are freshwater beaches to laze on, too.

Choose a lively beach like Misquamicut or a quiet patch of sand like East Beach on Ninigret Pond. Surfers like Narragansett Town Beach and Watch Hill Beach is a family favorite.

03 of 12

Venture to Block Island

Block Island
© 2007 Kim Knox Beckius
Mohegan Bluffs, New Shoreham, RI 02807, USA

Rhode Island's offshore isle was christened one of the "Last Great Places on Earth" by the Nature Conservancy. It's a laid-back hideaway mired in its Victorian past with oodles of quirky charms.

Whether you venture to Block Island for a day or make it your home for a week, be sure to see the iconic Mohegan Bluffs and Southeast Light.

04 of 12

Experience WaterFire

WaterFire Providence
© 2010 Kim Knox Beckius
475 Valley St, Providence, RI 02903, USA
+1 401-273-1155
Free Attractions

It's been called New England's best free event, New England's most romantic attraction, and Rhode Island's capital city's signature. However you think of WaterFire, don't overlook the chance to experience this art installation while you're in Providence, Rhode Island.

Held on select summer and fall evenings, WaterFire is an attraction you must experience for yourself to truly understand its impact. The amazing attraction features multiple events. One year, almost 100 bonfires added to the fire and water effects.

The musical score changes each time the event is held, and no two WaterFire events are alike.

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05 of 12

Commune with the Animals

Roger Williams Park Zoo Elephants
© 2005 Kim Knox Beckius
1000 Elmwood Ave, Providence, RI 02907, USA
+1 401-785-3510

America's third oldest zoo is one of New England's finest places to observe and learn about the diverse life on our planet. The acclaimed and always evolving zoo has been a family favorite since 1872.

After dark in the fall, Roger Williams Park Zoo is also the place to see the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, one of Rhode Island's best Halloween attractions.

06 of 12

Enjoy the Green Animals

Green Animals Topiary Garden RI
© 2001 Kim Knox Beckius
380 Corys Ln, Portsmouth, RI 02871, USA
+1 401-683-1267

One of the most phenomenal of the Newport Mansions sustained by the Preservation Society of Newport County isn't in Newport, and the draw is not particularly the mansion, either.

Green Animals in nearby Portsmouth is notable for its manicured shrubbery. The topiary garden features a menagerie of animals and geometric figures that have been carefully tended for nearly 140 years. While kids may be wowed by the sheer size and opulence of the other mansions, Green Animals is a place that will enchant them.

07 of 12

Ride Historic Carousels

Watch Hill Carousel
© 2006 Kim Knox Beckius
151 Bay St, Westerly, RI 02891, USA
+1 401-348-6007

There are three historic carousels to ride in Rhode Island, and if you visit only one, make it Watch Hill's Flying Horse Carousel. This ride, suitable for kids 12 and under, was built in 1883 and was abandoned on the Rhode Island shore by gypsies. It is America's oldest surviving merry-go-round, and young riders can still reach for a brass ring and earn a free ride.

While you're in RI, also seek out the 1895 Crescent Park Carousel in East Providence and the 1894 carousel in Pawtucket's Slater Memorial Park: the first ride hand-carved by Charles I.D. Looff.

08 of 12

Play Lawn Tennis

International Tennis Hall of Fame Newport RI
© 2014 L.L. Beckius
194 Bellevue Ave, Newport, RI 02840, USA
+1 401-849-3990

The greats of the game are honored at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, but there's an even better reason to visit the world's largest tennis museum, housed inside the historic Newport Casino.

The attraction's 13 grass tennis courts are the only competition grass courts in the U.S. that are open for public play. Make a reservation, and you can show off your game on the legendary courts where the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championships were held in 1881.

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09 of 12

Taste Some Rum

Newport Distilling Rum in RI
© 2011 Kim Knox Beckius
293 JT Connell Hwy, Newport, RI 02840, USA
+1 401-849-5232

During the colonial period, Newport's chief export was rum. But rum-making was extinct in the state of Rhode Island for more than 150 years until the four guys who founded the popular Newport Storm Brewery built a distillery and began producing Thomas Tew Rum. Now, you'll have a tough decision when you arrive at their Visitors Center in Newport: Taste beer, spirits or both?

10 of 12

Refresh with Del's Frozen Lemonade

Del's Lemonade Truck in Rhode Island
© 2014 Kim Knox Beckius
2628, 1260 Oaklawn Ave, Cranston, RI 02920-2628, USA
+1 401-463-6190

You can't say you've been to Rhode Island unless you've sampled a cold, juicy Del's Frozen Lemonade. This frozen concoction was brought to the state in 1840 by Italian immigrant Franco DeLucia. There are 20 Del's locations in RI, but locals will tell you: It always tastes best when bought from a Del's truck.

11 of 12

Appreciate the Art of the Car

The Newport Car Museum in Portsmouth celebrates the art and design of cars. The private collection of some 50 automobiles covers six decades of modern industrial automotive design and considers cars as works of art. You'll see classics from the 1950s to the present. Featured are Ford Shelby Cars, Corvettes, World Cars, Fin Cars, and the Chrysler Mopar.

There are interactive features like the driving simulator. A complimentary coffee bar is available.

12 of 12

Walk Benefit Street's Mile of History

Benefit Street, in Providence, was the social and cultural center of the town in the colonial and early Federal periods. For visitors, it is the most famous street that you can visit in Rhode Island. The draw is the original Colonial homes overlooking the city's historic waterfront.

Walk the mile through the neighborhood and see the Colonial architecture as well as Victorian and 20th-century buildings. The varied architecture is intriguing and when you walk along the street you'll encounter secret gardens, an early graveyard, churches, and homes which are occupied today.

Self-guided walking tours and "A Guide to Providence Architecture" are available from the Providence Preservation Society.

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Best Things to Do in Rhode Island