12 Best Things to Do in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence is an energetic and historic capital city that should be second only to Boston on your list of New England cities you must see in your lifetime. And it's not just because Providence is home to New England's best bacon! 

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Interact With Animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Feed giraffes at the Roger Williams Park Zoo
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There's always something new at America's third oldest zoo. More than just a place to observe the diversity of life on our planet, Roger Williams Park Zoo offers Providence visitors once-in-a-lifetime interactive encounters with animals: most for a small additional fee. Feed a giraffe. Ride a camel. Book a behind-the-scenes tour of the harbor seal exhibit. Feed exotic birds when they swoop down and land on your arm. With species from alpacas to zebras, the zoo appeals to animal lovers of all ages.

Families with young children will especially enjoy mingling with the sheep and goats in the Alex and Ani Farmyard and exploring Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard: one of the coolest playgrounds in New England. And, each fall, the zoo hosts the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular: a must-see display of elaborately carved pumpkins.

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Tour the Rhode Island State House

Rhode Island State House, Providence, RI
  Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images 

One of Providence's highlights won’t cost you a penny. But you have to get there Monday through Friday. That's when Rhode Island's capitol building, designed by the famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, is open to the public for free guided or self-guided tours. You won't just see the chambers where state legislators meet. This government building is home to treasures like Rhode Island's Royal Charter, handwritten in 1663. Even more significant is Rhode Island-born artist Gilbert Stuart's original portrait of George Washington: the one you know well from the one-dollar bill. You'll also be able to look up and appreciate the fourth largest self-supported marble dome in the world.

03 of 12

Experience WaterFire

WaterFire is the award-winning sculpture by Barnaby Evans presented on the rivers in Providence, RI
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WaterFire, held on select evenings along the rivers that converge in the heart of Providence, is a soul-stirring work of art. Sculptor Barnaby Evans has been the creative force behind this installation since its inception in 1994, and this fusion of fire, water, and music has become the city's signature. It's New England's most romantic experience and the region's best free event. As bonfires crackle and sparkle, they cast a shimmering glow on the water. Evans changes the haunting soundtrack each time WaterFire is staged, which adds to the magic.

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Take a Boat Tour

Gondolas on Providence River in Rhode Island
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When you see Providence from the water, you'll feel as if you're touring a European—not a New England—capital city. This is especially true if you book an excursion with La Gondola. The charming gondoliers who steer authentic Venetian gondolas along the city's rivers even sing to passengers, who may bring their own wine or champagne aboard. If you prefer a history lesson to a serenade, ​Providence River Boat Company offers informative narrated tours by day and relaxing sunset cruises in the eve. Both of these boat tour operators book reservations months in advance for WaterFire nights, so plan ahead. Seeing WaterFire from a boat is unforgettable.

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05 of 12

Feast on Federal Hill

Storefronts along Atwells Avenue with a man walking on sidewalk in Federal Hill, a historic district famous for its Italian restaurants in Providence
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Providence's Italian neighborhood, Federal Hill, is home to restaurants old and new, plus gourmet tours, a cooking school, a ravioli shop, and more indulgent attractions. Don't miss the braciola and other favorites your Italian nonna used to make at Angelo's Civita Farnese, where some menu items haven't changed in more than 90 years. DaVinci Ristorante, Lounge & Cigar Bar is another favorite for its burrata. Chef Cindy Salvato leads Savoring Federal Hill gourmet tours, which are tasty and informative. And Chef Walter Potenza will teach you how to prepare authentic Italian fare at his cooking school here. Venda Ravioli​​ sells more than 150 kinds of fresh and frozen pasta, plus every Italian culinary product imaginable. Don't leave without stopping at Scialo Bros. Bakery for Italian cookies.

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Walk Providence's Benefit Street

Benefit Street Providence
Shinya Suzuki/Flickr

It's known as the "Mile of History," and whether you explore on your own or join one of the Rhode Island Historical Society's guided Benefit Street walking tours offered mid-June through October, this architecturally significant stretch is a Providence must-see. Colonial business owners began building homes along Back Street in 1758—now Benefit Street—and you won't find a larger concentration of houses from the pre-Revolution period anywhere else in America. The street also has excellent examples of Federal and later architectural styles. Fans of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, a Providence native, will want to keep their eyes out for ​135 Benefit Street: his inspiration for "The Shunned House."

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Visit the Art Museums

RISD Museum Top Attractions Providence
 Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau

Providence's colleges and universities operate many impressive museums. The RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design has more than 91,000 creations in its collection ranging from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture to contemporary works. The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University is a repository for all things cooking- and restaurant-related, including more than 30,000 cookbooks. And don't overlook Brown University's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, particularly if you want something free to do in Providence. Exhibits feature highlights from the museum's collection of more than one million artifacts from around the world.

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Admire the View From Prospect Terrace Park

A statue of Roger Williams looks out over Providence from Prospect Terrace Park. Providence, Rhode Island
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Petite but exceptionally scenic, Providence's Prospect Terrace Park on Congdon Street is known for its immense statue of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. What you might not realize if you've only seen photos of this iconic spot is that this is also where Williams' remains are parked. You'll be able to shoot panoramic pictures of the Providence skyline, or simply spread out a blanket or claim a bench and picnic on a sunny day.

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09 of 12

Peek Inside the Big Nazo Lab

Big Nazo Providence
Kim Knox Beckius

Providence brands itself "The Creative Capital," and there are art galleries, performance venues, and cultural organizations galore—far more than you'd expect to find in a small city. One of the wildest workshops you've ever seen is on Fulton Street across from Providence City Hall. So hideous they're adorable, the giant, wearable "puppets" that come to life inside Big Nazo Lab have become a city signature and an international sensation. Don't miss the chance to gawk at the creatures displayed in the windows. You can wander inside to observe if artists are at work, or check their website for special appearances.

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Shop at Providence Place

Arcade Providence Oldest Shopping Mall
Kim Knox Beckius

With nearly 150 stores and restaurants and a 16-screen cinema, Providence Place is more than a mall—it's a destination. Here's something you may not know: Providence is also home to America's oldest indoor shopping mall: The Arcade. Built in 1828, this National Historic Landmark was renovated and reinvented in 2013 and now houses boutique shops, eateries, and micro-loft apartments. Providence is also famous for its vintage and consignment shops, where you'll find creative garb and other stylish finds.

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Explore Brown University

Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, and a member of the Ivy League
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Brown is an Ivy League college in the heart of Providence. It was founded in 1764—before the American Revolution—and is the seventh-oldest university. Besides having one of the most gorgeous campuses on the East Coast, it is set in a vibrant part of town where there are tree-lined streets with cozy coffee shops, trendy boutiques, and laid-back bars. Thayer Street is the main artery and the home of the annual Thayer Street Arts Festival, which showcases local crafters and street performers. Around the corner on Angell Street, there are outdoor movies and art exhibits at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

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See a Show at the Providence Performing Arts Center

Exterior of the Providence Performing Arts Center
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Opened in 1928 as a movie theater, the Providence Perfuming Arts Center retains its historic charm despite being repurposed as a concert venue. Here, you can see the concerts, broadway musicals, and comedy shows. In 2019 the line-up includes The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago: Live in Concert, The Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys, Waitress: The Musical, and Hamilton. Best-selling author David Sedaris will also be having a lecture and book signing in April.

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