12 Best Things to Do in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence, Rhode Island

Yiming Chen / Getty Images

If you're road tripping your way around New England or doing a day trip from Boston just an hour away, visit Providence, where history and art are everywhere and there's an Italian dish to please even the pickiest palate. Spend your days touring world-famous art museums and strolling along historic city streets, and your nights sailing down the river during WaterFire or taking in a show at the Providence Performing Arts Center. Even if you're short on time in this vibrant capital, there's something for everyone to enjoy. Here's how to make the most of your time there.

01 of 12

See a Show at One of Providence's Historic Theatres

Providence Performing Arts Center

Providence Performing Arts Center

Providence Performing Arts Center first opened as a movie palace in 1928 and now is a popular venue featuring everything from comedy shows and concerts to Broadway musicals like "Wicked," "Hamilton," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "Jersey Boys," among others. 20 national Broadway tours have launched in this impossibly beautiful theater, listed on the National Register of Historic Places today despite nearly being destroyed by two horrific hurricanes in 1938 and 1954. Following a rough patch in the 1970s when it mainly served as a concert venue and fell into disrepair, it was revamped in the 1980s and is now better than ever.

Nearby, the Trinity Repertoire Company makes its home in the Lederer Theater Center, which used to be the Emery Majestic Theater, a major center for vaudeville back in the day. It's currently made up of the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater and the Sara and Joseph Dowling, Jr. Theater, offering a mix of stage plays and musicals meant to entertain and thrill guests of all ages.

220 Weybosset St, Providence, RI 02903, USA
Phone +1 401-421-2787
02 of 12

Take the Kids to the Providence Children's Museum

Kids playing at the Providence Children's Museum

Providence Children's Museum

If you're traveling with little ones in tow, ideally between the ages of one and 11, spend a few hours at the Providence Children's Museum, where they can blow off some steam climbing and crawling their way around tree houses and a "bear cave" in Littlewoods, and creating their own works of art in the Maker Studio. Other hands-on play-centric exhibits let them float boats, learn about plants and the power of water, try their hand at puzzles and brainteasers, do arts and crafts, and hear stories of people from all different cultures who now call Rhode Island home.

100 South St, Providence, RI 02903-4749, USA
Phone +1 401-273-5437
03 of 12

Interact With the Animals at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Feed giraffes at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Kyle Bedell / WikiCommons 

There's always something new at the third-oldest zoo in the U.S. 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, although most are 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. If you're planning to visit in the fall, don't miss the Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, a must-see display of elaborately carved pumpkins.

1000 Elmwood Ave, Providence, RI 02907, USA
Phone +1 401-785-3510
04 of 12

Tour the Rhode Island State House

Rhode Island State House, Providence, RI

 Shobeir Ansari / Getty Images 

One of the city's highlights won’t even cost you a penny, but'll you have make sure you get there Monday through Friday. That's when the Rhode Island State House—the 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 also 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.

82 Smith St, Providence, RI 02903, USA
Phone +1 401-222-3983
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05 of 12

Experience WaterFire

WaterFire is the award-winning sculpture by Barnaby Evans presented on the rivers in Providence, RI

 Yiming Chen / Getty Images 

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 creative 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 only adds to the magic.

4 N Main St, Providence, RI 02903, USA
Phone +1 401-273-1155
06 of 12

Tour Providence by Boat

Gondolas on Providence River in Rhode Island

 Marc Dufresne / Getty Images

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 are allowed to 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 by night. Note that both boat tour operators book reservations months in advance for WaterFire nights, so be sure to plan ahead. Seeing WaterFire from a boat is an absolutely unforgettable experience.

1 Citizens Plz, Providence, RI 02903, USA
Phone +1 401-421-8877
07 of 12

Enjoy an Italian Feast in 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

 aimintang / Getty Images 

Providence's Italian neighborhood, Federal Hill, is home to restaurants old and new, plus gourmet tours, a cooking school, and a ravioli shop, among other 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 & Cigar Lounge is another favorite for its burrata.

Chef Cindy Salvato leads Savoring Federal Hill gourmet tours, which are tasty and informative, while Chef Walter Potenza, of Guy's Grocery Games fame, will teach you how to prepare authentic Italian fare at his cooking school. Meanwhile, 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.

141 Atwells Ave, Providence, RI 02903-1644, USA
Phone +1 401-621-8171
08 of 12

Take a Guided Tour of 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—now Benefit Street—in 1758 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."

Benefit St, Providence, RI, USA
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09 of 12

Visit the City's Many 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 sculptures to contemporary works. The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University is a repository for all things cooking and restaurants, including more than 30,000 cookbooks. And don't overlook Brown University's Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, especially if you'd prefer something free to do in Providence. Exhibits feature highlights from the museum's collection of more than one million artifacts from around the world.

20 N Main St, Providence, RI 02903, USA
Phone +1 401-454-6500
10 of 12

Admire the View From Prospect Terrace Park

A statue of Roger Williams looks out over Providence from Prospect Terrace Park. Providence, Rhode Island

kickstand / Getty Images

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 it's also where Williams' remains are parked. Shoot panoramic pictures of the Providence skyline, or simply spread out a blanket or claim a bench and treat yourself to a picnic on a sunny day.

60 Congdon St, Providence, RI 02906, USA
Phone +1 401-785-9450
11 of 12

Peek Inside the Big Nazo Lab

Big Nazo Providence

TripSavvy / Kim Knox Beckius

Providence brands itself as "The Creative Capital," and there are art galleries, performance venues, and cultural organizations galore—far more than you'd expect to find in such a small city.

One of the wildest workshops you've ever seen is located 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 as well as 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 the website for special appearances.

250 Westminster St, Providence, RI 02903-1908, USA
Phone +1 401-831-9652
12 of 12

Explore Brown University

Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, and a member of the Ivy League

 DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Brown University is an Ivy League college located in the heart of Providence that was founded in 1764—before the American Revolution—which makes it the seventh-oldest university in the country. Besides having one of the most beautiful campuses on the East Coast, it is set in a vibrant part of town with tree-lined streets full of cozy coffee shops, trendy boutiques, and laid-back bars. Thayer Street is the main artery and home to the annual Thayer Street Arts Festival, which showcases local crafters and street performers. Around the corner on Angell Street, you'll find outdoor movies and art exhibits at the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

Providence, RI 02912, USA
Phone +1 401-863-1000
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12 Best Things to Do in Providence, Rhode Island