When I told British friends I was heading off to Providence, the reaction was the same.
‘Oh,’ followed by the look people inadvertently display when they search their mind for any knowledge of a destination and come up blank. ‘Er… nice.’
‘Is it for Bear Week?’ asked a couple of them.
‘Um, no. That’s Provincetown. This is Providence, Rhode Island.’
In short, for many in the UK, Providence has a branding problem. Until now, visitors to this corner of New England were more likely to travel to Boston (an hour north-east by train), or Provincetown (a 90-minute ferry ride from Boston or 2.5 hour drive from Providence).
I say ‘until now’ because that is set to change. In June, Norwegian airlines began the first, direct services to Providence from the United Kingdom. It operates flights from Scotland and Ireland.
I took the Edinburgh route. It’s part of Norwegian’s rapidly expanding network of budget flights, with fares starting as low as £99 for a single trip from the UK to the US.
Obviously, at that price, it’s no-frills service. If you want a meal, you need to book it in advance at extra cost (I did and can testify if was a tasty offering – even if you are conscious of other economy-minded passengers looking on with envy!). On the plus side, there’s on-board, free wifi – still unusual for transatlantic flights.
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US. Providence, one of the oldest cities in the country, is its capital. Its population is around 180,000. It’s a quiet, history-packed destination, with a high student population due to the presence of Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design and other institutions.
It offers one of the only night-time Pride parade in the US, dozens of amazing restaurants, and is the perfect base from which to explore the rest of Rhode Island (which you can transverse by car in around an hour). Here are attractions to check out.
1. Rhode Island School of Design Museum
RSID is famed around the world as one of the best arts and design colleges in the US. Its associated museum is one of Providence’s must-visit institutions for all culture vultures. You’ll find an eclectic collection, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to 20th century fashion. Do check out the museum shop for cool mementoes of your trip, and also Pearl Café. I can personally recommend the ginger beer and espresso shot – my new favorite drink!
2. Prospect Terrace Park
On the East Side, Prospect Terrace Park offers the best panoramic view of Providence. A large statue of the city’s founder, Roger Williams, gazes out over the State House and downtown district. It’s definitely worth the hill climb – although you may want to take a cab in peak summer because of the heat!
3. Providence Performing Arts Center
This neon-lit landmark is one of the downtown district’s prettiest sights – particularly at sunset. It plays host to touring Broadway musicals (Hamilton and Les Miserables are all coming soon), gigs and dance. Check ppacri.org.
Locating stores selling high quality souvenirs and collectables can be hard, but not so in Providence. Besides the aforementioned RISD Museum, check out Craftland (212 Westminster St, Providence RI 02903) in the downtown district. It boasts its range ‘is all handmade, all the time’. You can also shop online at craftlandshop.com
5. East Side
Any explorations of Providence must include a walk around the East Side. GoProvidence can supply you with maps for walking tours of this, the West Side and Downtown.
Check out the areas around Brown University, the aforementioned RISD Museum, and Thayer Street, which has plenty of restaurants and coffee shops popular with local students.
The John Brown House (one of the city’s finest mansions) and the Athenaeum offer a more historical perspective.
A new addition to the city, PVDonuts at 79 Ives Street (East Side) is a specialty donut shop that has made an immediate impression on locals and the student population. The Grasshopper Pie (chocolate ganache, mint chocolate dusting and crushed chocolate grahams) and S’mores donut are just two of the any varieties on offer. pvddonuts.com
Very popular, Italian and New England-inspired downtown restaurant (50 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903). An interior of white wood, gray and exposed brickwork make for a classy backdrop, while a preponderance of seafood will delight fish lovers. Try the grilled salmon with corn salsa or George’s Bank scallops with, bacon, lentils and squash purée. circerestaurantbar.com
If you want to feast upon sea food, Hemenway’s – which has been a Providence staple for over three decades – is a must-visit. It’s nestled next to the Providence River on the East Side of the city. The building may be relatively modern, with its expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, but wood paneling and brass handrails lend an old-fashioned feel to the interior. The Clam Chowder is a must-try.
9. Federal Hill
To the west of the downtown district is Federal Hill. More residential, this is also where you’ll find plenty of restaurants, including most of the city’s Italian eateries. I recommend Trattoria Zooma. It’s down-to-earth, homely, and – on the night I visited – very busy.
Pastaio, further west, is a newer, hip pasta establishment, that offers a slightly Edward Hopper-ish, Nighthawks vibe. I enjoyed pappardelle with flavor-packed chicken, peas and breadcrumbs. For a more French bistro flavor, head to the nearby Loui Fuller’s – a Federal Hill staple for the last ten years.
Newport is around a 45-minute drive away or similar ferry ride ($10 each way) from Providence. The maritime city is famed for its boating and yachting. The annual America’s Cup has often taken place here.
The town is full of seafood restaurants and bars, but it’s also worth jumping in a cab and checking out the wider area. Many of the US’s richest families built mansion here in the 20th century. There’s a very popular cliff-top walk, from which you can admire many of these palaces to luxury and excess – some of which are now museums.
WaterFire is a unique, Rhode Island arts event. It takes place roughly every other Saturday to coincide with weekend high tides.
Metal baskets with burning wooden logs are situated along the three downtown Providence rivers. They burn brightly for several hours.
The event attracts up to 40,000 over the course of the evening. Most just sit and watch from the banks, enjoying the many food and drink options alongside riverside stalls. You can also book a boat ride for a closer experience.
The combination of fire, water, illuminations (canoes with illuminated sculptures cut through the water) and music makes for a mesmerizing, romantic spectacle.
12. LGBTI scene
The gay club and bar scene is based around a couple of blocks downtown. Most people start at the long and dimly-lit Stable; its outside back yard area is particularly popular.
From here they move on to neighboring sister bars Dark Lady and Alleycat, the cruisy and male-dominated Eagle Providence, or Ego, the largest establishment. It’s a thriving scene that pulls in weekend visitors from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and even Boston.
The annual Rhode Island Pride is also going from strength to strength, with this summer’s festival attracting over 60,000. It is one of only a few night-time, illuminated Pride parade in the US.
Talking to locals, it became clear that gay people have increasingly decided to move to Providence as property prices in Boston have skyrocketed. Whereas other cities have regenerated themselves throughout the 20th century, Providence is full of quaint homes and buildings dating back to the 1800s. Hotel rates and Airbnb remain affordable.
At the moment, the city’s charms have been very much a local, New England secret, but that is sure to change as it begins to attract more international visitors.
For everything Providence-related, check out GoProvidence.com
Norwegian offers the UK and Ireland’s only direct flights to Providence, Rhode Island with fares from £99 one-way in brand-new Boeing 737 aircraft.
The airline operates 16 flights per week from Edinburgh, Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Shannon to Providence, which offers good access to Boston, Cape Cod and historic Newport. Book now at www.norwegian.com/uk or dial 0330 8280854 (opt. 1)