Sometimes large, hyped-up events aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. But WaterFire, which turns Providence’s three rivers (the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Providence) into pathways for floating flames, is every bit as spectacular as everyone says it is.
On select summer and fall evenings, bonfires are lit along the waterways, and it seems as if the whole city turns out to take in the atmosphere. The event began 20 years ago and has grown ever since, incorporating music, art, and more. But the best way to understand what WaterFire is all about is simply to wander down to the water, join the crowd, and watch as the night lights up.
This house is ... gargantuan! No less than 70 rooms, including a ballroom, a music room, a library, living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms ...! And throughout, it's laden with marble and gilt. This was one of the mansions owned by the Vanderbilt family, one of THE most powerful families in their day, who became rich thanks to the railroads. This is where the glitterati came for parties; even JFK stayed here.
I noticed 2-3 small details that amused and surprised me, with the help of the audio guide:
- A bathtub carved from a single block of marble, designed to resemble a Roman coffin. It was so thick that it had to be emptied and refilled several times to keep the water hot. There were four taps, two freshwater and two saltwater, as the latter was considered healthy at the time!
- The staircase of the house was built to look like the Opera Garnier in Paris! Moreover, even the guests enjoyed sliding down the banisters here!
- From the testimonies of former servants, we learned that people changed their clothes 6-7 times a day, sometimes taking two baths a day. Their sheets were changed twice a day, and towels were changed after each use.
What crazy lives these people led!
Federal Hill, Providence’s “Little Italy,” is both a part of the city and a distinct quarter. Enter the neighborhood under an arch topped with a pinecone (a traditional symbol of abundance.) Stroll to DePasquale Square, where surrounding eateries’ outdoor seating areas crowd happily around a fountain.
Walk through the neighborhood and find coffee shops and bakeries, stores selling wine and poultry, and many more restaurants (mostly, though certainly not all, Italian.) There are also a few galleries and shops, the historic Columbus Theatre, and residential streets.
Especially in the summer, you might encounter live music or throngs of people taking part in a festival or other special event, which only adds to the feeling that you may have inadvertently stumbled onto a movie set.
If you’re not familiar with New England, Providence’s Benefit Street is as good a place as any to discover why so many people love its architecture, history, and ambiance. Beautifully restored Colonial homes and churches, many with fascinating stories behind them, line this “mile of history” that runs through the campuses of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
The Rhode Island Historical Society offers walking tours of the street - “Mile of History,” “Women Who Made a Difference,” and “Literary Walk,” - tailored to different interests. If you’re not the group tour type, the Providence Preservation Society provides a self-guided walking tour. Or simply stroll along this beautiful thoroughfare and up its hilly side streets and admire it on your own.
On Wickenden Street, in the historically Portuguese Fox Point section of Providence, you can find restaurants named Abyssinia, Duck and Bunny, Sakura, Coffee Exchange, and Café Zog. You’ll pass independent shops called Providence Perfume Co., Curiosities, Adler’s Hardware, and Small Circle. Though it’s probably not always a good idea to judge a road by its storefronts, on this eclectic street, you can’t really go wrong.
Just a few blocks over, a footbridge takes you over the Interstate and down to India Point Park, a small waterfront oasis that was created in the 1970's from a scrap metal yard and hosts organized events as well as walkers, bird-watchers, and workers eating lunch.
Rhode Island is officially nicknamed the Ocean State, so it’s not surprising that this little area boasts an impressive collection of lighthouses. There are over twenty of these beacons, some active and others not, dotted along Rhode Island’s coast. In appearance they range from the classic image of a New England lighthouse to more whimsical, like small houses perched on the rocks.
Some can be reached by land (like the Point Judith Light pictured here), and others can be spotted while driving over the state’s many distinctive bridges. But others are best seen by boat. Rhode Island Bay Cruises and Save the Bay offer tours leaving from North Kingstown and Providence respectively.
A walkable, eclectic downtown full of independent shops and restaurants help make downtown Westerly a great spot to stroll on a laid-back afternoon. But the jewel of the westernmost town on the Rhode Island shore might be Wilcox Park, a 16-acre oasis that forms the grounds of the local library.
Harriet Wilcox donated the land in 1898 in memory of her husband, Stephen Wilcox. She wanted the space to be a “walking park” for local residents. Today it is a perfect place to walk or rest, with paths that wind past notable trees, gardens, monuments, and charming fountains and statues. Special events like fairs and concerts are also held in the park.
In Newport’s quiet Touro Park, which feels worlds away from the bustling, touristy parts of this famous town, stands an unsolved mystery. It’s called (among other names) the Old Stone Mill, though no one knows for sure what it was built for, or when. It may have been a windmill in early Colonial times, but it has also inspired some far stranger origin myths.
Visit the park (really just a few minutes from Newport’s major attractions) and ponder how the stone structure got here. Maybe you agree with one of the existing theories (the Vikings? the Chinese?) or perhaps you’d rather invent your own conspiracy.
There’s a lot to see in South Kingstown, the largest town in Rhode Island. Made up of over ten villages and sections - some with confusing names such as Kingston and West Kingston, and some with charming ones like Snug Harbor, Wakefield, and Peacedale – this town is picturesque without being overly polished.
And it’s very easy to plan a visit to the historic buildings and attractions here, because the town has already done it for you by plotting out a driving tour. The 25 sites on the tour range from a 19th century pump house to an 18th century jail to a deceptively tall wooden observation tower with amazing views. And along the way, you’ll probably find some favorite spots of your own.
Historic streets lined with cute shops in a relaxing waterfront setting are standard issue in any coastal vacation town. But Newport does it better than most, because here, a few of those atmospheric streets are actually functioning wharfs extending into Newport Harbor.
The big ones are Bowen’s Wharf and Bannister’s Wharf. Both offer plenty of shopping and dining options, not to mention refreshing views of the water. You can also find accommodations and boat cruises here.
Both of the large wharfs (along with many smaller ones) are perpendicular to Thames Street, where you can continue to ramble, browse, eat, and drink for hours. And bring your camera, because Newport’s wharfs, and much of the rest of the city, are picture-perfect.
Bristol, RI boasts the oldest continuously observed Fourth of July celebration in America; it began in 1785. That would just be a bit of trivia, were it not for the way this small Rhode Island town goes all out in honor of the nation’s independence.
Walk or drive through Bristol in the weeks leading up to the 4th and you’ll quickly see that the town is awash in red, white, and blue. Block after block of houses, businesses, lampposts, and lawns are draped in banners, bunting, ribbons, and flags. This makes for a remarkably charming and all-American backdrop. (It doesn't hurt that the historic town is pretty darn cute even without all that patriotic decoration.)
In addition to the Military, Civic and Firemen's Parade, which follows a red, white, and blue stripe through the streets of Bristol, there are other festivities like a carnival on the town common, a ball, and a free concert series. And the visitor who has traveled the longest distance to be there wins a prize.
Tiverton Four Corners could technically be described as simply a four-way intersection in the town of Tiverton, Rhode Island. But in reality it’s much more than that description implies. Art galleries, clothing and home stores, eateries, historic sites, and independent businesses housed in preserved 18th century buildings cluster around the eponymous corners to create a laid-back yet upscale destination. Stop at Provender (located in a building constructed by a descendant of a child born on the Mayflower) for a gourmet sandwiches, or Gray’s across the street for homemade ice cream.
If you time your visit right, you can attend one of the summer festivals held here. And you can always take a walking tour of this former mill village, which includes not only churches and cemeteries but a very old corn crib, and possibly the sweetest little library you’ve ever encountered.
Route 77 travels from Tiverton to Little Compton’s Sakonnet Point, the tip of the peninsula that extends into Rhode Island Sound. Along the way it passes farm stands, a vineyard, pleasing views of waterfront and farmland, and homes you just might fantasize about living in when you realize how calm and quietly beautiful this part of Rhode Island is.
This drive is as long as you make it – it all depends on how often you choose to stop to investigate the sights along the way, turn down side streets (the historic village of Adamsville can be found down Route 179, if you want to see America’s oldest general store) or linger at the southernmost point, where the land gives way to water.
To enter Colt State Park, on Narragansett Bay in Bristol, is to instantly relax. The road winds along the shore, offering views of blue water and green grass, and all the options seem equally tempting: should you stop at a picnic grove? Seek out the biking or walking trails, fruit trees, stone walls, playing fields, or open-air chapel? Continue towards the fishing pier and stone bridge? All of the above?
Even the official website, while providing facts about the Colt State Park’s acreage (464) and number of picnic tables (400+), can’t resist pointing out that it is “often referred to as the 'Gem' of the State Parks System.” And don’t be misled by the summery photo – this park is beautiful year round.
America’s Industrial Revolution was born here, in the city of Pawtucket in the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor, in 1793. That’s when the firm of Almy, Brown, and Slater constructed a mill to manufacture cotton thread, which they did successfully until 1829. The mill then went on to produce tools and other goods until 1921, when a forward-thinking group began working on its preservation.
The Slater Mill Museum, consisting of three historic buildings – the 1793 Slater Mill, the 1810 Wilkinson Mill, and the 1758 Sylvanus Brown House (a typical 19th century artisan’s home) – “preserves, interprets and researches” various aspects of America’s industrial heritage in programs, events and exhibits. Standard tours take visitors through all three buildings; there are also themed tours covering topics like paranormal investigations.
Historically, Rhode Island has been a refuge for those who weren't welcome elsewhere, so it’s not surprising that America’s oldest synagogue can be found in Newport.
The outside of the Touro Synagogue, completed in 1763, doesn't hint at the restrained magnificence of the interior. Frequent tours teach visitors about the building as well as a bit of Jewish, Rhode Island, and American history, including the story of George Washington’s famous letter, "To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” known to many Americans for its assertion that the United States Government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
The synagogue, still home to an active congregation, is also open for services. And be sure to walk over to the historic cemetery, which poetry lovers might recognize from Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport.”
Glance at a map of Rhode Island and you’ll quickly see that this little state has a lot of shoreline. Between the ocean beaches and the sheltered ones, there’s a sandy spot for every taste. Some beaches are best for families with small children, some have a party vibe, and others are known for their surf.
One that usually manages to stay under the radar is East Beach in Charlestown. A three-mile strip of barrier beach, this undeveloped haven is often described with adjectives like “wild” or “untouched.” With few amenities and fewer parking spaces, it’s not for everyone, but it’s loved by many for its white sands and secluded atmosphere. A limited number of campsites are available, and those with proper vehicles - and official permits - are allowed to drive onto the beach.
Of all the Revolutionary War heroes America produced, Rhode Island’s own Nathanael Greene has one of the most interesting and unexpected biographies. A Quaker who taught himself military strategy from books and walked with a limp, Greene went from mill manager and local militia leader to friend and trusted general of George Washington. With his wife Caty (who was known for her independent spirit and once danced with General Washington for three hours straight) he had five children. That was all before he died of sunstroke at the age of 43.
The General Nathanael Greene Homestead, located in an otherwise unremarkable residential neighborhood in Coventry, was built in 1770 and opened as a museum in 1924. Inside are items that belonged to several generations of the Greene family.