You arrive in Providence, Rhode Island on a Friday afternoon, good and hungry. Don’t check into your hotel, just head straight to Nick’s on Broadway for their popular brunch (Wed-Sun). Stop to marvel at the abundance of free parking downtown, then duck into Nick’s. Hunker down despite the long line. Once you’re served a big omelet with your choice of fillings (caramelized onions, bacon, sausage, roasted red peppers, and goat cheese was the winner at our table) alongside house-made biscuits, you’ll be glad you waited.
Full of brunch, you head to Providence Place for some more consumption – this time in a shopping capacity. The enormous mall seems newly built or restored, and boasts clothes, shoes, jewelry, housewares, food, and department stores. The holiday shoppers swarm around you, sniffing eagerly around late-December sales, so after a bit of browsing you decide to skip the lines and catch a flick at the Place’s massive cinema.
After a long movie, you’re just about ready for dinner. But recommendations for downtown Providence seem mostly upscale, and you’re not keen to perform an elaborate toilette. Never fear. Take a a quick drive to neighboring town Cranston, where you’ll find classic red-sauce Italian joint Mike’s Kitchen. Mike’s has been in business for 31 years, and it probably looked pretty similar back in ’83, right down to the line out the door. Inside, the big VFW hall is decorated with flags and medals, Formica tables, and a big white board listing the specials. The fresh scali bread comes with margarine in a plastic basket, and the smell of fried seafood perfumes the air.
Here you can get plenty of Rhode Island specialties, from stuffed quahog clams (“stuffies”) to snail salad, plus great Italian eats. Order up some veal francaise, and you’ll get three tender cutlets in eggy batter, deliciously buttery, plus a bowl of spaghetti marinara as a “side”. If you can convince someone else to share the Friday special – a mountain of capellini with broccoli, garlic, and artichoke hearts sautéed until soft – you can get some vegetables in, too. Just don’t try to clean your plate.
You wake up early at The Old Court Inn and promptly decide to go back to sleep. Why not? After all, the bed is comfortable, the room quiet, and, unlike at other B&Bs, you don’t have to show up at a particular time for breakfast. The incredibly hospitable innkeepers will cook for you within a wide window. The Old Court Inn doesn’t have a living room, but your spacious guest room is perfect for lounging about, playing cards or reading. Once you drag yourself out of bed, descend the richly-wallpapered staircase into a classic New England tea room.
Get your coffee in pink and white patterned china. Nibble on fresh fruit or a cherry chocolate chip scone while the innkeepers make you fluffy banana pancakes, or crisp bacon and poached eggs on toast.
Breakfast has fueled you up enough to venture outside. Wandering around downtown, you’ll pass the State House, actually Rhode Island’s seventh state house, built in 1905. The history buff at your side may deride it in comparison to the public buildings in Boston, but the state house has a few things going for it. Its dome is the fourth largest self-supporting marble dome in the world, and standing top it is the proud Independent Man, who represents RI’s history of freedom and religious tolerance. It’s also one of the first public buildings ever to be lit by electricity. Free tours are available five times a day, year-round.
You probably won’t be ready for a big lunch, so drop by the cute little bakery called Olga’s Cup + Saucer in the afternoon for a pastry, fresh bread, or a chewy sourdough bagel.
Eat it while you walk, and then wash it down with cocoa at Café Choklad, where the drink manages to be deeply chocolatey but not overly sweet or rich.
Finally it’s time for one of Providence’s best-known attractions, the art museum at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). This museum has been around since 1877, hiding thousands of fascinating works behind a modest front.
Given the nature of the school, it makes sense that the collection skews a bit modern and design-oriented, with fascinating modernist installations and an extensive decorative arts/design gallery.
That said, whether you like fifth century ceramics, medieval pietas, prints and paintings, textiles from the 60’s, or contemporary photography and installations, you’ll find a piece to pique your interest. And while the collection is extensive, it’s not overwhelming: perfect for a satisfying half-day tour.
When hunger re-asserts itself, stroll through downtown until you hit Local 121. As the name implies, this chic spot focuses on modern American cuisine made with local ingredients. Décor is chic in black, cream, and gold, with attentive service. Dip your spoon into their incarnation of New England clam chowder, with crispy bacon lardons and a generous sprinkling of fresh dill. Then sink your teeth into house-made pappardelle, balanced with braised rabbit, parmesan, and sweet prunes. Afterward, digest your meal with a walk through the prettily lit downtown before you snuggle up for the night.
Historic Providence looks especially charming during a light, fluffy snowfall. Bundle up and go out to play!
Take a short hike up S. Court Street to discover a few outdoor historical spots. A quaint park holds a monument to Sissieretta Jones, a turn-of-the-century soprano who was the first African-American woman to perform at Carnegie Hall. She studied opera at the New England Conservatory, performed for four consecutive U.S. presidents (Harrison through Roosevelt), and founded an all-black vaudeville troupe when racial segregation kept her out of many classical opera halls. Although her wildly successful troupe made her the highest-paid African-American performer of her era, she died impoverished after spending all of her wealth on medical care for her ailing mother.
A block east brings you to Prospect Terrace Park, the burial site of Providence’s founder Roger Williams. Williams was a visionary progressive who advocated for separation of church and state in the 1600s, advocated fiercely for Native American rights (even surrendering himself as a hostage to ensure fair treatment of Native American chiefs), and has been called the first North American abolitionist for passing the first legal prohibition of American slavery in 1652.
Williams initially settled in Boston along with other early pilgrims, but found Plymouth insufficiently separated from the Church of England. Moreover, he repeatedly issued public challenges to England’s right to colonize land without paying the Native Americans, ultimately leading to his condemnation as a heretic. He was exiled, and established his own colony – which he named Providence – and made it the first place that truly separated church and state and provided religious liberty to “Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, unbeliever and pagan” alike. Today he watches over his city in the form of this 15-foot tall statue. Hats off to you, Roger Williams.
Now that you’re red-cheeked and chilly, it’s time to warm up. You check into Harmony on Hope for a luxurious massage. It’s a small operation, with just a couple of massage tables and a tiny waiting room. But Harmony on Hope works its small size to its advantage, creating an intimate, beautifully decorated haven with personalized attention. The owners are community-minded, running a holiday fundraiser to pay for massages for local foster parents and women’s center participants, and offering a monthly “Community Cares” day of free massages to people in need.
Best of all, the therapists are excellent. You melt into the heated table and drift in and out of a doze as your therapist expertly kneads your muscles. Soon you’ll be traveling back home, undoing her good work with a long drive or a cramped plane flight. But for now, you can bask in what feels like eternally divine Providence.