The Perfect Long Weekend in Providence
It's easy to fill a few days with vintage shopping, approachable art galleries and innovative food—that's affordable, too
RHODE ISLAND'S top town is proof that bigger doesn't always mean better—or more interesting. Providence may have fewer than 200,000 residents, but its talent pool runs deep, in part because it's home to a pre-eminent art and design school, an Ivy League university and a top culinary program. The city's robust Italian- and Portuguese-American communities give the New England city a charisma that its more Puritanical neighbors can't claim. The colorful political scene—ex-mayor and felon Buddy Cianci is currently running for another (civic) term—means there's always something to talk about. And Providence's relative affordability gives creative types opportunity to experiment. The East Side is where the establishment resides, but the West Side is showing new signs of life—young cooks, urban gardeners, artists and designers are setting up shop there. Providence's eclectic live-music scene continues to thrive at an abundance of venues. And the town remains one of the nation's top destinations for thrift-store junkies. Grab a copy of Mike Stanton's "The Prince of Providence" to get up to speed on local politics and use our jam-packed itinerary to plot your travel strategy.
DAY ONE // FRIDAY
7:30 p.m. Check into the Dean, a new 52-room hotel in DownCity, Providence's central downtown district (from $99 a night, 122 Fountain St., thedeanhotel.com).White walls and chocolate-brown plank floors give the place an airy, laid-back feel, while neon signs and—for youngsters—metal bunk beds are quirky touches. For more traditional lodgings, head to Old Court, a B&B in a 19th-century rectory in upscale College Hill (from $115 a night, 144 Benefit St., oldcourt.com).
8:30 p.m. Walk two minutes to Benjamin Sukle's much-praised boîte, Birch (200 Washington St., birchrestaurant.com). Mr. Sukle, an alum of local Johnson & Wales University, serves combinations—like raw beef wrapped in kohlrabi, or slow-roasted carrot and grilled quahog clam with almond milk—that are surprising without being too challenging.
10:30 p.m. Stroll to the Dorrance, a dining room/bar in a former bank, for cocktails like the banana liqueur-laced A Monkey Walks Into a Bar. There's live jazz on Friday nights. To nab a little privacy, get cozy on the fainting couch in the old vault (60 Dorrance St., thedorrance.com).
Kitchen, a small eatery that serves hearty breakfasts. MELANIE DUNEA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
DAY TWO // SATURDAY
8:30 a.m. Grab a coffee and drive 10 minutes to the Hope Street Farmers Market, in Lippitt Memorial Park from May through October. Come winter, it takes cover just outside city limits, in Pawtucket's Hope Artiste Village, a restored mill that's home to retail shops and studios (999-1005 Main St., hopeartistevillage.com).Dozens of artisans keep their spaces open for Saturday walk-throughs. Candita Clayton Gallery spotlights local art—including Max Van Pelt's colorful mixed-media works on paper and Allison Paschke's reflective "mirror paintings" (999 Main St., #105, canditaclaytonstudio.com).
10 a.m. A cotton-yarn plant built in 1793, Slater Mill is considered the country's first commercially successful factory; now it's a museum (67 Roosevelt Ave, slatermill.org). A 90-minute tour takes you through the manufacturing process—and U.S. history, covering topics like immigration, slavery and industrialization.
11:30 a.m. Drive about a half-mile to dealer Adam Edelsberg'sshowroom, filled with a mix of furniture and art by 20th-century stars such as George Nakashima, Hans Wegner, Josef Albers and Isamu Noguchi. Call in advance; it's a by-appointment operation (49 Montgomery St., adamedelsberg.com).
12 p.m. Take a quick drive to Modern Diner, a 1940s Sterling Streamliner dining car parked on Pawtucket's East Avenue (364 East Ave., 401-726-8390). They stuff omelets with jalapeño, bacon and cheese, pancakes with mini M&Ms. Or walk a few blocks to the Tacos Don Nacho truck. Don't be alarmed by the fake horse-drawn wagon theme; the Mexican-born owners make excellent (and cheap) al pastor and chicken tacos (234 Barton St., 401-688-2932).
1:15 p.m. Motor about 10 minutes back to the East Side of Providence. Park on Hope Street and walk the stretch of charming boutiques and cafes. Standouts include Olive del Mondo, an olive-oil and vinegar store (815 Hope St., olivedelmondo.com) and Stock Culinary Goods, which sells cookware, cookbooks and specialty food publications (756 Hope St., stockpvd.com). Three Sisters makes ice cream in unexpected flavors like dirty garden mint (infused with perfectly clean herbs) and kulfi (1074 Hope St., threesistersri.com).
2:30 p.m. The scrappy West Side has attracted intrepid, creative types in recent years. Start at Rocket to Mars (144 Broadway, 401-274-0905). One of the city's best secondhand stores, it carries clothing, housewares and furniture, some of it dating back to the 1920s. Retro-kitsch togs and accessories are the specialty at year-old Bananas (381 Broadway, shop-bananas.com). Cluck! offers urban farmers everything from seeds to chicken-rearing classes (399 Broadway; cluckri.com). Jephry Floral Studio sells more than bouquets—vases, hanging terrariums and paper lanterns, among other gifts (432 Broadway, jephry.com). Armageddon stocks hard-to-find punk, rock and metal LPs (436 Broadway, armageddonshop.com).
4 p.m. Return to the hotel for a break.
6 p.m. Every other Saturday evening from May through November, the WaterFire event lights up Providence ( waterfire.org). Bonfires glow on the city's three rivers; on land, there are fire spinners, living statues, an art show and a light installation in Memorial Park. It starts at sundown and goes until midnight. Park as close to the waterfront as you can, then continue on foot.
If it's an off weekend for WaterFire, have a poutine and a "fancy drink"—like the Gingered Gentleman or Fez Fizz—at low-lit bar Thee Red Fez (49 Peck St., 401-861-3825).
8 p.m. Providence has a vibrant music scene and tons of venues. Notable ones include the recently revitalized Columbus Theater, which features folk and indie acts as well as stand-up comedians (270 Broadway, columbustheatre.com), and the alternative-focused AS220 (115 Empire St., as220.org).
Not into music? Head to the old riverfront stable that's now Al Forno(577 South Main St., alforno.com). Owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon have been serving grilled pizzas and oven-baked dishes for almost 35 years. If the sweet-sour-spicy Dirty Steak isn't on the menu, ask for it anyway.
11 p.m. For a post-concert bite, hit Providence's robust food-truck scene. Check roaminghunger.com to see which vendors are out late.
DAY THREE // SUNDAY
8 a.m. For the best big breakfast in town, drive a few minutes to quaint, minuscule Kitchen. Even at this hour, there may be a wait, but the extra-crispy bacon and better-than-home pancakes are worth it (94 Carpenter St., 401-270-4454). If you'd rather sleep in, fuel up at Nicks on Broadway, known for its all-day brunch (500 Broadway, nicksonbroadway.com).Chef-owner Derek Wagner'shouse-baked granola is hard to resist, and he makes a mean Bloody Mary.
10 a.m. Zip about 10 minutes northeast to the Rhode Island School of Design in College Hill. At the RISD Museum, get a crash course in art history, from antiquity to the present day (20 North Main St., risdmuseum.org). Highlights include the Louvre-inspired display of 17th- and 18th-century canvases, and the modern and contemporary galleries where paintings, photography, fashion and furniture are wonderfully juxtaposed. The merch at the gift shop, RISD WORKS, is designed by faculty and alumni.
12 p.m. Request permission in advance to visit the Nature Lab, created in 1937 to allow RISD students to explore organic forms (13 Waterman St., naturelab.risd.edu). Sketch pads are welcome (in fact, encouraged) in its two rooms of skeletons, taxidermy, plant samples and aquatic artifacts.
1 p.m. One of the oldest and most beautiful libraries in the country is around the corner—the Providence Athenaeum, designed by William Strickland in 1836. Say hello to the bust of H.P. Lovecraft, master of American horror fiction—and the card catalog, still in use (251 Benefit St., providenceathenaeum.org).
1:30 p.m. Drop the car at the hotel and walk 10 minutes toward Federal Hill, the original hub for the city's Italian immigrants. Have lunch at Joe Marzilli's Old Canteen (120 Atwells Ave., theoldcanteen.com). Its cheerful pink walls, white tablecloths and heaping portions will take you back to an earlier era.
3 p.m. Stroll Atwells Avenue, stopping in Tony's Colonial market to admire the Italian condiments, salumi and biscotti (311 Atwells Ave., tonyscolonial.com). If the weather's nice, have an espresso at Costantino's Venda Ravioli in DePasquale Plaza (265 Atwells Ave., vendaravioli.com).
3:30 p.m. At Pastiche one block over, pick up something sweet—like butterscotch crumb cake or almond biscotti—to enjoy as you wander back to the hotel (92 Spruce St., pastichefinedesserts.com).
5:30 p.m. Check the movie schedule, then take a 15-minute stroll over the Providence River to see an art-house flick at Cable Car Cinema & Café (204 South Main St., cablecarcinema.com). The theater used to be a truck garage.
8 p.m. Hop a cab over to North, a West Side faux-dive that serves a playful mashup of world cuisines—including South Asian, Chinese and Guatemalan (3 Luongo Memorial Square, foodbynorth.com). The tiny ham biscuits and the sesame noodles are mandatory.
10 p.m. Drop by nearby speakeasy-esque Avery for a look-see and, perhaps, a cocktail (18 Luongo Memorial Square, averyprovidence.com).
DAY FOUR // MONDAY
9 a.m. Check out of the hotel and drive to North Bakery, a spinoff from the North team (70 Battey St., northbakery.com). Instead of trying to choose between a crumb-topped muffin and savory scone, eat one now and save the other for the trip home.
10 a.m. Drive back up to College Hill to Brown University, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. The John Hay Libraryjust reopened after a year-long renovation; architect Annabelle Selldorf restored the reading room to its 1910 splendor, knocking down dividers and uncovering stately windows to let light pour in (20 Prospect St., library.brown.edu).
10:15 a.m. Walk south through campus to Brown's David Winton Bell Gallery, where there's always compelling contemporary art on display (64 College St., brown.edu). Continue to the university's Sarah Doyle Gallery, which features work that addresses gender and identity issues; right now, you can see Clara Lieu's portraits (26 Benevolent St.). Get back in the car for the final art-tour stop, the Cohen Gallery, where students and visiting artists show work (154 Angell St.).
11:45 a.m. Drive two minutes up to Prospect Terrace Park for a sweeping view of the city (184 Pratt St.).
12 p.m. It's a five-minute drive to Peàn Doubulyu studio in Smith Hill. Elizabeth Pannell and James Watkins, a wife and husband who attended RISD and trained with Dale Chihuly, produce brightly colored, multi-textured vases, bowls and drinking vessels. You're likely to see glass being hand-blown, and can pick a piece or two for yourself (22 Oregon St., pandwglass.com).
12:45 p.m. Drive to the Olneyville neighborhood for a local tradition—"hot wieners" smothered in meat sauce, yellow mustard, onions and celery salt, washed down with "coffee milk" at the 68-year-old Olneyville New York System (18 Plainfield St., olneyvillenewyorksystem.com). When your glass is empty, it's time for the airport.