The Best Things to Do in Providence, RI

The 15 Best Things to Do in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence, Rhode Island, is one of the oldest cities in New England, located in one of the oldest states in America. It makes sense, then, that in Providence, you might dine in centuries-old mansions or stroll through bicentennial Ivy League college campuses.

This vibrant city has a population of less than 200,000. Local art and craftsmanship remain at the core of Providence life, but the students and visitors passing through help maintain the city’s cutting-edge attitude.

As one of the country’s first industrial cities, you’ll see plenty of historic textile and steel mills, now home to boutique hotels and trendy restaurants. These days, illustrious schools like Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design keep Providence magnetic, and for good reason, considering their vast collections and the world-class educations they offer!

This core of bright young things fuels the arts and performance culture of the city, enabling tours of amazing Broadway shows, fine dining establishments, and centuries-old libraries and museums. This picturesque collegiate town has a lot to offer visitors of all ages and interests.

With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Providence, Rhode Island, for you. Stick to these fun, historical, and unique Providence bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this gorgeous landmark location!

Don’t forget to check out our web story: The 15 Best Things to Do in Providence, Rhode Island

15 Fun and Unique Things to Do in Providence, RI

1. Witness the annual WaterFire exhibition

Best Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Waterfire Exhibition

WaterFire is an annual celebration of community and art in Providence. It’s a public art installation, an urban festival, and a Providence bucket list item for locals and visitors alike!

Each year, 86 burning braziers are lit on the waterfront. Some float on the surface of Woonasquatucket River and Providence’s other rivers. Others are perched on the city’s piers, and the effect is a glow that transforms downtown Providence.

The famous WaterFire brazier lightings happen every few weeks from April through December. On those days, the Arts Festival Plaza also opens up with a showcase to support local artists and artisans. You’ll be able to find everything from photography and sculptures to textiles and jewelry.

You’ll love the festival’s fun attractions, like the installation of glowing stars hanging from the trees in Memorial Park, the living statues, and the many food stalls that set up shop around the river. You’ll find plenty of things to do in Providence during this magical annual affair!

2. Explore Roger Williams Park

Must do Things in Providence, Rhode Island: Roger Williams Park

The 427-acre Roger Williams Park is an idyllic, relaxing locale perfect for a stroll around the lake. But there are plenty of Providence attractions here, too – like the botanical gardens, the zoo, a museum, a carousel, and even a park train and swan boats.

If you’re traveling with little ones, this is the perfect place to go. They’ll love the carousel rides and the train, and the Roger Williams Park Zoo is a great place to take them. Plan to spend at least two hours here to see everything. You’ll find over 150 species at the zoo, including red pandas, elephants, and camels!

The real highlights at the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center are the greenhouses, which are open year-round and contain all sorts of tropical and desert plants, plus beautiful ponds and fountains. This is a great place to get a respite from the frigid Providence winters, too!

We’d recommend a visit to the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, too. This is the only public planetarium in Rhode Island, and the planetarium shows are always a fun way to start an evening out on the town.

3. Admire unique works at the RISD Museum of Art

What to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Risd Museum of Art

Providence is home to many acclaimed schools, and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is one of them. So it’s not surprising that the RISD Museum of Art houses impeccably curated artwork from across eras and countries.

Standout exhibits include the Asian Art and European galleries, where you’ll find many unique pieces. Although the gallery isn’t massive, you can easily spend over three hours on a single visit and still have more to discover when you return. This is a museum that rewards multiple visits and an eye for detail.

Rhode Island Bucket List: RISD Museum of Art

For art lovers, you’ll find rare pieces like van Gogh, Picasso, and Monet originals alongside artifacts like mummies, furniture, textiles, and a student gallery on the second floor. RISD attracts impressive talent, and the student galleries are proof!

If you want to see everything, budget a fair amount of time earlier in the day. Otherwise, going during the free hours near closing might whet your artistic appetite just enough. If you’re looking for artsy things to do in Providence, this is your best bet.

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4. Wine and dine in historic Federal Hill

Providence, Rhode Island Bucket Things to do: Oyster Bar

To really experience the beating heart of Providence, head to Federal Hill. This historic district is a hotspot for the best shopping and dining in Rhode Island!

As one of the country’s top culinary destinations, Federal Hill is particularly famous for its Little Italy. You’ll have plenty of options, between homestyle classics at Constantino’s Ristorante, riverside wine and cheese boards at Bacaro, or traditional dishes at longtime local favorite Andino’s!

If you’re looking for an extra-special Italian experience, head to Camille’s, which has been around for over 100 years. This upscale dining room is housed in a historic mansion with a gorgeous patio. 

Expect elevated Italian fare and an extensive wine list. On weekends, there’s even a bit of dancing in the lounge, perfect for a date night!

If you’re not in the mood for Italian but want to enjoy East Coast seafood, head to Providence Oyster Bar. This is an unassuming spot with a great vibe and the freshest oysters, sushi, and fish you’ll find in Providence.

Skip the dessert menu and just head straight to Pastiche Fine Desserts after your meal (or before!). This intimate European-style cafe serves cakes and pastries made fresh every day.

5. Stroll through the historic Brown University campus

Cool Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University

Providence is home to several historic institutions, and Brown University is the most famous. It’s the seventh-oldest university in the United States and an Ivy League university to boot. But the real reasons to visit are the beautiful architecture and walking paths.

The old brick buildings, rolling green lawns, and vast libraries make this the perfect place to explore. The collegiate atmosphere at Brown is the beating heart of Providence’s youthful, bookish energy.

We’d recommend starting with a stroll down College Street, a historic and pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. Go through the ornamental Van Wickle Gates, a symbol of the university’s 250-year history.

The beautiful John Hay Library is a must-visit as the exhibitions are open to the public. After that, swing by the Annmary Brown Memorial, which exhibits European and American paintings and artifacts.

Other landmark Providence attractions include the Faunce House, once known as Rockefeller Hall, and University Hall, which is the oldest building on campus. The modest Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church is another notable historic site.

You might never want to leave this gorgeous campus, so take along a few snacks and enjoy a picnic on the lawn after you’re done exploring!

6. Catch a world-class show at the Providence Performing Arts Center

Providence, Rhode Island Bucket List: Performing Arts Center

The Providence Performing Arts Center is one of the best venues for theater productions in the world. As a piece of art in and of itself, that isn’t surprising. Neither is the fact that Broadway shows regularly tour through this 3,100-seat venue.

We’re not kidding – this is one of the largest theaters in New England. Established in 1928, the Jewel of Weybosset Street, as it is called, is an important cultural landmark in Providence’s historic downtown. The dome ceiling, delicate wall molding, marble columns, and opulent chandeliers in this building constitute an exhibition already.

You’ll find a good mix of classic and contemporary productions on the schedule, from Mean Girls to Les Mis. Famous comedians frequently come through, too. Think John Mulaney, Amy Schumer, and Tom Segura, to name a few.

No matter what show you end up catching, you’re sure to have a fabulous night on the town. Afterward, you’ll be spoiled for choice with all the amazing nearby restaurants and lounges like The George and Rooftop at the Providence G.

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7. Paddle the Woonasquatucket River

What to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Woonasquatucket River

Waterways are always an underestimated way to explore a different place, and Providence offers the ideal conditions to hop into a kayak or canoe and paddle through the urban centers and lush forests of Providence.

The Woonasquatucket River has been restored and revitalized by the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council (WRWC). This community organization is dedicated to helping people discover a heritage river through paddling, hiking, and biking trips.

From June to October, you’ll find the WRWC hosting paddle tours, perfect for anyone looking for fun things to do in Providence. Canoes, kayaks, paddles, and life jackets are provided, and everyone is welcome. Check out their upcoming trips for a dose of Providence community and conservation!

If you have or want to rent your own equipment (we’d recommend Providence Kayak), there are plenty of self-guided routes to explore the waterways. We’d recommend Downtown Providence and Stillwater Pond. If the urban hustle and bustle is for you, stick to downtown. Otherwise, Stillwater Pond offers peace in a slow, remote part of town.

8. Peer at rare manuscripts in the Providence Athenæum

Best Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Providence Athenaeum
Images courtesy of Providence Athenæum

The Providence Athenæum has been in operation for nearly 200 years. This was a library before public libraries, and it has welcomed the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Ann Patchett, and Colson Whitehead over the course of its lifetime.

This independent library, one of the few remaining organizations of its kind, was founded in 1836. The stacks speak for themselves: this library has been beautifully preserved and renovated throughout its centuries of life. The mezzanine upstairs offers a bird’s-eye view of the literary tradition this library has kept alive.

The Athenæum operates on small donations and memberships. There are self-guided tours that will take you through Edgar Allen Poe’s reading list, stolen paintings, and the art pieces displayed throughout the library.

If you’re interested in lectures from scholars, authors, and historians, take a look at EX LIBRIS, a series of talks exclusively offered at the Athenæum throughout the academic year.

9. Grab a midnight hot dog at Olneyville New York System

Providence is full of fabulous fine dining, but one of the real institutions in the city is Olneyville New York System – a hot wiener shop that’s been around since the 1930s and stays open from 11 am until the early morning hours.

This family-owned business began in Brooklyn in the 1920s, where the founders had a candy shop. A move to Olneyville Square in Rhode Island in the 1930s kicked off the restaurant, and since a big move to its current location in 1953, it’s been a Providence staple.

Now, there are two locations – one on Plainfield Street in Providence and another in Cranston. A visit to Olneyville New York System is one of the top things to do in Providence. It’s been featured on many lists of US culinary mavens, but the acclaim hasn’t changed the restaurant’s values: this hot wiener place is still a local neighborhood haunt.

Come here for simple food: fresh hot wieners topped with onions, mustard, and beef. The coffee milk is also a favorite: cafe con leche with a bit of malt. The vinegar fries? Plain but perfect.

It’s a great spot to visit if you’re in the mood for a midday meal or a midnight snack. There’s a reason it’s been around nearly a century!

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10. Find unique wares at The Providence Flea

Cool Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Providence Children's Museum
Images courtesy of Providence Flea

The Providence Flea is not your typical no-holds-barred flea market. This is a juried vintage and artisan market dedicated to selecting small and micro-businesses from in and around Rhode Island.

Vendors at The Providence Flea are usually small-batch, handcrafted, and carefully selected. Not just for shopping, you can also expect live music up and down the boardwalk and food trucks and carts in the area.

Best Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: The Providence Flea

Local markets are essential for supporting new and small businesses, and the Providence Flea knows that. Take a look at Friday Night Fleas throughout fall, holiday markets and events, and openings throughout the summer.

Keep an eye out for local vintage and antique purveyors, produce fresh from nearby farms, and one-of-a-kind jewelry and apparel. And before you ask, parking and admission are totally free of charge, so that you can peruse to your heart’s desire.

Standout experiences at The Providence Flea – outside of its many vendors – include the craft beer garden, tarot card readers, and craft cocktail pop-ups.

11. Bring the kids to the Providence Children’s Museum

Best Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Providence Children's Museum
Images courtesy of Providence Children’s Museum

The Providence Children’s Museum is an ideal place to go if you’re traveling with little ones. Creativity, play, and exploration are the name of the game here.

The Water Ways exhibition is one of the coolest things to do in Providence with kids. It’s the perfect place to splash around and explore the nature of water in all its forms: liquid, gas, and solid. You can send boats through vortexes, design fountains with pipe pieces, or create watery paintings on the slate wall!

Cool Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Providence Children's Museum

Water is one thing, and the earth is another. In the Children’s Garden, kids will find root systems, worm tunnels, and burrows. They can dig for fossils, climb the sculptures, or make a song. This whole place offers a hands-on connection to the world around us.

If the earth and the sea aren’t enough, the Innovation Lab will give you a chance to create the future. You’ll be able to tinker with 3D printers, laser guides, sewing machines, and other tools that reveal the hidden potential hidden in everyday objects.

12. Visit Swan Point Cemetery

Providence, Rhode Island Things to do: Swan Point Cemetery

Swan Point Cemetery is a 200-acre garden and reflection point for all visitors. The grounds offer a peaceful place to seek inspiration, quietly reflect, or commune with the abundant nature of Providence.

The Swan Point Cemetery Company was incorporated in 1847, but the site has been a burial ground since 1722. As a result, you’ll find opulent 19th-century obelisks, crypts, and monuments throughout this beautiful Providence sightseeing spot. The Lockwood Sarcophagi are elaborate centerpieces set among many other historic plots.

The grounds also house an Italian marble fountain, which is a great place to rest and reflect. The fountain was moved to Swan Point in 1961, but it was initially imported to the John Brown House in 1941.

This cemetery is also home to several beautiful sculptures, like the Lownes Monument, which depicts an angel in bronze, and the Boy and Girl Fountain, which stands in the Historic Chapel courtyard alongside the marble Little Sarah statue.

Even the chapel is a historic Gothic Revival structure. Granite and limestone form the edifice, making this a must-see spiritual artifact. The Redwood Mausoleum complex provides a similar atmosphere of calm and quiet.

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13. Drink local at The Industrious Spirit Company

Cool Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Industrious Spirit Company

Located a mile from downtown Providence, the Industrious Spirit Company is Providence’s first distillery since Prohibition. Living up to that local calling, the vodkas, gins, and bourbons the company produces are sustainably sourced and made on-site in small batches.

Taking a distillery tour is easily one of the most fun things to do in Providence. After that, pay a visit to the tasting room’s patio. This former steel mill complex sits along the river, and the entire area is alive with artsy and independent businesses.

The Blue Velvet Bourbon is a unique spirit – blue corn from Kentucky and Mexico is carefully cooked and fermented, then distilled and aged in oak barrels. With a flavor profile like caramel, chocolate, vanilla, and blue corn tortillas, this local creation is not to be missed – in fact, it’s often sold out!

New England is known for its oysters and shellfish. Naturally, that led to an oyster-distilled vodka. What’s special about that? The salt of the sea and the distillation of sea-fresh oysters creates briny goodness in a small-batch bottle.

14. Check out local art at AS220

AS220 is the home of Providence’s local art scene. This forum, studio, gallery, and performance space is always open to the public. Creativity, community, freedom of expression, and racial justice are the main causes this space champions.

AS220 has been around for over three decades. Throughout its history, it has evolved and become what it is today – a local institution for Providence’s artists and a unique Providence attraction that happens to serve amazing food and drinks!

The main spaces are the AS220 Project Space and Reading Room, which rotate exhibitions from local artists and writers, respectively. Meanwhile, the AS220 Main Gallery brings in outside avant-garde artists, while the Aborn Gallery carries out the community and racial justice aspects of the organization.

AS220 also hosts exclusive workshops for mediums like cyanotype printing, silk-screening, and etching pressing. These are bucket list items for artistic folks, and you won’t regret learning from some of the best artists in the medium.

15. Relax at Waterplace Park

Fun Things to do in Providence, Rhode Island: Waterplace Park

This lovely park happens to be the site of WaterFire, but on its own, it offers a relaxing stroll through Providence’s most picturesque districts. It’s a great way to spend an evening after an amazing dinner topped off with lovely desserts in Little Italy.

This urban park is situated on the Woonasquatucket River and was established in 1994 in a Venetian-style, complete with pedestrian bridges and cobblestone paths. Take a seat on one of the park’s many benches and just let time pass by. Across the river, you’ll see the downtown Providence skyline – historic, small, but still full of personality.

If you’re looking for unique things to do in Providence, gondolas run along the river from sunrise to sunset. We’d recommend going on a sunset tour to really soak in the romance of the area.

We’d recommend bringing a blanket to stay warm in Providence’s spring and fall seasons. Dogs are very welcome, so you can bring your entire human and fluffy family to spend a day at the park!

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There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Providence, RI. What’s your favorite thing to do in Providence?

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About the Author:

  • Valerie Wheatley

    Val grew up in Portland, Oregon but moved to Oahu on a whim back in 2013. She sold her house and all of her belongings and bought a one-way ticket. Since then she’s taken two around-the-world trips and has visited 60-ish countries while living out of a duffel bag.

    Val started documenting the Wandering Wheatleys travels back in 2013 as a way to update friends and family about her whereabouts and to relay humorous daily interactions. The only readers were her mom and her mother-in-law but that didn’t stop her!

    These days you’ll find Val dreaming up future trips, creating new travel content, managing a team of amazing travel enthusiasts, and chasing around her two adorable but naughty kids.

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