A Day of Food and Art in Providence

"Painting Air" at the RISD Art Museum.

“Painting Air” at the RISD Art Museum.

Providence is overlooked by most day-trippers I know, which is a shame, since it offers a host of fantastic restaurants and fun things to do — and is surprisingly affordable. Spring is the city’s best season.

For Providence’s best shopping, think beyond the mega-mall.

Just an hour south of Boston (or 35 minutes on the Acela!), Providence is New England’s second-largest city. On the historic East Side, home to Brown and RISD, attractive buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries line sidewalks dotted with gas lamps on Benefit Street, while colorful Victorians populate College Hill. On the Brown campus, April and May see a rash of flowering trees exploding with pink and white blossoms. Take a stroll through Brown’s interconnected quads and enjoy watching the students pretending to study beneath them. Ramble through the streets of College Hill, settled by Baptists expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and remark upon the ceaseless optimism of the street names: Hope; Power; Friendship; Benevolent; Benefit. (Yes, Hope and Power do intersect. Yes, Friendship really is a one-way street.) Wickenden Street, just south of campus, offers a strip of antique shops and cafes. I particularly recommend The Coffee Exchange, a funky little spot where I wrote almost my entire senior thesis.

On Benefit Street, it’s worth stopping in to Providence’s charming old Athenaeum, a lovely independent library. The rare book room usually has something worth looking at (and admission, of course, is free). On a recent trip, they were featuring an exhibit about Oscar Wilde’s US speaking tour.

Just across from the Athenaeum is the RISD art museum, where admission is free the last Saturday of the month. Not surprisingly for the region’s premiere art school, the museum includes a little something for everyone, with a wide range of examples from most of America’s important artists. A diverse array of special exhibitions mean there’s always something different coming through. A recent trip featured both a Spencer Finch installation called “Painting Air,” for instance, and “Pilgrims of Beauty,” a more traditional exhibit of British and American artists painting on location in Italy.

If you’re sticking around into the evening, Providence also has several fun performing arts venues, from the famous music club Lupo’s to Trinity Repertory Theater to my sentimental favorite, the Cable Car cinema, which serves beer and offers sofa seating.

Warm pear-pecan scones at Cook & Brown Public House.

But enough about art and literature and such. Let’s talk about food. From Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy, to the Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum, this is a little city with a big appetite. Brunch is my favorite meal, and PVD offers several fantastic options. My current favorite is Cook & Brown Public House, just outside the College Hill bubble. But I’ve also been a frequent eater at Rue de L’Espoir (on Hope Street, of course), Julian’s, and, in my college days, Brickway on Wickenden. For lunch, some favorite spots include Olga’s Cup and Saucer, Meeting Street Cafe (with their notorious, dinner-plate-sized cookies), and CAV, down in the jewelry district. But save room for dinner, because Providence’s downtown offers some really tasty options. Serious foodies should try New Rivers, but go for a drink first at The Dorrance, where they mix classic cocktails in the impossibly ornate lobby of an old bank.

Of course, serious Providence aficionados will point out that this little tour has barely scratched the surface of what New England’s second-biggest city has to offer. And that’s true. So leave your own recommendations in the comments!

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