If you’ve never been to Venice, Italy, but always wanted to go, there is no need to bemoan the cost of a flight across the pond just to experience the charm and gondolier rides of the iconic Italian city. Opt for something just a bit less expensive — yet nearly as memorable — and head to Providence, R.I.
It might be one of the smallest states in the Union (you can drive through it in a mere 30-45 minutes), but this coastal city located at the confluence of Narragansett Bay and the Providence River, has seen a dramatic resurgence in recent years, transforming once paved-over lots into public parks, beautiful canals, and open spaces. Home to seven institutions of higher education, eight hospitals, its own wine and food festival, and a well-run international airport serviced by Southwest and US Air, Providence is a force to be reckoned with. Barely an hour south of Boston, and three from New York City, it’s a city that might be small in size, but has a whole lot to offer — perfect for a long weekend escape this fall.
After a long work week, skip the office early and arrive into Providence just in time for dinner. Located just aside I-195 and the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Al Forno might not look like much as you're driving past the usually packed lot out front, but it’s ivy-clad brick exterior and arched doorway leading into a magical garden doesn’t lie — it’s a dining experience right out of Italy. Cocktails in hand, start with one of the unforgettable thin-crust grilled pizzas owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon are known for. With a menu inspired by the seasons, and the most delicious ingredients from local purveyors, there is no bad choice when it comes to dinner, and many dishes are not to be missed. Share the grass salad and beets with avocado to start. Then eat your way through the menu, selecting a baked pasta for a secondi, or George’s “Cheaters” lasagna, and then finish with the roasted honey-glazed duck leg. Just be sure to leave room for dessert. You’ll order it when you order dinner, as each mouth-watering option is specially made to order — the fruit tarts never disappoint, especially when topped with a scoop of the hand-churned coconut ice cream. (Photos courtesy of Al Forno)
After dinner, head to your home for the night, the Hotel Providence. Located in the heart of the arts and theater district, it’s one of the only luxury boutique hotels in the city, housed in a historic building dated back to 1897, capturing the classic charm of old New England with an updated feeling of timeless elegance. With a big day of sightseeing and walking Providence’s seven hills, you’ll need to rest up.
Skip breakfast at the hotel and instead fuel up with coffee and a baked treat or egg-topped scones from Olga’s Cup and Saucer on Point Street. Head back across the river to explore Benefit Street and College Hill, where Brown and RISD rise up from the heart of the city. Stop in at the RISD Museum to admire the handiwork of the hundreds of talented artists, picking up a souvenir to take back home from the shop.
When walking past the historic brick and clapboard houses lining Waterman and Angell Streets, it’s easy to forget the hunger pains growing in your stomach. But believe me when I say the walk is worth it — just for lunch at Farmstead. Opened in 2002 by husband and wife pair Matt and Kate Jennings, this cheese shop with neighboring restaurant is not to be missed. If you’re still full from lunch, pick up a selection of cheeses, salumi, and accoutrements from Farmstead and head over to the Brown campus for a picnic on the library steps. Or instead, opt to sit down for a proper meal at La Laiterie — Matt’s burger with polenta fries is not to be missed, while any salad served with a side of Kate’s herb-filled biscuits and honey butter is nearly as divine.
With it nearly mid-afternoon, now is not the time to head back for a nap at the hotel before the night’s festivities (and when it’s a WaterFire night, I mean festivities), even if you want. Walk around Wayland Square to shop before hopping in the car. Head over to Federal Hill, a truly unforgettable Italian neighborhood on the western side of I-95. Stop in at Venda Ravioli to pick up an edible souvenir to take home (as long as you can keep it frozen), and shop for quality imports from Italy at Tony’s Colonial Food Store. Craving something sweet? Pop into Pastiche for a cappuccino and a slice of one of their mouthwatering confections.
After an hour nap back at the hotel, head over to New Rivers for dinner. Owner Bruce Tillinghast will likely greet you — be sure to call in advance and request one of the small tables by the window in the older section of the restaurant. Chef Beau Vestal works wonders with a colorful mélange of locally grown ingredients, so it can be hard to decide just what to order. I’d say go with an assortment of starters, and then a main plate to share.
After dinner, head over to Bacaro (by foot — if WaterFire is happening, parking will be a guaranteed nightmare) for after-dinner cocktails and something sweet before heading across the street to see the gondoliers go by. And if not, a gondola ride is a must.
After a full day in Providence, it’s time to escape the urban environment and explore the surrounding coastal area. After checking out, grab the requisite cup of joe carefully brewed at the Coffee Exchange. Forget breakfast in Providence — you’re going to hop in the car for a short 30-minute drive to Newport for an unforgettable jazz brunch at Castle Hill. Located at the top of a sweeping lawn overlooking Narragansett Bay, this former residence-turned-charming inn is a Newport landmark, and just the place to raise a toast to celebrate a weekend away. Seated at a table with an unmatched view of the sea, it will be hard to choose which is better — the "Little Rhody Eggs Benedict," lobster hash, or the view.
Slightly tipsy and perfectly satisfied from brunch, venture off to the Newport Mansions along Ocean Drive to stretch your legs — and earn dinner. Begin the tour at The Breakers, the most grandiose of these seaside “cottages.” The stone, Italian-style palazzo was home to Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, a leader in the industrial revolution and establishment of the New York Central Railroad. After walking the rooms, meander along the Cliff Walk that hugs the rocky coastline down to the Elms, further inland, the former home of Philadelphia coal magnate Julius Berwind. It’s easy to lose track of time, stepping back into a different era inside each home, so don’t be surprised when you look down to see three hours have lapsed. That means two things: it’s time to check in to your hotel for the night, stopping along the way, of course, for an afternoon treat: handcrafted gelato at Cold Fusion Gelato. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/acrade)
Located just down Thames Street from Newport’s main drag, and Cold Fusion, lies your home for the night: 41° North. This luxurious boutique waterfront hotel is quite unlike any other. Sleek, stylish, and LEED-certified, it’s a place that feels like home — familiarly comfortable, yet with an understated decadence. And after two days of walking, your seaside room is just the place to unwind with a bubble bath in the deep soaking tub, an in-room massage. (Photo courtesy of 41° North)
Before heading to dinner at Tallulah on Thames, just down the street from the hotel, saunter down the opposite direction, towards Bowen’s Wharf, to check out the fancy yachts and 12-meter America’s Cup sailboats docked alongside a variety of shops and restaurants. If time allows, and the sun is just setting, stop in at the Clarke Cooke House for a glass of champagne to celebrate the holiday before turning back for dinner.
Tallulah on Thames is one of the best fine-dining establishments in Newport. Chef Jake Rojas, recently named People’s Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, offers a farm-to-table menu that is market-driven, featuring only the freshest ingredients, sourced locally if possible, when preparing innovative dishes like roasted beets, pickled cherries, and pumpernickel “soil,” and native swordfish with arugula pesto couscous, local watermelon, and heirloom tomatoes. The entire meal is an experience to savor, from the bread baked fresh to order to dessert. And lucky for you, that warm, cozy, Frette linen-dressed bed is just a couple blocks away.
After two days of walking and sightseeing, save the last day of your escape to do as you please. With nowhere to rush off to, enjoy a leisurely breakfast in your room — or in bed, if you wish — before packing up to return home. But before hopping back on the road, there is one last stop you need to make — a quintessential seaside town that claims to be the most patriotic in the nation — Bristol, R.I. Park the car and wander along the main street, lanes divided with a red, white, and blue line, popping into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame or shopping in one of the many boutiques in the area. (Photo courtesy of 41° North)
As the time has come to say goodbye to Little Rhody, as it’s affectionately called, you can prolong the fun just a bit longer. Stop for a scoop of The Daily Scoop’s coffee Oreo or coconut almond chip ice cream, and then grab a sandwich on freshly baked bread from Bristol Bakery for the road (and a loaf for home). Then put on Blossom Dearie’s "Rhode Island Is Famous for You", on repeat, to sing all the way home.