Providence, about an hour by car or train from New London, is an ideal city for walking. Situated at the confluence of three rivers, its major streets slope and curve to accommodate the water and the hilly terrain while branching off into a maze of truncated side streets. With many distinct neighborhoods in a relatively compact area, each one dotted with parks and gardens, PVD blends the energy of a densely populated urban center with the charm of a New England town that has retained much of its historic look and feel. It’s almost as if the whole place was designed to tempt wanderers into wandering just a bit further.
This route, one I walked on a recent visit to Providence, can be done as a leisurely stroll over half a day. But it also gives you numerous opportunities for detours to other areas and attractions, packing in more of what Providence has to offer and extending your day trip into the night.
Getting there: If you take Amtrak from New London or elsewhere in Connecticut, you’ll end up at Providence Station on Gaspee Street, the perfect place to start walking. If you drive, I recommend parking your vehicle in one of the many garages between the station and the nearby Providence Place Mall.
First, stop for coffee and/or breakfast at Sydney Providence (400 Exchange Street), a light, bright, Australia-inspired coffee shop.
Next, walk to Waterplace Park (Memorial Boulevard.) This open plaza, where the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers meet to form the Providence River, is often bustling with activity. But in quieter moments, it provides a calm place to sit or a jumping off point if you want to glide along the water in a gondola, cross the pretty bridges, or navigate the canal walk to get a perspective of how the rivers fit into the city.
Head towards the College Hill neighborhood and the RISD Museum (20 North Main Street) for a sense of this city’s commitment to creativity. As you’d expect, you can find works by Rhode Island School of Design students here, and exhibits dealing with contemporary issues. But my favorite finds in this museum are the Ancient Greek and Roman Galleries on the 5th floor, and the peaceful Radeke Garden, easily missed amid all the artistic distractions. Exit the RISD Museum on the opposite side from where you entered, and you’ll find yourself on Benefit Street.
Turn right and walk down Benefit, as good a street as any in New England to admire beautifully restored historic homes in a living neighborhood setting. (The sidewalks are classic New England too, with venerable trees wreaking havoc on the bricks.) Keep an eye out for attractive side streets you might want to explore, especially in the area of Williams, John, and Arnold Streets. (Turn right on Transit Street to see a delightfully pointy “lightning splitter” style home, the Daniel Pearce House.)
Continue on Benefit until you reach Wickenden Street. Here, you have several options. One is to turn left on Wickenden Street, the main artery through Fox Point. This area is also full of history, but everything is on a smaller scale, with a funkier style, and independent shops and restaurants abound. From East Street, a pedestrian bridge connects the neighborhood to India Point Park, a large green space along the waterfront.
Another option, if it’s a Sunday between June and October, is to check out the Providence Flea (345 South Water Street), where vendors gather to sell new and vintage goods.
If it’s not a Sunday or you’re not in the flea market mood, walk back to the Downtown area along the water, on South Main or South Water Street. Or, walk back through College Hill along Thayer Street, with its small college town vibe, and through the Brown University campus.
Whichever route you choose, wend your way to the river and cross it via the South Water Street bridge across from the historic Custom House. Go to Knead Donuts (32 Custom House Street) to experience Providence’s love affair with donuts. (I can’t explain it, but it’s real – and if you’re not a donut fan, I can vouch for the cinnamon roll.)
Now you’re ready to do some shopping in the neighborhood known as Downcity. If you’re not into shopping, that’s fine too – this area just happens to be a lovely place to explore simply for its narrow streets, eye-catching architecture, and old-fashioned big-city feel. The Arcade Providence (65 Weybosset Street), sometimes called the Providence Arcade or Westminster Arcade, was America’s first indoor shopping mall. It’s worth ducking into even if you’re not interested in the little shops and eateries that line its lofty atrium. Back outside, on Weybosset and Westminster Streets and the surrounding area, are more unique stores. Craftland (212 Westminster Street) sells creative gifts made by local artists. Symposium Books (240 Westminster Street) sells new and used books and records. Cellar Stories (111 Mathewson Street) is a more adventurous used bookstore, ironically hidden up a flight of narrow stairs.
From here, you can head back to the train station or your car, or take another quick detour on the way there to see the impressive neoclassical Rhode Island State House (82 Smith Street.)
Finally, if you have the energy (or are craving Italian food), it’s about a ten-minute walk from here to Federal Hill, the Italian section of Providence. Make your way to Garibaldi Square and look for the large arch, accented with a giant pine cone (called La Pigna) that spans Atwells Avenue. Follow this street, its double yellow line replaced by a red, white, and green stripe, and you’ll feel like you’re in a whole new city. This is especially and most charmingly true when you reach DePasquale Plaza, an open area around a fountain where colorful facades, music, and outdoor dining evoke a European atmosphere.
If you want to stick around, and it’s a weekend between May and November, you’re in luck – you can walk back to Waterplace Park to experience WaterFire, a communal event that lights up the river with flames in a celebration of the city that’s part art, part theatre, and part ceremony.
Otherwise, head back to your car or train. You’ll probably be planning what to do on your next trip to Providence.
Though I do mention specific streets for much of the route, I have also left some areas open because there are so many attractive and easy options. This suggested walking route will be much easier to follow if you have a street map, whether it’s on your phone or on paper.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Providence is not a city for uncomfortable shoes.