One of the joys of visiting Rhode Island is that all of the state’s attractions are a mere afternoon journey away. Detailed below are three Rhode Island day trips originating from Providence: A scenic drive across Narragansett Bay to the famed Newport Cliff Walk, A boat ride to Block Island, and an itinerary for an historical and cultural tour of Providence.
Newport Cliff Walk
The drive to Newport from the Providence area takes about 40 minutes. There is no shortage of sights to see along the way, particularly once you approach Narragansett Bay. The Verrazano Bridge will take you across the bay’s east passage to quaint, historic Jamestown (worthy of its own day trip) on Conanicut Island. You’ll then travel east over the striking Newport-Pell Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in New England. After driving down Thames Street in Newport, past Bowen’s Wharf with its many shops and restaurants and past the Tennis Hall of Fame, you’ll arrive at one of the many access points to the famed Cliff Walk.
Over 3 miles long, this (mostly) paved walkway weaves between the bay and the elegant mansions of Newport’s gilded age. Built in the late 19th century, these massive, ornate mansions were the summer homes of the ultra-rich. You’ will walk past mansions with names like The Breakers (with over 70 rooms; once owned by the Vanderbilts), RoseCliff, Belcourt Castle and more, all with their green, manicured lawns leading down to the sea. Tickets can also be purchased to tour the interiors of the mansions. But the main attraction here is the ocean itself. Yachts and sailboats dot the waters, while beach-goers play in the waves at First Beach. As you walk on, all that separates you from the waves crashing on the cliffs are the occasional rows of beach roses. It is easy to see why America’s first aristocracy chose this spot to spend their summers.
Block Island lies 13 miles off the coast, roughly between the eastern tip of Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Though the island (the Town of New Shoreham, Rhode Island) is just 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, it has one New England’s most spectacular coastlines. There are a number of ways to get there, including seasonal high speed ferries and commercial flights. But the most popular mode of crossing over is the Block Island Ferry, running daily from the village of Galilee on the mainland (about 35 miles south of Providence.) The ferry crossing takes approximately 55 minutes and docks in Block Island’s Old Harbor, within easy walking distance of the vibrant seaside downtown area, with many shops and restaurants.
Because most visitors do not bring cars, island merchants offer several different ways to get around. Bikes and mopeds can be rented and many taxis offer tours, stopping at points of interest along the way. So, what are the best spots to hit if you are only on the island for the day?
Block Island’s best known vista is the nearly 200 foot high cliff known as Mohegan Bluffs. The bluffs provide stunning views of the Atlantic; On a clear day, Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island, can be glimpsed on the horizon. From the top of the bluffs, wooden stairs descend down to the beach. Be prepared: It is a long climb down and a longer climb back up. But most visitors put in the effort, so they can sit on the beach at the foot of the cliffs in a landscape that may look more like the coast of California than a typical eastern seashore.
The shoals and ledges off the coast of Block Island and the frequent fog combined to make the area a magnet for shipwrecks. Two lighthouses were built on the island in the 19th century, to help mariners avoid disaster. Located just east of Mohegan Bluffs, the Southeast Lighthouse offers a spectacular view of the Atlantic and the Block Island Wind Farm. The red-brick keeper’s residence is often likened to a gingerbread house. The entire structure is renowned for its unique architectural features: It is the only remaining Victorian Gothic-style lighthouse in America. Tower tours are offered periodically and a gift shop within the lighthouse is open in the summer.
The North Lighthouse is perhaps Block Island’s most iconic landmark. its image frequently graces lighthouse calendars, postcards and paintings. The lighthouse tower is a 55 foot-tall white structure, with black railings. The attached 2-story building and keeper’s residence is stark, gray granite. North Lighthouse sits atop Sandy Point, a picturesque narrow stretch of seagrass and beach extending out into the Atlantic. A small gift shop within the lighthouse is open seasonally.
After a few hours of sightseeing, day-trippers can return to the downtown area for food and souvenirs. If you find yourself looking for a place to wait for the next ferry, one popular spot within a short walk from the dock is Ballard’s. With its own beach, tiki bar, live music and seafood restaurant, Ballard’s has become a Block Island legend.
If a boat ride to Block Island or a drive to Newport isn’t in the cards, Rhode Island’s capital and largest city has plenty to do to fill the day. The historic Eastside is a good place to start. This was the first area of Providence to be settled in 1636 by the state’s founder, Roger Williams, after he left Massachusetts seeking greater religious freedom.
The Eastside’s College Hill neighborhood, just across the canal from downtown, is home to prestigious Brown University. The popular University Bookstore is located on Thayer Street, on the far side of College Hill. Thayer Street is lined with eclectic eateries and shops, as is nearby Wickenden Street (Wickenden Street is also home to several art galleries).
On the other side of College Hill, just blocks from Brown, is the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design (“RISD”), frequently recognized as one of the nation’s top art schools. RISD also has a first-class art museum that is open to the public. The RISD Art Museum features works by Picasso, Monet, Warhol and many others. Other points of interest on the Eastside include the oldest baptist church in American (1636), the John Brown House (namesake of the University, revolutionary war patriot and slave trader) and the Roger Williams National Monument.
After exploring the Eastside, visitors can walk along the canal separating College Hill from downtown. In a nod to the city’s Italian heritage, reservations can be made to take a gondola ride along the canal. At the end of the canal (walking northwest) is Waterplace Park: a large outdoor amphitheater surrounding a man-made bend in the Woonasquatucket River. On certain evenings in the summer months, the park is home to Waterfire: a festival of live music, food, artists and entertainers, all centered around floating torches in the canal.
From the top of Waterplace Park the iconic Rhode Island State House is visible, just a block away. The statehouse’s dome is one of the largest marble domes in the world. Because the dome so closely resembles the US Capital, the statehouse has doubled for the Capital in films. Across the street from WaterPlace Park is the 3-story Providence Place Mall, with 140 stores and restaurants.
A mile or so from Providence Place Mall is Federal Hill, the center of the city’s prominent Italian heritage. Walking up Atwells Avenue onto Federal Hill, visitors will pass under the famous, sculpted La Pigna Arch, beneath which lies a street lined with Italian restaurants, bakeries, gelato and coffee shops. At the center of Federal Hill is DePasquale Square, a piazza in the Italian style with a large, tiered fountain at its center. The square hosts summer concerts and other cultural events.
All of the above trips involve less than an hour of driving each way (summer traffic not included) from Providence. Block Island also entails an hour-long boat ride, while Providence can be toured on foot (or with a quick ride share). So, whether it’s the bridges of Narragansett Bay and Newport, the dramatic cliffs and lighthouses of Block Island, or historic Providence, you can do it in a day here in the state residents call “Little Rhodie.”