Located about three hours from New York City, or about an hour south of Boston, lies Providence, Rhode Island, a city famous for it's food, tolerance, and WaterFire, a spectacle you truly have to see in order to fully understand its brilliance. A 30-minute drive from Providence, you'll find the lovely little seaside town of Bristol, a great getaway spot in its own right thanks to its quirky neighborhood shops, natural surroundings, and historic mansions you can visit. If you're looking for a great weekend getaway or a chance to explore a wonderful combination of foodie paradise, artsy city vibes, and historic seaside towns, Providence and Bristol are the perfect places to start.
Don't miss WaterFire in Providence
WaterFire. A phenomenon that's difficult to describe, but once you see it in person, makes all the sense in the world. It's basically a unique artistic event that has occurred nearly every Saturday evening from May thru November since it began in 1994, and features more than 80 floating bonfires up and down the Providence River from Waterplace Park to Memorial/South Main Street Park. Once the fires are lit, follow the crowds to the riverside, watch the lights come alive, and listen to beautiful music played throughout the city as you watch the river glow. Spot people traveling up and down the river in gondolas while others tend the fires to keep them going from sunset until 12:30 a.m. Don't wait—there are only five WaterFires left in 2015: Aug. 29, Sept. 12, 26, Oct. 3, Nov. 7.
Lend a hand at the Coggeshall Farm Museum
One of the highlights of my Providence and Bristol road trip was visiting the Coggeshall Farm Museum, a great family-friendly 48-acre living history farm located on Poppasquash Road off Route 114 in Bristol, whre you can follow along as interpreters show and tell you about life on the farm in 18th-century America. Kids can get in on the action, too, helping the farmers herd sheep at the end of the day, milk cows, and round up the chickens. For a special treat, sign up for one of their Hearth Cooking Workshops held every Sunday in November and December for a taste of a traditional 1790s Rhode Island dinner. Guests will pick heirloom vegetables from the gardens, use produce and animals raised on the farm, make recipes from the first American cookbook published in 1796, cook using traditional methods, and of course, feast on the results. Hearth Cooking Workshops are intended for ages 16 and up and start at $60 per person. Please make a reservation by the Wednesday before the Sunday workshop by calling 401-253-9062. The Coggeshall Farm Museum is open year-round Tuesday thru Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission on weekdays is $5 for adults and $3 for seniors and children ages 3-12. Admission on weekends is $7 for adults and $5 for seniors and children ages 3-12.
See the Rhode Island Statehouse
Take a free 50-minute guided tour of the Rhode Island Statehouse, available year-round Monday through Friday (except holidays). Tours are offered at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. and include trips to the Bell Room to see a replica of the Liberty Bell, the State Room to see Gilbert Stewart's portrait of George Washington, and the impressive Rotunda to see one of the largest marble domes in the world. Don't forget to bring your camera!
Tour historic mansions
In Bristol, visit the Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, an exquisite 45-room historic English manor (tickets are $12 for adults, $11 for Seniors, $10 for students and members of the military, and $4 for children ages 6-17), and Linden Place, known locally as the "crown jewel" of Bristol's historic waterfront district, and the place that once served as Gatsby's mansion in The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Be sure to visit both mansions around in December when they are all decked out for the holidays. Admission to Linden Place is $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors, and $5 for children ages 6-12. Children under the age of six get in free.
Visit world-class art and history museums—and a zoo—for less!
While you're in Providence, vist the RISD Museum, a terrific art museum featuring works from Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Georgia O'Keeffe among others. The museum is also home to vast collections of contemporary art, costumes and textiles, ancient art, Asian art, prints, drawings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, and other decorative arts. Adult tickets start at $12, seniors over the age of 62 get in for $10, college students with a valid I.D. get in for $5, and children ages 5-18 pay $3. On the third Thursday of the month from March through November, you can enter the RISD Museum for free on Gallery Night, where many of city's best-known art galleries and museums open their doors to the public. Admission to the RISD Museum is also free the last Saturday of the month and offers pay-what-you-wish admission on Sundays between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Providence's Museum of Natural History & Planetarium features ongoing exhibits like Africa: Many Places, Many Faces; Circle of the Sea; Dynamic Galaxies: Our Place in the Universe; and Natural Selections: Museum's Victorian Past to the Present. The Planetarium features shows like Astronaut (narrated by Ewan McGregor), Field Trip to the Moon, and Journey to the Stars among others—check the calendar of events on their website for the show schedule and be sure to go early to buy tickets as space is limited. 35-minute shows at the Planetarium are presented on weekends at 2 p.m. and daily throughout July and August. General admission to the Planetarium is $3 per person (children under the age of 4 are not allowed in). Admission to the Museum of Natural History is $2 per person (free for children under age 4). The first Saturday of the month is always free for residents of Providence with proof of residency.
Providence is also home to one of the oldest zoos in the country, Roger Williams Park Zoo, located within the park's beautiful 40-acre property. Adult tickets are $14.95, seniors ages 62 and up pay $12.95, while children ages 3-12 get in for $9.95.
Get back to nature
Even in the midst of the city, you can find solace at Roger Williams Park, a 435-acre greenspace built in the 1890s that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For great panoramic views of the city below, check out the view from Prospect Terrace Park on Congdon Street in Providence's College Hill neighborhood. In Bristol, spend the day exploring Colt State Park, a 464-acre hidden gem located along Narragansett Bay with four miles of bike trails, ten playfields, more than 400 picnic tables, a historical museum, and an open-air Chapel By The Sea. Don't miss the Park's annual 4th of July celebration, a tradition since 1785 that makes it older than the U.S. Constitution. Nearby, Bristol's East Bay Bike Path is a beautiful way to explore the area's natural surroundings, connecting eight parks on during its 13.8-mile course from India Point Park in Providence to Colt State Park and Independence Park in Bristol.
Explore the local shops
Check out the Arcade Providence, the oldest shopping mall in the country—originally built in 1828 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976—now serving as a center for retail and micro-loft real estate because of its ideal downtown location. You'll find local boutique shops like Flaunt Boutique and Goddess Closet, Alex Anthony Curl & Blowout Bar, Livi's Pockets, and New Harvest Coffee & Spirits. Bargain hunters will also want to check out the shops along Thayer Street and Wickenden Street. In Bristol, stop by Harbor Bath & Body, Sue Casa, and Revival Boutique, for natural bath and body products, home accessories, and antiques.
Unleash your inner foodie
Providence has always been known for its food scene, even more now with more restaurants using locally sourced products and fusing them with international influences. Treat youself to dinner at Loie Fuller's on Westminster Street for delicious entrees like pan seared sea scallops with summer succotash and a tomato vinaigrette and grilled chicken thighs with Israeli cous cous and dill yogurt sauce. Visit Chez Pascal on Hope Street for a great mix of French-inspired European flavors made with locally sourced New England ingredients—don't miss the Wurst Kitchen, open Monday thru Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Bristol has a pretty varied food scene, too, with its star being Redlefsen's Rotisserie & Grill, a local favorite since 1989 that specializes in German food, German and Belgian beer, and incorporates fresh New England fish into its seafood dishes. The inside of the restaurant is brilliantly decorated to resemble a traditional German Biergarten and every year for Oktoberfest (generally the last Wednesday and Thursday in September and every Wednesday and Thursday thru the end of October), the restaurant features performances by Bavarian dancers and beer hall accordion players. Don't miss it. Bristol's Casual Inn on Franklin Street offers a quiet, laid back atmosphere and offers New England classics like lobster rolls, New England clam chowder, clam boils, and baked stuffed shrimp. If you're up for a fun chat with the friendly bartender and owner, do yourself a favor and sit at the bar—I had a wonderful evening here chatting with the locals as we watched TV at the bar until they closed. Don't miss Newport & Bristol's Restaurant Week 2015 from Nov. 6-15 for a chance to sample area restaurants' specialties for less.
Stay in the Providence city center—or a lovely B&B in Bristol
Hampton Inn & Suites Providence Downtown is in the center of all the action in Providence, and within walking distance of WaterFire, Providence Arcade, and shopping along Thayer and Wickenden Streets (everything else mentioned here is just a short drive away). Enjoy complimentary perks like WiFi in every room, access to the fitness center, hot breakfast daily, and a free shuttle service to local transportation hubs. Rooms start at $189 a night in August. If you're looking for accommodations with a romantic touch, stay at the Bristol House Bed & Breakfast on Aaron Avenue. Innkeeper Kathleen Seguin is super-friendly and loves living her lifelong dream of owning and B&B. Spend some time relaxing in this gorgeous Cape Cod style B&B located a half-mile walk from Narragansett Bay and the East Bay Bike Path (mentioned above). You're only a half-mile from all the shops and attractions in Bristol and a 25-minute drive from Newport and Providence, and within an hour's drive of Boston and Cape Cod's beaches. My favorite part was the included gourmet breakfast, which includes local seasonal products and is made daily by Kathleen, who attended the Culinary Institute of America and the Apicius School in Florence, Italy. Rooms start at $169 a night in August. Check the website for seasonal packages and specials that include accommodations and tickets to annual holiday events.