I hadn’t ever planned to go there, nor did I know anything about the place that would have piqued my interest in making a visit, but an act of travel providence sent my wife and I from our home on the West Coast to the East Coast and dropped us out of the sky on onto its doorstep.
The doorstep of Providence, Rhode Island, that is.
And here’s how we, and you following in our footsteps, can spend a perfectly providential day in the capital city of the smallest of the original thirteen United States.
A Capitol Idea
If you’ve got a smartphone, use a mapping app to direct you to the Rhode Island State House at the top of the town where you’ll be treated to an American and local history lesson or two during a docent-led tour of the place.
We arrived just before 11:00 a.m. on a mid-June morning along with about eight hundred Rhode Island school kids, but were lucky enough to stumble around them and encounter a tour guide who was just wrapping up a spin around the building with some other tourists.
After Ann finished with that group, she led my wife and I on what ended up being a private tour of the state capitol digs. Along the way we learned some important bits and bobs, as the British say, of information about our country’s past and present.
What ultimately became known as “The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, an Englishman who thought that neighboring Massachusetts where he lived was a wee bit intolerant when it came to freedom of religion. Apparently he found that hanging religious outliers, such as Quakers, to be too extreme a way of forcing the residents of that colony to toe the required religious line.
Williams favored much greater religious and political freedom than was practiced in Massachusetts, and by 1663 he had convinced King Charles II of England to enumerate and guarantee those freedoms to Rhode Islanders in a royal charter which has been preserved intact for over 350 years and is on display in a small museum the Rhode Island State House.
As it turns out, Americans can thank Williams, and the Rhode Island movers and shakers of the late 18th century, for putting down their political feet and refusing to sign off on the federal constitution until and unless the amendments known as “The Bill of Rights” were added to that document.
Of course, none of that would be of any important had not a guy named George Washington headed up an army of rebellion that kicked King George III and his band of Redcoats out of our part of North America.
During the Rhode Island State House tour, you’ll find a larger-than-life, super-sized, portrait of U.S. President Numero Uno by the famous Rhode Island painter, Gilbert Stuart, hanging proudly in the Governor’s reception room instead of in the White House where Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of 1960s U.S. President John F. Kennedy, wanted it to be part of her presidential residence “re-do.”
Since that painting is reportedly worth a cool $20 million, you might be tempted to pry Stuart’s painting of George, stuff it in a briefcase, and head for the nearest pawn shop or art dealer, taking a page out of the playbook of Thomas Crown, the rich dude thief played by Pierce Brosnan in Hollywood’s second rendition “The Thomas Crown Affair” movie who swipes a painting by Monet from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The problem is that you’d need a valise the size of Rhode Island, and a regiment of aiders-and-abettors to cart the Stuart painting out of the building.
If you approach the state capitol building from “downtown,” you’ll traipse up a long cascade of marble steps to reach the back doors only to discover that you’ll have to mosey all the way around to the front in order to enter.
And that moseying will take a while because the building’s size bears no relationship to the diminutive acreage of the state itself. In fact, the dome of the edifice, atop of which you’ll see the gilded statute of “The Independent Man,” is the fourth largest self-supporting marble dome in the world, outranked only by St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal, and Minnesota’s State Capitol.
Along A Lazy River
Head away from the state house through the park-like grounds back toward the city center and you’ll end up on the banks of the Providence River.
A paved riverside path will lead you downstream toward the next three stops on our perfectly providential tour of the town. Don’t be surprised if you see gondolas on this stretch of the river, ala Venice, Italy.
Pub Lunch Refueling Stop
Providence has become a “foodie friendly” burg, thanks in part to being home to Johnson & Wales University which offers programs for those seeking employment in the culinary arts and hospitality industries.
But while there are plenty of high-end eateries where we could have stopped on our walking tour, one right on our path to a religious experience was more down to earth: Fat Belly’s Irish Pub and Grille.
With only a few late lunching customers like ourselves on an early Thursday afternoon, Alex, the pub’s Rhode Island born-and- bred bartender, had ample time to chat with us about how the one-time, long-gone-but-not-forgotten mayor, had been instrumental in turning a down-at-the-heels city center into a magnet for businesses, restaurants, and haven for “locals” and tourists alike.
Nearer Roger Williams’ God to Thee
If I hadn’t swilled down my entire pint of Blue Moon ale during lunch, I could have easily spat a bit of it out of a window at Fat Belly’s and hit the next stop on the day’s perambulation around Providence, the First Baptist Church.
There was a Baptist Church across the street from the apartment where I lived with my parents in Seattle during grade school and junior high. But for the most part, I assumed that Baptists in the U.S. were all of the “Southern” variety.
So I was surprised to learn that Rhode Island founder, Roger Williams, who had come from Puritanical Massachusetts, established the First Baptist Church, not simply the first of that denomination in Providence, but in North America.
All of the 18th and 19th century churches I’ve seen along the East Coast of the U.S., from New England to Georgia, tend to look the same to me: Tall white steeples and façades, and most importantly, “box seats” for the “swells” in the congregation. The hoi polloi sat on benches in the side galleries above the main floor of the church, and the organ was at the far end facing the altar. Our tour of Providence’s First Baptist Church, the third building on the site, showed that it conformed to those architectural norms.
Art for Art’s Sake
The Rhode Island School of Design Museum is just across the street from the church. The ground level entrance to the modern section of RISD features a gift shop and museum entrance.
During our mid-June, 2016 visit, the next floor up featured “All of Everything,” a special exhibit of mannequins garbed in a variety of outlandish outfits create by the famed designer, Todd Oldham.
Normally, works by RISD students would be on display, but they’d apparently fled town a week or so earlier when the school session had drawn to a close.
But permanent exhibits covering a wide range of artistic genres, including textiles and decorative arts, and ancient Greek and Egyptian, Asian, European, modern and contemporary art.
By the time you’ve roamed through all of the galleries, the afternoon will be drawing to a close.
After wandering back to your hotel, take a “power nap” to prepare for a divine dining experience at one of the city’s upscale restaurants, relishing the unexpected act of providence that brought you to this unexpectedly enjoyable travel destination.
If You Go
Arrival By Air:Providence’s T.F. Green Airport is served by several airlines, but as we did, you may have better luck finding non-stop flights from airports near your home to Boston’s Logan International Airport, just about an hour’s drive (without traffic) north of Providence.
Arrival By Train: Amtrak serves Providence, which you can reach in about a little over half an hour from Boston and about three hours from New York City. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) provides service between Providence, the T.F. Green Airport, and Boston’s Bay Back and South Stations.
Where to Stay:We stayed at the Omni Providence Hotel at 1 West Exchange Street, adjacent to the Rhode Island Convention Center and the Providence Place shopping mall, and within easy walking distance to all of the locations mentioned in this story. Several other hotels are in the same area.
Where to Dine: We had dinner at these three downtown restaurants, all of which we can recommend: Centro in the Omni Hotel (good Italian cuisine); The Dorrance (in an elegant setting in the former Union Trust Building serving “hand-crafted cocktails and globally-inspired, New England cuisine that commands respect”); Local 121 (which boasts “locally harvested food and drink”).
Getting Around: Let your feet carry you around the central downtown area. If you need a ride, taxis and the Uber car service can take you anywhere in town.
For More Information: Visit the Website for the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau. We used Fodor’s New England: with the Best Fall Foliage Drives & Scenic Road Trips guidebook (available in paperback and Kindle e-book versions from Amazon.com) to select restaurants and sightseeing activities.
(Purchases made from Amazon.com through links on this page helps Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories.)