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Give Providence, Rhode Island, a college try

Circa 2007 -- Providence, RI -- Scene in

Circa 2007 -- Providence, RI -- Scene in Providence, Rhode Island, here a trolley in downtown Providence Photo Credit: PROVIDENCE WARWICK CVB/

If you haven't been to Providence, R.I., in years - you just haven't been to Providence.

Infamously dismissed as "a smudge" on the road from New York to Cape Cod in the early '80s, Rhode Island has evolved immeasurably over the past two decades. Its capital, Providence, now proudly - and justifiably - refers to itself as "the Renaissance City," the attractive result of 25 years of forward thinking and $500 million in revitalization projects.

 WHAT'S CHANGED

There are parts of Providence that are still decidedly unappealing. Fortunately for visitors, most revitalization projects have taken place where they were needed most: in the old downtown, rechristened "Downcity." Waterplace Park is the terraced and landscaped rejuvenation of the Woonasquatucket River.

Towering behind Waterplace Park is Providence Place Mall, a 1.4 million-square-foot retail behemoth. The recently derelict 1898 Union Station houses upscale offices and restaurants. The new convention facility and sports center is nearby.

 ARTS & CULTURE

But there's more to Providence's revival than just cleaning up Downcity's urban act with fresh new buildings and still-sprouting green spaces. With its own designated arts district, New England's second-largest city is now a legitimate cultural destination. Add to that Providence's never-ceased-being-charming historic East Side, and a culinary scene that could be the envy of cities three times its size, and you have a relatively compressed, eminently walkable city.

Providence is a serious alternative to Boston for an urban New England getaway. And there's no better time to do so than the fall, when the local universities - Brown, Johnson & Wales (the world's largest culinary school) and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) - are back in session, and an invigorating crispness replaces the somnolence of summer. For the weekend escape artist, could it possibly be more ... Providential?

 WHAT TO SEE AND DO

Benefit Street

Touted by tourism officials as "the most impressive concentration of original Colonial homes in America", mile-long Benefit Street is the undisputed showcase of Providence's East Side. Where it begins is where Providence began - the Roger Williams National Memorial (free, 401-521-7266, nps.gov/rowi), a 41/2-acre wooded site on the bank of the Moshassuck River. It was here that Anglican minister Williams, whose freethinking ways resulted in convictions for heresy and sedition in Puritan-ruled Salem, proclaimed a new settlement in 1636.

Benefit Street's finest jewel is the first First Baptist Church in America, a magnificent white wood house of worship adorned by a magnificent 185-foot steeple built in 1774-1775 ($2 guided tours, $1 self-guided; 401-454-3418, fbcia.org).

 

RISD Art Museum

Three floors and more than 40 galleries take visitors from ancient Egypt right up to the present day in a free-flowing, multibuilding structure that includes the Federalist-era Pendleton House, opulently decked out in fine American decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries ($10 adults, $3 ages 5-18 and college students; 401-454-6500, risdmuseum.org).

 John Brown House

Providence's premier mansion museum is the John Brown House. Completed in 1788, the magnificent three-story brick edifice was merchant, civic leader and family patriarch John Brown's notice to the world that he had finally "made it". Alas, one of the ways that Brown had made it was via the slave trade, in which tiny Rhode Island led the nation. The Brown family's involvement in human trafficking is traced in a poignant exhibit downstairs, just as the material fruits of it are displayed throughout the meticulously restored mansion ($8 adults, $4 ages 7-17; 401-331-8575, rihs.org).

 Brown University

No exploration of Providence's East Side is complete without a stroll through Brown's leafy campus atop College Hill. Many of the libraries and museums around the Quad are open to the public, so don't be shy. But don't even try the ornate, wrought-iron Van Wickle gates: They are opened only twice a year - in September, to admit the incoming freshman class, and in June to send graduating seniors out into the world. While near campus, don't overlook commercial Thayer Street, which caters to the food and material needs of the Brown community.

 Downcity

Corporate and commercial Providence begins across the domesticated Providence River. Cobblestoned lower Weybosset Street, the heart of corporate Providence, has a Boston feel to it, while Westminster Street's long-abandoned storefronts have been taken over by trendy new shops and galleries. Come nightfall, Downcity is where it sometimes seems all Rhode Island comes to be entertained. There are Broadway shows at the Providence Performing Arts Center (401-421-2787, ppacri.org), top-notch drama at the Trinity Repertory Company (401-351-4242, trinityrep.com), and plenty of restaurants, bars and music clubs.

 Out and about

For those who have more time, there's Victorian-era Roger Williams Park, whose 435 landscaped acres three miles south of downtown are home to the zoo, the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, and a new 12,000-square-foot Botanical Center that's New England's largest indoor public garden.

For displays of a more visceral nature, feast your eyes on the thousands of utensils, gadgets, and appliances at the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales' Harborside campus. Everything related to the long and sometimes strange history of food preparation can be found here, beginning with 4,000-year-old American Indian cooking stones. ($7 adults, $2 ages 5-18; 401-598-2805, culinary.org).

WHERE TO EAT

It wouldn't be a capital mistake to come to Providence just to eat, as the city is blessed with a wealth of dining options, many staffed by Johnson & Wales graduates.

Waterplace

While great restaurants are interspersed throughout the city, the most productive concentrations are near Waterplace and along the Providence River. Try Waterplace Restaurant (1 Finance Way, 401-272-1040), Hemenway's Seafood Grille and Oyster Bar (121 S. Main St., 401-351-8570), New Rivers (7 Steeple St., 401-751-0350) and Pot au Feu (44 Custom House St., 401-273-8953).

Federal Hill

Savor one of the nation's largest and most vibrant Italian neighborhoods, located less than a mile west of downtown along Atwells Avenue. Take a seat at one of the outdoor cafes in DePasquale Square, load up on prepared provisions at Constantino's Venta Ravioli, and gawk at the artistic homemade pastries at Scialo Brothers Bakery. Among the best options: Angelo's Civita Farnese (141 Atwells Ave., 401-621-8171), Blue Grotto (210 Atwells Ave., 401-272-9030), Siena (238 Atwells Ave., 401-521-3311) - and Mediterraneo (134 Atwells Ave., 401-331-7760) the reigning "King of the Hill" according to patrons of this year's annual Federal Hill Stroll food festival.

WHERE TO STAY

Historic B&Bs

Old Court B&B (from $115, 401-751-2002, old court.com) and C.C. Ledbetter's (from $95, 401-351-4699, ccledbetter.com) are on Providence's East Side. State House Inns (from $89, 401-351-6111,providence-inn.com) is behind the State Capitol.

Upscale chains

Downtown, there are several corporate-type business hotels (look for weekend discounts). Try the brand-new Renaissance Providence (from $179, 401-919-5000, renaissanceprovidence.com), the Providence Biltmore (from $119, 401-421-0700, providencebiltmore.com) or the Courtyard by Marriott (from $139, 401-272-1191, marriott.com).

Budget chains

Lower cost chains out near T.F. Green airport (8 miles south) or north of downtown along Interstate 95.

GETTING THERE

BY CAR Providence is 185 miles northeast of New York City along Interstate 95. Long Islanders can avoid New York City by taking the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point to New London, Conn. ($46 for vehicle and driver, longislandferry.com).

BY TRAIN Round-trip train fare on Amtrak from Penn Station begins at $82; $178 on Acela (amtrak.com).

>> Find out what it's like to travel by train

MORE INFORMATION

Providence & Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau: 800-233-1636, goprovidence.com.

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