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The quirks and character of Providence, Rhode Island

History, culture and food in one of New England's oldest cities.

Although Providence, R.I., is one of New England's

Although Providence, R.I., is one of New England's oldest cities, it attracts travelers with a mix of old and new. Photo Credit: GoProvidence.com / N.Millard

Providence, Rhode Island, is open-minded and sometimes outrageous. The hub of higher learning is also smart and urbane. I could feel my brain cells multiplying while walking around the College Hill campuses of RISD and Brown University. 

Providence is one of the oldest cities in the country, and I grew accustomed to seeing historical plaques announcing a structure's birth year and tripping on sidewalks buckling under centuries of soles. But I also heard plenty about the future, including Plant City, a veg-centric food hall opening this month, and a new pedestrian bridge that will connect the shores of the Providence River. 

Here's the best of the old and the new in the Ocean State capital.

WHAT TO DO

Roger Williams Park (1000 Elmwood Ave., 401-680-7219, rwpconservancy.org). This 435-acre green space contains the country's third oldest zoo, a natural-history museum and planetarium, a botanical center, rose and Japanese gardens, and several historical buildings, including the recently restored Betsey Williams Cottage. Cruise around in one of the swan and pirate boats or walk along footpaths lining ponds rippling with wildlife. On Fridays through September, more than 15 food trucks gather in the park.

Columbus Theatre (270 Broadway, 401-621-9660, columbustheatre.com). Columbus Theatre opened in 1926 and was modeled after an 1880s Italian opera house. Nearly a century later, chubby cherubs still float in a domed ceiling and 36 composers stare out from scarlet walls. Over the years, there's been a steady stream of entertainment including vaudeville acts, silent and European art films, opera and, in the 1960s, adult flicks. Today the Columbus hosts about 10 shows a month on its two stages (800 seats downstairs, 200 upstairs), showcasing national and local bands and comedians.

Providence Athenaeum (251 Benefit St., 401-421-6970, providenceathenaeum.org). Edgar Allan Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman here. H.P. Lovecraft, who lived up the hill, was a common fixture inside the 19th-century Greek Revival building, and his legacy endures in its collection of his stories and letters. The institution, which predates public libraries, is one of only 16 membership libraries remaining in the country. But you don't need an Athenaeum card to take a self-guided tour, attend an exhibit ("Providence Unveiled: Stories from the Archives" opened June 3), catch an author reading or puppet show, or hunker down with a good book (choose from about 180,000 volumes). 

WHERE TO EAT

Al Forno (577 S. Water St., 401-273-9760, alforno.com). In 1980, RISD graduates Johanne Killeen and her late husband George Germon opened this award-winning dining destination, focusing on Italian dishes. The menu evokes a travel journal. The clams al forno appetizer was inspired by the couple's time in Rome, and the fried calamari pizza is a play on the french-fry-topped pizza they saw in Sicily. Every dish is made to order. 

Oberlin (186 Union St., 401-588-8755, oberlinrestaurant.com). James Beard Award nominee Benjamin Sukle doesn't toss around fancy culinary terms at his three-year-old restaurant. Instead of "crudo," the au-courant name for uncooked seafood, he uses "raw." As in: raw scallops, raw fluke, raw bluefish and raw black back flounder. The accompaniments are equally straightforward, such as sesame and radish for the scallops, or soy and parsley for the fluke. The kitchen also turns out five to six handmade pastas a night, including chitarra cacio e pepe — essentially pasta, cheese and peppercorns. 

Nicks on Broadway (500 Broadway, 401-421-0286, nicksonbroadway.com). Derek Wagner, who took over this nocturnal joint 18 years ago, serves brunch five days a week, during times (8 a.m.-3 p.m.) that more traditional eaters call breakfast and lunch. Four times a week, Nicks offers dinner a la carte or as a four-course $70 tasting menu. Most of the food is made or butchered in-house, including the breads, pastas, charcuterie and citrus-flavored salts. 

WHERE TO SHOP

Arcade Providence (65 Weybosset St., 401 454-4568, arcadeprovidence.com). Built in 1828, this National Historic Landmark has assorted shops and restaurants on the ground floor and lofts on the upper two levels. The arcade focuses on independent retailers with local roots. The Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council, a nonprofit group specializing in weird fiction, runs a store devoted to Lovecraft and writers inspired by his works. Carmen & Ginger, one of several vintage stores in the mall, focuses on men's and women's clothing, toys and housewares from the 1930s through the '70s. 

Frog and Toad (795 Hope St., 401-831-3434, frogandtoadstore.com). Frog and Toad's East Side spot has been cramming homes with creative kitsch for 18 years. The West End store, opened last fall, has more urban gardening supplies and local art prints. Look for cards, prints, patches, stickers, buttons and pencils designed by the company's own studio. You'll also find wooden magnets featuring the faces of Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Ryan Gosling, and prayer candles of Saint Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Saint Oprah.

Craftland (212 Westminster St., 401-272-4285, shop.craftlandshop.com). Craftland grew from a holiday pop-up to a year-round retail store carrying about 130 artists, many hailing from the area. Owner Margaret Carleton transforms melted Mardi Gras beads into lamps, night lights, pins and rings. Paul Davis frames classic images of Rhode Island in photo developing trays. Roidoulis, whose family printed T-shirts for such bands as the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, weaves tie-dye scraps into wall hangings using the Scandinavian rya technique.

WHERE TO STAY

Dean Hotel (122 Fountain St., 401-455-3326, thedeanhotel.com). A quote on an exterior wall of the Dean Hotel states, "For a long time, I went to bed early." The line from Proust applies only to guests who stayed up the previous night belting out tunes in the hotel's karaoke bar, the Boombox; downing drinks at the Magdalenae Room; or dining at North, which serves dinner till midnight. The Dean's 44 rooms and eight suites come furnished with steel bed frames made at the Steel Yard, an industrial arts center in Providence, and elephant-carved nightstands by Will Reeves, a RISD instructor. 

Hotel Providence (139 Mathewson St., 401-861-8000, hotelprovidence.com). At first glance, Hotel Providence feels like the home of your great aunt — the one who married well. The décor is elegant and tasteful, as it should be: The collection comes from Stanley Weiss, an international art and antiques dealer who returned the hotel to its original splendor in 2005. The 80 rooms also contain antiques and local art, and the 16 suites celebrate regional authors. If you want absurdist dreams, book the Dr. Seuss room; for nihilistic nightmares, spend the night in the H.P. Lovecraft suite.

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