When you think of Rhode Island, what likely comes to mind is Newport, with its yacht-filled harbor and stately mansions, many of which have become museums. Then there’s Providence. You know it’s the state capital, home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, but that’s just the beginning of the story.

Providence is charming and also a culinary surprise. Over the past few years in particular there has been an influx of James Beard nominated chefs migrating to town. They are drawn by the chance to shine in a relatively uncrowded spotlight and to own and operate their own restaurants. The cost of living and doing business is cheaper than big cities like New York and San Francisco and the culinary community is tight knit, as opposed to fiercely competitive. A lot of the chefs even play together in a band.

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Start with a pit stop for lunch at the recently opened Massimo on Federal Hill owned by a husband and wife team Joseph and Esther DeQuattro and be prepared for Italian like you’ve never had it. Wines comes from small boutique Italian wine makers and the burrata cheese is flown in fresh from Italy. Expect delights like handmade pumpkin ravioli, pork belly confit, pappardelle alla Bolognese and more mouth-watering goodness.

Providence is also the home of Johnson & Wales University, which is noted for its culinary arts program. It even boasts a Culinary Museum. The city also has the distinction of being the birthplace of the diner.

Nick's on Broadway | Photo courtesy of @nomyum
Nick’s on Broadway | Photo courtesy of @nomyum

Come dinner time you’ll want to hit Nick’s on Broadway. Chef Derek Wagner gives new meaning to Nick at Nite, and it has nothing to do with the kids’ cable network, and everything to do with locally sourced ingredients presented via a four-course tasting menu. Starters include pumpkin and carrot soup, and onion and olive oil with crème fraiche and chargrilled pesto bread, salads and more. Choosing a main course is challenging. Do you go for the char-grilled Hopkins Farm lamb with white bean cassoulet cauliflower and kale, or the Rhode Island mushrooms, butternut squash and wilted greens with squash, mushroom, pecorino herbs and ricotta or other temptations?

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Photo courtesy of @pvdonuts
Photo courtesy of @pvdonuts

It’s not only top-notch restaurants like Nick’s, Persimmon, Hemenway’s Restaurant and a whole host of others that are making waves, it’s the specialty food shops, too. PVDonuts takes its handmade, locally sourced doughnuts to the next level with crazy, unexpected flavors like white chocolate, cranberry, maple bacon and then some. If you take the Savoring Rhode Island Tour of Federal Hill, you’ll taste goods from the likes of the Scialo Bros. Bakery, Vanuatu Coffee Roaster, Gasbarro’s Wine, Costantino’s Venda Ravioli and more.

Much as food is the headline in the Providence story, there is also the RISD Museum, one of the largest zoos in the country, and on Benefit Street, more historic homes in one mile than anywhere else in America. Sure, there’s good shopping, but what grabs the most attention are the bookstores and the array of vintage shops—especially the Vault Collective, which features ten local vintage boutique sellers in one space. Work your way through the various neighborhoods, like Wayland Square, each has its own shops, restaurants and vibe. Meanwhile, Thayer has the college student groove with plenty of leafy greenery and nice homes.

Photo courtesy of the Dean Hotel
Photo courtesy of the Dean Hotel

There’s nightlife too. Karaoke is big at hipster budget hotel The Dean, and Rooftop Providence is a hot spot after work. Later, it’s the go-to for R&B, whether you’re ready to dance or just want to chill around the fire pit on the patio with a craft cocktail.

There are numerous festivals worth checking out, too including the Columbus Day Festival, the Rhode Island International Film Festival (RIIFF), concerts along the water, riverboat rides, kayaking and famed WaterFire, where sparkling bonfires around downtown brighten an evening of food, art and fun.

Even with a population of less than 180,000, Providence is still Rhode Island’s largest city, and it’s a hard one to leave without feeling full and sated, in more ways than one.

Where to eat in Providence now