Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the U.S., but it’s also a gem favored by celebrities and those in the know. The affluent summer crowds of the early 20th century have left a lasting impression with their sprawling, extravagant estates – not to mention the secluded beaches, sailboats and seaside resorts that make Rhode Island a playground for the elite. But this tiny coastal state is not just defined by the moneyed mansions of Newport or the seasonal yachting crowds that head to Providence, Narragansett or Block Island.
Rhode Island is also a welcoming destination for families looking to meet exotic creatures or gaze upon topiaries that simply look like animals. Many attractions are budget-friendly or free, including fiery public art installations, a hotspot for birdwatching or bathing in nature, and a museum dedicated to sharks. In fact, the drive from the northern city of Woonsocket to the town of Westerly at the state’s southern tip is less than 60 miles, making it possible to drive across the entire state in about an hour, depending on traffic. And, of course, a simple day at one of the Rhode Island beaches is always sought after by jet-setters and locals alike.
The Ocean State packs a lot of culture into its small frame, with art museums that date back 150 years or performing arts theaters with a rigorous schedule of stage shows. The Newport Folk Festival began in 1959 as one of the first modern annual music festivals in the country, and it’s still going strong, attracting visitors from around the world.
Filmmaker Wes Anderson used locations in Rhode Island as the stage for his movie “Moonrise Kingdom,” which is considered a love letter to New England. When you visit, you too will understand why the state has been immortalized in film, in history, and even in the haunting sci-fi novels of famous resident and author H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a place that leaves an impression, and the following top things to do in Rhode Island will help you find your own favorite memory.
(Note: Some of the following activities, attractions and locations may be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions, reservation requirements or mask mandates. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
In the Outer Lands, a region that also includes Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island, you’ll find Rhode Island’s Block Island. This quintessential New England island is covered in bluffs and rocky beaches, and it features a lighthouse from the mid-19th century. Block Island is an hourlong ferry ride from the mainland (30 minutes by high-speed ferry) and offers 17 miles of free beaches, as well as a wildlife refuge where migratory birds can be found along their journey. Bikes are an ideal way to traverse the island – which is 7 miles long and 3 miles wide – and can be rented from several locations. Famous residents of Block Island include actor Christopher Walken.
Newport’s Cliff Walk and The Breakers
The irony of the Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile path with stunning views of the sea below, is that it’s free to the public — far from the cost of the opulent Gilded Age mansions it traces. This Newport walkway has various entry points, and a map is available online to guide you. Along the path you’ll pass through the grounds of 64 private residences and find points of interest like the 40 Steps: As the name suggests, it’s about 40 stone steps to the water below and used to be a popular meeting place for servants of the surrounding estates.
No matter how scenic you find Cliff Walk, there is no substitute for a tour through one of the Gilded beauties with an exclusive address in this part of Newport. You have plenty of magnificent mansions to choose from, but none is as notable as The Breakers, once a lavish summer home to the Vanderbilt family. Self-guided tours are available year-round, but a 45-minute family-friendly tour has also been developed by the Preservation Society of Newport County to engage children and their imaginations in the life of the wealthy residents — including young inhabitants — who used to occupy these elaborately decorated halls.
Stroll down Bellevue Avenue
(Dave Hansen/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)
Lined with history, Bellevue Avenue is a 2.5-mile stretch parallel to the Cliff Walk that some locals refer to as “The Avenue.” The street was home to many famous residents, including the Astors, Vanderbilts, Morgans and other elites who had summer homes in Newport. Take a stroll along this renowned stretch for a different angle of some of the Gilded Age mansions overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, including Rosecliff – where the 1974 “Great Gatsby” and 1994 “True Lies” were filmed – as well as Beechwood and the Marble House. In addition to the homes, the Newport Art Museum, Newport Tower and Redwood Library (one of the nation’s first libraries) are located along this opulent avenue.
International Tennis Hall of Fame
(Courtesy of International Tennis Hall of Fame)
If you’ve got love for the game, Newport’s Tennis Hall of Fame spans 150 years of gameplay with nearly 2,000 noteworthy objects in the massive collection on display. The museum is on the grounds of the former Newport Casino, a social club for the elite. A theater with a hologram of Roger Federer is found alongside interactive exhibits like a touch table and tennis trivia. A museum dedicated to tennis of course features a number of indoor and outdoor tennis courts bookable by the hour for an additional fee. The International Tennis Hall of Fame is open on select days, and the 7 acres of grounds are open during museum hours. Check the website for up-to-date admission times. Recent visitors appreciate the grand architecture, picturesque grounds and variety of exhibits; many noted it as an interesting stop for tennis novices and enthusiasts.
Address: 194 Bellevue Ave., Newport, RI 02840
Roger Williams Park Zoo & Carousel Village
(Courtesy of Roger Williams Park Zoo & Carousel Village)
The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, named after the state’s founder and celebrating its 150th anniversary, is not your average zoo. Of course animals are the main attraction, with creative exhibits that follow the trek of explorer Marco Polo or highlight the importance of the Amazon Rainforest and how to help preserve it. But families will also find unique experiences like “Explore and Soar,” a ride along a zip line 115 feet in the sky followed by a train ride on the Woodlands Express. Past patrons enjoyed seeing the animals – including giraffes, elephants and red pandas – though some cautioned several exhibits were closed due to the time of year they visited. Timed entry tickets are currently required for the zoo.
Also in Roger Williams Park, located about a half-mile to the south and managed by the zoo, you’ll find Carousel Village, another fun-filled destination for the kids with playgrounds, food trucks and the namesake carousel.
Address: 1000 Elmwood Ave., Providence, RI 02907
WaterFire is based on a simple concept and results in a tremendously transfixing art experience. On select nights throughout the year, more than 80 braziers (portable heaters) are lit atop the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers along a stretch between two city parks, creating a fiery display floating on water. Partial lightings, which typically focus on a smaller section of river, are no less impressive to take in than the full display. This spectacular show of the elements occurs shortly after sunset and remains burning until about midnight. The demonstrations, which are free to the public, are staged by members of the WaterFire Arts Center, located in Providence’s Valley neighborhood.
Recent spectators say WaterFire is a one-of-a-kind sensory event, perfect for a variety of ages and a unique way to experience Providence. While fire typically invites you to sit and be mesmerized, fire marshal regulations rule against folding chairs on the riverwalks, so you’re encouraged to enjoy the show with an evening stroll; live music and other events sometimes coincide with the flames, so you can plan accordingly.
(Courtesy of RISD Museum)
The Rhode Island School of Design is a renowned institution in Providence dedicated to the arts, and the public can enjoy its fine arts museum with a timed ticket. This attraction houses more than 100,000 works of art and design spanning the globe and the centuries. Though the museum’s approach to diversity and inclusion is contemporary, both the school and museum were founded in 1877. Visitors to the museum have likened it to a “mini Met,” explaining that they were surprised to find it houses an eclectic but top-notch collection, ranging from ancient art to works by more modern masters like Picasso or Van Gogh. Check the museum’s hours to see when it offers free admission.
Address: 20 N. Main St., Providence, RI 02903
Take a walk down Benefit Street
(Courtesy of Providence Warwick CVB)
The center of society in Providence during the Colonial and early Federal periods, Benefit Street remains a vibrant, tree-lined city street with fine examples of Victorian architecture, earning its nickname as the “Mile of History.” Among the most notable homes on this stone- and brick-paved stretch is the one built for 18th-century merchant John Brown, who was the first to build away from the Providence waterfront, opting instead for a high hill. Former President John Quincy Adams called it one of the most magnificent mansions he’d ever seen. The John Brown House is now a museum open to the public and includes some of the original furnishings, which feature the renowned cabinetry work of Rhode Island’s early craftsmen. Museum patrons can also view a carriage George Washington supposedly rode in and an extensive collection of artifacts. Recent travelers state that both the home and Benefit Street are worth a visit for the architecture and history.
Take in a show in Providence
(Courtesy of Trinity Repertory Company)
Affectionately known as the Trinity Rep, the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence is a Rhode Island institution of local theater. Dramatists can stage Sondheim, Shakespeare and something more modern − and original − in a single season. Each season is themed and typically includes a mix of production premieres alongside perennial crowd favorites like “A Christmas Carol.” Trinity Rep’s theme for the 2022-23 season is “Lasting Legacies,” as the program strives to examine how legacies are passed through generations. Four productions each year are staged in conjunction with students from Brown University’s MFA program, so you might have the chance to witness a star in the making. Single show tickets vary in price and are available online in advance.
The Providence Performing Arts Center is another hub for staged drama, housed in an original Beaux-Arts building from 1928. As a 3,100-seat theater designated a National Historic Site, the PPAC hosts touring Broadway performances. Recent theatergoers appreciate the beautifully restored theater, along with its acoustics, sight lines and variety of productions.
Green Animals Topiary Garden
(Andrea Hansen/Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)
The dozens of topiaries at Green Animals in the town of Portsmouth constitute a veritable circus of landscaped creatures like elephants and giraffes, along with geometric shapes. Long before “Edward Scissorhands,” Joseph Carreiro was a gardener and superintendent of the property from 1905 to 1945, making Green Animals the oldest topiary garden in the country. The once-private estate belonged to Thomas Brayton, treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company; when his daughter Alice died at the age of 94, she donated the property to The Preservation Society of Newport County for all to enjoy. Beyond sculpted bushes, the garden offers floral floods of tulips, lupines, hydrangeas and more. Featuring tens of thousands of bulbs, Green Animals also received official recognition by the American Daffodil Society for its array of daffodils, which span 49 varieties. The garden is open daily, in warm weather only, with prime flower viewing during May and June. Visitors say the gardens and flowers are worth a visit, though many find the admission fees a bit steep.
Address: 380 Corys Lane, Portsmouth, RI 02871
If you’re looking for a seaside resort town bursting with charm, program your GPS to Rhode Island’s Narragansett. Families have summered here for more than two centuries, and the town’s iconic Towers − marking the former entrance to the Narragansett Pier Casino, which burned down in 1900 − evoke a bygone era. The main draw is the beaches, from Narragansett Town Beach to Scarborough State Beach. Head to the Coast Guard House (not surprisingly, a former Coast Guard headquarters) to see and be seen, likely with a Narragansett beer in hand. U.S. Route 1 offers scenic Sunday drives along the coast. The well-to-do towns of Watch Hill and nearby Westerly are a worthwhile destination, about 25 miles down the road, and boast celebrity fans and residents including Taylor Swift.
Go sailing on Goat Island
If you’re a fan of sailing, Rhode Island has the chops, and Goat Island Marina is where you’ll want to head to get on the water. Located within Newport Harbor, the island on the Narragansett Bay has hosted the Tall Ships Festival, sailing regattas and of course private getaways. Goat Island was once a torpedo manufacturing facility for the U.S. Navy and even a military fort during the American Revolution. Its purposes are far less serious these days, with a deep-water marina and shuttles that will whisk you into downtown Newport. Consider a stay on Goat Island at Gurney’s Newport Resort & Marina to enjoy its variety of amenities, as well as the raw bar and lounge with glass-enclosed fire pits. Recent guests appreciated the spa and marina views, though many noted the rooms are ready for refurbishment.
Beavertail Lighthouse & Museum
Perched above Narragansett Bay, the Beavertail Lighthouse and Museum combines history with maritime science, technology, art and culture. Set on the southern tip of Jamestown, the lighthouse was first built in 1749 – making it the third oldest lighthouse in North America – and rebuilt in 1856. Travelers say the museum offers a great glimpse into history and the grounds provide panoramic ocean views. The lighthouse is adjacent to Beavertail State Park, which boasts hiking trails, a naturalist program and some of the area’s best saltwater fishing.
Address: Beavertail Road, Jamestown, RI 02835
Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge
(Courtesy of Visit Rhode Island, Rhode Island Commerce Corporation)
Birders rejoice at the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, one of five wildlife refuges in Rhode Island. A number of featured species that visitors can spot include the saltmarsh sparrow, the harlequin duck and the New England cottontail. The site serves today as a protected 242 acres for migratory birds, kicked off in 1970 with a donation from the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. From the 17th to 20th centuries, the area was used for farming and sheep grazing; during World War II it became a rifle range center for the U.S. Navy. Visitors praise the nearly 3 miles of well-marked trails, variety of birds you can see in their natural habitat, and benches along the routes to sit and take in the ocean views.
Address: 769 Sachuest Point Road, Middletown, RI 02842
Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum
Developed as a summer estate in Bristol, Blithewold is an authentic example of the Country Place Era of architecture. Set amid 33 acres of land with sweeping views of Narragansett Bay, the 45-room home and outbuildings showcase an array of family heirlooms, 18th- and 19th-century styling, and the 1909 garage with its fueling and repair station. Visitors can tour the home with its kitchen and laundry facilities, as well as the surrounding gardens, complete with meandering pathways, stonework, an extensive collection of unique plants and trees, and a greenhouse. Recent travelers appreciate the historical charms of the home and gardens and say you can find something to explore around every corner.
Address: 101 Ferry Road, Bristol, RI 02809
Living Sharks Museum
America’s first shark history and conservation museum is located in Westerly. Living Sharks Museum was founded by Keith Cowley, a shark advocate and educator whose research led him to want to paint sharks in a positive light – both figuratively and literally, since Cowley is also considered a science artist. Exhibits include everything from fossils and records of the commercial fishing of sharks to memorabilia from the 1975 film “Jaws.” A small gallery houses art that depicts the story of the shark. The museum is open Fridays and Saturdays, and appointments are suggested for large groups. Past museum visitors say the small but impressive museum is a must-see, and the curator’s extensive knowledge adds to the experience.
Address: 47 High St., Westerly, RI 02891
Pay homage to H.P. Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the science fiction and horror writer who inspired the term “Lovecraftian,” was born in Providence in 1890 and lived there almost exclusively until his death in 1937. H.P. Lovecraft’s final residence, at 65 Prospect Street, was the inspiration for the house in his story “The Haunter of the Dark.” The stately home, once located on College Street but moved after a Brown University expansion, is now a private residence. But fans of Lovecraft’s tales of gothic horror need not despair: The Lovecraft Arts & Sciences store was founded in 2011 to keep his one-of-a-kind legacy alive in Providence. This small storefront is located in the historic Arcade Providence mall and sells themed merchandise, “weird” art and of course tons of books. Occasional events are hosted; check the website for details. To learn more about the author before or after your trip to Providence, the HBO series “Lovecraft Country” expertly addresses the vast influence of – and the racism throughout – Lovecraft’s storytelling.
Take a brewery tour of South Kingstown
(Courtesy of Whalers Brewing Company)
South Kingstown is a Rhode Island town featuring more than 300 years of history and dotted with beaches, farmland and historic landmarks. Use pints to tour your way through this South County destination, with stops at four of South Kingstown’s breweries and distilleries. Start at Whalers Brewing Company, which will offer you an award-winning pale ale. Then, make your way to the Proclamation Ale Company to taste its heady IPAs and experience the small retro video arcade and custom art on display. At the Shaidzon Beer Co., a globally inspired beer list includes pilsners, saisons and wit biers. End your brewery hopping at Sons of Liberty Beer & Spirits Co., which distills single malt whiskies from beers they love.
To get to South Kingstown for a beer bonanza, railway enthusiasts may want to travel by Amtrak to the Kingston train station, inside of which you can also visit the small Rhode Island Railroad Museum.