Why You Should Consider Rhode Island for Your Next Beach Getaway
Without a doubt, Rhode Island is home to some of New England's best beaches. And you've probably never heard of most of them.
It didn’t take long to spot the green Del’s umbrella at Portsmouth’s Third Beach. Even without the jingles of ice cream trucks, we born-and-raised Rhode Islanders seem to have a homing device that can spot those iconic frozen lemonade stands from a mile away. And I was in luck: they hadn’t yet run out of watermelon, the best flavor.
I sipped the sweet slush and looked out at the beach. There was almost too much to take in: Families scouring the shore for shells, windsurfers, standup paddleboarders, kayakers, swimmers and sailors.
Portsmouth is a town on Aquidneck Island, which you know even if you’ve never heard of it—it’s also home to Newport. For centuries, the wealthiest Americans have built summer “cottages” here that make most ordinary homes look like dollhouses. Unlike the rockier New England beaches to the north, Aquidneck’s beaches are soft sand.
I recently spent a few weeks back home in Rhode Island, partly to visit family and partly to explore, with fresh eyes, all the places I’d taken for granted as a kid. I took a beach weekend and did all the things you roll your eyes at when you’re a local.
Rhode Island's Misquamicut State Beach
If you've ever met a Rhode Islander who hasn't told you that Taylor Swift owns a house on Watch Hill in Westerly, not far from this beach, you should ask them if they were secretly born in Massachusetts. State pride runs deep, and Misquamicut State Beach is a local favorite.
Rhode Island Commerce Corporation
I took a surf lesson at Narragansett Town Beach with Warm Winds and was shocked to find the shore anything but crowded. The waves went easy on me, and I was able to stand (albeit briefly) after a few tries. I spent the night a few minutes away at The Break, where you can smell the salty air from your window, and rode a bike down to the water at 5 a.m. to catch the sun rise over the Atlantic. A few fishing vessels bobbed along the horizon line. I wondered what they were catching.
After the sun was fully hidden behind cotton candy clouds, I pedaled hard toward Scarborough, the beach of my childhood. The state has dozens of beaches, and everyone has a favorite. Like the neverending debate over who has the better seafood, Iggy’s or Aunt Carrie’s, Rhode Islanders will go to bat for their beach as if it were truly their own.
Dawn Holmes / Block Island Tourism Council
Many of the stereotypes of small-state life are entirely true—it does seem like everyone knows everyone, or at least knows a friend of a friend of your friend’s friend. It's impossible not to notice it if you're paying attention. In an Uber on the way to the Westerly airport to catch a 15-minute scenic flight to Block Island, our driver overheard us talking about the Glass Float Project and proclaimed that she’s friends with the artist. Since 2011, Eben Horton has worked with the island to hide hundreds of blown glass orbs for people to find. Our driver made a show of reaching out to him to ask for hints (no dice; we got no hints, we found no floats).
As renowned as Newport is, the state’s best beaches are undoubtedly on Block Island, a lightning-quick, 12-minute flight from the mainland on New England Airlines, or a 40-minute ride on the Block Island Ferry, yet seemingly a world away. The decades-old Block Island Ferry jingle sounds like it should belong to the Caribbean, and spotty cell service forces you onto “island time.” It’s easily the best beach town in New England, and one of the best along the whole East Coast, too. It’s all classic New England clapboard houses, unspoiled woods ripe for exploration (and glass float scavenges) and endless beaches that pass for tropical in the right light.
All the beaches on the island are public. There are so many of them, and they are all so different. Mansion Beach is one of the most popular for its views and soft sand. The dramatic Mohegan Bluffs is rarely crowded for the steep cliffs and long staircase down to the water, and it is always worth the hike. West Beach, just past the island’s former landfill, is a phenomenal place to search for sea glass and other treasures and to watch sailboats race just offshore.
I’ve yet to find a place quite like it, nor a place that offers everything Rhode Island does along with the same Alaska-sized serving of local pride. I know that’s impossible to believe until you see it. But if you grab a Del’s and park yourself on a beach or a bench, you’ll see the love and quirkiness as you watch everyone around you. (Do yourself a favor, though, and say no to the straws and spoons—locals almost always skip them, and they will immediately know you’re a tourist.)
When you go:
Stay at The Break in Narragansett, which offers cruiser bikes for guests to borrow. It’s a short ride to Scarborough and Narragansett Town Beaches. Have dinner at Matunuck Oyster Bar, where oysters are farmed on site (the restaurant offers free farm tours once a week) and rise early in the morning for a trip to Block Island. Take the Block Island Ferry from Point Judith, where you’ll likely spot quite a few fishing vessels. Rent a bike or moped to explore the island, and take at least one full loop—you won’t want to miss Rodman’s Hollow for short hikes, Mohegan Bluffs for a secluded walk along the beach, and the 1661 Farm and Garden, home to an eclectic mini zoo including camels, kangaroos, llamas, goats and lemurs. Don’t forget to grab a Del’s frozen lemonade in the harbor before getting on the ferry to head back to the mainland—it’s practically illegal to visit Rhode Island and not have one.
Hang Out at WaterFire in Downtown Providence
WaterFire is exactly what it sounds like: Lines of on-fire braziers light up the three rivers flowing through downtown - the Providence, Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket - instantly changing the city’s ambiance. It feels like the entire state of Rhode Island has come out of the woodwork to line the river and chat, people watch and just take a breather from the breakneck speed of life in the Northeast. Artist Barnaby Evans created the sculpture for a one-time lighting in 1994, but it was so popular that it became a regular event in 1997. You’ll find buskers performing music and magic tricks and gondolas for hire for romantic cruises just feet from the fires, live music, food demonstrations and the TD Bank Ballroom, a square on Westminster Street that turns into a dance floor. Actors from performance group Ten31 Productions often pose as gargoyle statues in Memorial Park, trading fortunes on paper scrolls for tips. Check the schedule before you plan your trip—WaterFire is a quintessential summer-in-Providence experience, but it doesn’t happen every weekend.
Visit the RISD Museum
Providence is home to some of the most prestigious institutions in the country—namely Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design—and their open campuses are worth a wander, nestled among some of the oldest buildings in the city. Set aside several hours for the RISD Museum, if not a full day: It’s easily one of the best museums New England has to offer. You’ll find art ranging from the ancient—like an Etruscan bronze situla, or pail, from 500 B.C.—to the contemporary. The museum also houses large collections of costumes, textiles and photographs. If you’re on a budget, visit on a Sunday or from 5 to 9 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month, when the $15 admission fee is waived.
Go to PVDonuts
For decades, Rhode Islanders have gotten their doughnut fix at Dunkin’ Donuts, which is somehow even more ubiquitous than the Catholic churches you’ll find in every neighborhood. But Lori and Paul Kettelle, owners of PVDonuts, have changed the game. The line often snakes out the door and around the corner, but no matter the number of blocks, it’s worth your wait. The Kettelles make doughnuts into art with flavors like Cherry Honey Cake, Chocolate Peanut Butter Old Fashioned, Passionfruit, Lemon Trifle and vegan Maple "Bacon."
Catch a Show at One of Providence's Many Theaters
Providence has an excellent theater scene downtown, and there’s always something to see. You’ll find Broadway shows on tour at Providence Performing Arts Center and Veteran’s Memorial Theater. Trinity Reparatory Company’s resident actors perform old classics as well as more edgy productions. You can walk to everything downtown has to offer from all three of these theaters, but consider Los Andes, a little off the beaten path, for a pre-show dinner. Los Andes serves world-class Peruvian and Bolivian dishes for a fraction of what you’d expect to pay for such fine food—entrees are all under $20. Creativity and thoughtfulness abound on the menu and in the presentation. There are no bad choices here, especially when it comes to seafood, but ordering off the specials menu is always the best decision. It’s a small restaurant and the secret is now out, so reservations are highly suggested.
Where to Shop in Providence, Rhode Island
Providence’s thriving art scene makes it a great place to find boutique shops with unique gifts. You’ll find scores of locally-owned shops all over the city, but outside of downtown there are a few areas in particular that you’ll want to explore: Wayland Square and Hope, Thayer and Wickenden Streets on the east side of Providence (not to be confused with East Providence, which is a different city). Don’t miss Frog and Toad on Hope Street, where you’ll find postcards, mugs, T-shirts and other gifts with inside jokes so Rhode Island, you’ll need to ask a local to explain them to you.
Explore Downtown Providence
Providence was once known as the jewelry capital of the world. Now, it’s known for its food, with fine and casual dining, nightclubs and cafes stepping in to fill the manufacturing voids in the city’s former factories. It’s no coincidence that one of the country’s best culinary arts schools, Johnson & Wales, is just steps away from Providence’s up-and-coming food scene downtown—or "downcity," as many born-and-raised locals call it. You’ll find excellent boutique shops on Westminster Street, too.
Get Snuggly at The Duck and Bunny
The Duck and Bunny calls itself a "snuggery" for good reason. It’s the best place in Providence to relax with a cup of tea and a homemade cupcake, in creative flavors like Honey Lavender and Fauxstess (a riff on Hostess cupcakes). On a rainy day, settle into the pillows by the bay window. At night, wander out to the back patio, lit with string lights, and relax with a blanket, hot chocolate mixed with raspberry port and live music. Withhold your judgment of mixing wine and cocoa: You’ll find it hard not to order a second round.
Eat Like a Local
Few things are more Rhode Island than frozen lemonade, clam cakes, stuffies (stuffed clams), coffee milk and, oddly enough, Olneyville New York System, a diner that’s been a local institution for more than 60 years. You’ll want to order a hot wiener "all the way," with meat sauce, mustard and onions.
For ultra-fresh coffee milk—Rhode Island’s state drink—head to North Smithfield for a quick visit to Wright’s Dairy Farm, where you’ll find some of the best milk the state has to offer, as well as some of the best pastries (not to be confused with Wright’s Farm Restaurant in Harrisville). Coffee milk is exactly like chocolate milk, except it’s made with Autocrat coffee syrup—which is rarely sold in grocery stores outside the state, so you’ll probably want to take some home with you.
Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth
Famous for their frozen lemonade, Del’s is the Rhode Island institution that has stands in many cities and roadside carts at nearly every summer event (keep an eye out for it at WaterFire). You’ll find bits of actual lemon in their signature flavor, which sets them apart from other frozen lemonade purveyors. But for a real treat, seek out Mr. Lemon, hidden in a neighborhood just shy of Providence College. You can’t miss the bright yellow lemon, holding a stop sign, painted on the side of the building. Mr. Lemon changes up the flavors regularly, and all of them are good. Kids will love you for getting the extra-large carton and filling it with Tutti Frutti, a mix of their many fruit flavors stacked on top of one another like a parfait.
You’ll also want to stop in at the kid-friendly Newport Creamery for an Awful Awful—an "awful big, awful good" milkshake.
With three rivers ripe for kayaking and the Narragansett Bay waterfront right at the edge of the city, Providence is the gateway to all kinds of outdoor adventure. Blackstone Boulevard has a long, narrow park running through the center of the street that offers a scenic, tree-lined stroll through one of the city’s most beautiful neighborhoods—and alongside Swan Point Cemetery, established in 1846. Bikers and runners will enjoy the East Bay Bike Path, a 14-mile paved trail that starts at India Point Park in Providence and extends south to Bristol, a seaside colonial town known for its grand annual 4th of July Parade, which has been going strong since 1785, making it the oldest in the country. Streets on the parade route have red, white and blue center lines instead of yellow. Of course, you can always take a beach day, too. Scarborough State Beach, in Narragansett, is beloved; Newport beaches are more scenic as well as more touristy.
Bowl Like It's 1920
Anything beyond a 15-minute drive is considered "far" by Rhode Island terms, even though the state is really one big city. Providence’s next-door neighbor, Pawtucket, has gone from industrial hub to artisan village in recent years, and it’s worth a quick hop over the city line. On Main Street, you’ll find the Hope Artiste Village, a massive former webbing mill built in 1889 that’s been beautifully renovated into a mixed-use space of shops, restaurants, galleries and entertainment. Be sure to make time for Breaktime Bowl & Bar, a nearly 100-year-old bowling alley where the pins are still set by hand. It was built in 1920 by the Hope Webbing Company, which owned the mill, as a stopgap measure to placate workers when the company heard they were considering unionization. History buffs will also want to check out Slater Mill a few minutes away, on the banks of the Blackstone River, where the American Industrial Revolution was born.
Take a Day Trip to Block Island
From Providence, it’s only a 45-minute drive to your ticket to an island getaway. If you’ve got a day (or longer) to spare, take the ferry from Point Judith to Block Island, where you’ll find the state’s best beaches and clearest water. If you only have a day, make sure to hit the Mohegan Bluffs, where dramatic cliffs and a long staircase down to the beach deter most vacationers, and the Southeast Lighthouse, right nearby. You can drive your car onto the ferry, rent bicycles on the island or use taxis to get around, but it’s fairly small and you can easily reach most attractions by foot.
Wander Streets Full of Colonial Architecture
Providence was founded in 1636, and many of its first houses still stand. You’ll find a large collection of well-preserved Colonial homes in the College Hill area. The streets are steep and narrow here, which can make for stressful driving and near-impossible parking, so ditch your car in favor of a stroll. On Congdon Street, you’ll find the pocket-sized Prospect Terrace Park, with a statue of state founder Roger Williams and an unbeatable view of the city.