AN Ivy League college, a cutting-edge art school and top-flight chefs have helped Providence shed its reputation as a Boston suburb. In recent years, Providence has not only seen a new convention center and a revitalized waterfront, but historic corridors have also been restored to their Revolutionary-era glory, giving the Rhode Island capital an architectural sense of place. But these cultural trappings, more commonly associated with overcrowded metropolises, have not caused this city of 200,000, near the banks of Narragansett Bay, to lose its small-town flavor. Drivers still request their initials on license plates, sandwich shops let regulars run a tab and Mayor David N. Cicilline greets residents by name and lists his home number in the phone book.
1) ESPRESSO IN THE AIR
Federal Hill offers a different kind of Providence history, one steeped more in food than religious freedom. Stroll down Atwells Avenue, otherwise known as the city’s Little Italy, where the scent of sopressata drifts overhead. Much of the crowd is under 30 and showing a lot of faux-tan flesh, but there’s still a small old-school contingency that congregates over pepper biscuits and pignoli. Posters of the television series <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="308549;176123;309492;156308">“Brotherhood”</object.title> (which was filmed in the vicinity) are still displayed in the gentrifying neighborhood. An espresso on Caffe Dolce Vita’s outdoor patio (59 DePasquale Plaza, 401-331-8240; www.caffedolcevita.com ) and a coin toss into the DePasquale Fountain bring images of Fellini to America.
2) TOP TOMATO
No one questions that Al Forno (577 South Main Street, 401-273-9760; www.alforno.com) put Providence on the culinary map three decades ago. And while some foodies prefer the town’s splashier new kitchens, no one does rustic Italian better than the owners, George Germon and Johanne Killeen. Favorites include handmade bread gnocchi with spicy sausage ($19.95), its signature crackling grilled pomodoro pizza ($19.95) and ice cream churned to order. For those who like things intimate, Mr. Germon and Ms. Killeen are opening a 20-seat Mediterranean tapas restaurant this fall, called Tini (200 Washington Street, 401-383-2400).
3) DRAMA AND MUSIC
The Providence Black Repertory may be known for giving voice to a generation of African-American playwrights and artists, but it also has a lounge, Xxodus Café (276 Westminster Street, 401-351-0352; www.blackrep.org), to hear new music. Friday nights belong to Afro-Sonic, a group of D.J.’s and musicians who mix electronic and turntable house music with African djembe and djun-djun drumming.
4) WALKING BACK IN TIME
Study a mile of the city’s most important architecture. The Rhode Island Historical Society (401-273-7507, extension 62; www.rihs.org) gives 90-minute walking tours ($12) of Benefit Street, a quaint strip that sits on College Hill, austerely overlooking the city’s latest condos. Check out the former State House (150 Benefit Street, 401-222-3103) where, in 1776, Rhode Islanders declared independence two months before the rest of the country. Wander through the John Brown House Museum (52 Power Street, 401-273-7507, extension 60), completed in 1788 and home to the founder of Brown University. Other highlights include the Providence Athenaeum (251 Benefit Street, 401-421-6970; www.providenceathenaeum.org), founded in 1753.
5) A GRADUATE’S SHOWING
The RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, 401-454-6500; www.risdmuseum.org) houses 84,000 pieces, from ancient Greek statues to French Impressionist masters. But its collection is also up-to-date and comprehensive, including colored glass by Dale Chihuly, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and a group show of works made entirely of Styrofoam. The Chace Center — a five-story addition expected to open in September — will add a special exhibition gallery.
6) ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Take a brief walk through Brown University’s picturesque campus (www.brown.edu), looking for academic minutiae and interesting sites. Murmur sweet nothings at the rear archway to the Metcalf Chemistry Building (190 Thayer Street), a microcosmic whispering gallery for shy romantics. Enjoy the patriotic air at University Hall (1 Prospect Street) where George Washington accepted an honorary degree in 1790. You can also contemplate the fate of H.P. Lovecraft (<object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="134059">“Weird Tales,”</object.title> <object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="428178">“At the Mountains of Madness”</object.title>), Providence’s pulp fiction aficionado and author, who was denied entrance to Brown in the early 20th century after a nervous breakdown prevented his high school graduation.
7) SHOPPING STREET
Cities can’t earn their cosmopolitan stripes without decent shopping, and Westminster Street rises to the retail challenge. Women congregate at Elsa Arms (231 Westminster Street, 401-383-5558; www.elsaarms.com), a minimalist shop with sleek racks of Nili Lotan dresses ($275 to $350) and Clu tops ($100 to $175). Next door, the more androgynous Clover boutique (233 Westminster Street, 401-490-4626; www.cloverprovidence.com) carries casual Ella Moss knits for her ($68 to $250), and Troglodyte Homunculus button-downs ($165) for him. For quirky gifts, go to Oop! (220 Westminster Street, 401-270-4366; www.oopstuff.com), known for novelty items like sushi-shaped soap ($9.95).
8) DINER CHIC
Once upon a time, Nicks on Broadway (500 Broadway, 401-421-0286; www.nicksonbroadway.com ) was a classic, hash-slinging diner. Then, six years ago, the chef Derek Wagner, who graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, snapped up the diner and gave the blue-plate specials a culinary twist. Popular dishes include garlic-rubbed sirloin with a potato-carrot purée ($24) and curried grilled chicken with baby fennel ($19). Dinner is served Wednesday through Saturday and they take reservations for a reason.
Fourteen years ago, a Brown alumnus and artist named Barnaby Evans created a sculpture of 100 mini-bonfires that marked the convergence of the Providence, Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers in the heart of downtown. The work, WaterFire (www.waterfire.org), continues today, drawing crowds on Saturday evenings between May and October.
10) TAP DANCE
Local 121 (121 Washington Street, 401-274-2121; www.local121.com), a restaurant and nightspot owned by a Rhode Island state senator, Josh Miller, mixes young crowds with old style. Inked students and artists gather to dance among the stained-glass and Art Deco décor of this former hotel from the 1890s.
11) PARTY CLOTHES
For a little snap to go with your coffee, sashay down to the Downcity at Weybosset (50 Weybosset Street, 401-331-9217; www.downcityfood.com), a bright orange restaurant with cathedral-high ceilings that hosts a monthly drag brunch. Try the corned beef hash ($5.50) or the Portuguese bread French toast ($7.50), as the guest hostess, Jacqueline DeMera, keeps the crowd entertained. Proceeds go to AIDS Care Ocean State.
12) IMPRESSIVE ZOO
With 427 green acres, Roger Williams Park offers nature 10 minutes from downtown including a zoo (1000 Elmwood Avenue, 401-785-3510; www.rogerwilliamsparkzoo.org) with African elephants, mongoose lemurs and a giant anteater. And the year-old Botanical Center (401-785-9450; www.providenceri.com/botanical-center) is New England’s largest indoor garden, with a koi pond, a carnivorous plant bog and a garden of red hot flamingo flowers.
Delta flies daily between Kennedy Airport and Providence starting at $358 for travel this month, according to a recent online search. US Airways and United fly from LaGuardia Airport. Amtrak runs daily trains from New York ($108 to $206 on the Northeast regional trains; $230 to $288 on the high-speed Acela). A car is needed to explore areas outside of downtown Providence.
The new Dunkin’ Donuts Convention Center is near several hotels. For architectural buffs, the Providence Biltmore (11 Dorrance Street, 401-421-0700, www.providencebiltmore.com) is in a landmarked 1922 building, with 289 rooms starting at $169.
The Westin Providence (1 West Exchange Street, 401-598-8000; www.westinprovidence.com) is centrally located and has 564 rooms, a heated pool and a full gym. Rooms start at $143.
The Hotel Providence (311 Westminster Street, 401-861-8000; www.hotelprovidence.com) has 80 stylish room featuring works by Nancy Friese, an artist and Rhode Island School of Design professor. Rates begin at $184.