It would be a stretch to call Cranston a destination. But if you find yourself in this sprawling city next door to Providence, take time to explore its nooks and crannies. Cranston has two distinct identities: Its densely urban eastern half is heavily developed and jammed with homes and businesses, while its western side is dotted with fields, farms, and a few newish subdivisions. A sliver of the city even has waterfront charm, thanks to its location on Narragansett Bay, which laps against quaint Pawtuxet Village. Cranston's multifaceted personality means you can visit a yacht club, shop at a farm stand, and hit the malls all in the same day. And a bounty of old-fashioned Italian bakeries -- think ricotta cookies, red-wine biscuits, savory spinach pies, and 50-cent pizza slices -- makes Rhode Island's third-largest city a chowhound's dream.
DoPawtuxet Village (pawtuxet.com) is a darling little waterfront community along Narragansett Bay. Near Pawtuxet Cove, where the Pawtuxet River flows into the upper bay, stately Colonial and Victorian homes on tree-lined streets overlook the water. And Pawtuxet Park, with its pretty gazebo, is a summertime spot for concerts and kayaking.
Much of Cranston has been developed to the hilt, but scattered amid its busy roads, thickly settled neighborhoods, and ubiquitous malls are several historic homes, including the circa 1790 Governor Sprague Mansion (1351 Cranston St.), the opulent, 28-room former home of William Sprague, a cotton manufacturing magnate, and the circa 1754 Joy Homestead (156 Scituate Ave.), a farmhouse that Cranston Historical Society president Lydia Rapoza describes as "not touched by time." For tours, call the Cranston Historical Society (1351 Cranston St., 401-944-9226, cranstonhistoricalsociety.org).
And fill your belly with oven-hot bread, fresh-baked pizza, homemade biscotti, and vegetable pies from one of Cranston's Italian bakeries, such as Crugnale (567 Reservoir Ave., 401-781-8800), Calvitto's (1401 Park Ave., 401-464-4200 and 285 Park Ave., 401-941-8863), Solitro's (1594 Cranston St., 401-942-9840), and DeFusco's (1350 Park Ave., 401-944-0650; 995 Pontiac Ave., 401-461-3970; 1828 Broad St., 401-467-2110).
FuelNeighboring Providence may have a reputation as a foodie city, but Cranston's eateries can hold their own. The city's sizable Italian population means there's a plethora of Italian restaurants, particularly in the Knightsville neighborhood, including Caffe Itri (1686 Cranston St., 401-942-1970, caffeitri.com), L'Osteria (1703 Cranston St., 401-943-3140), and Vesuvio (1401 Park Ave., 401-942-8060, vesuviori.com).
Down the road, Feast or Famine (1099 Park Ave., 401-383-7717, feastorfamineri.com) specializes in wood-grilled cuisine and T's Restaurant (1059 Park Ave., 401-946-5900, tsrestaurantri.com) is a casual spot for breakfast and lunch (try the "ooey-gooey French toast," an egg-dipped grilled cinnamon bun).
Head to Rim Nahm (2212 Broad St., 401-467-7897) in Pawtuxet Village for Thai food. In the Oaklawn neighborhood, Mariana's Gourmet Catering (991 Oaklawn Ave., 401-787-0797) makes great prepared foods to go and retro Wein-O-Rama (1009 Oaklawn Ave., 401-943-4990) serves $1.50 hot dogs. Another cheap eats option is Mr. Peabody's (2005 Broad St., 401-941-2258, mrpeabodyscafe.com), the self-described "home of white trash/gourmet fusion."
The upscale sweets shop Ursula's European Pastries (1860 Broad St., 401-941-4122, ursulaspastries.com) won my lasting loyalty when I got two petit fours for the price of one because, the cashier said, "the first one seems too small."
RestMy top choice for local lodging is Edgewood Manor (232 Norwood Ave. 401-781-0099, edgewoodmanor.com), an ornately appointed bed-and-breakfast just across the bay from Providence. It calls itself "an elegant reminder of Rhode Island's opulent past," a description that couldn't be more apt. The same owners run the Charles Newhall House next door, which offers the same great location but not the manor house's grandeur.
Also in the Edgewood neighborhood, which is convenient to Brown University and Roger Williams Park and Zoo, is Albert House (195 Albert Ave., 401-461-0906 ), another B&B.
One local budget hotel is the Days Inn (101 New London Ave., 401-942-4200).
PlayOn a rainy day, one cure for cabin fever is Mulligan's Island Golf & Entertainment (1000 New London Ave., 401-464-8855, mulligansisland.com), a family-fun complex with a driving range, mini-golf, and batting cages. Another kid-pleaser is Kaleidoscope Theatre (65 Freedom Drive, 401-942-3637, kaleidoscopetheatre.com), a professional touring theater company that does "fairy tale musicals" and dinner theater shows.
The Artists' Exchange (50 Rolfe Square, 401-490-9475, artists-exchange.org), home of the Art Company and Black Box Theatre, offers children's classes in art, theater, film, and music. It also hosts birthday parties where kids can produce a movie, star in a play, and make crafts. A group called To the Pointe of Performing Arts (999 Oaklawn Ave., 401-942-5554, tothepointeofperformingarts.com) hosts parties, too, ranging from Hawaiian to hip-hop and complete with pizza, punch, and T-shirts.
There's also R&R to be found at the Cranston Country Club (69 Burlingame Road, 401-826-1683, cranstoncc.com), a public 18-hole course, and Cranston Bike Path, a former rail line that connects to other paths in Warwick and Coventry, for a total length of about 10 miles.
PartyFor rip-roaring live entertainment on weekend nights, make a beeline for Pawtuxet Village's L'Attitude (2190 Broad St., 401-780-8700, lattitudemoderneatery.com), which also happens to be a pretty good restaurant (we really liked the prosciutto-cured salmon with strawberry-balsamic glaze and grilled yellowfin tuna with artichoke-tomato-basil relish).
There's a tamer scene a few doors away at Little Falls Bakery & Cafe (2166 Broad St., 401-781-8010, littlefallscafe.com), a cozy spot with a gas fireplace that serves light meals and hosts live acoustic music on Thursday evenings.
The Grind (1401 Park Ave., 401-223-1212) bills itself as a martini bar, which sounds classy, but the place was college-bar sticky when we visited -- although maybe that stickiness is less noticeable after a few martinis.
SpendFor one-stop shopping in Cranston, it's hard to beat Garden City Center (100 Midway Road, 401-942-2800, gardencitycenter.com), an open-air "village" that's basically an outdoor mall with more than 70 stores. But why patronize chain stores when you can support unique businesses like Cap-a-Pie (2190 Broad St., 401-270-7181), a small boutique for women and children's clothing and accessories, and Art & Soul Gifts (2007 Broad St., 401-461-4511, artandsoulgifts.com), an artisans' gallery.
Pets need pampering, too, and Edgewoof Pet Bakery (1862 Broad St., 401-228-7190, edgewoofpetbakery.com), which specializes in organic and holistic pet products, offers plenty of ways to indulge your kitty or pooch. Its motto: "Pawsitively great stuff for your pet."
On Cranston's west side, Pippin Orchard (751 Pippin Orchard Road, 401-943-7096) is one of several local farm stands that sell apples, jams, pumpkin butters, and other homemade goods.
After all those healthy fruit products, you'll be ready for a stop at Betty's Candy Corner (48 Rolfe Square, 401-467-2727, bettyscandy.com) for dark chocolate caramels, nut clusters, and chocolate bark.