Bostonians often regard Providence as just another restaurant district, a little farther south than the South End, but close enough to eat and get back in time to send the baby sitter home before curfew. But there's more to ``Renaissance City" than boites and bistros. Sure, there are similarities to Beantown in the merchant-prince manses on a hill, the river down the middle, and even a disruptive highway relocation project. Like Boston, Providence is a college town, with the Rhode Island School of Design raising the level of visual effervescence and Johnson & Wales University, Brown University, and Providence College stirring the pot of culinary aspiration. The opposing humps of College and Federal hills retain their Yankee and Italian identities, but a new Providence is stirring in the gully between them as the once-forlorn downtown rises phoenix-like as the Downcity Arts and Entertainment District . Instead of paying the restaurant tab and getting back on the interstate, stay the night and see the city afresh in the morning.
FuelEver since 1980, when RISD grads turned the heads of food critics with grilled pizza and baked pastas at Al Forno (577 South Main St., 401-273-9760, www.alforno.com , entrees $22-$32), Providence has been considered a dining destination. In fact, you can eat well three meals a day.
Tazza Caffe and Lounge (250 Westminster St., 401-421-3300, www.tazzacaffe.com , finger food $5-$12) starts the morning with a truly great cup of joe and serves sandwiches and pizzas midday until late, with live music some evenings.
Cafe Choklad (2 Thomas St., 401-383-4764, salads and sandwiches $6-$8) excels at Scandinavian pastry and artisanal chocolates. Hard-core sweets eaters lunch on the s'more grilled panino of chocolate and marshmallow on brioche.
For authentic Italian, head to the traditional Neapolitan/Sicilian neighborhood of Federal Hill. Casual lunches at the neighborhood's most comprehensive salumeria, Costantino's Venda Ravioli (265 Atwells Ave., 401-421-9105, entrees $7-$13), capitalize on the shop's fresh pastas. There's a tradition in Providence of good restaurants starting as modest food vendors.
L'Epicureo (311 Westminster St., 401-521-3333, www.lepicureo.com , entrees $16-$39) epitomizes chic northern Italian dining. But this posh Downcity adjunct of the Hotel Providence began on Federal Hill as a butcher shop. As fall comes on, the risotto goes woodsy with mushrooms, and seared eggplant and grilled radicchio undergird the oven-roasted lamb.
PlayDave & Buster's (Providence Place Mall, 401-270-4555, www.daveandbusters.com) literally has something for every member of the family, with relatively sophisticated bar and dining areas where the folks can hang while the peeps take to the ``Million Dollar Midway" with its flashing, blazing, ring-a-dinging video games and simulated car crashes.
If you'd rather have your kids tuned to PBS than FX, take them to the cheery educational world of the Providence Children's Museum (100 South St., 401-273-5437, www.childrenmuseum.org , $6.50), where a talking soda can explains how to play the recycling-themed video game.
It's not too late for a classic spin on the carousel (one token) or a ride on a live pony (three tokens) at Roger Williams Park (1000 Elmwood Ave., 401-785-9450, ext. 262, www.rogerwilliamsparkzoo.org , $1.25 per token), where Carousel Park is open at least through Columbus Day.
DoMany visitors to Providence content themselves with tramping the length of Benefit Street to be dazzled by the Colonial, Federal, and occasionally Victorian architecture of the so-called Mile of History. Alas, only one of these trophy homes is regularly open for tours. At the John Brown House Museum (52 Power St., 401-273-7507, www.rihs.org , adults $8, seniors and students $6, ages 7-17 $4), guides give 18th-century slaver and China trader John Brown his due but focus equally on succeeding occupants.
Down the street a few blocks, generations of art and design students have found inspiration at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit St., 401-454-6500, www.risd.edu , adults $8, seniors $5, ages 5-18 $2, college students $3), where a new wing was built in 1994 just for contemporary art.
Artists of the kitchen have risen in status ``from servant to celebrity," notes the Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University (315 Harborside Blvd., 401-598-2805, www.culinary.org , $7, seniors $6, students $3, ages 5-18 $2). Exhibits at this democratic institution range from memorabilia of top chefs and menus from White House dinners to the evolution of the home stove and a paean to the roadside diner.
PartyLocal and national acts rock Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel (79 Washington St., 401-272-5876, www.lupos.com , tickets $15-$40) every few weeks. The same huge room moonlights between gigs as trance dance club Diesel (401-751-2700).
The dance tunes have a smoother vibe (and more melody) at Xxodus Cafe (Providence Black Repertory Co., 276 Westminster St., 401-621-7122, www.blackrep.org ; cafe cover charge $5-$10, theater performances adults $18, children and seniors $10) with a jazz tinge on Fridays and a soul accent on Saturdays -- at least until the rep company season takes over the stage in mid-October. (Xxodus will remain open Monday through Wednesday.)
Speaking of rep -- new artistic director Curt Columbus just launched the acclaimed Trinity Repertory Company (201 Washington St., 401-351-4242, www.trinityrep.com , tickets $20-$60) season with his own translation of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard."
If your own friends are entertainment enough, Providence is also a great bar city. With both indoor and outdoor wharf seating, the Hot Club (575 S. Water St., 401-861-9007) is the good-times waterfront watering hole featured in the 1998 flick "There's Something About Mary."
SpendAs the Beaux-Arts buildings of Downcity get new life as luxury lofts, chic design stores are taking over the street-level spaces. The hippest and best-designed accessories are found at risd | works (10 Westminster St., 401-277-4949, www.risdworks.com ), which focuses on creations by RISD alumni and faculty. Think graceful dishware, sleek kitchen utensils, stylish MP3-player cases, killer tote bags, architectonic jewelry, and more.
Providence remains a hotbed of studio jewelry, as the cases reveal at Martina & Company (120 North Main St., 401-351-0968, www.martina-company.com ).
Downcity's Symposium Books (240 Westminster St., 401-273-7900, www.symposiumbooks.com ) stocks tomes on aesthetics, politics, art, and philosophy ``for serious readers, writers, and thinkers."
The rest of us might be more comfortable over on Thayer Street, the student shopping ghetto next to Brown University, where the ace souvenir shop Only in Rhode Island (297 Thayer St., 401-276-0600, www.onlyinrhodeisland.com ) sells home-state goods, including a retrospective volume of the wry cartoons of Don Bosquet, whose musings on coffee milk and low-numbered license plates gently lampoon local idiosyncrasies.
RestPicking a lodging is a matter of deciding which era of Providence you'd like to inhabit. The Old Court Bed and Breakfast (144 Benefit St., 401-751-2002, www.oldcourt.com , double $115-$195) on the Mile of History occupies an Italianate manse with soaring ceilings.
Reigning over the central city, the Providence Biltmore (11 Dorrance St., 800-294-7709, 401-421-0700, www.providencebiltmore.com , double $189-$319) has reclaimed its Deco-era opulence (and local character) with a just-completed renovation. The fresh and tasteful rooms, rather less sumptuous than the public areas, make pleasant retreats for sleeping.
Design-conscious Hotel Providence (311 Westminster St., 800-861-8990, 401-861-8000, www.thehotelprovidence.com , double $189-$239) helped pioneer the recently flagged Downcity Arts and Entertainment District. The city's first contemporary boutique hotel combines modernist lines with rich fabrics and colors. The in-house restaurant, L'Epicureo, also serves a great breakfast to guests.
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the name of cartoonist Don Bousquet was misspelled in Wednesday's Travel section Close-Up on Providence.)