The Escape Artist
The Artful Lodger
Discovering Providence’s unexpected side
To Bostonians, Providence’s only lures may seem to be Brown, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the occasional colonial building. The city, however, is a surprise. A hybrid of Parisian beauty and Austin creativity, even the commuter rail station feels novel. Shallow fountains populate parks, and wide low-hanging bridges over the Woonasquatucket River resemble a scene from the banks of the Seine. The State House looks like a larger-scale Les Invalides, while the baroque-style City Hall comes complete with a traditional French mansard roof. But suddenly, you realize that the storefront you just passed is filled with life-size, one-eyed monsters constructed from foam, that half of the people on the block have multicolored hair, and there’s a free belly-dancing performance on the next corner. Home to the Rhode Island School of Design, quirky, unexpected touches permeate this city. Luckily, in a place founded on freedom, you’ll never have to choose between the two personalities.
For the most convenient experience, keep your itinerary concentrated to downtown, or downcity. The Hotel Providence is located a few blocks away from lots of shops and restaurants, and the interior looks like a modern interpretation of a hotel from the late 1800s, with Corinthian marble columns and a Nutcracker-style grandfather clock adorning the lobby. The rooms themselves are opulent, with red plush chairs complemented by rich olive-green accents, turning a bedroom into a boudoir.
Head over to Westminster, a tree-lined street with dangling Christmas lights, known as the boutique haven of downcity. Try the Queen of Hearts and its sister store, Modern Love, for colorful, vintage-inspired women’s apparel and accessories, with sales to satisfy a starving artist’s budget. Pick up a novel at Symposium Books and order a chai tea at the Small Point Café, a coffeehouse with exposed brick and big leather couches. On the corner of Westminster is a local sweet spot, Craftland, that houses one-of-a-kind gifts such as a paper-monster kit ($11) or catnip French fries ($9), complete with a McDonalds-style fry bag. If you want to claim that you went to art school in Rhode Island, Craftland also offers classes like skateboard stenciling and postcard knitting. (It’s a lot cheaper than paying tuition.)
On nondescript Eddy Street, you’ll pass a building that looks like a Hollywood storage space for an alien invasion movie. Inside is Big Nazo, a workshop that specializes in life-size puppets used for performance art. The puppets—which include aliens, monsters, beasts and Romney and Obama—are a combination of a sweeter Dr. Frankenstein and a more absurd Jim Henson. Visitors are welcome to try the puppets on, or to befriend the resident cat, Solo, who takes afternoon naps on the monsters’ heads.
Your culinary palate can be gratified at Hotel Providence’s Aspire, where chef Gregory P. Krol’s dishes are works of art in their own right. The menu changes about every three months, but Krol’s airy duck spring rolls have stayed consistent throughout the last four iterations. Equally succulent is the steak frites, a hefty portion of thick-cut fries and a marinated skirt steak with a drizzle of the restaurant’s tangy house-made sauce. The raspberry cheesecake with a honey granola crumble is half-cheesecake, half-molten-lava cake, oozing raspberry puree from the center. After licking the plate clean, head to the outdoor courtyard, where you can listen to free jazz on Friday nights.
Like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, Providence nightlife caters to every possible demographic. Artists find their niche at the Salon, a club-like space strewn with bare wooden picnic tables and pinball machines, and there’s a late-night snack menu consisting of PB&J, Fluffernutter and s’mores sandwiches. Hipsters will appreciate orders of Pickle Backs—shots of Jameson chased with pickle juice. Yuppies should visit the upscale, low-key Red Fez. A haven for locals, the bar’s only sign is a picture of a red fez against a black wood backing, making it tough to spot at night, but well worth the trouble.
While Providence’s colleges and universities may define the city, don’t ignore its decadent desserts, architectural flair and Cyclops puppets. Simply put, the place has a certain je ne sais quoi.
• For a quick breakfast before your ride home, check out Temple Downtown, where you can sit outside next to the State House.
• Hotel Providence is dog-friendly and even offers a “yappy” hour for pets and their owners.
Hotel Providence and Aspire Restaurant
139 Mathewson St., Providence | 800-861-8990 | hotelprovidence.com
Queen of Hearts
220 Westminster St., Providence | 401-421-1471 | queenofheartsprovidence.com
222 Westminster St., Providence | 401-421-1471 | queenofheartsprovidence.com
240 Westminster St., Providence | 401-273-7900 | symposiumbooks.com
Small Point Café
230 Westminster St., Providence | 401-228-6999 | smallpointcafe.com
235 Westminster St., Providence | 401-272-4285 | craftlandshop.com
60 Eddy St., Providence | 401-831-9652 | bignazo.com
57 Eddy St., Providence | 401-865-6330 | thesalonpvd.com
The Red Fez
49 Peck St., Providence | 401-272-1212