Rhode Island Holiday Planning Guide
Despite being the country's smallest state, Rhode Island includes over 640 km (400 mi) of coastline, courtesy of Narragansett Bay and more than 30 islands. Most of the state is part of the U.S. mainland, despite its somewhat misleading name. Though it takes only about 40 minutes to drive across this tiny part of New England, Rhode Island includes more white sandy beaches than most visitors can hope to explore on a single trip. The state's one big city and surrounding small towns brim with places to visit, such as museums, galleries, restaurants, bars, and historical neighborhoods packed with colonial-era buildings--giving you plenty of Rhode Island vacation ideas.
Places to Visit in Rhode IslandNewport
: Packed with historical colonial-era buildings, luxurious mansions, and waterfront scenery, 17th-century Newport features a bustling harbor and a whole host of classic Rhode Island attractions, many of which are tied closely to the sea.Providence
: Though the capital of America's smallest state, Providence boasts a sizeable population and a definite big-city feel, enticing visitors with grand architecture, a pleasant city center, distinctive historical neighborhoods, and an energetic nightlife.Narragansett
: Lengthy stretches of attractive beaches, plentiful waterfront arcades, and even a bumping pleasure pier make Narragansett a fantastic stop on a Rhode Island tour for both relaxation and outdoor activities.Warwick
: Rhode Island's second-largest city, charming Warwick is a veritable vault of colonial-era American history, and bore witness to the first episode of the colonies' armed rebellion against Great Britain in 1772.Westerly
: Home to one of the state's most popular beaches, Westerly offers just about everything you'd want from a waterfront playground, from antique arcades and amusement rides to mini golf and beachfront dining.Block Island
: Flush with verdant farmland, beautiful coastal bluffs, and several notable lighthouses, bucolic Block Island remains a renowned getaway for those looking to enjoy the great outdoors.
Things to Do in Rhode Island
Popular Rhode Island Tourist AttractionsCliff Walk
: Stretching for 5.6 km (3.5 mi) along the island's shore, the mostly paved Cliff Walk represents one of the top outdoor attractions in Rhode Island, where you can enjoy stunning New England sea views and marvel at some of the 18th century's finest mansions.The Breakers
: Boasting the status of a National Historic Landmark, this architectural marvel (and family home of the Vanderbilt family) features 70 rooms, luxurious decorations throughout, spectacular sea views, and gorgeous Renaissance-style facades.Newport Mansions
: A conglomeration of 14 of Rhode Island's most renowned properties, the Newport Mansions represent a treasure trove of architectural styles and Gilded Age-elegance.Roger Williams Park Zoo
: The Roger Williams Park Zoo offers you the chance to get up close to more than 100 species of exotic critters from around the globe, including some of North America's most iconic animals, in expansive themed habitats.Ocean Drive Historic District
: A hallmark of many Rhode Island itineraries, Ocean Drive takes you along the Atlantic shoreline, passing secluded coves and rocky bluffs where the region's wealthy built their mansions during the 19th and 20th centuries.The Elms
: Completed in 1901, this elegant summer mansion of the coal-baron Berwind family features architecture reminiscent of the grand chateaux of France; tour its decadent interior from perspectives of both the rich and their servants.RISD Museum
: More than 80,000 works grace the halls of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, including notable collections of artwork from the ancient world, France, and the United States.Marble House
: Yet another Vanderbilt mansion, the Marble House ranks among the forerunners of the popular Beaux Arts style of architecture, with expansive, luxurious interiors to match.Thames Street
: Newport's main shopping thoroughfare, the charming Thames Street has its origins in the 17th century and gives you access to a huge array of boutique stores, historical architecture, and trendy cafes.Mohegan Bluffs
: The site of a 16th-century Native American battle, Mohegan Bluffs rise 46 m (150 ft) above the ocean below; today the clay cliffs provide great walking opportunities and beach access along with stunning vistas of the vast Atlantic Ocean.
Planning a Rhode Island Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Rhode Island with Kids
Rhode Island's attractions are relatively evenly distributed, meaning that you'll have plenty of options when it comes to planning your trip. Newport, Providence, Warwick, and Narragansett boast a diverse array of things to do between them, so any combination of these larger cities could likely fill up your vacation without a problem. The state's small size works to your advantage, letting you mix and match destinations as you wish. Consider stopping by places like Cumberland
, and Westerly--all solid kid-friendly locations. Of course, Block Island
and Prudence Island are havens for outdoor activities, with plenty of room for the kids to stretch their legs.
Things to Do in Rhode Island with Kids
Rhode Island features a huge selection of top-notch local parks with child-friendly green spaces, well-maintained hiking and walking trails, and extraordinary scenery that can impress the little ones and adults alike. Roger Williams Park, one of the state's best, boasts 173 hectares (427 acres) of spectacular lake and forest scenery, historical cottages, and plenty of paths that let you take it all in at your own pace. Fort Wetherill State Park
and Fort Getty Park
, both former World War II-era coastal defense stations, now offer plenty of verdant open spaces and waterfront areas.
Nature and animal life are also hallmark Rhode Island attractions, with imaginative and engaging elements sure to grab the attention of younger visitors. The Roger Williams Park Zoo is a can't-miss stop for families. Farther afield, consider stopping by Biomes Marine Biology Center
or Exploration Center & Aquarium
, both offering interactive and entertaining exhibits to teach kids about Rhode Island's rich marine ecosystems and conservation efforts. Wright's Dairy Farm and Bakery
allows everyone to get an up-close look at a real, working farm--and also sells plenty of home-baked treats to enjoy afterwards. Providence Children's Museum
features nature-related displays as well as hands-on exhibits focusing on science, the arts, and the natural world.
If in need of a break from your Rhode Island sightseeing, consider heading for one of the fantastic local beaches. There are countless coves and sandy stretches to choose from, though Beavertail Park
, Roger W. Wheeler State Beach
, Scarborough Beach
, and Fort Adams State Park
are some of the more popular. Keep in mind, too, that beaches generally offer free entry, meaning you can entertain the kids at little to no cost.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Rhode Island
Consider renting a car for the duration of your tour of Rhode Island, as the state's small size makes the hassle of public transportation an unnecessary adventure. Car rental is also an economical option, as bus and train fares for larger families can burn through your wallet surprisingly quickly. If you plan on visiting museums or other educational facilities like zoos or science centers, be sure to inquire about family tickets. These group fares often offer sizable discounts on the price of admission per head, and can help make your trip budget stretch much farther.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Rhode Island
Cuisine of Rhode Island
Rhode Island's coastal location and array of islands means that the state's native grub has long been closely intertwined with the bounty of the sea. Fish and calamari are readily available at restaurants, and their Southern European-style preparation traces back to the state's large population of Portuguese and Italians. However, it's shellfish that truly take the cake here. Clams abound in Rhode Island cooking, and many locals would call it a crime to go your whole Rhode Island vacation without sampling some. Don't miss chowing down on tasty fried clam cakes (also known as clam fritters), enjoying some bacon-coated clams casino, or devouring a bowl of delicious clam chowder. Chowder is popular in both the classic New England and tomato-based Manhattan varieties, as well as in a special Rhode Island-style featuring a clear broth.
Pizza strips are a common staple of local bakeries and make for great snacks on the go. Cut into rectangular slices, these Italian-inspired treats don't usually have cheese, but instead feature a thick layer of flavorful tomato paste. Hot wieners, hot dogs made from a mixture of pork and veal, are a twist on the all-American favorite thanks to their sprinkling of spices and topping of meat sauce. Add a little culinary adventure to your Rhode Island trip and try the family-style snail salad: this huge serving of cooked snails is a state specialty. If tourism is taking its toll, perk up with some coffee milk--essentially milk infused with coffee syrup, available in just about every roadside stand and convenience store.
Shopping in Rhode Island
If you're looking for upscale malls with a wide range of well-known chains and brands, Warwick Mall
, Garden City Center
, Providence Place Mall
, and the Crossing at Smithfield are all popular options. Each offers various options for dining and snacking as well as full-service movie theaters. However, Rhode Island also plays home to a number of independent shops and craft stores where you can find lots of interesting wares. In Newport, Thames Street
is the cream of the crop when it comes to shopping in a historical setting. Boutique stores, antique shops, and a whole host of other quirky establishments line the road, and whether you end up buying something or not it's certainly a Rhode Island attraction worth visiting. Alternatively, browse Thames Glass
for a beautiful souvenir of your trip. If food is more your forte, head for Venda Ravioli
in Providence, a traditional Italian food store that honors the state's influential Italian heritage.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Rhode Island
History of Rhode Island
The year 1636 saw Roger Williams, an early religious libertarian, banished from the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony for his "radical" views on religious freedom. He traveled south to found Providence Plantation, a haven for religious minorities and persecuted groups and the kernel of modern Rhode Island. See a legacy of Williams' idea of religious freedom by stopping by the colonial-era Touro Synagogue
, the oldest synagogue in the country. Brown University
also bears a similar legacy, founded in 1764 as a forum for religious dissent and discussion.
Though the colony was later absorbed into the authority of the British crown, the population's revolutionary mindset would go a long way towards formulating the colony's independent spirit and fierce defense of its autonomy in the coming years. On the night of June 10, 1772, Rhode Island became the site of the first armed resistance to British rule, when a number of citizens of Providence, angry with what they saw as unfair trade policies levied by the government, mobbed and torched a revenue ship in Narragansett Bay. As the American Revolution erupted in the early 1770s, Rhode Island lay at the forefront of the Continental Congress, and sent huge numbers of soldiers to the Continental Army. On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first British colony to declare its independence from the crown.
As technology advanced after the American Revolution, Rhode Island grew into one of the new nation's most industrialized regions. Textile factories in particular became a major part of the state economy, led in large part by a man named Samuel Slater, who opened America's very first textile mill in 1790. You can learn more about the state's industrial legacy by adding Slater Mill Museum
to your Rhode Island itinerary.
Rhode Island was also one of the first states to send troops to fight on the side of the Union when the Civil War broke out in 1861. While industrial capacity was perhaps Rhode Island's greatest contribution, thousands of native sons participated in the fight to reunite the nation. Following the war, Rhode Island continued its tradition of progressivism by abolishing, at least in theory, practices of racial segregation. The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries saw the rise of a wealthy industrial elite, for whom the shores of Narragansett Bay became increasingly attractive as a beautiful holiday destination. Families like the Vanderbilts and Astors constructed luxurious mansions along the sea, helped to create some of the area's most iconic architecture--gems of Rhode Island tourism to this day. Marvel at it yourself by paying a visit to historical homes like The Breakers or districts like Bellevue Avenue
Beginning in the 1930s, Rhode Island grew into a bastion of the Democratic Party, supported by the state's huge population of working-class citizens employed in an array of industrial ventures. Though the industries have since fallen quiet, Rhode Island remains a firmly progressive part of the country. Today, the state has transitioned into a service-based economy, and the area plays home to a large commuter population who make their way to Boston for work. On top of that, Rhode Island's many historic sites continue to provide a major draw for locals and visitors alike.
Landscape of Rhode Island
Defined by its coastal position, Rhode Island is only 60 km (37 mi) across and 77 km (48 mi) long, yet features a varied landscape. The state's inland reaches are home to bucolic vistas of rolling, grassy hills and extensive swathes of preserved forests, as well as a number of winding rivers. That said, the topography remains relatively flat across the state: Rhode Island's highest point, Jerimoth Hill, only reaches a height of 247.5 m (812 ft). The interior's hills drop off as they approach Narragansett Bay, the state's most notable feature, occasionally ending in rugged cliffs like Mohegan Bluffs
. In the bay itself, the coastline devolves into a series of rocky islands and islets, many of which are among the most popular places to visit in Rhode Island. Aquidneck Island plays home to Newport, with Prudence and Conanicut Islands not far away. Farther south, on its own, lies Block Island
Holidays & Festivals in Rhode Island
As in the rest of the United States, major national holidays are met with plenty of fanfare. The New Year, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are all witness to lots of decorations around cities and towns, along with numerous community celebrations.
In addition, Rhode Island hosts a range of fun state festivals as well. Probably the most famous is the Newport Folk Festival, which kicks off during the first weekend of August with a raucous range of bluegrass, country, and folk music combined with plenty of newer indie and alternative acts. A counterculture tradition since 1959, the festival draws scores of visitors to its gorgeous peninsular setting in Fort Adams State Park. For something a little sportier, try the Newport International Polo Series, displaying a classic East Coast pastime on pleasant summer evenings. The Washington County Fair is one of the state's most popular, featuring plenty of farm-themed competitions, friendly animals, and awesome fairground food. Get a taste of the state's killer cuisine at the seafood festival in Charlestown
; held at the beginning of August, the event includes a range of food stands and funfair-style rides. While sightseeing in Rhode Island, keep your eyes peeled for listings, flyers, and signs advertising local gatherings and events, many of which may not be readily found online.
Rhode Island Travel Tips
Climate of Rhode Island
Rhode Island features a humid climate with very discernable hot and cold seasons. Temperatures peak in July and August, with sticky highs of more than 28 C (82 F) relatively common. If you plan on touring Rhode Island during this time, be sure to stay hydrated as the humidity can be deceptive. On the flip side, the coldest months of December, January, and February see temperatures that can regularly drop to -1 C (30 F), accompanied by fairly routine snowfall. The two extremes vary slightly less along the coast, where the waters of the Atlantic Ocean help to regulate the climate, resulting in warmer winters and cooler summers. Rhode Island is also hit with the occasional "nor'easter," a type of powerful storm that wreaks havoc on the coast of New England. These giant weather systems can cause huge amounts of flooding, snow, and gale-force winds across the state; follow the local forecast if visiting in winter, and adhere to any travel advisories.
Transportation in Rhode Island
Though distances in the state are short, cars still rule in Rhode Island. Do consider renting a vehicle for your Rhode Island vacation: you can cross the state in about an hour on a good day, and having your own wheels gives you unmatched flexibility when it comes to hopping between the most popular sights. On top of that, you won't be beholden to public transportation schedules. Interstate 95 runs across the state and serves as a convenient travel artery.
However, you can certainly manage with public transport. Rhode Island's major cities feature decent local bus networks, while longer-range buses and trains run by Amtrak can whizz you relatively quickly between cities like Kingston, Westerly, and Providence, as well as to nearby Boston and New York. In order to get to Block Island, Prudence Island, and other more secluded coastal areas, you can hop aboard the seasonal ferry service and enjoy a bit of a free sightseeing tour along the way.