“Are you visiting?” the Uber driver asks when he picks me up from Providence Station. It’s been a decade since I’ve been a visitor in Providence, and I hesitate before answering. “I am,” I tell him, “but I used to live here.” I’ve come to spend the weekend in Providence for my five year college reunion. “It hasn’t changed much,” the driver tells me. The skyline certainly hasn’t changed, but as we drive past the familiar storefronts on Thayer Street, it’s uncanny to see so many of them with different names, and I do not yet know if I believe him.
I spent my first night above the Mason Dixon Line in Providence ten years ago. It was the summer after my junior year of high school, and my parents and I were traveling up the East Coast to visit colleges. Brown University was my dream school, but as a middle-class, rural Mississippian, I thought I had no chance of ever actually attending. It was the biggest shock of my life when I got in. I arrived in Providence the next fall, stunned and grateful, with a grant that covered my tuition, and struggling to grasp the idea that this would be my home for the next four years.
Other than an attempted visit that was thwarted by a blizzard a few years ago, this is the first time I’ve been back since graduation. As one of the oldest cities in the country, Providence has always been known for its history, culture, and education. Though small, it’s incredibly diverse, and the culinary scene and art community have been steadily growing for more than a decade. But The Creative Capital, as it’s rebranded itself, was often overlooked. It was never quite a tourist draw, never a destination. And then in 2014, Travel + Leisure named Providence “America’s favorite city,” and in 2015, GQ named it the “Coolest City in the United States,” and suddenly everyone’s started to notice.
After dropping off my things in the dorm room where I’ll stay for the weekend, I grab tea at Blue State Coffee and start walking. Brown’s campus sits atop College Hill overlooking downtown. It’s only a three block walk from the top of the hill to the bottom, but steep enough that a trip up and down feels like a solid leg workout. The Athenaeum, one of the oldest libraries in America, sits halfway down the hill. From the outside it’s an imposing stone fortress, but the inside is a cocoon of warmth with globe lights, wooden ladders and floors, an antique card catalog, and an incredible collection of rare books. It’s one of my favorite buildings in Providence. Though it’s not a huge place, it’s full of hidden nooks and alcoves that hint at something you can’t quite see. It’s the same sense of mystery you find throughout Providence — the sense of a lingering past. This is the library where Edgar Allan Poe wooed the poet Sarah Helen Whitman and, as the story goes, you can still hear him after hours, shuffling around in the upstairs Art Room where their portraits hang.
The front entrance of the Athenaeum sits on Benefit Street, a mile of Colonial and Victorian Era houses in every color I can name. Trees canopy the brick sidewalks like a movie scene. It’s the most beautiful street in the city and feels like the epitome of New England.
I continue down the hill, passing the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) campus and its Fleet Library, formerly a giant Italian Renaissance-style bank now repurposed and boasting one of the most stunning interior designs I’ve ever seen. I walk down Westminster Street, which in the past decade has gone from a street of derelict storefronts to one of pop-up art shops, clothing stores, coffee shops, and restaurants. On my way back uphill, I pass Cable Car Cafe and Cinema, the local Art House Theater where viewers sit on couches instead of theater seats.
I meet up with friends for dinner. We walk to Wickenden Street in Fox Point, a residential neighborhood with restaurants, cafes, and India Point Park. We try to get dinner at The Duck and Bunny — an adorable restaurant/cafe with chandeliers and incredible crepes. It defines itself as a “snuggery,” and in fact, it is so snug that getting a table during peak times can be a challenge. We end up at Angkor instead — a Cambodian restaurant with the menu written on a white board and only a handful of tables, which makes you feel as though you’ve been invited to dine in someone’s kitchen.
Providence is home to dozens of acclaimed restaurants. Alumni of the famous culinary program at Johnson and Wales University downtown often stay in the city to start restaurants after graduating. Many of these alumni-run restaurants, like Gracie’s, Birch, Nick’s on Broadway, Persimmon, and North, have become a huge tourist draw for the city. Down the street sits the iconic Al Forno, famous for being the birthplace of grilled pizza, and CAV, one of the most unique and eclectic restaurants I’ve ever seen. But Providence has plenty of less-than-splurge-price gems, like Bagel Gourmet, East Side Pockets, and Angkor, so when you’re running low on time or money, you can still experience Providence’s incredible culinary scene.
The next day, I return to Wickenden Street to one of my favorite coffee shops on Earth. The Coffee Exchange prioritizes roasting and serving sustainably sourced, fair trade coffee from around the world. It has a rustic, cabin-in-the woods feel that draws everyone in, and there’s a faded path in the wooden floor from the volume of customers over the past thirty years. It’s the type of place where you can ask a barista if they happen to have a giant burlap sack you could have, and someone immediately retreats to find you one. (This actually happened once.)
After a lunch at the college, I walk with friends to Ives Street for my first visit to Like No Udder. It started several years ago as a food truck — the first all vegan, soft serve ice cream truck in the world — and was so successful that they recently opened a store. They serve soft serve and hard ice cream with all the toppings you could ever want, as well as floats, shakes, and other deserts. My lactose intolerance and I rejoice. The consistency may not be indistinguishable from real ice cream, but the taste makes up for it.
Later I walk to Prospect Terrace Park where a giant statue of Roger Williams, who founded the city in 1636, looks out over the best view in town. Then I continue on down the hill past the First Baptist Church of America, founded two years later, to the river downtown to see WaterFire.
During the warmer months, WaterFire takes place on Saturdays at sundown. It’s part art installation, part festival where people line the sides of the river to watch as over 100 bonfires are lit in the water, making the river a warm, glowing snake through the center of the city. Living statues pose throughout the crowd, crafts and snacks are sold in booths on side streets, and ethereal music plays from hidden speakers. Gondolas make their way up and down the river between the fires, and the crowd is near silent, transfixed.
Back up the hill sits the campus of Brown University, and though I am admittedly biased, it deserves a tour of its own, even if you’re not a prospective student. Much of the most fascinating history of Providence is affiliated with the school, and the campus is a gorgeous mix of eclectic modern buildings and centuries-old, ivy-covered buildings that look like they belong in oil paintings.
I can’t fit all the things in my visit that I wish I could, as I unfortunately don’t have time for the trek to Federal Hill on the West Side, where Italian markets and restaurants line the street, and back downtown to Cellar Stories, the best used bookstore in town, where I once purchased 18 books for $40, and to see a concert at the revived Columbus Theater. With an extra day, I’d take the RIPTA (Rhode Island Public Transit Authority) bus to Newport to look at the mansions, eat seafood, and browse stores for things I only wish I could afford. But I have to tell my friends goodbye and head back to the train station. I’m relieved that in spite of the new hype and tourists, Providence is still the same city I remembered.
There are legends about people who are never able to leave Providence. If you see a man in a top hat taking a midnight stroll down Benefit, it’s just Edgar Allan Poe, who doesn’t want to leave yet, much like H.P. Lovecraft, whose grave stone a couple miles away in Swan Point Cemetery reads “I Am Providence.” And though I never saw any long-dead gentlemen in top hats, part of me feels like I really could have. It makes sense that they would stay. There’s something about this city that never quite lets you go.
Kayla Smith grew up in rural Mississippi but spent the past ten years living in Rhode Island, New York, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. She received her BA from Brown University and her MFA from Columbia University. She spends as much time as possible reading books and riding trains.