Providence, Rhode Island: The Best College Town

Benefit St Providence RI, one of many brick sidewalked streets of this pretty small city.
Benefit St Providence RI, one of many brick sidewalked streets of this pretty small city.  Shelley Seale photo.

Students, Artists, and Foodies: Providence Has Something for Everyone

By Sarah Robertson

The Rhode Island Capitol building as seen from the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Providence. Photos by Sarah Robertson.
The Rhode Island Capitol building as seen from the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Providence. Photos by Sarah Robertson.

Artists flock to Providence to attend the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and take part in the vibrant art scene. Bright minds gather to study in the halls and libraries of Brown University.

The culinary masterminds of Johnson & Wales cook in the city’s finest restaurants and tend the swankiest bars.

The University of Rhode Island is home to over 16,000 students, each one adding something new to their beloved city of Providence.

So many students with so much to do make Providence one of nations’s best college towns. Small enough to explore and urban enough to be part of a real community, Providence is fertile ground for young minds.

The WaterFire Festivals, the famous Providence food trucks, shopping at Providence Place, and the nightlife of Wickenden Street are just some of perks students get living in the city.

You don’t have to be a college student to love Providence either; just come to the city with a creative mind and a big appetite and you will grow to love the city just as much as a local.

Food Fanatics

Providence loves food. Providence loves food from trucks, food from bars and pizza shops, food from fancy restaurants, and food from the tiny Italian bakeries.

With such a vibrant, diverse college crowd it is no wonder that the food of Providence has evolved to appeal to everyone’s taste buds.

Dining in DePasquale Square.
Dining in DePasquale Square.

Providence’s Little Italy, a strip of stores and restaurants along Federal Hill is a favorite stop for foodies. Everything from elegant dining to casual cafes can be found along the strip. I got breakfast in at Palmieri’s Bakery & Café, in DePasquale Square, the meeting place for the Savoring Federal Hill Tour.

Led by esteemed pastry chef, Cindy Salvato, the tour leads guests through the best sights and tastes of Little Italy. Cindy’s tour really makes guests feel like locals as they learn about the neighborhood’s best bakeries, wine shops, and cafes. Cooking demonstrations and gourmet taste-testing were also included in the tour.

Providence takes its pizza very seriously. There is a mystique surrounding the pizza shops of Providence that rivals a New Yorker’s adoration for their own street pizza. Combined with the heavy Italian influences from the cafes of Federal Hill, Providence has created a nurturing environment for pizza enthusiasts to frolic.

The Haven Brothers food truck, a Providence staple since 1888. Photo from Wikipedia.
The Haven Brothers food truck, a Providence staple since 1888. Photo from Wikipedia.

Providence Coal Fired Pizza is one such place that has the pizza down to an art. Their baked goat cheese pizza, always cooked over a bed of hot coals, is a local favorite as are the chicken wings.

For a less formal dining experience Providence is also famous for its food trucks. The trucks can be see all around the city, usually congregating at events that ensure the most customers like the Waterfire Festivals or the Providence Flea. Food trucks serve a dizzying variety of food including many organic and healthy options.

The most famous food truck of Providence, however, is the Haven Brothers Diner. Founded in 1888 as a horse-drawn lunch wagon, the restaurant on wheels is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation. To this day the Haven Brothers food truck can be seen every day at 4:30 p.m. on the corner of Dorrance St. and Fulton St., next to Providence City Hall and Kennedy Plaza.

Food trucks lined up outside the Sunday Providence Flea Market.
Food trucks lined up outside the Sunday Providence Flea Market.

To see another side of Providence I decided to visit the Johnson & Wales University campus.

Just across the street from the university is Boulevard Pizza, a pizza place tailored to the college student. It is a favorite stop for a late night snack after a night out with their cheap food and late hours. Some well-known staples at Boulevard Pizza, and rightly so, are their French fries and grinders.

Bewitched Bookworms

Horror-Fiction fans fawn over the home where H.P. Lovecraft once lived on 598 Angell Street. He lived and died in Providence, writing his famous brand of twisted fiction in his house there for twenty years from 1904 to 1924. The Lovecraft house is also a stop on the Providence Ghost Tour, an evening walking tour of the most haunted sites in Providence. While boring and unlikely to see any real ghosts, the tour highlights some of the beautiful architecture of Providence.

Another stop on the tour is the Brown University Library. Obviously, a place to study for Brown students, the library is home to something more sinister too.

The beginning of the Providence Ghost Tour at Prospect Terrace Park.
The beginning of the Providence Ghost Tour at Prospect Terrace Park.

There are three books in the library bound with human skin that are available for Brown students and faculty eyes only. The books are somewhat of a legend in Providence now, especially among Lovecraft fans.

Even if Lovecraft isn’t your author of choice you can still check out the Providence Athenaeum, one of the nation’s oldest private libraries. The library is another stop on the ghost tour, having ties to both Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, but during the daytime is it a lot less spooky.

The library is free to enter and explore, and there is even a great children’s section so families can make sure everyone gets some of the literature they love.

Amazing Artists

Having the Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD as it is affectionately called by its students, in Providence jumpstarts the art scene of the entire city. The school is one of the most prestigious art schools in the country drawing artists from all over the world.

Residents of Providence also get to enjoy the benefits of living in such close quarters with these artists with the museums, street art, and creative atmosphere they bring to Providence.

The 1,000 year-old Buddha statue at the RISD Museum.
The 1,000-year-old Buddha statue at the RISD Museum.

The RISD Museum, located on 20 North Main St., is a study spot for some and a relaxing afternoon for others. The museum hosts an impressive collection of historic and contemporary art from ancient Egypt to artists still working today. The museum also just underwent an extensive renovation to their Asian gallery adding a 1,000-year-old Buddha statue to their collection.

Providence inspires creativity in its residents even before they go to college too.

AS220 is a nonprofit artist residency, gallery, and learning center for children and artists who otherwise would not have the resources at their disposal. Anyone can pay a reasonable monthly fee for unlimited access to AS220’s dark room, media labs, print shops, galleries, and a multitude of other tools for creativity.

The arts center focuses on community engagement and is constantly finding new ways to keep the community involved, one such way being the AS220 Youth program. The free program provides children a place to go after school where they can explore their creativity with all the tools they could ever need at their disposal. The program has a lot to offer its kids too, they have the only publicly accessible dark room in the state of Rhode Island.

Night Owls

It is impossible to talk about the merits of going to school in Providence without talking about the various activities and nightlife of the city. About twice a month from May to November the WaterFire Festivals light up the Providence River running through downtown Providence. This year the event marks its 20th anniversary with eleven full lightings scheduled on Saturday nights throughout the season.

Preparing for the WaterFire Festival lighting at sunset.
Preparing for the WaterFire Festival lighting at sunset.

A full lighting includes the lighting of 80 braziers along the river just after sunset along Memorial and South Main Streets. Vendors, food trucks, and happy festival-goers fill the streets on these nights until the festival’s end just after midnight.

Whenever there isn’t a WaterFire Festival there is still never a loss for things to do in Providence.

Given its close proximity to Brown University and RISD, Wickenden Street attracts college students with its hip sushi, bars, and cafes on weekends.

The road stretches along the east side of Providence, and along with its neighboring Westminster Street and Washington Street, creates the perfect spot for shopping, a lunch date, or a night on the town.

Visit Providence

Even if your college days are long gone there are still so many reasons to visit Providence. One of the largest cities in New England, second only to Boston, Providence has everything a city can offer with the atmosphere of an artsy small town. The culture, the food, and the art make it a lovely stop for tourists and a great learning environment for students.

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Sarah Robertson is a staff writer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, in Northampton, Mass. She is a former intern at

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