With a week to explore Rhode Island, you can easily see the state’s key towns and cities and enjoy a sampling of its major attractions. This approach begins in Providence and then steers you down through the state’s coastal hubs, ending in Bristol, just an hour’s drive from Providence.
It’s not difficult to manage this tour in just five to six days by using Providence and Newport as your bases and spending one night instead of two on Block Island, but to fully soak up the region’s appeal, plan to take seven full days to get around.
Days 1-2: Providence
Providence’s renaissance has occurred largely around its downtown riverfront, so spend your first day getting acquainted with the area. Spend some time checking out the shops and cafés in Downcity, then walk over to Waterplace Park, where you can take a gondola ride during the warmer months. On many Saturday evenings from March through November you can also watch the dazzling Waterfire, a dramatic display of bonfires set in cauldrons along the river.
In the same day, you can cross the river to College Hill, home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design as well as several other attractions, some of them related to the neighborhood’s academic institutions. Must-sees include the RISD Museum of Art and the Providence Athenaeum. Be sure to stroll along Benefit Street, which is lined with gorgeous colonial and Victorian homes, and check out the excellent shopping, gallery-hopping, and inexpensive dining along both Thayer and Wickenden Streets.
On your second day, venture out to Roger Williams Park, which is an easy four-mile drive or bus ride south from downtown. This sprawling green park contains Roger Williams Park Zoo and the excellent Museum of Natural History, which includes a planetarium, making it an especially nice option if you have kids in tow.
Alternatively, make a day trip north of the city to Slater Mill Historic Site, a linchpin of the American Industrial Revolution, located in downtown Pawtucket, a 15-minute drive north of Providence. Finish off the day with dinner and a stroll through Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy, or check out one of the many other eclectic and highly acclaimed restaurants in the West Side neighborhood.
Days 3-4: Newport
You should not visit Newport without taking a road trip along winding Ocean Drive, which meanders along the waterfront and affords close-up views of some of this small city’s prettiest homes. Spend the rest of your first day becoming acquainted with the compact and highly walkable downtown, checking out the shops and the well-preserved colonial and Victorian architecture of Historic Hill, or enjoying the exhibits at the excellent Newport Art Museum.
Save your second day in Newport for touring the massive summer homes of the Gilded Age along Bellevue Avenue, the most famous of which is The Breakers. After the imposing Breakers, if you have time to see only one other mansion, your best bet is The Elms. If you’re a tennis fan, you might consider a visit to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and its museum.
If mansions aren’t your thing, head north to visit the towns of Portsmouth and Middletown, where sightseeing highlights include the Norman Bird Sanctuary, Sachuest Point Nature Preserve, and Green Animals Topiary Garden, as well as some of the best sandy beaches in the state.
Day 5: South County
Laid-back South County contains some of Rhode Island’s best beaches as well as copious opportunities for hiking, boating, swimming, and sunbathing. It’s also where you catch the ferry to the next place on this tour, Block Island.
A great way to make the most of a day in South County is to drive along the shore, beginning in the quaint Victorian seaside town of Watch Hill and continuing along Route 1A and U.S. 1 (and some side roads) through such charming seaside communities as Weekapaug, Misquamicut, Charlestown, Galilee, and Point Judith.
A bit north, Narragansett is home to the South County Museum, which preserves the legacy of a gentleman’s farm, and the Gilbert Stuart Museum, the home of George Washington’s foremost portraitist. Don’t feel like you have to spend the day sightseeing, however—when you find the beach that matches your personality, whether that’s kid-friendly Watch Hill, pristine Charlestown, or raucous Misquamicut, feel free to pull out that towel and sunbathe.
Day 6: Block Island
Beautiful and isolated Block Island, just 10 miles or so south of the mainland, feels a world away from the rest of the state. Far less developed than other New England island retreats, such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Block Island is home to numerous nature preserves as well as some of the grandest Victorian seaside resorts in the country.
While it’s possible to visit for an afternoon, you’ll want to spend a night and really get the feel of the island. Go for a bike ride, hike along the grounds of Southeast Light or through Rodman’s Hollow preserve, grab an ice-cream cone at Aldo’s, or simply laze away your time reading in a lounge chair at Crescent Beach.
Day 7: East Bay and Sakonnet
End your tour of Rhode Island with a visit to the quiet East Bay area, which you can reach from Newport more scenically by making a short detour through Sakonnet, a small patch of villages bordering Massachusetts and the ocean and home to the state’s best winery, Sakonnet Vineyards.
If the vineyard doesn’t appeal to you, consider a trip to Goosewing Beach and Nature Preserve, a great place to watch the sunset or observe the enormous flocks of piping plover and other birds that congregate here.
Head north to reach the East Bay, whose main towns are Bristol and Warren. Bristol may be relatively small, but it’s home to some historic attractions, including Blithewold Mansion and Arboretum, as well as a charming downtown neighborhood. Head to Warren for dinner at one of the several hip and eclectic restaurants that have cropped up here in recent years.