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Capital Culture in Providence, Rhode Island

Providence, Rhode Island, defies expectations of a typical New England city.

Founded by a renegade preacher in 1636, Providence started as an experiment of religious and political freedom. From there, it transformed into a major New World seaport and is now a cultural hub and academic community.

Groups can explore this intriguing city in several different ways, including an authentic gondola ride to experience the town’s Italian heritage. Historic tours explain the city’s many interesting characters, and river cruises connect visitors with the city’s seafaring past. Even ghost tours reveal the Revolutionary War history alongside spooky stories.

Whether by motorcoach, foot, cruise or gondola, travel planners should consider these high-quality city tours to introduce groups to the capital of Rhode Island.

Experience Rhode Island Tours

How did Providence evolve from a radical religious settlement to a Renaissance city? Experience Rhode Island Tours walks participants through the city’s ups and downs on a variety of highly rated tours. The family-owned company relates information about the local cuisine, culture, people, sights and stories.

“The owners are two brothers that grew up here, moved away and then moved back before starting Experience Rhode Island Tours,” said Elsie Swearingen, leisure sales and visitor center manager for Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They have really interesting narratives about the evolution of Providence from our Colonial history to our present. They are very knowledgeable about all aspects of the town’s history.”

The company has earned a certificate of excellence from
pAdvisor, and it was recognized as a Star of the Industry in 2017 by the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. The basic 90-minute tour, Discover Providence, takes groups around the city in a climate-controlled tour bus with plenty of stops for photos of the city’s architecture and waterfront panoramas. Groups stop for a tasty treat in the city’s Little Italy.

Planners can also opt for a more elaborate excursion with the company’s 3.5-hour Dinner and a Cruise tour that includes dinner at a Rhode Island pizzeria, dessert at a local cafe and a ride down Providence River to the center of the city. Groups can delve into the culinary scene with the Dine Around Providence tour or Italian heritage with a Viva La Providence tour, which ends with a gondola ride.

La Gondola Providence

Men decked in traditional striped shirts and flat straw hats ferry guests past the sights of Providence during a La Gondola Providence tour. Rather than being gimmicky, these tours strive for authenticity. Handcrafted in Venice, each gondola is 36 feet long with hand-sculpted, elaborate details on each vessel. Providence’s Venetian-style walkways and bridges set the mood for passengers.

“The tour takes you through the downtown area,” said Swearingen. “You float under the Venetian-style bridges, where they have candlelight chandeliers. It is really like ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ It is a unique experience.”

Owner Matthew Haynes extensively trains each of his gondoliers in the art of paddling the river using long, thin paddles to propel the gondolas. Each of the guides can also sing Italian love songs and provide background information on the history of Providence as the town slides past.

Though the company owns only three gondolas that fit six passengers each, they regularly accommodates larger groups with several tour options. One tour offers Italian-style wine and biscuits and onshore musical entertainment for waiting guests. Other add-ons include Italian-themed walking tours and pasta-making demonstrations.

Groups can also complete the experience with a trip to Providence’s Little Italy, known formally as Federal Hill, which attracted many Italian immigrants during the start of the 20th century. The neighborhood still retains its Italian heritage with themed restaurants, specialty shops and an Italianate fountain and square.

Providence Ghost Tour

Lantern light sets the mood as it sends shadows spilling out over the darkened streets of Providence’s historic East Side during a walking tour with Providence Ghost Tour. The tour combines tales from the city’s long and sometimes dark history with paranormal reports of past residents lingering on in the neighborhood.

“Providence Ghost Tour has one of the coolest tours,” said Swearingen. “The thing that sets it aside from other ghost tours is that it was developed with research. The two founders did a lot of research to make sure what they were telling is true.”

History is charged with spine-tingling details during these tours, which are led by theatrical guides. The lantern tours run from May through November, with routes starting and stopping at Prospect Terrace Park.

Stories focus on famous politicians, dignitaries, literary figures and love affairs. For example, horror writers Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft both found inspiration in the town’s haunted history.

The tour often stops at University Hall at Brown University, which served as a military hospital during the Revolutionary War. Guides connect the savage 18th-century medical techniques with tales of former patients who supposedly never left the premises.

Providence River Boat

During Providence’s WaterFire nights, fire serves as a work of art. Flickering flames light the dark surface of the water to animate the buildings reflected in the ripples.

Since the events began in 1997, Providence River Boat has taken visitors on cruises to see the 80 burning braziers of the city’s Riverwalk and Waterplace Park. WaterFire lightings occur about twice monthly from May through November.

Even if groups can’t catch this unusual light show, the river boat company offers cruises down the Providence River, along Waterplace Park and Providence Harbor on a regular schedule and at customizable times for private charters. Daytime tours and sunset cruises provide splendid skyline views of the city.

“The tours go up and down the Providence River and talk about the history of the city, including the shipwrecks that have happened in our bay,” said Swearingen. “They can show evidence of those shipwrecks, depending on the tide. Captain Tom is incredibly knowledgeable. He talks about when Providence was part of the rum trade and other details that help you understand how Providence was integral to the beginning of America.”

Groups can also combine the tour with wine tastings from the local Gooseneck Vineyards on the Vineyard Voyages tour. Personalized tours can add music, catering and breakfast doughnuts upon request.