PROVIDENCE — So you say you want to find a local getaway in a state where Massachusetts residents are welcome, and you’d like that location to include culture, cuisine, and a splash of nature? It’s a tall order, but it exists, and, even better, I found it. It’s (insert dramatic pause here) Providence.
I know, right? I was just as surprised as you. I haven’t always taken a shine to Providence, but the city needs to be on your list of New England pandemic weekend getaways. You can hide out in the relative quiet of Fox Hill and College Hill, or, if you feel ready to rejoin society, there’s the roar of Thayer Street and al fresco dining on Federal Hill. There’s a river walk, public art galore, and a self-guided architecture tour, if that sort of thing is your can of Moxie.
An empty college town during the summer — any summer — can be a glorious thing. It just so happens that it’s perfect for our purposes this summer.
I initially chose Providence for the weirdly specific reason of wanting to stay on a boat, which seemed like a smart choice of lodging to stay socially distant from other travelers. Also, telling people you stayed on a boat sounds very classy and rugged, two adjectives I seldom get to use in my writing.
Airbnb has plenty of house boats available for rent all over New England. But there was a yacht that caught my fancy in Fox Point Marina, which is on the Woonasquatucket River. When I call this boat a yacht, I’m using the term very loosely. There were parts of it that were gleaming, but then, well, there were corners where the 1970s wallpaper was peeling from decades of humidity and the window blinds were thick with dust. I knew the yacht might not be the tidiest vessel on the river when I looked down at the soles of my feet and they were filthy from walking around barefoot. After that I kept my shoes on at all times.
On the plus side, the boat was spacious and the Wi-Fi was terrible, so I spent more time outside watching geese and sunsets than inside catching up on e-mail. The boat also had a full kitchen. If I opted to eat onboard, I had a state-of-the-art 1982 kitchen at my disposal. I may have left those details on the cutting room floor when describing the yacht to friends.
But Providence isn’t the kind of city where you want to cook in a 1982 kitchen and miss out on the culinary offerings, as my colleague Devra First wrote last year. Fridays and Saturdays this summer, sections of Atwells Avenue are closed on Federal Hill, and more than two dozen restaurants are setting up outdoor dining from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Federal Hill is the city’s Italian neighborhood, and it’s chock-a-block with renowned restaurants. I sat outside and had a very indulgent lunch of short rib gnocchi at Il Massimo. I didn’t need the lemon sorbet that followed, but the tart treat gave me the icy jolt I needed to keep exploring.
I felt like I had a particularly safe pandemic lunch at the city’s only vegan food hall, Plant City. Many have lamented that COVID-19 will be the death of communal eating experiences such as food halls, but at least for the summer this food hall is doing well.
Plant City is the brainchild of Matthew Kenney, a chef and entrepreneur known for vegan and raw cooking. He has restaurants all around the world, but he’s a New England native, born in Connecticut and raised in coastal Maine. He has taken Plant City outside and set it up with a takeout window and table service. It’s a bit of a wicker paradise. Think Rhoda Morgenstern’s Minneapolis apartment-meets-IKEA. Rhode Island is quite thorough with contact tracing. Every time I went to a restaurant I was asked for my name and phone number.
Plant City seemed to be the most diligent restaurant I encountered for mask wearing. The rule here is that when your server stops by to take your order or drop off food, you put your mask on (the server is wearing a mask at all times). I had no problem with it. Why not double up on safety?
For other meals, I grabbed takeout and found quiet places to picnic. I practically ran to get the Korean fried chicken at my favorite Providence restaurant, Den Den, and then brought it to the grassy campus of Brown University and sat near a giant sculpture of a blue bear. I’m not sure if I was technically allowed to do this, but no one bothered me, except a dog with a hankering for Korean fried chicken. Back off, Rin Tin Tin! On another evening I watched the quiet streets below from Mare Rooftop restaurant. The next morning I heated up my leftover prosciutto and arugula pizza in the yacht’s microwave. Thank goodness that state-of-the-art 1982 microwave could function despite decades of greasy buildup.
You get the idea. I didn’t starve in Providence. It’s easy to find places to eat outside. Limited indoor dining is also available, but I’m personally still not at the point where I’m ready for inside meals. You can find a list of all Providence restaurants offering outdoor dining on the Go Providence website.
Contrary to what you may be thinking, I did not spend all of my time stuffing my face with vegan pastries while relaxing on a filthy yacht. After months of missing visual art in my life, I was in Providence to soak up some culture. I didn’t go inside museums, instead I walked for miles and looked at murals and sculpture. One of my favorite Providence murals has always been the beautiful, melancholy “She Never Came.” It turns out that the mural is part of the Avenue Concept, which includes public art installations around the city, from 11 mammoth murals to small-scale sculpture. You can download maps of the self-guided tours from the Avenue Concept’s website (theavenueconcept.org).
The city was my personal museum. Along lonely stretches I felt as if I had the city to myself. I walked through the hot streets of Downtown, the South Side, and the West End, and admired art while ducking thunderstorms. Some of these murals are impossible to miss and it seems as if they’ve become an integral part of the city’s landscape. “Still Here,” which was completed in 2018, is a colorful, impactful splash on the city’s skyline. I can say this because I’ve been to Providence about five times over the past three years, and I have a minor in art history. You really can’t get any more qualified than that.
Aside from “She Never Came,” “Misty Blue” offers another pensive portrait adjacent to a parking lot. It’s Andrew Hem’s tribute to Providence’s Cambodian community, featuring a portrait of a girl he met in Cambodia, placed in a dream-like setting.
The art goes from somber to strong with Angela Gonzalez’s “Dear Urban Females . . .” Four panels of the installation depict a self-portrait of Gonzalez, in each she’s wearing an earring with the flag of a different country. The social worker/artist says her art is based on feminism, socialism, and issues within urban communities.
Keep walking and there is yet more (!) public art, including a mural by Shepard Fairey and, my favorite, trees that have been decorated to help save them from getting cut down by National Grid. Only in a college town with an art school can you find such environmental whimsy.
But here’s the skinny on Providence: Yes, there are several socially distant activities to be had, or, you can also meander with no purpose. Because meandering tends to be one of my favorite hobbies, I did a lot of it. I’ve tried meandering in Boston, but sometimes it’s impossible to do without coming across the maskless masses. When I see a lot of bare faces in the city my blood pressure tends to spike. But in Providence, at least during one week in early July, the city was mine. Sparsely populated streets and Korean fried chicken — even the grubby yacht — brought an unseen smile to my mask-covered face.