Providence, R.I. – Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the union, but there's plenty to experience within its narrow borders.
Start in Providence, the state capital once maligned as a dreary mob hangout that has since earned the moniker of "Renaissance City." The Colonial-era homes and churches that attest to the city's rich history are now joined on the skyline by modern high-rise condos and luxury hotels.
There's lively regional theater, compelling museums and tasty and cheap eateries nestled among the more elegant city restaurants.
The diverse mix of ethnicities - the Portuguese, Liberians and Italians are represented in large numbers - adds to the city's identity, as do universities that produce top-notch cooks, artists and thinkers.
But you'll want to explore beyond the city - which is easy to do since it takes only an hour to drive from one of the state to the other. Take in the palatial Gilded Age mansions in Newport, check out one of the kid-friendly beaches that give the Ocean State its nickname or laze the day away at a bucolic state park.
You can skip from site to site with minimal hassle and without burning through your wallet.
GETTING AROUND: Providence's compact downtown is made for walking. But if you get tired - or have longer trips in mind - the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority offers $5 passes that'll give you a day's worth of unlimited bus rides. The regular fare for a single passenger is $1.75; the elderly and disabled may be eligible for free rides.
ARTS AND CULTURE:
- Brush up on your Manet and Monet, and far more modern fare, at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design - better known as the RISD Museum. Admission on Sunday is "pay what you wish" until 1 p.m. Besides paintings and sculpture, the museum's 84,000-object collection also specializes in costumes and textiles, ancient and decorative arts and prints, drawing and photographs; 224 Benefit St., http://www.risdmuseum.org .
- Trinity Repertory Company, a regional theater company that puts on original plays along with classics from Shakespeare, offers $15 tickets if you buy them within two hours of the show - assuming "The Cherry Orchard" production you want to see isn't sold out before then; 201 Washington St., http://www.trinityrep.com .
- On Saturday nights in the spring, summer and fall, join the rest of the state at WaterFire - a free public arts display featuring bonfires lit in metal pans, or braziers, along the three rivers that run downtown. One of the most popular arts events in New England, WaterFire routinely draws tens of thousands. Ride in one of the gondolas or just grab a seat and zone out to the sound of crackling flames - accompanied by a soundtrack of classical, opera and international music. http://www.waterfire.org .
- For those looking for variety, AS220 offers a non-profit community arts space with galleries, workshops, studios and a stage for live musical performances. There's food too. 115 Empire St., http://as220.org/front .
DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY?: That'll change after a visit to the city's leafy East Side, chock-a-block with historic houses and churches, elite universities - and even a cemetery of note.
Look for these landmarks in the College Hill neighborhood, home to RISD and Brown University:
-The towering white steeple marks the First Baptist Church in America. The nation's oldest Baptist congregation was established in 1638 by Roger Williams, the theologian best known for creating the colony of Rhode Island on principles of religious tolerance; 75 N. Main St., http://www.fbcia.org .
-The genteel Benefit Street is the address of the Providence Athenaeum, a membership library dating to 1753 where poet Edgar Allen Poe is said to have courted love interest Sarah Helen Whitman. Browse the stacks for free inside the Greek Revival building; 251 Benefit St., http://www.providenceathenaeum.org .
-Since you're in the neighborhood, check out the view of downtown from Prospect Terrace Park. You'll know you're there by the oversized statue of Roger Williams.
-And if you're into politics, follow the dome to Rhode Island's Statehouse, an impressive marble monument completed in 1904. The state's General Assembly and governor conduct business here. Tours are available.
-For a slightly ghoulish thrill, visit the sprawling Swan Point Cemetery - also on the East Side and stretching along Blackstone Boulevard. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is buried here, as are Civil War generals and past Rhode Island governors; 585 Blackstone Blvd., http://www.swanpointcemetery.com .
CITY BY THE SEA: True history buffs would do well to visit Newport, nicknamed the City by the Sea and home to splendid Gilded Age mansions and a vast collection of Colonial-era buildings. If you tire of the cultural attractions - and there are many - then lounge, shop or eat at one of the wharves.
-A $31 discount ticket - $10 for kids 6 to 17 - will let you visit any five mansions anytime you'd like, except for the Hunter House. Pretend you're a Vanderbilt as you walk the halls of the opulent Breakers mansion, built in 1895 in the style of an Italian Renaissance palace. A new audio tour incorporates the voices of servants who worked here.
-You don't need to be a rock climber to enjoy the Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile public access walkway along the shoreline. Most of the trail's easy to walk, but go at your own risk; http://www.cliffwalk.com .
The International Tennis Hall of Fame is here, as is the Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in North America.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: They call it the Ocean State for a reason.
-Grab a blanket, umbrella and suntan lotion and head down the highway to southern Rhode Island - locals call it South County - and catch a wave at some has some of the region's best beaches. Non-state residents pay $12 to park their car on weekdays and $14 on weekends. Misquamicut Beach in Westerly is especially family-friendly.
-Ride a canoe or kayak down the new "Blue Trail," a 10-mile path along Narragansett Bay, the main waterway jutting through the state.
-State parks are free. Beavertail State Park in Jamestown offers impressive views of the Atlantic Ocean and a lighthouse museum.
-You'll find ample green space at Roger Williams Park in Providence, as well as a botanic garden and a public space known as the Casino that hosts weddings and other events. But the biggest attraction here, especially for kids, are the giraffes and elephants at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Adults get in for $12 and children for $6, though tots under 3 are free.
CHEAP EATS: Food is serious business in Providence; perhaps that's no surprise since Johnson & Wales University, one of the nation's top cooking schools, is here. But nestled among the swanky restaurants are fast and affordable eateries.
-A mounted acorn marks the entrance to Federal Hill, Providence's very own authentic Little Italy. Grab some takeout from Venda Ravioli, a gourmet Italian market with prepared foods and specialty items, and then people watch at DePasquale Plaza, 265 Atwells Ave., http://www.vendaravioli.com .
-Back on the East Side, fulfill your cravings for authentic Indian food at the accurately-titled Not Just Snacks, an East Side restaurant near the Pawtucket border where heaping plates of chicken tikka marsala and chicken biryani can be yours for roughly $10. 833 Hope St.
- If Middle Eastern cuisine is your thing, then get in line with the Brown and RISD kids ordering well-stocked falafel sandwiches at East Side Pockets. Like any good college eatery, it's open late. 278 Thayer St.
- Downtown Providence offers quality burritos, tostadas and quesadillas for cheap at Taqueria Pacifica, located in the AS220 arts complex. 115 Empire Street.