Providence Big on Culture, History and Food

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Byline: Eric Tucker Associated Press

Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the union, but theres 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 citys rich history are now joined on the skyline by modern high-rise condos and luxury hotels.

Theres lively regional theater, compelling museums and tasty and cheap eateries nestled among the more elegant city restaurants.

But youll want to explore beyond the city which is easy to do since it takes only an hour to drive from one end of the state to the other. Take in the palatial 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.

Getting around: Providences 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 thatll give you a days 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 museums 84,000-object collection also specializes in costumes and textiles, ancient and decorative arts and prints, drawing and photographs; 224 Benefit St., 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; 201 Washington St., 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. waterfire.org.

Dont know much about history? Thatll change after a visit to the citys 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 nations 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., fbcia.org.

* The genteel Benefit Street is the address of the Providence Athenaeum, a library dating to 1753 where poet Edgar Allan Poe is said to have courted love interest Sarah Helen Whitman. Browse the stacks for free inside the Greek Revival

building; 251 Benefit St.,

providenceathenaeum.org.

* Since youre in the neighborhood, check out the view of downtown from Prospect Terrace Park. …