An easy weekend trip from New York City and Boston, Rhode Island is best known for its state capital, Providence, and the opulent Gilded Age mansions that line Newport's justly famous Cliff Walk. But there’s much more to explore in this seaside state, from quaint small towns to stunning ocean views.

Close-up shot of a vintage Pawtuxet Bridge sign next to a bench in Rhode Island © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet
Rhode Island's stunning shoreline and charming small towns make for a memorable vacation © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet

Discover a forgotten chapter of colonial America in historic Pawtuxet Village

Less developed than many of New England’s coastal towns, Pawtuxet Village still has the feel of an unspoiled treasure. Set between the towns of Warwick and Cranston, where the Pawtuxet River joins the Providence River, this eminently walkable village was settled as early as 1638, and locals take pride in its long history. Stroll down charming Broad Street between Stillhouse Cove to waterfront Pawtuxet Park and the Aspray Boat House to pay homage at the site of the 1772 Gaspee Affair, the boarding and burning of the grounded customs schooner HMS Gaspee by aggrieved patriots. This attack on British forces by colonists preceded the Boston Tea Party and was an early warning shot in the War of Independence. It’s celebrated as a state holiday each summer in a truly unique and spirited re-enactment called Gaspee Days.

Reward yourself for the history lesson with a frozen treat at nearby Dear Hearts Ice Cream, or grab dinner at a Broad Street restaurant. Seek lodging elsewhere, however – part of Pawtuxet’s charm derives from the fact that it’s not an overnight destination, a fact which keeps it sleepier than its counterparts elsewhere in New England.

Distance view of Beavertail Lighthouse and the keeper's house, from a side angle. Shoreline is green and rugged, and the sky is overcast © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet
Some of the state's best views can be had from Beavertail Lighthouse © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet

Visit Beavertail Lighthouse for an incredible view

From Pawtuxet Village, head south towards the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge and onwards to Beavertail Light at the southernmost tip of Jamestown. (Stop off at Narragansett Town Beach if you’re craving a swim along the way, but beware the beach fees during summer). A small museum details the history of the third-oldest lighthouse in America, which is a fairly modest building lacking much in the way of design flair. The real highlight is the view of the Atlantic Ocean as it crashes onto the rocks below, especially if you come at sunset. This is a panorama whose salt breezes and wide open horizon invigorate the senses.

If you’re staying in a place with a kitchen and have a yen for seafood, make an afternoon stop at Zeek’s Creek Bait and Tackle on North Road in Jamestown to pick up some fresh catch. This placid, no-nonsense shack offers great local seafood to cook at home.

People sit in adirondack chairs on the beach in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay, as the sun sets © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet
Take in the sunset from Gurney's Resort & Marina on Narragansett Bay © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet

Cruise iconic Narragansett Bay

Rhode Island earns its nickname of “The Ocean State” thanks to brackish Narragansett Bay, which forms New England’s largest estuary and comprises a significant portion of the 14% of the state that is water. The Bay’s two largest islands of Aquidneck and Conanicut are connected by the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge spanning from Newport to Jamestown, but there’s a more leisurely way to get across via the Jamestown Newport ferry.

This handsome vessel travels back and forth with regularly scheduled departures throughout the summer (service is more infrequent in spring and fall), and provides service to most of the region’s highlights. Other stops accessible by ferry include Rose Island with its lighthouse; Fort Adams, site of the storied Newport Folk Festival and Jazz Festival as well as major public sailing center Sail Newport; and Goat Island, home to the Newport Harbor Light (now overshadowed by Gurney’s Resort and Marina, a popular spot to enjoy the sunset). Round-trip tickets enable you to use the ferry as a hop-on hop-off service while sightseeing. Don’t neglect Jamestown itself, with plentiful art galleries and dining options along the scenic harbor.

Long shot of a lone surfer carrying a board above their head on a rocky Rhode Island beach, with waves in the background © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet
If you're looking to catch a wave in Rhode Island, Surfer's Beach is the place to do it © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet

Swim at Newport's first beach

Properly known as Easton’s Beach, this stretch of sand at the entry to the famed Cliff Walk is the preeminent sunbathing and swimming spot on Aquidneck Island. Equipped with bathhouses and showers, snack bars, and even offering rental cabanas, this is luxe sea-bathing that recalls a distant age gone by. An extra lovely touch is the 1950s seasonal carousel.

Best of all, once you’ve worked up an appetite in the water, Flo’s Clam Shack beckons on Wave Avenue next door. An institution since the 1930s, there are classic clamcakes, clam chowder, fried clams and other seafood. Add in a raw bar and you have the ingredients for a perfect meal in an idyllic setting on Easton Bay; lapping waves in the background complete the picture.

If you need an escape from crowds or want to check out some surfing, try Second Beach instead (that’s Sachuest Beach, formally). It may have fewer concessions, but it does frequently boast a stalwart Del’s Lemonade truck. This is a slushy Rhode Island favorite that’s worth sampling. Up the road from the quiet beach is free 30-minute parking, giving time to walk to the dramatic and dramatically named Purgatory Chasm.

Close-up of a paper cup with vintage yellow and green logo for Del's Fresh Fruit lemon ice in Rhode Island, on a green table © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet
A lemon ice from Del's Lemonade is Rhode Island's quintessential summertime treat © Anna Saxon / Lonely Planet

Explore the old railroad line at Portsmouth

Ready for an activity that’s firmly on land? Rail Explorers in Portsmouth offers two different tours along the historic Newport and Narragansett Bay Railway on their pedal-powered vehicles that ride on the tracks. Long abandoned by train traffic, these paths are getting put to new recreational use by novelty-seekers looking for a leisurely workout with scenery. Rail bike trips take roughly 90 minutes and cover six miles, showing a quiet and peaceful side of Aquidneck Island. Tandem or quad options are available.

Adjacent to the railroad tracks and glimpsed on the Northern Ramble route, the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth is the oldest topiary garden in the country. Part of the Newport Mansions operated by The Preservation Society of Newport County, the 7-acre garden features 80 topiaries amid other garden beds and offers a more eccentric and approachable alternative to the imposing mansions in Newport proper. The  living sculptures were created by Gardener Joseph Carreiro, who was superintendent of the property from 1905 to 1945, and whose duties passed on to his son-in-law George Mendonca until 1985.  It’s also possible to park here and walk down the rail line (watching out for any oncoming, pedal-powered vehicular traffic) and along the shore down below for a DIY tour.

Experience a polo match

In keeping with Newport’s reputation as a place for the high life (it’s not for nothing that all the America’s Cup yachts congregate here), the Newport International Polo Grounds are a chance to glimpse Newport’s upper echelon at play, with echos of the days when Newport was the summer hotspot for the likes of Edith Wharton and Gilded Age tycoons. Thankfully, general admission to the lawn and grandstands costs a mere $15, with matches held almost every weekend during the summer. Unlike the stately mansions which are frozen expertly in time and function as museum pieces, the polo grounds are a living, breathing remnant of Newport history. Bring your own picnic and a blanket or lawn chair, and soak in the atmosphere. It’s not every day that you get to watch athletes on horseback under the open sky, and it’s an experience that typifies the incredible delights packed into this tiny, 37 miles wide by 48 miles long state.

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