But there are some vintage gems here as well. Cobblestoned lower Weybosset Street, the traditional heart of corporate Providence, has an appealingly Bostonian feel to it and is home to The Arcade, America's oldest indoor shopping mall, constructed in the Georgian style in 1828. Inside the three-level, stone-colonnaded structure be sure to take in the show at Johannson's Bakery, a training facility for culinary students at nearby Johnson & Wales University. On a recent trip, my 7-year-old daughters were positively mesmerized watching chocolate layer cakes being professionally decorated.
And beginning less than a mile west on Atwells Avenue is the Federal Hill neighborhood, which, unlike the Baltimore version, has one of the largest and most vibrant Italian neighborhoods in the country. Born of the immigrant surge of the early 1900s, "the hill" is still primarily a residential community, and out-of-towners can take a seat at one of the outdoor cafes in Depasquale Square, load up on prepared provisions at Constantino's Venda Ravioli, and gawk at the artistic homemade pastries at Scialo Bros. Bakery.
For those who still haven't seen enough -- or have even more time -- there's Victorian-era Roger Williams Park, whose 435 landscaped acres are home to a zoo, a museum and planetarium, and a new $7.7 million botanical center. With 12,000 square feet of tropical and Mediterranean displays in its two, internally connected glass superstructures, the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center now ranks as the largest indoor public garden in New England.
For a museum of a more alimentary nature, feast your eyes on the thousands of items on display at the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales' Harborside campus. Everything related to the long and sometimes strange history of food preparation can be found here, beginning with 4,000-year-old Native American cooking stones.
After you've gone from soup to nuts, just plain go nuts with the frenetic fans of the Pawtucket Red Sox (better known as the Pawsox), Boston's AAA franchise, which plays at 10,000-seat McCoy Stadium, about five miles north of Providence. Completely renovated in 1999, McCoy Stadium might not look much like Fenway Park, but the action is just as intense while the price tag is no green monster.
There is no shortage of enlightening things to see and do in Providence these days, especially for those who are able to coordinate their trip to catch a positively enchanting WaterFire. For a few flickering hours, those visitors might even think they're in Venice -- a mistake that would be entirely Providential.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE Providence is located 375 miles northeast of Baltimore along Interstate-95. Roundtrip airfare from BWI Marshall on Southwest Airlines starts at $139, while roundtrip tickets on Amtrak from Penn Station (roughly six hours one-way) begin at $150.
LODGING There are three options: historic B&Bs on the East Side or behind the Capitol, upscale commercial hotels downtown and lower cost chains near the airport (8 miles south) or north of downtown along I-95. Summertime visitors should inquire about weekend discounts, especially downtown.
DINING Providence is blessed with a wealth of dining options, from gourmet opulence to stand-up hot dog joints. While good and even great restaurants are interspersed throughout the city, the most intense concentrations are along Atwells Avenue in Federal Hill (Italian) and Thayer Street (eclectic) adjacent to Brown University -- just walk the streets and let your nose and wallet be your guides. For views of WaterFire, make reservations well in advance at:
-- (1 Finance Way; 401-272-1040) and
-- (1 Citizen's Plaza; 401-421-2525) overlooking the Woonasquatucket River or
Hemenway's Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar
--(121 S. Main; 401-351-8570) and
3 Steeple Street Bistro & Bar
-- (125 Canal Street; 401-272-3620) overlooking the Providence River.
-- Returning for its 12th year, WaterFire is a free event. Scheduled summer dates include June 23, July 14, July 28, Aug. 18 and Sept. 1. For more dates and information, call 401-273-1155 or visit waterfire.org.
-- Forty-minute rides are available May-October for $79 for two people with each additional person (up to a total of six) for $15. During WaterFire, prices go up to $139 and rides go down to 30 minutes. Reservations are recommended by calling 401-421-8877 or visiting gondolari.com
Providence & Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau
-- 1 West Exchange St., Providence, RI 02903; 800-233-1636; pwcvb.com. [MARSHALL S. BERDAN]