Providence: from the museum to the mall

By Laura Wainwright - April 6, 2006

Providence Place Mall is right in the heart of the city's downtown renaissance. Photo courtesy of

Nothing beats getting away this time of year. After the hibernation of winter I need fresh stimulation and new vistas. Usually this wouldn't mean a shopping trip, but when my daughter, Lila, suggested we go to the Providence Place Mall, I was enthusiastic. I've been curious about Providence for a long time. For years I'd been hearing terrific things about the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) museum.

We left on the 9:30 am Islander one Saturday and by 11:30 we were parked right outside the RISD museum. The East Side neighborhood of the city - where RISD and Brown University are located - is compact, and we found our way easily. We could have taken a Bonanza bus, but driving gave us time to chat and listen to music and share the liberating excitement of being on the road.

The RISD museum is a gem. Considered one of the best small museums in the country, its collection includes over 80,000 works in all media from many cultures around the world. There is something for everyone - from ancient Greek and Roman sculptures to French impressionist paintings to Asian textiles to ceramics, glass, and furniture, and even a host of contemporary pieces.

The space is welcoming - not crowded and not too big - and the staff were very helpful. We started with the Ancient Egyptian collection and saw some amazing animal mummies and an extraordinary paint box from 1307 to 1070 B.C. The pigment cakes are still in the box. It looks just like a paint box today, and we wanted to wet a brush and try it out.

Next, we wandered through the collection of French and American impressionists. There were lovely pastels by Degas, prints by Cassatt, a watercolor by Renoir, and oils by Gaughin, Corot, and Manet. An unexpected high point were the lovely Japanese woodblock prints which so influenced many of the impressionists and a huge wooden Buddha - the largest historical Japanese wooden sculpture in this country.

In addition to its traditional functions, the RISFD museum offers an attractive range of community programs. The last Saturday of each month, for example, is "Free-for-All Saturday," when admission is free.

On Sundays, from 3 to 4:30 pm Family Workshops offer a fun opportunity to learn about the art in the galleries and then create a related work using a range of media. Advance reservations are necessary. To reserve tickets, call 401-454-6510. Tickets are $8 each for adults and $3 for children and include admission to the Museum.

Sated with visual beauty, but not overwhelmed, we asked one of the guards for ideas about where to eat lunch. He suggested two places; Geoff's, a sandwich shop down the street, and Café Choklad, another sandwich shop around the corner. Geoff's, at 163 Benefit St., looked great but there was a long line and we decided to try Café Choklad, at 2 Thomas Street, which turned out to be both quick and delicious. They make sandwiches, soups, and salads, but their specialty is chocolates, both handmade candies and wicked chocolate desserts. We lingered over our salads and tea, but not too long. The mall beckoned.

When I asked the Choklad cashier for directions she pointed across the Providence River out front. We could walk to the mall along the river! The walk turned out to be one of the highlights of our day. It was a windy, rainy day but it was fun being in a city, walking along the river, enjoying the energy of the people on the streets.

The Providence River slices through the middle of the city, which has been turned into an 11-acre public park called the Riverwalk. It is dotted with sculpture and flanked by interesting looking restaurants. We noticed many braziers in the middle of the river, which we later learned are lit during celebrations in summer and fall, called Waterfire. Musicians and street performers provide the entertainment. The braziers are lit at sunset and the revelry goes until midnight. There is no admission fee. The event is held on 17 evenings from May 13 through Oct. 21. The dates are posted at We definitely plan to go back for one of these evenings.

The Providence Place Mall was, well, a mall. But according to Lila, a mall maven like many other Island kids, it is a good mall with a wide variety of stores. It was full of light and clean and new. This was her time and we stopped in to Hot Topic and Newbury Comics and window-shopped at many other stores you can't find at home.

After a leisurely tromp through the mall, we tumbled back outside into the wind and rain. Walking gave us a sense of the scale of Providence and a feeling for its vitality and life. We passed appealing restaurants and shops and historic homes and buildings. Benefit Street, where we'd parked, is one of the richest historical areas in New England.

The drive back to Woods Hole was easy and we had new music to listen to, thanks to the Mall. The Islander was waiting and we were glad to drive right on and make it back in time for a late supper.

We had barely scratched the surface of what Providence has to offer. We're already planning our return trip, excited to know there's a new city to discover within easy reach from home.

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.