Best Things to Do in Rhode Island: 12 Essential RI Attractions

by Jon Miksis
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Are you thinking about visiting New England this year? Here are some of the most fun, scenic, and unique things to do in Rhode Island. These sights, events, and attractions are sure to make for an unforgettable vacation experience.

Known for its exquisite seafood, Rhode Island is among the original 13 colonies, and therefore, boasts a vibrant historical legacy. However, what really makes The Oceans State an essential addition to any New England road trip itinerary is its affinity for adventure. There are countless activities for thrill-seeking visitors to participate in.

From Providence to Narragansett Bay, from Newport cliff walks to the breathtaking Marble House, there is no shortage of things to do and places to visit in Rhode Island. There really is something for everyone. That, of course, makes it all the more important for you to know which places are best suited for your particular interests. To help, I’ve compiled a list of some of my personal favorite Rhode Island attractions. Check it out!

With a wealth of beautiful colonial architecture, there are countless Rhode Island attractions that will appeal to history buffs.

Best Places to Visit in Rhode Island: Fun Ocean State Adventures

Hopefully, you will find the list below useful in deciding which things to do in Rhode Island are your highest priorities. As noted above, there’s something for everyone at this wonderful vacation spot, so think carefully, and take into account the kind of trip you want to have.

Are you looking for some raucous fun and adventure? Or would you prefer a calm, peaceful and secluded getaway? Whatever you’re planning, Rhode Island can accommodate your needs.

1. The Breakers, Newport

Newport has earned the moniker of the ‘Sailing Capital of the World’ thanks to its numerous gorgeous shores. Indeed, for those who enjoy fun in the sun and the great outdoors, Newport is a true stunner. That said, there’s still a lot to explore if you’re not an avid sailor, including a number of historic and grandiose mansions to tour

Exterior of The Breakers, a 19th-century mansion acting as a tourist attraction in Rhode Island
One of the most luxurious places to visit in Rhode Island is The Breakers, an ornate 19th-century mansion.

Among the many, many opulent 19th and 20th century mansions located in Newport, The Breakers is by far the most popular. As a Rhode Island tourist attraction, it draws an estimated 300,000 visitors every year.

The Renaissance-style architecture of this mansion takes its inspiration from the royal palaces of Northern Italy. Its Italian marble surfaces, elaborate golden ceilings, and antiquated French furniture, plus embellishments of diamonds, rubies, and other valuable stones, add to the splendor of this summer estate.

Interior staircase of The Breakers decorated with Renaissance-style artwork
The Renaissance-style art on display in The Breakers ensures makes it just as beautiful inside as it is outside.

The Breakers was commissioned in 1893 by the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt II. The mansion has a total of 70 rooms, across five floors. Facing the ocean, this grand, fireproof mansion is among the most visited house museums in all of the United States. Whether you’re a history buff or just something with a taste of luxury, The Breakers is definitely worthy of a visit.

2. Roger Williams Park Zoo, Providence

Providence is the capital of Rhode Island and also its single largest city. Founded in 1636, it’s one of the oldest cities in the entirety of the U.S. Some of the best sightseeing attractions in Rhode Island can be found here, including the Providence River, the First Baptist Church of America, and the ‘Big Blue Bug‘ which is essentially the world’s largest termite turned tourist attraction. 

The front gates to Roger Williams Park in Providence, RI
Roger Williams Park boasts 427 acres full of fun sights and activities/ | Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel

If you can only visit one Providence hotspot, however, I recommend checking out Roger Williams Park, as it’s something of a one-stop shop. In this massive, 427-acre park, you’ll find a lush Botanical Center, a fascinating Museum of Natural History, a Planetarium, and, best of all, the world-famous Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Spread across a 40-acre area, the zoo is one of the oldest of its kind in the U.S. Its extensive collection of animals features red pandas, snow leopards, kangaroos, zebras, elephants, alligators, giraffes, wildebeest, and many other native and exotic creatures. Both children and adults will surely delight at glimpsing these rare species.

A pair of camels at Roger Williams Park Zoo, one of the most popular places to visit in Rhode Island
If you’re an animal lover, Roger Williams Parks Zoo is one of the best places to visit in Rhode Island. | Credit: Jeff Nickerson

It’s worth noting that Roger Williams Park Zoo sets quite an example in ethical enclosure design. Predominantly cage-free, the zoo makes an ardent effort towards providing the animals with environments that closely mimic their natural habitats. The zoo is designed in a way that keeps the tangible barriers between visitors and the animals at a minimum.

3. Bristol

Bristol has a lot to offer for both lovers of scenic landscapes as well as water adventurers. Widely considered to be one of the best places to visit in Rhode Island for foodies, Bristol is a deep-water seaport that comprises plenty of splendid waterfront restaurants. Besides tantalizing your taste buds, there are several other things you can do in Bristol.

The exterior of Linden Place Museum in Bristol, RI
Linden Place Museum is one of the most cherished historic attractions in Rhode Island. | Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel

Try windsurfing or kayaking in the well-secured harbor. You can also try biking, walking, or rollerblading on the spectacularly lovely 14.5-mile pathway along the coast. Check out one of several sightseeing attractions, including fascinating museums that boast historic architecture, such as the Linden Place Museum. It is considered the premier museum in this beautiful district.

Another highlight is Mount Hope Farm. It comprises 1745 Governor Bradford House, a farmer market that is open all year long, and 127 acres of protected open area that consists of several scenic hiking trails.

Reenactors marching in the Bristol Independence Day Parade, a famous Rhode Island attraction
The city of Bristol is famous for its huge and elaborate Fourth of July celebrations. | Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel

Bristol is also responsible for holding the most prestigious of the Independence Day parades in the country, and the city hosts the Bristol Oyster Festival, which has been a tradition that goes all the way back to 1885.

4. Cliff Walk, Newport

Are you looking for a way to enjoy Rhode Island’s natural beauty and historic architecture at the same time, while also staying active? The public-access Cliff Walk along Newport’s eastern shores offers all this along a 3.5-mile-long looping path that’s great for jogging, biking, vigorous hiking, or even just a leisurely stroll.

A view of the ocean from the Rhode Island attraction known as the Newport Cliff Walk
Newport’s Cliff Walk offers 3.5 miles of stunning beachfront scenery. | Credit: Doug Kerr

Take a step back in Newport’s “Gilded Age” as you walk the rocky shore, enjoying a breathtaking view of The Breakers. You will also have the opportunity to look out over the phenomenal gardens of the area’s centuries-old mansions. Keep an eye out for the dazzling wildflowers and multiple species of birds that call the area home.

The Cliff Walk extends all the way up to the end of Bellevue Avenue. The northern part of the pathway is easier to navigate, but the southern part is quite rocky and can be a challenge for inexperienced hikers.

A path near the shore marking the Newport Cliff Walk
Taking the Cliff Walk isn’t just popular with tourists; locals consider it one of the quintessential Rhode Island attractions.

Whether you’re looking to work up a sweat or just want to relax and enjoy the views, there’s no question about it. The Newport Cliff Walk is one of the quintessential things to do in Rhode Island.

5. The Elms

Another Newport attraction, the grandiose estate known as The Elms is among the many opulent and beautiful summer cottages scattered all over Rhode Island. A testament to the grandeur of a bygone age, the Elms has an elegant but quiet charm that makes it stand apart from other manor homes in the area.

The front entrance to The Elms, one of the most extravagant tourist attractions in Rhode Island
A tour of The Elms is a must for any list of can’t-miss things to do in Rhode Island. | Credit: Wally Gobetz

Commissioned by the Berwind family, The Elms was constructed in 1898. It is not the extravagant interiors of this $1.4 million mansion that lures visitors in most, however. Rather, what catches the eye are the Classical Revival gardens, complete with marble and bronze sculptures positioned on terraces, marble pavilions, and marvelous garden fountains.

An ornate stone fountain in the garden of The Elms
Built at the turn of the century, The Elms is a marvel of architecture, history, and luxury. | Credit: Wally Gobetz

Considering that it took almost seven years to design and build them, it’s little wonder that the gardens have turned out to be such a marvel. And while “common folk” in the 1800s might have only been able to enjoy these sights from afar, today The Elms is open for public access and ranks as one of the most popular things to do in Rhode Island.

6. Block Island

Even tourists as spoiled for choice as those visiting New England have to admit that Block Island is something truly special. Offering visitors 17 miles of stunning shoreline, there are limitless choices as to how to spend your time. This tiny island provides big thrills, as well as an idyllic environment and a bunch of scenic hiking trails.

Southeast Lighthouse, one of several Rhode Island tourist attractions on Block Island
The Southeast Light House is just one of several memorable landmarks that make Block Island so unique.

Take a long walk among the scenic hiking trails. Hop on a sightseeing cruise or try out kayaking. You can also go surfing, skimboarding, diving, snorkeling, and much, much more. If you prefer riding, you can rent a moped or bicycle.

View the works of local artists by visiting one of the many local galleries. If you’re there on a Wednesday or Saturday, don’t forget to hit up the Block Island Farmers Market to peruse the diverse wares, which include fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade baked goods, and charming arts and crafts.

View of the ocean from a Block Island cliffside
Don’t overlook Block Island when seeking things to do in Rhode Island; it packs a lot of fun into a small package.

From the outside, Block Island might seem “too small” to offer much excitement, but it’s actually one of the richest and most diverse Rhode Island attractions of them all. If you’re really feeling adventurous, consider exploring on foot. You never know, you might end up encountering one of the hundreds of hidden coves and inlets that make Block Island so unique.

7. RISD Museum of Art, Providence

Looking for some Rhode Island things to do of a more cerebral or culturally enriching nature? The Ocean State is a lot more than just sunny beaches and opulent old mansions. It’s also home to the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the nation’s most prestigious and progressive art schools.

A flag bearing the logo for the Rhode Island School of Island
Not just a prestigious college, RISD is also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Rhode Island.

Don’t feel like enrolling? That’s okay, you can experience the next best thing with a day at the RISD Museum of Art in Providence. One of the premier tourist attractions in Rhode Island, the museum consists of exhibits themed on American art from the 18th and 19th centuries.

In addition, you can also gaze upon lovingly preserved works of art from Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Europe. The museums frequently change their featured exhibits, so even if you’ve been there before, you still have something new to look forward to.

A room full of paintings in the RISD Museum of Art, a popular Rhode Island tourist attraction
The RISD Museum of Art holds one of the largest collections of classical paintings in the state. | Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel

The RISD Museum of Art is worth visiting no matter how knowledgeable of the arts you are (or aren’t). Not only is its collection almost overwhelmingly impressive, but so too is its scope and diversity.

8. The Beaches of Narragansett Bay

They don’t call Rhode Island the Ocean State for nothing! With over 400 miles of tidal Atlantic Ocean shoreline, the entire area is a paradise for seafaring tourists, with more than 100 beaches in total.

Narragansett Bay, one of the most well-known places to visit in Rhode Island
Narragansett Bay features more than 30 small islands and countless scenic beaches. | Credit: Charlie Kellogg

For those looking for things to do in Rhode Island related to the water, such as swimming or boating, there is no better destination than Narragansett Bay. The bay comprises over 147 square miles, forming the largest estuary in all of New England. What’s more, Narragansett Bay is home to more than 30 small islands and three distinct bodies of water: the Sakonnet River, Mount Hope Bay, and the Taunton River.

At Salty Brine Beach, you can watch fishing boats pull in and out throughout the day, while the Scarborough State Park beach offers visitors a chance to take a dip in crisp, cool waters in view of a stunning Victorian-era entertainment complex.

A beach near Narragansett Bay busy with tourists
In the summer, Narragansett’s beaches are some of the most popular places to visit in Rhode Island. | Credit: Tim Pierce.

Despite being thinly populated for most of the year, summer sees a huge influx of people to the beaches of Narragansett Bay. Once you see them for yourself, it’s not hard to understand why.

9. Marble House

Walking through the famed Marble House in Newport, it’s hard not to feel like a king or queen. From the pillars of the White House-esque portico to the red and pink marble of the gold-accented dining room, everything about the mansion seems torn from a storybook. It’s not a fairy tale, though; it’s real.

Exterior view of the Marble House, a 19th-century mansion built by Kenneth Vanderbilt
The Marble House is the closest thing to a royal palace you’re likely to find in the Ocean State. | Credit: Beyond My Ken

The Marble House cost $11 million to build in the 1800s (more than $330 million today). It was given as a gift by legendary American businessman Kenneth Vanderbilt to his wife on her 30th birthday. Taking architectural inspiration from the Petit Trianon at Versailles, the construction of the Marble House took a full five years. Today, it is classified as a National Historic Landmark.

Dining room of The Marble House, with stark red and gold furnishings making it one of the more striking attractions in Rhode Island
With its pink and red decor and golden accents, this is one Rhode Island attraction sure to make an impression.

The ambition and audacity of the Marble House are alone more than enough to make it a must-see Rhode Island attraction. It’s true when people say “they don’t make them like this anymore.” In reality, they barely ever made them like this back then. The Marble House is one of a kind.

10. Beavertail Lighthouse

With so many miles of Atlantic Ocean shoreline along Narragansett Bay, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Rhode Island landscape is littered with charming old lighthouses. Among the oldest and most beloved of these is the 64-foot-tall Beavertail Lighthouse on the tip of Conanicut Island.

The 150-year-old Beavertail Lighthouse, surrounded by tourists visiting the popular Rhode Island attraction
One of the oldest Rhode Island attractions, Beavertail Lighthouse is over 150 years old. | Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel

More than just a simple lighthouse, this stately, 150-year-old structure is an awe-inspiring relic of a time gone by. Though not officially constructed until 1856, the Beavertail Lighthouse’s roots can be traced all the way back to the 1700s. In fact, it was one the first of its kind in the founding American colonies.

An aerial view of Conanicut Island, with Beavertail Lighthouse visible at its tip
Beavertail Lighthouse is located on the very tip of beautiful Conanicut Island, flanked by miles of shoreline.

Illumination from Beavertail Lighthouse has helped sailors navigate Narragansett Bay’s Eastern Passage for centuries. Today, it continues to do the same, with the lighthouse itself now fully automated. Meanwhile, its interior has been converted into an eye-opening museum. This offers tourists one of the most unique things to do in Rhode Island.

11. Westerly

Like Block Island, the small beach town of Westerly may be unassuming at a glance. However, it’s secretly one of the best, most fun, and most beautiful places to visit in Rhode Island. I’d even go so far as to call it the crown jewel of New England beach communities.

Downtown Westerly, a hidden gem for those looking for things to do in Rhode Island
Unassuming at a glance, Westerly, RI is a paradise for tourists in the summertime. | Credit: Daniel Case

Located on the southwest shoreline of Rhode Island, this tiny little beachfront town neighbors the Pawcatuck River and the state of Connecticut. During the summer, tourists flock to Westerly. This due to its warm weather and wealth of sandy beaches, such as Misquamicut State Beach and Atlantic Beach Park.

A sandy beach on the coast of Westerly, Rhode Island
Boating, fishing, sailing, and surfing are just some of the things to do in Rhode Island. | Credit: Waffries

Visitors can busy themselves boating, fishing, sailing, and surfing, as well as camping, hiking, and even golfing. What really sets Westerly apart, though, is its cozy small-town personality. The locals here are incredibly friendly. They’re more than willing to share a pint of beer at one of the acclaimed craft breweries. These include The Malted Barley and Gray Sail Brewing. Just make sure to bring a whopping great thirst.

12. WaterFire Providence

Far and away the most talked-about tourist attraction in Rhode Island is the yearly WaterFire Providence festival. WaterFire takes place along (and on!) the three rivers that snake through the heart of downtown Providence (the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Providence Rivers). It really must be seen to be believed.

Guests attending one of the most famous Rhode Island tourist attractions, the annual WaterFire Providence event
A singular experience, Waterfire Providence draws regularly 40,000 visitors at a time.

Originally meant as a one-time art installation in 1994, WaterFire has since become a hotly anticipated annual tradition. An average of 40,000 visitors gather in the downtown area. Meanwhile, early 100 roaring fires are lit in floating braziers on the surface of the water itself. Black-clad performers tend to the blaze throughout the night, and romantic boat rides weave between the flickering flames.

Close-up of bonfires burning during WaterFire Providence
No itinerary of Rhode Island things to do is truly complete without experiencing WaterFire. | Credit: Adnan Islam

Live music, performance art, craft vendors, and food stands are common sights among the riverside pathways and stone footbridges. Best of all, the event runs on alternating Saturdays all the way from May through to November. Thus, you have plenty of opportunities to experience the joy and wonder of WaterFire Providence firsthand.

New England is a Vacation Hotspot Unlike Anyplace Else

The beautiful, exciting, interesting, and unique Rhode Island tourist attractions listed above are only a small taste of the myriad pleasures the New England region has to offer. There are countless adventures waiting for you, not only in the Ocean State, but also in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, and more.

Check out more of my favorite travel destinations in the blog posts below!

18 Unique Airbnbs in Rhode Island: Beach Houses + Vacation Rentals

The Ultimate Guide to Newport, Rhode Island in a Weekend

The Ultimate New England Road Trip Itinerary in 2022

Fall in New England: 15 Best Towns, Farms, Foliage + Festivals

9 Best Weekend Getaways in New England to Visit in 2021

37 Unique Airbnbs in New England: Cabins + Treehouse Vacation Rentals

Best Times to Visit New England in 2021

13 Best Hidden Gems in New England to Visit in 2021

23 Best Hidden Vacation Spots in the US You Should Visit in 2022

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