When I went to Providence College in the mid 1990s, Providence was very different than it is today. The city had no luster, and we didn’t venture downtown often — particularly after dark. Instead, my friends and I spent our time on Eaton Street and the half-dozen other streets bordering campus, frequenting the neighborhood bars and each other’s ramshackle houses. If the city had all the appeal that it does now, I’m certain we would have pushed beyond campus limits to explore more.
Since Providence’s “renaissance” I’ve been back a few times to meet up with my old friends. It’s evolved into a fantastic city brimming with culture, history, and all that good food. I’d never considered it a family destination until last year, over the December holiday break, when my husband and I brought our kids for a mini-excursion. Before we left, I wasn’t sure there’d be enough to keep us busy for the two days we were there. Yet I soon realized Providence has plenty to occupy and interest young travelers. If you’re looking for a mini-getaway during February vacation, consider a trip to the city.
We opted to stay at the Omni Providence Hotel (1 West Exchange St., 401-598-800, www.omnihotels.com) for its central location. It’s connected to the Dunkin Donuts Center (where the Providence College basketball team plays) and the Providence Place Mall, which is a shoppers dream with multiple dining options — including a food court — as well as a large movie theater.
A recent multimillion dollar renovation has significantly spruced up the Omni, making it appealing for travelers looking for a high-quality experience; at the same time, it’s very kid-friendly. The indoor pool delighted my 4- and 6-year-olds, and my husband and I loved that we could enjoy a delicious Italian meal while the kids ate their standard order of macaroni and cheese at Centro (401-228-6802; www.omnihotels.com/hotels/providence/dining/centro-restaurant), one of the hotel’s three eateries. Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar is slightly more upscale; Morsels offers pastries, sandwiches, and delicious brewed coffee.
A short walk from the hotel, our young ice skaters were captivated by Alex and Ani City Center (2 Kennedy Plaza, 401-331-5544; www.alexandanicitycenter.com), an outdoor ice rink double the size of the arena at Rockefeller Center and far less crowded. Skate and helmet rentals are available, along with “Penguins” that serve as skate aids for kids learning to skate (kids hang on to the penguin ears for support as they amble across the ice). There’s an on site snack bar and plenty of places to sit and take a break.
Just beyond city limits and sprawled on more than 40 acres is the Roger Williams Park Zoo (1000 Elmwood Ave., 401-785-3510; www.rwpzoo.org), one of the oldest zoos in the country. “People don’t tend to think about going to the zoo during the winter,” says Diane Nahabedian, the park’s director of marketing and communications. “But there is a lot to see here in February and March.” You’ll want to bundle up for the outdoor trek, but it’s well worth it. The zoo has Masai giraffes, zebras, and African elephants, kangaroos and wallabies, along with red pandas and camels. During the winter, North American River otters and snow leopards are particularly fun to watch, says Nahabedian, as the species thrive in cold habitats. If you need to warm up, there are more exhibits inside including the flamingos and sloths; there’s also an indoor activity space.
With kids along for the trip, the Providence Children’s Museum (100 South St., 401-273-5437; www.childrenmuseum.org) is a must-do. Sprawled on two levels, the place has multiple rooms with abundant opportunities for hands-on learning. There’s a designated water area where kids can explore ice, mist, and swirling ways of water. There’s a life-size Lite Brite that captivated me for its nostalgia — though my kids weren’t nearly as enthralled, perhaps because there were so many other aspects to explore. Older children will enjoy learning about Rhode Island history and space discoveries; there are also areas devoted to nature and craft projects. If it’s not too cold, the outdoor garden and playground has a climbing maze that’s a great way for kids to burn off some energy. During school vacation week there will be special events. On Feb. 20, for example, children’s singer and storyteller Keith Munslow will present an entertaining family performance full of music, tongue-twisting poems, and silly rhymes.
This year marks the eighth year for the Providence Children’s Film Festival, which will be held throughout the city Feb. 17-26. With the theme “Explore New Worlds,” the festival will feature 14 feature-length and more than 75 short films created by filmmakers from around the world including a film classic, live action, documentaries, and animations that are geared to families with children as young as 4. “Films are selected for their compelling stories with a global perspective that challenge young audiences to better understand the world,” says festival executive director Anisa Raoof. “We try to find films that will encourage kids to think and to inspire conversations about the themes reflected onscreen.” Films will be held at various locations around the city, including Avon Cinema on Thayer Street and the RISD Auditorium on North Main Street. Check out the website (www.providencechildrensfilmfestival.org) for a full schedule of films and descriptions.
On our way out town, we stopped for lunch on Federal Hill at Caserta Pizza (121 Spruce St., 401-621-3618; www.casertapizza.com), one of the few haunts that could lure me off campus during my college days. While it had been nearly 20 years since I’d been back for the joint’s signature traditional Italian-style pizza, I was glad to see the place hadn’t changed. The black-and-white tile floor, utilitarian decor, and friendly counter service was just as I remembered it. My children deemed the thin crust pepperoni pizza the best they’d ever tasted.Jaci Conry can be reached at email@example.com.