Packed into the smallest of the US states is a diverse collection of breathtaking small towns in Rhode Island. Despite being The Ocean State, there is more to see here than just the oceanfront settlements, lighthouses, and beach views. Venturing in from the Atlantic Ocean is Narragansett Bay, home to many beautiful lighthouses and towns resplendent with foundational examples of new-world architecture. The towns along Narragansett Bay are blessed with saltwater beaches with calmer waters. The same body of water then meets up with the Providence River, which is home to many bigger towns in Rhode Island, and then the Blackstone River further north.
The Blackstone River Valley was the birthplace of the first industrial mills in the US and thus, by proxy, is considered the catalyst for the industrial revolution in America. Many mill towns still exist along the Blackstone River, preserved to different degrees in several charming small towns. With so much American history on display, varied types of towns and buildings, as well as fantastic natural features and parks, a visit to the pretty towns of Rhode Island will stay in your heart forever.
One of the most adorable towns in Rhode Island is Westerly. There’s a reason that the biggest pop star in the world, Taylor Swift, bought a house here in 2013. Her 17 million-dollar oceanfront mansion is on the coastline in the neighborhood of Watch Hill. Miles of beachfront let you see what made this place so special to her and other celebrities like Conan O’Brien. The docks at Watch Hill are a great place to explore for an afternoon and gaze at the watercraft, beaches, and mansions. Though technically part of Westerly, Watch Hills’ shops and restaurants make it feel like it’s a small town in its own right. Make sure to see the Ocean House Hotel, a massive and majestic 5 Star Triple Forbes 5-Star Luxury hotel and Forbes 5-Star fine dining restaurant.
The historic downtown of Westerly is just as jaw-dropping in its splendor. Spanish-style colonial architecture has left its impression on this area as red-clayed roofs abound. One of the places where this is exemplified is the Washington Trust building on Broad Street. Constructed in 1925 by the same architects who designed the Federal Reserve Bank, the Washington Trust building was made to mimic the Medici bank of Renaissance Florence. Outside the Washington Trust Building is one of the most photogenic features in Rhode Island: a functional antique street clock with gold trim that still lights up a mesmerizing pale yellow in night. Another Spanish colonial-style building worth visiting is Westerly Station. Built in 1913, it’s still an operating railroad station along the Northeast Regional Amtrak corridor.
No trip to New England would be complete without a visit to Newport. The sights to see are too numerous to pick from, but there are some obvious musts-dos. Chief among these is The Breakers Mansion. Built for Cornelius Vanderbilt the Second, this luxurious mansion is a crown jewel of Gilded Age architecture. The Breakers is now a well-preserved museum that has captured the lifestyle of the nouveau riche in Italian Renaissance Palazzo frames of columns, archways, marble staircases, and a 50-foot high ceiling in the central Great Hall. While The Breakers is the best known, there are many other Gilded Age mansions that are worth a visit. Jay Leno even bought one.
However, there is a lot more to see than just mansions in this gorgeous town. Constructed in 1747, the Redwood Library still stands as America’s oldest circulating library and inspired Thomas Jefferson in his promotion of classical architecture as a standard in the New World. Made in homage to the Greek and Roman Doric styles, the building is made out of wood that is "rusticated" to look like stone. The best part is that it still operates as it did back then, as not only a library but also an Athenaeum or communal thinking space. People still check out books from this library, and you can attend lectures, concerts, exhibitions, and author talks.
Keeping with the theme of "oldest," the White Horse Tavern is America’s oldest tavern and oldest operating restaurant. Stepping into what looks like a barn on the outside but like a cozy cabin on the inside, you can be part of the line of patrons that goes back to 1673 as you dine on local fish, lobster, and clams. For a post-evening walk, Fort Adams State Park is a marvel of choice, as you can walk through ruins of forts and get views of the harbor and ocean. Another site to squeeze in is a visit to St. Mary’s church, where Jackie and John F. Kennedy were married.
Woonsocket, ranked one of the US' favorite towns, offers a unique blend of culture in Rhode Island. For those who love to see the breathtaking architecture and art of Catholic churches, a visit to St. Ann’s Arts and Cultural Center might just be your favorite stop in Rhode Island. Now non-denominational, St. Ann’s is dedicated to preserving the former church. Yankee Magazine called it the "Sistine Chapel" of America, and a look up at its frescoes, the most numerous in any place in North America, will show you why. Bright and vibrant frescoes adorn the high vaulted archways at St. Ann’s and feature local models painted by the Italian artist Guido Nincheri.
Of all the small towns that were once home to the booming milling industry, the best place to learn about this history is the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket. The museum exhibits the lives of textile mill workers and highlights their journeys from Quebec, Canada. Such was the French influence that at one point, 70 percent of the Woonsocket population was of French or French Canadian origin. Close to the Museum is visible the source of Woonsocket’s once burgeoning industrial prowess, Woonsocket Falls. Woonsocket Falls is the biggest waterfall on the Blackstone River and birthed the industrial revolution in this town. Its remnants can still be seen in the area of Market Square, and the Main Square Pavilion provides key historical wayfinding signage.
Jamestown is on Conanicut Island, which sits at the transition between the ocean and Narragansett Bay. You can get here from beautiful bridges from Newport and North Kingstown. This strategic location of being in the middle of the passage of any ship into the bay has made it so that many consider Jamestown’s southernmost lighthouse, The Beavertail, as the best lighthouse to see in the state.
Views of the bay, the ocean, and Newport Harbor are accessible from four different lookouts on top of the rock face of Beavertail Park. But for a truly spectacular view, you can climb the Lighthouse’s 64-foot tower in the warmer months of the year. You will pass through a museum before you climb to the top. Another historical structure you can visit is the Jamestown Windmill, which was built in 1787. It is still functional after all these years, and as you visit the Quaker meetinghouse next to it, you can just picture what life was like way back when.
Owing its name to the Narragansett Native American tribe, Narragansett is one of the more popular tourist towns in Rhode Island for many good reasons. A big part of its tourist reputation is because of its gorgeous beaches. Chief among these are Scarborough State Beach and Narragansett Town Beach. Narragansett Beach, which attracts up to 5,000 visitors daily in peak season, is in the town center and has ample parking. Further south and away from town is the Scarborough State Beach, which offers a seemingly infinite view of the ocean along its 2,000-foot waterfront.
In addition to the many popular beaches in Narragansett, the town is known for the landmark The Towers structure, which stands as the remnants of the once-famous Narragansett Pier Casino, mostly lost to fire in the year 1900. What was left was rebuilt to become the Towers that now straddle Ocean Road and hosts public and private events. The Pier Casino claims the origin of the Clams Casino dish, so make sure to order this when you visit the area and dine on a piece of history.
You would be amiss not to go to the Ocean State and get out on the ocean. The best place to do this is in North Kingstown. Many people take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, from here because it can save hours compared to driving through the mainland and because of the coastline sights. The shorter 10 Lighthouses, 10 Islands Cruise is a fascinating way to get acquainted with different parts of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay in just a 90-minute trip. In addition to seeing different kinds of lighthouses from the unique perspective on the water, 60 miles of coastline and waterfront buildings and structures are put into focus as the ferry slows down for things like the Jamestown-Verrazano bridge, Fox Island and Hammersmith Farm (where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis grew up).
On the mainland, and right in front of the water, is the historic Wickford Village. Platted (conceived of and planned for real estate purposes) in 1709, the Colonial and Federal period homes in the village are well preserved. Once a sea-trading post, Wickford is today a popular tourist destination. Visitors come to Wickford Village for walking tours, carriage rides, and kayak excursions.
Block Island is a nature lover’s dream in Rhode Island and is home to the smallest town in Rhode Island, New Shoreham. In addition to the gorgeous waterfront views accessible from historical locations like The National Hotel, New Shoreham has much to offer in terms of nature. Wander through the bluffs, trails, and stone walls to see nature and wildlife so well preserved that The Nature Conservancy named Block Island one of the "Last 12 Great Places in the Western Hemisphere."
The Nature Conservancy continues to protect the island and offers free guided nature programs. You can also be part of a fascinating call to adventure by participating in the Glass Float Project. 550 glass orbs were hidden along Greenway Trails on Block Island, and visitors are invited to see if they can find one. If you are up for a bit more of a challenging excursion, the journey to the rocky beach at Mohegan Bluffs is well worth it, with views unlike any other from the clay cliffs. Reach Block Island from several ferry options from Rhode Island or a flight from Westerly.
The charming town of Bristol, situated on the tip of a peninsula between Narragansett Bay and Mount Hope Bay, offers stunning views. This gives it a look and feel of being more hidden away, which is what was going through the mind of the people responsible for the town’s biggest attraction, Blithewold. In 1894, the Van Winkle family began building a summer retreat here. Its immensity in size and scope fascinates visitors. You can, for instance, get lost in any of its ornate 45 rooms or in its 33 acres of gardens and arboretum. A living museum, the Blithewold is a uniquely well-archived and preserved testament to the intentions of the Van Winkle family, most notably its widowed matriarch, Bessie. Not only are the artifacts inside the home preserved, but the plants themselves represent the same genera of plant species from when Bessie began working on the vision for Blithewold.
Although situated in a picturesque setting, one of the most popular sights to see here is controversial in its nature. Linden Place is a beautiful Federal-style mansion built in 1810 but built by the profits of the slave trade. The state of Rhode Island has made steps to educate and use the mansion as a way of teaching visitors about the history of the slave trade and native populations. What isn’t polemic about Linden Place is that the building is quite beautiful, with large white columns, Palladian windows, a ballroom, and a sculpture garden with bronze statues. Bristol is also the town with the longest-running 4th of July celebration in America.
Lincoln is a beautiful mainland town that is bordered by the Blackstone River. For the outdoorsy adventurer, Lincoln Woods State Park is a top choice to visit in Rhode Island. 627 acres of beach, woods, and trails offer outdoor activities for visitors. Activities like hiking, cycling, horseback trail riding, boating, swimming, rock climbing, and ice skating offer year-round options to build memories in the gorgeous scenery only offered in Lincoln.
The town of Lincoln also provides some of the most iconic examples of residential architecture of the settlers of New England. The Arnold House, for example, is one of the best-kept of the few Stone Ender homes remaining in the state. These kinds of homes were once more common and are representative of the settlement era, and the preserved Arnold House offers a rare tour into this past. Another popular house tour is the large columned and gabled Hearthside House, built by a lottery winner in 1810 to try and get a woman he loved to marry him.
Extending north from Narragansett Bay is the Providence River, along which sits East Providence. The first thing you’ll notice from the water is the Pomham Lighthouse, which sits atop a rocky island off the shore of East Providence. The lighthouse, built in 1871, is still functioning and is available to tour by ferry during the warmer months of the year. East Providence is home to Crescent Park Carousel, constructed in 1895, which is in the process of being fully restored.
Also in East Providence is a newly founded Arts District, created in 2021 as an initiative to foster artistic creation in the area, including the installation of public art as well as a mandate that artists living in the district would not pay income tax on any sale of their art.
While many towns in Rhode Island can rightfully be described as beautiful, perhaps none offer a richer tapestry of experiences than Portsmouth, as one of the oldest-founded towns in the state. For instance, something that is unique to Portsmouth amidst a state of oceanside towns is the Newport Car Museum. Here, you can see a diverse collection of classic and luxury cars from 1950 until now.
If you’ve ever wanted to live a lavish lifestyle as you watch a game of Polo, what better place to do so than America’s First Polo Club in Portsmouth? Matches are held every Saturday from June to September. Another fun activity to do from spring to early fall is to visit the Green Animal Topiary Garden. The greenery of the garden has been shaped over the course of a century to resemble over 80 unique animals and shapes. Visitors can picnic amongst the topiary animals and the official Daffodil Display Garden. From Portsmouth, you can take the Mount Hope Bridge to Bristol. The suspension bridge is a towering 285-foot structure decorated with artistic lighting that dazzles in the dark. Such is the bridge's beauty that it was awarded the 1929 Artistic Bridge Award by the American Institute of Steel Construction.
Slatersville is a pretty village located in the famed Blackstone River Valley, a region known for being the impetus for the American Industrial Revolution. The region gained this distinction thanks to the Slater family, who brought their expertise in industrial milling to America. Slatersville was the first mill village, or village built to house future workers, to exist on this side of the Atlantic. Elements of the original mill village still remain, such as the Western Mill, Reservoir, the house of town founder John Slater, and the Slatersville Mill, which has now been converted into apartments.
Not far from Slatersville is an example of the spread of early Rhode Island mills and milling, the quaint town of Central Falls. Some of the old mills are standing, but time is of the essence here because many of the mills are being re-purposed. Central Falls calls itself the "Square Mile" because of its square footage being a little over one mile. You can make a quick visit to the town, which would be best culminated by a walk to Jenks Park, home to Cogswell Tower. At 70 feet in height, you can’t miss the Cogswell Tower and its four clock faces from anywhere in town, especially when lit up at night by lights stringing from a ring that surrounds the tower like the planet Saturn. The city of Central Falls has begun renovating the park and will add a playground and upgrades to landscaping and lighting.
A trip to Tiverton will give you some of the clearest views of the past in Rhode Island. The Four Corners village in Tiverton is home to shops and restaurants in the cozy embrace of 18th-century buildings. Not far away is the Chace Cory House, a nearly 300-year-old homestead preserved by the Tiverton Historical Society and offers visits for a small admission fee. Located on the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay, Tiverton is a place to see what colonial living was like.
These prettiest small towns in Rhode Island have deservedly garnered reputations as some of the most beautiful oceanfront towns to see in America. Others may be less popular with the tourists but can surprise you with the history and sheer beauty of what lies within their roads and waterways. In addition, Rhode Island can be traveled in a short amount of time thanks to its small size. Many people come back regularly to visit this eclectic and historical state.