Aerial view of Newoport, Rhode Island.

7 Oldest Founded Towns To Visit In Rhode Island

While Rhode Island covers the smallest area of any state in the U.S., the “Ocean State” is full of history. Some of the oldest towns founded by European colonists in what is now the United States are in Rhode Island. We have listed the seven oldest of those towns (based on their official dates of incorporation), all of which came into existence before the year 1680. Each town offers travelers the opportunity to step back in time and get a feel for life in colonial America. But, even if you are not much interested in history, these towns are great places to visit!

Providence, 1636

The beautiful Rhode Island city of Providence.

Located at the strategic point where the Providence River empties into the Narragansett Bay, Providence (population 190,000) was established by the religious nonconformist Roger Williams in 1636 after his exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While Providence honors its long history and maintains some elements of its colonial era past, the city has developed greatly over the centuries. Providence was one of the nation’s earliest manufacturing centers in the 1800s, and today is a hub for medicine, technology, and culture. The city is nicknamed “The Creative Capital” for intellectual and cultural attractions such as the Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, Rogers Williams Park and Zoo, and annual Rhode Island International Film Festival.

Portsmouth, 1639

Golden Sunset Portsmouth Rhode Island, Pell Bridge, and BoatsSunset scene in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Located on Aquidneck Island (which the English settlers originally called Rhode Island) in Narragansett Bay, Portsmouth was established by religious dissenters, including Anne Hutchinson, who were convinced by Roger Williams to settle there instead of the New Jersey colony. Incorporated in 1639, Portsmouth occupies the northern section of Aquidneck Island and has a current population of about 18,000. Sites of historical interest include Friends Meetinghouse (circa 1699), Battle of Rhode Island Site (1778), and Prudence Island Lighthouse (1823). Surrounded by the waters of Narragansett Bay, Portsmouth is a natural hotbed for sailing, and the nearby town of Bristol serves as the home base for the United States Sailing Association. 

Newport, 1640

The picturesque city of Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport (population 25,000) was incorporated only one year after Portsmouth, in 1640, and is also located on Aquidneck Island. With its ocean-facing position on the south end of the island, though, Newport became a tourist hotbed for the rich and famous in the late 1800s, and spectacular mansions like the Breakers and the Marble House still line the waterfront. Newport also maintains numerous colonial era homes and buildings, including America’s oldest existing tavern, synagogue, and bank building. Newport’s history as a summer escape for the wealthy is evident by attractions like the Newport Yachting Center and International Tennis Hall of Fame, but it is a great tourist destination for a more diverse array of visitors these days.

Warwick, 1647

Aerial view of Warwick Point's lighthouse in Warwick, Rhode Island
Aerial view of Warwick Point's lighthouse in Warwick, Rhode Island.

Situated about 12 miles south of Providence along the western side of Narragansett Bay, Warwick was incorporated in 1647, and its population of 83,000 makes it Rhode Island’s third largest city. While Warwick has to some degree been swallowed up in the Providence metro area, including housing the state’s primary airport, it still maintains many unique and historic aspects of its character. Along with historic structures like City Hall and the Caleb Greene House, Warwick is renowned for its beautiful parks. Goddard Memorial Park, for example, is a great place for a relaxing stroll, while Rocky Point State Park offers breathtaking water views and sandy beaches along the bayfront.

Westerly, 1669

Watch Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island
Watch Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island.

A shorefront community in the southwestern corner of Rhode Island, Westerly was incorporated in 1669 and now has a population of a little over 23,000. With the Pawcatuck River forming its western boundary, the town has numerous waterfront areas that offer beautiful vistas and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation. Westerly’s famous white sand beaches are on the far side of three saltwater ponds along the coast. While still known for the pink-hued Westerly granite mined nearby, the town’s primary industry is now tourism. Along with Westerly’s pristine beaches, visitors come to town to check out historic structures like the Watch Hill Lighthouse, Babcock-Smith House Museum, and Flying Horse Carousel.

North Kingstown, 1674

Dramatic beautiful sunset landscape over Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge and Narragansett Bay in North Kingstown, Rhode Island
Dramatic beautiful sunset landscape over Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge and Narragansett Bay in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.

Incorporated in 1674 as Kingstown (before the newer, southern part of the community became a separate town in 1723), North Kingstown has a present-day population of nearly 28,000. Situated along Narragansett Bay in the southern part of Rhode Island, North Kingstown contains some of the oldest preserved structures in the state, including Smith’s Castle (1678), Old Narragansett Church (1707), Casey Farm (1725), and birthplace of renowned artist Gilbert Stuart (1751), and several homes and businesses in Historic Wickford Village. Connected by ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, North Kingstown is a popular tourist destination with a bustling main street full of shops, restaurants, bars, and galleries along Tower Hill Road. 

East Greenwich, 1677

Street scenes in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
The quaint town of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.

East Greenwich, the older part of the town of Greenwich that was incorporated in 1677, lies south of Providence along the western shore of Narragansett Bay. Home to about 14,000 residents and one of the wealthiest communities in the state, East Greenwich is best known for its picturesque waterfront. Shops, restaurants, boat launches, and public parks line the bayfront, making the town an ideal spot for a sunny day getaway. East Greenwich also has a lively downtown area lined with historic buildings. To get a feel for Rhode Island’s early colonial history, visitors can check out the 1679 Clement Weaver-Daniel Howland House, one of the oldest homes in the state. 

For such a small state, Rhode Island is certainly full of surprises! Whether you enjoy exploring historic structures from the 1600s, doing some high-end shopping, or just feeling a cool breeze coming off of a picturesque waterfront, Rhode Island is a great place to explore. Start your journey by checking out some of the oldest towns in the state, then discover more communities to add to your list of favorites in Rhode Island, the Ocean State.

  1. Home
  2. Places
  3. Cities
  4. 7 Oldest Founded Towns To Visit In Rhode Island

More in Places