Rhode Island is known for its strong ties to the water, its colonial history, unique foods, and Gilded Age mansions, among other things.
Although “island” is in its name, Rhode Island is a land-bound state with deep ties to the water.
Every Rhode Islander lives within 30 minutes of the Atlantic Ocean or Narragansett Bay. And the Narragansett Bay stretches into the eastern half of the state, adding to the small state’s expansive 400-mile coastline.
It’s no wonder that Rhode Island is most known for beaches, sailing, seafood, and cute coastal towns.
But as one of the thirteen original colonies, R.I. also has a deep colonial history and is home to several colleges and universities, including one Ivy League school.
Here’s what Rhode Island is known for:
Rhode Island has nearly 400 miles of coastline, which is a lot for a state of such a small size! Sandy beaches line many areas of the coast, especially in sections of the state that open to the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the state’s most popular beaches include Narragansett Beach, East Beach, and Scarborough North State Beach. The state’s mild summer climate, combined with its attractive beaches, has made R.I. a popular tourist destination for years.
As the largest city and capital of Rhode Island, Providence plays a prominent role in the state. With approximately 179,000 people, Providence sits in the northeastern part of the state at the tip of Narragansett Bay. The city’s downtown is a mix of historic buildings, modern skyscrapers, and a cultural district with restaurants, museums, and theaters. It also has many colleges and universities, including Brown and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Rhode Island, specifically Newport, is known for its Gilded Age mansions – built by wealthy industrialists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These mansions were designed as summer residences for wealthy Americans and were often referred to as “summer cottages”. They showcase the opulence of the age. Many of these mansions are located along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive in Newport; several are open to the public. The most frequently visited and grandest mansion is The Breakers, which the Vanderbilt family built between 1893 and 1895. It contains seventy rooms and is approximately 70,000 square feet in size.
The smallest state in the country
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States regarding land area. It’s only about 48 miles long and 37 miles wide, covering an area of approximately 1,214 square miles. However, Rhode Island is also the nation’s 3rd most densely populated state. Due to its small size but proportionally large population, R.I.’s economic activity is closely tied to its neighboring states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York.
The Ocean State
Rhode Island’s nickname is “The Ocean State” due to its extensive coastline and intimate connection to the sea. The name reflects Rhode Island’s proximity to the water, its strong maritime history, and the ocean’s important role in shaping the state’s culture, economy, and identity.
Situated in the center of Providence, ivy-league Brown University is a major presence in both the city and state. Founded in 1764, Brown is one of the oldest colleges in the U.S. and is one of nine colonial colleges chartered before the American Revolution. With a student body of over 10,000 and faculty of over 1,000, the university is also one of the largest employers in the city and a major contributor to the city’s economy and cultural life.
Rhode Island accent and slang
Like other New England states, Rhode Island is known for its unique accent and slang. The Rhode Island accent is generally a mix between a Boston accent and a New York Italian accent. For example, some Rhode Islanders may pronounce “coffee” as “caw-fee” or “water” as “wah-ter.”
Some of the slang used in Rhode Island is also unique to the state. For example, a Rhode Island native will likely say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain”. And the term “grinder” is typically used to describe a long sandwich, most commonly called a “subway sandwich” elsewhere in the country.
Rhode Island has a long clamming history, and its coastal waters are known for producing high-quality clams. Clams have been harvested in the waters off the coast of Rhode Island for food and trade since the 1600s, and the industry has remained an important part of the state’s economy and culture over the years. Not surprisingly, Rhode Island cuisine features several clam-based dishes such as clam cakes, clam chowder, and fried clams.
Rhode Island, and more specifically Providence, is known for its art. One of the main reasons is the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a world-renowned art and design school in the city. The school, founded in 1877, is the city’s arts community epicenter, attracting artists, writers, and musicians. Providence also has numerous cultural institutions, such as museums, galleries, and theaters.
Quaint coastal communities/towns
Along Rhode Island’s miles of coastline are several quaint coastal towns. Some of the most popular communities in the state include Newport, Narragansett, Bristol, and Westerly. These towns are characterized by their period architecture, charming main streets, and scenic harbor views.
The large body of water jutting into the eastern half of Rhode Island is Narragansett Bay, which gives the state much of its coastal feel. The bay is between three to twelve miles wide and is received by four major rivers. Because the bay creates a jagged coastline deep into the state and contains over thirty islands, most Rhode Islanders live within a few miles of the water. The bay also has several lighthouses and several marinas line its shores.
The founder of Rhode Island was Roger Williams, a religious leader expelled by the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts. In his exile, he established the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (Rhode Island’s official name until 2020!) in 1636. Williams strongly advocated for religious freedom and the separation of church and state, and he founded the First Baptist Church in America. His goal in establishing Rhode Island was to create a haven for those seeking refuge from religious persecution.
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“The Sailing Capital of the World”
With so many residents living close to the water, it’s unsurprising that Rhode Island is known for being “The Sailing Capital of the World”. The state has a long history and strong sailing tradition and is home to numerous sailing events, including the Newport Bermuda Race and The Ida Lewis Distance Race, as well as several world-renowned sailing schools and yacht clubs.
The first colony to declare independence
Rhode Island was the 13th state to join the original colonies, but it was the first to renounce its allegiance to King George III of England. The event happened on May 4, 1776, over protestation regarding taxes. Interestingly, Rhode Island would also be the last state to ratify the new American Constitution on May 29, 1790, as it contemplated retaining its independence from the new nation.
Unique to Rhode Island, coffee milk is a mix of coffee syrup and regular milk. It’s similar to chocolate or strawberry milk but with a coffee flavor. Coffee milk is such a staple in R.I. that it’s designated as the state’s official beverage. While the drink can be found in some neighboring towns in Massachusetts, its availability is generally confined to Rhode Island.
Block Island is a gem among Rhode Island’s many islands and a popular summer destination. It lies about nine miles south of the mainland, just east of New York’s Long Island. The pear-shaped island is only six miles long and 3.5 miles wide and is home to just over 1,000 residents. Block Island is known for its natural beauty, pristine white beaches, breathtaking views, and historic colonial structures.
See related: Top 10 Best Things to Do on Block Island
International Tennis Hall of Fame
Newport, R.I. is home to The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which is dedicated to honoring the greatest players and contributors in tennis history. The Hall of Fame was established in 1954 and has since inducted hundreds of individuals worldwide, including champions from both the amateur and professional eras of the sport. In addition to its museum, the International Tennis Hall of Fame also operates a tennis facility, including thirteen grass courts, six clay courts, and indoor courts.
Warm weather in Providence means it’s once again time to experience the Waterfire Sculpture. This large-scale public art installation consists of over eighty bonfires that burn along three rivers in the city. The sculpture was created by artist Barnaby Evans in 1994, and the lighting of the sculpture typically includes live music, street performers, and food vendors, with thousands crowding the streets to take in the festivities.
The first Baptist church in the U.S.
The First Baptist Church in America was established in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638 by Roger Williams and a small group of followers. This church was one of the earliest Baptist churches in the world and helped to establish the Baptist denomination in America. It remains an active congregation and is considered a historic landmark in Rhode Island. The establishment of this church played a significant role in the development of religious freedom and tolerance in the United States and is an important part of the state’s history and heritage.
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Food Rhode Island is Known For
Rhode Island is truly unique when it comes to food. The state has several dishes and names for foods you won’t find anywhere else. Here are some of the most unique foods Rhode Island is known for:
- Coffee milk: the official state beverage made of milk and coffee-flavored syrup
- New York System: a wiener topped with onions, celery salt, ground beef sauce, and mustard.
- Cabinets: a mixture of milk and ice cream, commonly called “milkshakes” elsewhere
- Stuffies: quahogs clam meat mixed with Ritz crackers, spices, and diced vegetables
- Johnnycakes: similar to pancakes but made with ground cornmeal
- Grinders: the sandwich the rest of the country calls “subways”
- Doughboys: fried dough in the shape of a ball or flat
See related: What Food is Rhode Island Known for?
Famous People Rhode Island is Known for
Even though it’s a small state, Rhode Island is known for a long list of famous people. Here are a few of the most prominent:
- Viola Davis: one of the few recipients of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award
- Debra Messing: actress in the hit TV series Will & Grace
- Taylor Swift: world-renowned singer-songwriter and winner of multiple awards
- Roger Williams: founder of Rhode Island and advocate for the separation of church and state
- Patrick J. Kennedy: a member of the prominent Kennedy family and U.S. House of Representative
See related: 37 Famous People From Rhode Island
See what other New England states are known for:
About Kerry Flatley
Kerry Flatley has lived in New England for the past 26 years. She has roots in Maine & Massachusetts, family in New Hampshire, and grew up close to the Connecticut border. She loves all that this region has to offer – the ocean, mountains, islands, history, villages, and cities. When she’s not writing about New England, she’s relaxing at home in the Boston suburbs with her two teenage daughters and husband.