Rhode Island Scenic Drives: Coastal Rhode Island

A beach front.
Rhode Island has some scenic spots. Image Source / Getty Images/Image Source

From Narragansett Bay to the Atlantic, U.S. 1 and 1A, otherwise known as Coastal Rhode Island, showcase the Ocean State's coastline, passing through its capital city and its ritziest resort on the way to its beach-lined southern shore.

The most scenic alternatives to the interstate -- specifically I-95 -- are U.S. 1 and its offshoot 1A. However, they are not the quickest routes for driving through Rhode Island. The smallest state in the Union, just 37 miles wide by 48 miles long, Rhode Island is nonetheless blessed with some 400 miles of coastline, counting its many coves, bays, and islands. Much of the coastline is lined with beaches that are open to the public. Driving U.S. 1 and U.S. 1A -- with a side trip over to the resort town of Newport -- is the best way to experience the coast, although short side trips are necessary to access many of the beaches and small coastal resort areas.


This route provides a capsule viewing of much of the best of Rhode Island, including the lively capital city of Providence and the tony bayside resort of Newport, where some of America's wealthiest families built mansions on or near the water. It also passes through small, picturesque towns with colonial-or Victorian-era homes and little coastal villages that are a pleasant place to spend a weekend getting away from it all. Historic lighthouses line the route.

Small as Rhode Island may be, this route could easily take several days to explore if you linger in Providence and Newport or in one of the small resort towns or villages along the way.

Discover the drive's historic sites and mansions and where to go to take in the rock-rimmed peninsulas, best beaches, and maze of inlets, coves, and harbors. Begin the drive in Pawtucket, a blue-collar city in the state's Blackstone Valley.

Slater Mill Historic Site: Pawtucket is home to the Slater Mill Historic Site, the nation's first water-powered cotton spinning mill, dating from 1793. Its success at spurring mass production effectively ushered in the Industrial Revolution.

Providence: Drive south to Providence, the capital city of more than 175,000 people, built along the Providence River and situated on the northern lip of Narragansett Bay. Plan to spend some time in the city enjoying the history, the greenery, and the flourishing music and art scenes. A huge marble dome tops the Rhode Island State House; inside the Capitol is a famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Roger Williams Park has paddleboats and summer concerts in addition to New England's best zoo. Don't miss Benefit Street, with its many houses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Wickford: Drive south from Providence on U.S. 1 and 1A to Wickford, where the route once again meets up with Narragansett Bay. Wickford is a pretty village dating from the early 1700s. Explore Main Street for a taste of the waterfront and the town's colonial-era homes.

Follow this map of Coastal Rhode Island.

Newport: A few miles south of Wickford, take Route 138 east toward Newport, crossing Narraansett Bay via the Jamestown and Newport bridges and Conanicut Island. After the Newport Bridge, the road enters Aquidneck Island. Reaching Newport, on the southern tip of Aquidneck, follow signs downtown to the waterfront (typically jammed with yachts, sailboats, and other craft). The Long Wharf area is good for lunch.

Nearby Bellevue Avenue is lined with summer cottages (as the rich called their palatial mansions) built by old-money families in the 1890s, America's Gilded Age. Along Bellevue Avenue are Beechwood (home of the Astors), Rosecliff (used as a set in the film The Great Gatsby), and Belcourt Castle, home of the Belmonts. Ochre Point Avenue is the site of the Breakers (the 70-room Vanderbilt cottage), while Ocean Drive harbors Hammersmith Farm, where John and Jackie Kennedy were married.

Newport also features the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Museum of Yachting, reflecting Newport's status as sailing capital of the East Coast and longtime host of the America's Cup. It's also the site of the annual summertime Newport Jazz Festival.

Saunderstown: Now head back on Route 138 to U.S. 1A, and go south along the coast a short distance to Saunderstown, site of Gilbert Stuart's birthplace (located between U.S. 1 and 1A). Stuart, best known for painting more than 100 portraits of George Washington, lived in the house until age seven. Also the site of the first snuff mill in America, it has been restored and furnished in the mid-18thcentury style and contains reproductions of some of Stuart's works.

Point Judith: Farther south on 1A is Narragansett, a Victorian-era resort town located at the point where Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Continue south from there to Point Judith, site of a historic lighthouse at the tip of a peninsula and several beautiful beaches, including Scarborough State Beach, which has a beachside boardwalk. The village of Galilee on Point Judith is the embarkation point for ferries to Block Island, an unspoiled resort island with wonderful beaches, scenic walking trails, cliffs, and several wildlife refuges, about 12 miles off the coast.

East Beach and Misquamicut State Beach: Returning to U.S. 1, head west along South County and Rhode Island's southern coastline. Short side trips south of U.S. 1 lead to salt ponds, piney woodlands, and miles of wide, flat, white-sand beaches. Among the best beaches are East Beach, south of Charlestown, and Misquamicut State Beach, near the western tip of the state. The latter is a two mile-long stretch of sand typically filled with sunbathers and lined with amusements and snack bars.

Watch Hill: The drive ends at Watch Hill, the state's westernmost beach resort, rich with Victorian architecture and home to the oldest merry-go-round in America, the Flying Horse Carousel, whose carved wooden steeds have been flying since 1867. 

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