This city sets its rivers on fire for some pretty epic festivals

Founded in 1636, Providence, Rhode Island is one of the country’s oldest cities. And this oldie is certainly a goodie, especially when it comes to its relatively undiscovered attractions. The food scene is phenomenal, with an authentic Little Italy flourishing on Federal Hill. You can take romantic gondola rides through the heart of the revitalized downtown. And you’ll find well-curated shops and galleries throughout the different neighborhoods, some exuding New England charm and others that are hip and modern.

But Providence also plays host to an especially unique tradition that’s worth planning an entire vacation around. This Northeastern city orchestrates WaterFire festivals, where volunteers light the downtown rivers on fire for a beautiful evening display, with the flames flickering from sunset until midnight.

waterfire photo
Flickr | Muffet

Year-round, wood is stockpiled under the Providence rivers’ bridges. When it’s showtime, volunteers—dressed in all black so they blend in seamlessly with the dark—set fire to the 100-some braziers that are stationed throughout the three rivers that wind through downtown and converge.

Relying on donations and volunteers, these free WaterFire festivals happen several times throughout the year—typically on Saturdays and in the summer and fall months. You can find the full schedule here, but the next festival will be on Nov. 4, and will include a salute to veterans.

Photo courtesy of N.Millard/

Artist Barnaby Evans, whose work includes site-specific art installations, designed his first proposal for WaterFire in 1993 for a site in Berlin. The festival got its start in Providence with a single performance on  Dec. 31, 1994, and was intended as a one-time event. Since then, the festival has really caught on, with several of the festivals happening throughout the year, drawing 1 million people to a town whose population is just shy of 200,000.

In fact, WaterFire is often credited as a “crown jewel” of Providence’s renaissance, helping transform the city into a destination. It’s hard to believe, but nearly 30 years ago, rivers running through downtown Providence were paved over. The city uncovered the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, and the point where they converge has become a major gathering place.

Today, WaterFire is part festival, part interactive art display, and truly a multi-sensory experience. The water ignites with what looks like floating bonfires, blazing just above the surface of the rivers and stretching for nearly two-thirds of a mile. The flames crackle, and opera music adds to the ambiance as festival-goers stroll underneath a chandelier-lit bridge and feel the warmth coming off the water. The burning wood emits cedar and pine scents and gondoliers take festival-goers up and down the river, serenading them with Italian love songs. In a word, this festival is dreamy.

Along the walkway are other attractions, like mimes, street performances and swing dancing. There’s also an interactive “Starry Night” display inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s painting; you purchase a blue, glowing star, make a wish and hang it in a tree. Understandably, it’s a popular place for marriage proposals.

Are you inspired to take part in this arty festival or explore Providence for yourself?

Additional Recommendations For Your Itinerary

Eat: One of the best ways to experience Providence is by filling your itinerary with reservations and planning around them accordingly. But for the best pizza experience of your life (bold, right?), head to Figidini. The chef has made all 70,000-plus wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas the restaurant has served. Small plates and drinks come garnished with flowers from a nearby garden, adding even more charm.

Stay: The Providence Marriott Downtown has bikes to loan, which is a great way to explore the downtown and surrounding areas. Plus, your kids will love the indoor-outdoor pool.

Play: One of the best ways to explore the downtown and learn Providence’s history is via the rivers. Whether you’re on a romantic getaway or a family vacation, you can book a gondola ride from La Gondola, where you’ll be serenaded with Italian love sonnets and learn the history of the river. Or you can get an in-depth history of the city with a tour offered through the Providence River Boat Company.