Founded in 1636, tiny Rhode Island can lay claim to many of America's oldest structures, including the country's oldest surviving synagogue (in Newport), its first Baptist church (in Providence) and its oldest tavern building (the White Horse Inn in Newport, which first opened its doors in 1673).
In terms of dollars per square mile, Rhode Island in its heyday must have surely ranked among the wealthiest states in the nation—at least during the summer. When Manhattan's 19th-century robber barons wanted to build holiday "cottages," many set their sights on breezy Newport, just 290 kilometres (180 miles) from overcrowded New York.
Soon, the rich and famous were competing vigorously to build the most opulent mansions along fashionable streets like Bellevue Avenue. Many of these homes survive as museums, including The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt's 70-room weekend hideaway. The resort's glamour persisted into the 20th century—the king and queen of Camelot, JFK and Jacqueline Bouvier, tied the knot here in 1953.
With a population of about 175,000, Providence is Rhode Island's largest city. History buffs may enjoy strolling past the many colonial-era buildings along Benefit Street. Gourmets, meanwhile, will likely relish the fine fare at local restaurants, many run by graduates of the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University. From spring through fall, the three rivers of Waterplace Park are illuminated by 100 bonfires in a unique nightly installation called Waterfire.
For a memorable nature getaway, head to Block Island, off the mainland's south coast. The main attractions here are Victorian inns, sweeping beaches, dramatic bluffs and scenic hiking trails, as well as the migratory birds that use the island as a stopping-off point.