When glittering nuggets and veins of gold were discovered in the Sierra Foothills in 1849, a massive tide of humankind, hell-bent on finding their fortune, raced as fast as they could to the Gold Country. Sailing as far as they could up from San Francisco Bay east on the Sacramento River, the gold-hungry pioneers pulled up at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers, the furthest point they could go in their sailing ships. A town sprang up almost overnight, with many buildings constructed out of leftover ships timbers and sails. Sacramento was born.
Today, on the sycamore-shaded banks of Sacramento River, get a sense of those raucous early years in renovated Old Sacramento, now a 28-acre National Historic Landmark. While there are the requisite trinket and t-shirt shops and ice cream parlors in restored buildings, there are also excellent museums, including the California State Railroad Museum and the California Museum. A restored riverboat, the Delta King, invites you on board for brunch, dinner, and even an overnight stay. Horse-drawn carriages offer rides, and docents in period costumes lead historic walking tours—a great way to learn about some of the district’s secrets, like underground passageways and chambers. (Kids love the spooky ghost tours, offered in October.) Climb aboard a historic steam locomotive for a scenic ride on the Sacramento Southern Railroad. If you prefer to be on the water instead of beside it, hop aboard a scenic one-hour Hornblower cruise.