California’s capital city first began in the mid-1800s as a settlement along the Sacramento River. It marked the spot where gold seekers heading for the Mother Lode in the Sierra foothills would leave their sailing ships and continue east on foot. In response to the flood of gold-fevered adventurers, a settlement began to grow along the river’s southern banks—a place bustling with shops, eateries, and lodgings.
Though the area was convenient for river access, it had a problem: It flooded—a lot. To get above the river’s incessant rising flow, the town began to raise its streets and buildings. Recent excavations have uncovered the former first floors of Old Sacramento, a maze of hidden underground spaces and streets. Sacramento History Museum guides in period costumes lead you down sloped alleyways and narrow passages into some of these gloomy spaces, all the while sharing details on the town’s early history and citizens. Special “Underground After Hours” tours, offered on select evenings for ages 21 and over, delve into the city’s darker past. Guides shed light on Old Sacramento’s shadiest characters, sharing the early town’s gossip of murder, mischief, and madams.
Like many cities, California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.
As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colourful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centred largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Town Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system linking popular sites around town.
With its noble columns and snappy cupola, all painted wedding-cake white, California’s State Capitol building looks like a mini replica of US Capitol in Washington, DC. Take a free tour to learn about the 1869 building’s architecture and history. In the Capitol Museum, check out the collection of coolflags—including those carried by California soldiers during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I, as well as artwork by formerlegislators and government staffers. Kids can download puzzles and colouring sheets that feature fun Golden State facts. (Quick: Which city is the Raisin Capital of the world?)
This is very much a working capitol building, and, if legislators are in session, ask about access to public galleries to watch bills being debated or votes being cast. Outside, stroll through the adjacent 40-acre Capitol Park, where you can admire trees from around the world, and visit the sweetly scented International World Peace Rose Garden. Take note of the Civil War Memorial Grove—in 1897, saplings from famous Civil War battlefields were planted here.
For a lively overview of California history—from its rich Native American heritage to A-list actors and superstars leading the tech revolution. Signature exhibits include the California Hall of Fame, a remarkable collection jointly established by the museum and former First Lady Maria Shriver, honouring Californians who have made their mark on history. Inductees include celebrated stars (Francis Ford Coppola, Warren Beatty), authors (John Muir, Joan Didion), sports legends (Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul Jabbar), architects (Julia Morgan, Frank Gehry), visionaries (Walt Disney, Steve Jobs) and a host of other remarkable individuals. The museum also houses an exhibit honouring some of the state’s most remarkable women, such as farm worker organiser Dolores Huerta and astronaut Sally Ride.
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 parlours in restored buildings, there are also excellent museums, including the California Railway 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 guides 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.
California is undeniably the land of plenty—the largest agricultural producer in the country. And it doesn’t get much more farmer than the region surrounding Sacramento. This fertile acreage, with remarkable soil and abundant sunshine, means Sacramento has incredible access to the juiciest fruits, freshest vegetables and an ever-increasing array of artisan, farm-based products. Area chefs take advantage of the produce by forming close relationships with farmers and sourcing ingredients that will end up on diners’ plates that very same night. Taste the results at favourite eateries including Ella Dining Room & Bar, Mulvaney’s B&L, Waterboy and The Kitchen Restaurant.
"Be part of Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Celebration, a two-week affair that gathers farmers and chefs to showcase the best in food and wine."
Sacramento’s chefs also craft their seasonally driven menus by shopping at local farmers’ markets—more than 10 sprout up at different locations year-round. For a novel experience, join a Market-to-Plate Executive Chefs Tour, offered by Local Roots Food Tours. Walk with chefs as they shop, get tips on what to buy and how to prepare it, then relax with lunch made from the day’s harvest. Chef Oliver Ridgeway, who focuses on hyper-local sustainable ingredients at Grange, also offers market walks on Wednesdays, followed by a three-course lunch.
If you’re visiting in September, you’ll want to be part of Sacramento’s annual Farm-to-Fork Celebration, a two-week affair that gathers farmers and chefs to showcase the best in food and wine. To cap off the festival, celebrated chefs prepare an exclusive farm-to-fork meal at an iconic city landmark for hundreds of food-loving attendees.
Tudor, Colonial Revival, Arts and Crafts, California Bungalow—premier examples of these classic architectural styles keep your head spinning in this elegant collection of streets (numbered streets in the 40s) in East Sacramento. Long considered one of the city’s most fashionable neighbourhoods, it makes for a delightful stroll with hints of a bygone era of elegance and privilege. Here, home owners relax on broad front porches; squint and you can almost imagine them in crisp linen suits and frilly lace dresses, sipping cool lemonades on a sultry August afternoon. Kids ride bikes on wide streets—a reminder that trams used to run through the area and needed plenty of room at turnaround points.
During the holidays, the area takes on special glow when several houses get lavishly decorated, then welcome the public during special home tours.
Artists and gallery owners have gained serious traction in Sacramento and music, plays and performances abound. Find out what’s going on by consulting Sacramento365.com, the best way to tap into all the cultural goings-on about town. One of the best ways to make the most of the hopping arts scene in the city’s Downtown, Midtown, Uptown and East Sacramento neighbourhoods is to time your visit for a second Saturday of the month. From 6pm to 9pm, galleries offer extended ‘open-house’ hours, creating a street party atmosphere with rotating exhibits, chances to chat with local artists, live music and food and wine offerings. See what’s going on at artist-run cooperative Axis Gallery and peek behind the scenes at The Urban Hive, Sacramento's co-working and hacking space. Follow the monthly map to other open-late businesses too.
Consistently ranked as one of the best railroad museums in the country, the expansive California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento presents 21 meticulously restored “iron horse” locomotives, plus period-perfect railway cars, many open for one-of-a-kind walk-throughs. Incredible attention to detail—authentic china and silverware in dining cars, velvet and finery in the Pullman sleeping cars, a charmingly stubby wooden caboose—give you a sense of what it was like to travel by train before cars became king.
Numerous exhibits detail the ways that railroads shaped the lives, economy, culture, and history of the Golden State. Kids will enjoy being able to step aboard Pullman-style sleeping cars, a dining car filled with railroad china, and a replica of a railway post office. There’s even a high-speed train simulator that allow visitors to feel what it’s like to pilot a modern high-speed train. Guided tours of the museum are offered daily and special events include the “Spookomotive Train Ride“ on weekends in October and a winter holiday train ride, complete with a visit from a gift-bearing Santa, in November and December.
On spring and summer weekends (April–September), the museum offers excursion rides every hour on the popular Sacramento Southern Railroad, which chugs along the banks of the Sacramento River right through Old Sacramento. Take in the view from a first-class observation car, a closed coach, or an open-air gondola (guess which one kids like best).
Walking tours are a great way to experience the capital’s history on foot. A variety of tours, sponsored by the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, cover topics ranging from art and architecture to culture and religion. Altogether these tours (most lasting one or two hours) cover more than 150 years of state and local history, from early settlement by Swiss immigrant John Sutter to civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association.
Those looking for more off-the-beaten path guided adventures might enjoy the Old Sacramento speakeasy tour that visits underground watering holes. Beginning at the Prohibition-themed River City Saloon, the journey continues to the famed Delta King riverboat, which used to be known as the floating hotspot for illegal drinking and gambling (and is now permanently docked on the river in Old Sacramento). For a taste of the macabre, consider the Downtown haunted tour, which delves into spooky stories of Sacramento’s past, including the Indian burial ground under City Hall and rumoured ghosts at the allegedly haunted Crest Theatre.
The first public art museum founded in the Western United States, the Crocker Art Museum is still one of the leading museums in California today. If being the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi sounds like an outdated claim to fame, forget about it. This is one vibrant, eclectic, fascinating and altogether of-the-moment museum, with an unparalleled collection of both historic and contemporary art.
First, the historic. The original Crocker Museum was a gift to the city, a move by Margaret Crocker, heiress of the fabulously wealthy Crocker family, to let the people of Sacramento have permanent access to her family’s astounding personal galleries, housed in an Italianate mansion a pleasant stroll from the Capitol Building. The elegant building, as well as the adjacent family home, still showcase that collection, which includes European works as well as the Californian collection, now considered one of the finest of its kind in the United States.
Over time, the collection grew to include an amazing wealth of international ceramics, sculpture and works by contemporary California artists, many of whom taught at nearby University of California at Davis. Fast forward to 2010, when a dramatic new gallery space, the ultra-modern Teel Family Pavilion, was added to the 1800s-era Crocker compound, a bold and visually stunning move. These wide open, naturally lit gallery spaces have become the home of the contemporary collection, and they are your chance to see original works by some of the state’s finest artists. Here, experience black-and-white originals by the celebrated photographer Ansel Adams—the difference of seeing his real images of Yosemite’s Half Dome versus a poster replica is breathtaking. Over there are Wayne Thiebaud’s whimsical pie paintings of pie, over here sculptor Roy Arneson’s wacky ceramic head. Altogether, the Crocker, old and new, creates one of the best experiences in California’s surprising capital city.