Travel back through the centuries to experience the Golden State’s better-than-fiction tales from the past
Embrace San Francisco history that goes way back—before any tech boom, or even the Gold Rush. Misión San Francisco de Asís is the oldest building in the city, dating to 1776 when Father Junípero Serra established a string of missions to convert indigenous populations and bolster Spain’s presence in the New World. Nearly 250 years later, the church—named for St. Francis of Assisi, but also known as Mission Dolores, after the nearby creek—still hosts an active congregation. Stop by for services or tour the historic cemeteries and gardens. Check out the basilica’s dazzling stained glass windows, which depict all 21 missions.
Set at the mouth of the Golden Gate, the Presidio has a long military history: It started in 1776 as a Spanish fort, and later became a U.S. Army base. Today it’s a 14,491-acre park within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Hike 24 miles of trails through eucalyptus groves, visit a working archaeology lab, or admire large-scale art installations. Splurge on a stay at one of the two historic hotels onsite: the Inn at the Presidio or the Lodge at the Presidio. Don’t miss the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts, originally built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo, and now home to an intimate theater.
Just 45 miles from San Francisco, Sonoma means wine to many people. But when you drink in the surroundings on the eight-acre Sonoma Plaza—the state’s largest plaza—it’s impossible to ignore the area’s non-viticulture history. This is the site of the Bear Flag Rebellion of 1846, when a few dozen American settlers revolted against the Mexican government, imprisoning General Mariano Vallejo. Afterward, they established the California Republic, raising a homespun grizzly bear flag in downtown Sonoma. Visit the monument to the short-lived territory on the plaza, then walk over to Sonoma State Historic Park to tour Lachryma Montis, the estate where Gen. Vallejo lived for more than 35 years.
California’s first state capital, Vallejo, which lies 20 miles south of Sonoma. Named for the general who welcomed American rule, Vallejo became the capital in 1850, when California became the 31st state. Head to its historic district Old Town, where you can wander past homes dating back to the late 1800s. Its architectural style is known the "Working Man’s Victorian," with wooden homes that reflect blends of Queen Anne, Eastlake, Italianate, and Stick elements. Design nerds will also want to check out the Vista de Vallejo neighborhood, with its mix of 1930s romantic styles; and Bay Terrace and Vallejo Heights, a 1900 subdivision lined with both Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival homes. Today, Vallejo is also home to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
Located in the North Bay, the quiet waterside burg of Benicia is a hidden jewel, built on military history dating back to the 19th century. Named after Gen. Vallejo’s wife, Benicia served a stint as the state capital in the 1850s. Around the same time, the U.S. Army launched the Camel Corps, using animals shipped from the Middle East for supply runs and expeditions. When the corps disbanded, some animals were auctioned off from the city arsenal, now home to the Benicia Historical Museum; it’s a perfect place to stop after lunch at One House Bakery, helmed by a former French Laundry baker.
Stop in for lunch at One House Bakery, helmed by a former French Laundry baker.
In the heat of the Gold Rush, Sacramento sprang up at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. Before it became the state capital in 1879, it also served as the terminus of the Pony Express. To get a sense of life back in those days, wander the Old Sacramento Historic District, where more than 50 preserved buildings house shops, restaurants, and museums. Take an Underground Tour, which shows how the city fought floods by raising the streets, then spend the night aboard the Delta King, a 1927 riverboat docked on the Sacramento River.
Spend the night aboard the Delta King, a 1927 riverboat docked on the Sacramento River.
The Sierra Foothills are full of towns whose fortunes rose and sometimes fell with their mineral output. The “Jewel of the Mother Lode,” Sutter Creek was dedicated to gold and quartz mining for almost a century. Today, its town center makes for a charming pit stop, with a meal at Buffalo Chips best chased by homemade pie. Take the self-guided walking tour to see buildings that housed the local saloons, theatres, stores, and more.
Like San Francisco, Murphys was one of California’s richest boom towns, but this appealing Calaveras County town feels closer to Mark Twain’s famous jumping frogs (celebrated yearly in neighboring Angels Camp) than Michelin stars and über-prestigious, wine tasting. Roughly halfway between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, this Mother Lode town still has a richly historic look. Guided walking tours are conducted every Saturday at 10 a.m., starting in front of the Old Timers Museum on Main Street.
Yet with all these nods to history, it’s not hard to see times have definitely changed. Stroll down Main Street to visit tasting rooms and restaurants featuring vintages from the more than two-dozen family-owned and -operated wineries in the region. Sip an espresso and taste baked-that-morning croissants at Aria Bakery, and look for artisan crafts at the farmers’ market (Thursdays in summer). Visit the sprawling Ironstone Vineyards to sip wines or catch an outdoor concert with big-name stars like Sheryl Crow. Then relax at sophisticated V Restaurant, Bar & Bistro.
Columbia State Historic Park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing color. Costumed docents do more than lead tours of this carefully preserved Mother Lode town; they actually live and work here in a variety of period-appropriate shops and trades. Catch a ride on an authentic stagecoach, order a cold, locally made sarsaparilla in a Western-style saloon, or feel the heat in a working blacksmith's forge. There’s also a Wells Fargo express office and other relics of California's early mining days. The town even sounds authentic—no cars allowed here, though you will hear the clip-clop of horses.
Free historical tours depart from the museum weekends at 11 a.m. (weekdays too, mid-June until Labor Day). Gold Rush Days take place on 2nd Saturday afternoons; costumed docents lead hands-on crafts and special tours, and kids can try their hand at gold-panning. Summer can get hot and weekends become crowded, so aim for early mornings during the week if you can.