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This college town, historic community, and craft beer pioneer is Butte County’s largest city

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One of California’s most distinctive small cities, Chico blends the energy of a contemporary college town and a long history as a hub for the surrounding farm communities of Butte County.

With a downtown of stately 19th-century buildings and a leafy canopy of thousands of street trees, the city remains rooted to its past. That’s especially true at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, where you can tour the grand, three-story Italianate home of city founder John Bidwell. Bidwell is responsible—along with his wife Annie, who donated nearly 2,200 acres of land to the city following her husband’s death—for Chico’s remarkable Bidwell Park. Now stretching for 11 miles from the heart of town into the foothills, the park gives Chico a municipal park and recreational destination that cities many times its roughly 100,000 population would envy. The park (see map)  boasts six “urban swimming holes,” including the massive three-acre Sycamore Pool in the One Mile Recreation Area, hiking trails, disc golf courses, and the Bidwell Park Golf Course.

Generations of Californians first discovered Chico on their college tours to Cal State University, Chico. With a campus adjacent to both downtown and Bidwell Park, Cal State Chico influences the life of the city and gives the community an unmistakable vibrancy and wealth of cultural attractions. The bell tower of Trinity Hall rises over this beautiful university, where Big Chico Creek meanders among the buildings and the Petersen Rose Garden, with 50 types of roses and 350 bushes, brightens the grounds. Take a stroll around campus on a self-guided walking tour and check out the outstanding concert series at Laxson Auditorium, the grand, 1931 venue that has hosted appearances by everyone from Nobel Prize laureates to such musicians as Yo-Yo Ma and Willie Nelson. You can also learn about world cultures and aspects of local history at the university’s Valerie L. Smith Museum of Anthropology.

Back in town, the Museum of Northern California Art in the 1927 Veterans Memorial Hall showcases works by more than 96 regional artists collected by Chico’s Reed Applegate, a graphic designer and advertising executive. Of course, Chico, like many university towns, also has its non-traditional side and is home to the National Yo-Yo Museum, the world’s largest public collection of yo-yos, and the Little Red Hen vintage shop, where you’ll find midcentury modern and rustic furniture and decorative home goods.

As the birthplace of the pioneering Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico played a big role in America’s craft beer revolution. The craft beer tradition is also carried out at The Commons Social Emporium near downtown, which is owned by longtime locals and features more than 20 beers and ciders on tap.

Though its legacy for brewing excellence is perhaps the city’s best-known culinary contribution, Chico does not live by beer alone. You’ll also find terrific dining, including the contemporary California cuisine at acclaimed chef Ann Leon’s Leon Bistro and the sushi at Japanese Blossoms. Or start the day off right with such favorites as the apple walnut pancakes and banana Nutella French toast at downtown’s Café Coda). And the delectable blackberry lemon scones at the beloved Upper Crust Bakery & Café are irresistible. 

Just around the corner, on Broadway, B Street Pub starts off the day as a coffee shop/brunch spot, then serves lunch and dinner menus, and finally takes on the role of late-night music venue. Down the block is Live Life Juice Co., which specializes healthy cold-pressed concoctions as well as vegan soft-serve. And with its local-only food-sourcing policy and eclectic decor made from upcycled materials, Foodie Café has a loyal local following.

Many local restaurants count on the bounty of Chico’s surrounding farmland, which produces a cornucopia on vivid display at the city’s twice-weekly farmers markets. The markets run year-round, while the annual Taste of Chico in September is a great opportunity to discover the best of the city’s dining and craft beer scenes. Another major local event is the Chico Wildflower Century, during which you can burn off some of the calories you packed on while in town as you ride among almond orchards and hills blanketed by spring blooms traveling along routes that range from 12 to 125 miles.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in the heart of downtown, the 1904 Hotel Diamond has a gorgeous lobby with brick walls and a graceful wooden stairway, as well as rooms that combine historic atmosphere and contemporary comforts.

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