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California History Tour

Travel back through the centuries to experience the Golden State’s better-than-fiction tales from the past.

Start:Misión San Francisco de Asís
End:Columbia State Historic Park
2 - 3Days,11Stops,248Miles
Misión San Francisco de Asís
Robert Fried/Alamy
The Presidio
Michael Marfell/Getty Images
Sonoma Plaza
John Randallalves/Getty Images
Vallejo
Benicia
Schofield Images/Getty Images
One House Bakery
Sami Sert/Getty Images
Old Sacramento
Richard Cummins/Getty Images
Delta King
Ron and Patty Thomas/Getty Images
Sutter Creek
Maren Caruso/Getty Images
Murphys
California Dreamin/Alamy
Columbia State Historic Park
Myles McGuinness
Stop 1

Misión San Francisco de Asís

3321 16th St, San Francisco

Embrace some 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 the 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. Call in for a service or tour the historic cemeteries and gardens. Check out the basilica’s dazzling stained glass windows, which depict all 21 missions.

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    Stop 2

    The Presidio

    Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco

    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 US Army base. Today it’s a 14,491 acre park within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Walk 24 miles of trails through eucalyptus groves, visit a working archaeology lab or admire large scale art installations. Splash out on a stay at one of the two historic hotels on-site: 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 theatre.

    Stop 3

    Sonoma Plaza

    453 1st St E, Sonoma

    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 square—it’s impossible to ignore the area’s non viticultural 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. Afterwards, they established the California Republic, raising a homemade grizzly bear flag in central Sonoma. Visit the monument to the short lived territory in the square, then walk over to Sonoma State Historic Park to tour Lachryma Montis, the estate where General Vallejo lived for more than 35 years.

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      Stop 4

      Vallejo

      555 Santa Clara St #3, Vallejo

      California’s first state capital, Vallejo, which lies 20 miles south of Sonoma, was named after the general who welcomed American rule. Vallejo became the capital in 1850 when California became the 31st state. Head to its historic Old Town where you can wander past homes dating back to the late 1800s. Its architectural style is known as 'Working Man’s Victorian', with wooden homes that reflect blends of Queen Anne, Eastlake, Italianate and Stick elements. Architecture fans will also want to check out the Vista de Vallejo area, with its mix of 1930s' romantic styles; and Bay Terrace and Vallejo Heights, a 1900-era district lined with both Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival homes. Today, Vallejo is also home to the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

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      Stop 5

      Benicia

      250 E L St, Benicia

      Located on the North Bay, the quiet waterside town of Benicia is a hidden jewel, built on military history dating back to the 19th century. Named after General Vallejo’s wife, Benicia served a stint as the state capital in the 1850s. Around the same time, the US 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's arsenal, which is now home to the Benicia Historical Museum; it’s the perfect place to stop after lunch at One House Bakery, which is helmed by a former French Laundry baker.

      Stop 7

      Old Sacramento

      1014 2nd St #200, Sacramento

      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 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 and then spend the night aboard the Delta King, a 1927 riverboat docked on the Sacramento River.

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      Stop 9

      Sutter Creek

      71a Main St, Sutter Creek

      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 centre makes for a charming stop, with a meal at Buffalo Chips best followed by homemade pie. Take the self-guided walking tour to see the buildings that housed the local saloons, theatres, shops and more.

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        Stop 10

        Murphys

        Murphys Creek Rd, Murphys

        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 neighbouring Angels Camp) than Michelin stars and super-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 am, 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 stars such as Sheryl Crow. Then relax at the sophisticated V Restaurant, Bar & Bistro.

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        Stop 11

        Columbia State Historic Park

        11255 Jackson St, Columbia

        Columbia State Historic Park presents the Gold Rush in living, breathing colour. Costumed volunteers 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. Take a ride on an authentic stagecoach and order a cold, locally made sarsaparilla in a Western-style saloon or feel the heat in a working blacksmith's forge. There is 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 at weekends at 11 am and on weekdays too, from mid June until the beginning of September. Gold Rush Days take place on the second Saturday of the month in the afternoon. Costumed guides lead hands-on crafts and special tours, and children can try panning for gold. Summer can get hot and weekends become crowded, so aim for early mornings during the week if you can.

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        Road Trip Snapshot

        Find out more about the amazing locations featured in this road trip. Ready to plan your trip? Print the itinerary or map your adventure to get started.

        Stop 1Misión San Francisco de Asís
        3321 16th St, San Francisco
          Stop 2The Presidio
          Presidio of San Francisco, San Francisco
          Stop 3Sonoma Plaza
          453 1st St E, Sonoma
            Stop 4Vallejo
            555 Santa Clara St #3, Vallejo
            Stop 5Benicia
            250 E L St, Benicia
            SPOTLIGHTOne House Bakery
            918 1st St, Benicia
              Stop 7Old Sacramento
              1014 2nd St #200, Sacramento
              Stop 9Sutter Creek
              71a Main St, Sutter Creek
                Stop 10Murphys
                Murphys Creek Rd, Murphys
                Stop 11Columbia State Historic Park
                11255 Jackson St, Columbia

                Car & RV Hire

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