The economy may be heading slightly upward, but travelers are still hesitant to dole out the big bucks for spendy vacation destinations. Enter California's own city of trees, Sacramento. Sure, the capital can't compete with its larger neighbors to the south, but it truly has something for everyone: a burgeoning restaurant scene, outdoor adventures and a diverse cultural past.
Sacramento is a cosmopolitan oasis rich with fine dining, high-end shopping, world-class museums and performing arts. Best of all, its central location means the ocean and mountains are only a short car ride away. Once a sleepy commuter town centered on state politics and agriculture, Sacramento has quickly blossomed into a bustling metropolis.
But Sacramento can't escape its past, and remnants of its golden era are found on every corner. Having begun as a base for miners on their way to the nearby Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush era, the city is rich with nineteenth-century history.
Sacramento's central core — composed of its downtown and midtown areas, where most attractions are located — is relatively compact and easy to navigate by a lettered and numbered grid system. Most hotels are located within walking distance of major sites, and taxis are readily available. To reach outlying areas of town, rent a car. Parking is inexpensive and easy to find, and public transportation is often unreliable.
Guests of participating hotels can save a buck or two by picking up a complimentary Sacramento Gold Card. The card offers savings — many two-for-one deals — at dozens of restaurants, attractions and merchants throughout town. The Sacramento Convention and Visitor's Bureau, at 1608 I St., can help with room reservations at participating merchants or provide any other information you may need.
Sacramento enjoys its share of high-end lodgings, boutique hotels and mid-range options. By far the best choices are the Hyatt Regency and Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel, located in the heart of downtown, or the Embassy Suites on the riverfront. Also downtown, the boutique hotel, The Citizen, retains its past with historic charm.
For a unique experience, book a room on the Riverboat Delta King, a 1920s paddle wheeler permanently moored in Old Sacramento. For cozy, residential hospitality, book a room at the Amber House Bed & Breakfast. Or, to surround yourself in turn-of-the-century romantic opulence, stay at The Sterling Hotel.
SACRAMENTO DAY 1: OLD TOWN, WALKING TOURS, CALIFORNIA STATE RAILROAD MUSEUM
Follow in the footsteps of the forty-niners and begin your tour of the River City in Old Sacramento. Plan your itinerary over breakfast at the Rio City Café, where you can enjoy Frangelico French toast or Cajun beef hash while gazing at the Sacramento River on the outdoor patio. Get acquainted by strolling along the raised wooden sidewalks and admire the nineteenth-century architecture.
As you look past the modern souvenir shops and restaurants, it's easy to imagine their former glory as general stores, saloons and bathhouses. Of particular interest is the B.F. Hastings building, which served as the Western terminus for the Pony Express; the Eagle Theatre, a replica of the first theater in California; and the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse, a reproduction of a one-room schoolhouse typical of the Old West. Many of these buildings now house shops and boutiques; besides souvenir T-shirts and fake gold nuggets, you'll also find unique — sometimes wacky — gifts at Evangeline, Hollywood memorabilia at Stage Nine Entertainment Store, eco-friendly home goods at the Solar Syndicate and nostalgic collectibles at Brooks Novelty Antiques and Records.
For a more in-depth perspective of Old Town, visit the Old Sacramento Visitors Center and take an hour-long Historical Walking Tour through the Old Sacramento Living History Program, led by a costumed docent. For a lighthearted take on the city's sordid history, take the Hysterical Walk comedic tour led by prospectors and riverboat gamblers, or a Ghost Tour hosted by the spirits of the dead. Or, go below the surface of the city's history with an underground tour, and see what the streets looked like before the city was raised to avoid annual floodwaters. A scenic, one-hour historic river cruise with Hornblower Cruises provides yet another unique perspective.
After a morning of sightseeing, it's time for lunch at Fat City. Housed in the Brannan Building, one of the first general merchandise stores in Old Town, the restaurant is decorated in Victorian artifacts, Tiffany-style lamps and beveled glass windows. The varied menu offers something for everyone, from satisfying entrée salads to burgers, sandwiches and pasta.
Things to Do in Sacramento
After lunch, continue your trip back in time with a visit to one of the most popular attractions in Old Sacramento. The California State Railroad Museum, which traces the history of railroading and its impact on California, features restored nineteenth-century traincars, a steam locomotive and a reconstructed train depot. During the summer you can hop aboard a steam train for a six-mile excursion atop the levees of the Sacramento River.
Other nearby museums include the California Military Museum, featuring artifacts, documents and memorabilia of California's rich military history; and the Wells Fargo History Museum, which depicts the early days of commerce through gold, stagecoaches and telegraph.
For dinner, there are plenty of options in Old Sacramento. Get a taste of what the region has to offer at Ten22. This casual yet sophisticated American eatery features creative dishes designed around local, organic and seasonal ingredients. Enjoy a showcase of local food with the six-course chef's table discovery menu, a one-of-a kind tasting menu designed especially for two.
SACRAMENTO DAY 2: STATE CAPITOL, GOVERNOR'S MANSION, SUTTER'S FORT
Head east today to explore all that midtown has to offer. Do what the locals do and begin with breakfast at the Tower Café. The palm-tree-lined outdoor patio, a quiet oasis on a busy intersection, is the perfect place to enjoy the famous custard-soaked French toast, a designer omelet or huevos rancheros. Afterwards, continue to the city's most recognizable landmark, the State Capitol. Completed in 1874, the Capitol building houses the state Senate and Assembly, and visitors can watch lawmakers in action in public viewing galleries. Take a tour of the restored historic offices or stand in the first-floor rotunda and admire the inner dome rising 120 feet. Step outside the massive structure into the serenity of Capitol Park, 40 acres of trees, shrubs and flowers. The park also features several key monuments, including the California Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Firefighters Memorial.
For lunch, head over to the bustling K Street corridor, which is home to several lively restaurants and nightclubs. A good bet for a casual lunch is Pizza Rock, a rock-and-roll themed pizza joint featuring dozens of creative pies — including the award-winning margherita baked in a wood-fired oven.
If you haven’t had enough of California government, head over to the Governor’s Mansion. Built by a hardware merchant in 1877, the mansion was home to thirteen governors before being turned over to the state in 1967 during Ronald Reagan’s tenure. With 30 rooms, nine bathrooms and fourteen-foot ceilings, the structure is an example of Second Empire-Italianate architecture.
Continue your tour of the midtown area with a visit to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. Founded by John Sutter in 1839, the fort is all that remains of Sacramento’s earliest settlement, which was abandoned after gold was discovered in the nearby foothills. Tour the historical exhibits and witness living history with demonstrations in weaving, blacksmithing and carpentry.
No visit to Sacramento would be complete without a visit to the Crocker Art Museum. Founded in 1885, it’s the longest continually operating museum in the West. The museum is partially housed in a Victorian mansion, which is itself a work of art, and is home to one of the premier collections of California art. The California Hall of Fame at the California Museum for History highlights the innovative contributions of Californians; inductees include Amelia Earhart, César Chavez, Walt Disney, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs.
If you're here on the second Saturday of the month, there is no better way to get a taste of Sacramento's burgeoning local art scene than by participating in Second Saturday Art Walk. Art galleries throughout town stay open late, usually until 9 p.m., welcoming guests free of charge to view their items, meet the artists and socialize with fellow art lovers.
By now, you should have worked up a hearty appetite. A good choice for dinner is The Porch Restaurant and Bar, a modern take on traditional Southern fare.
If you have enough energy left after dinner, enjoy Sacramento's thriving performing arts scene. The Music Circus, a nationally recognized theater-in-the-round, produces musical events during the summer months. The Sacramento Ballet offers world-class shows, and the Sacramento Community Center Theater stages Broadway musicals. At the Mondavi Center at the University of California, Davis, you'll find a full range of performing arts, from music to dance, traditional to innovative. Both the B Street Theater and Capital Stage are well-regarded for their local productions, or, for something more lighthearted, check out the Comedy Spotfor a night of local stand-up, sketch or improv.
SACRAMENTO DAY 3: OUTDOOR ADVENTURES, AMERICAN RIVER, WINE TASTING
On day three, it's time to conquer the great outdoors. Sacramento's mild weather makes it an outdoor enthusiast's dream — biking, hiking, rafting, boating and other activities are a regular part of life for Sacramentans. But first, fuel up with a hearty, inexpensive meal at a local favorite: Orphan Breakfast House. This neighborhood gem features an eclectic menu; popular items include the banana blackberry pancakes and soy chorizo scramble.
Outdoor Activities and Adventures in Sacramento
After breakfast, consult your map and point yourself in the direction of the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. Better known as the American River Bike Trail, this 23-mile-long paved, multi-use parkway stretches from Old Sacramento to Folsom Lake. Rent a bicycle and pick up a courtesy map at City Bicycle Works, a quick ride from the trail's western access point. If biking isn't your thing, no worries; the American River Bike Trail is great for just taking a leisurely stroll and enjoying the scenery.
Sacramento's location at the conflux of the Sacramento and American rivers makes it an ideal choice for water enthusiasts as well — it isn't called the River City for nothing. Beat the summer heat by taking a rafting trip down the American. A number of companies offer trips suiting every skill level. A good bet for beginners is American River Raft Rentals, while the more adventurous can try American Whitewater Expeditions further upstream.
Back in town enjoy a much-needed lunch break at Zocalo, a midtown favorite for regional Mexican cuisine. Enjoy the sunshine on the outdoor patio while sipping a specialty cocktail, such as the Oaxacan old fashioned or caipirinha, and share several small plates, such as the beef empanadas or chorizo queso.
Wine connoisseurs will be pleasantly surprised by what Sacramento has to offer. Not only is it less than an hour from the Amador and El Dorado wine growing regions, it is also home to several wineries of its own. Revolution Wines offers tasting and small plates in its bistro, open Tuesday through Sunday, while Rail Bridge Cellars offers tastings by appointment, and hosts special events throughout the year.
Today would also be a perfect day to pick up some souvenirs before your trip home. Sacramento is home to several world-class shopping centers and hundreds of one-of-a-kind boutiques. For high-end fashion, the outdoor Pavilions mall features designer fashions, home furnishings, gourmet cookware and an array specialty shops. The midtown area is home to dozens of independent boutiques selling designer clothing, vintage goods, handmade jewelry, imported gifts and local art.
For dinner, head to East Sacramento for Formoli's Bistro, featuring traditional American food with a gourmet twist; the whiskey burger is said to be one of the best burgers in town.
Originally published on www.gayot.com