Low-key, laid-back city undergoes dynamic renaissance, sprouting funky streets of trendy boutiques, microbreweries and restaurants run by upbeat young chefs. It’s a global phenomenon – and it’s the latest chapter in the history of California state capital, Sacramento. From Gold Rush wealth-generator to farm-to-fork hotspot, the city is one of the underrated rarities of Northern California. Here are the must-visit attractions in Sacramento. Did you know – Culture Trip now does bookable, small-group trips? Pick from authentic, immersive Epic Trips, compact and action-packed Mini Trips and sparkling, expansive Sailing Trips.
Raging Waters Sacramento
If you’re rolling into Sacramento in the summer, pack your swimsuit for Raging Waters in Cal Expo: the largest family waterpark in the city. There are plenty of fun activities for both adults and children. Your little guppies can safely swim in the Treehouse Reef or Shark Pool (honestly) while bigger kids splash in the Breaker Beach wave pool or brave the Dragon’s Den. You can break a sweat at the volleyball court then cool down in the 800ft (244m) lazy river. Finally, race down the six-story Cliffhanger waterslide – once you’ve mustered up the requisite courage.
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Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail
Looking to (gently) up the pace? The Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail has 32mi (51km) of paved and unpaved surfaces on which to exercise. Walking, biking, horseback riding; the trail is perfect for it, all the way from old Sacramento to Folsom city, in parallel with the American River. There are plenty of unique stops along the way. At Discovery Park you can shoot arrows at the archery range. The stretch from Paradise Beach to William B. Pond Recreation area is popular – not least for the picnic opps at the end, with views of the river rapids, and the specialised fishing pier and ramp that makes angling open to everyone.
You’re bound to imbibe some Californian history on vacation here – but it’s fascinating to get under the skin of The Golden State beyond Tinseltown and the Gold Rush. Enter the California Museum: the official historic reliquary of all things Cali, with signature exhibits covering the First Peoples and the Spanish Missions, highlighting the cultural, ethnic and individual contributions that have created the proud state of today. Since you’ll already be in Downtown Sacramento, head on for a slice of the celebrated banana cream pie from Frank Fat’s next door, and enjoy it in the peaceful neighboring California State Capitol Park.
Johnny Cash fans will know Folsom as the home of the prison where the Man in Black performed. The city is a few miles northeast of Sacramento, with a memorial trail by the aforementioned prison. If you’re more of a wide-open-spaces type, zip up your boots and make for Folsom Lake, a serene slice of nature. All around are opportunities for hiking, boating and maximizing that suntan. You can take a long hike through the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, but if that sounds too active, find a patch of sand at Granite Bay Main Beach.
California Automobile Museum
Cali car culture is firing on all cylinders at the California Automobile Museum. This cool indoor lot is home to nearly 150 old-school vehicles beckoning you to cruise through each decade as you grasp how the automobile has evolved: there’s the 1908 Ford Model T Touring Car; the 1933 Lincoln KB; the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray; and the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12. Look out for other special items including an 1880s Penny Farthing bicycle and 1900 Locomobile Steam Car. Revved up? Go.
This vibrant golden lift bridge across the Sacramento River is difficult to miss as it connects West Sacramento to Downtown East Sacramento. Built in 1934, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and thus holds great significance. Dating from the art-deco years (hence the look), the bridge was initially painted silver, but following complaints it changed color – a number of times, in fact. The gold was the result of a popular vote.
California State Capitol
Sacramento is the Californian state capital, hence the regal domed presence of the Capitol, dating from 1860, but which has been modernized repeatedly. It is both a museum and the working seat of state government – home to the governor and state legislature. It is considered a California Historical Landmark, and belongs now on the National Register of Historic Places. You’ll get plenty of opportunities to immerse yourself in the history of the structure – the museum is free to enter, there’s a guided tour (also free) and historic films are screened for no charge in the basement.
Governor’s Mansion and Leland Stanford Mansion
Official residence of the Governor of California, the 30-room Governor’s Mansion was built in 1877, in a turreted Victorian gothic style that recalls Norman Bates’s home in the Hitchcock movie, Psycho (1960). Full of objects left by previous residents – a 1902 Steinway piano, hand-tied Persian carpets – it is a fascinating museum with daily tours, which hasn’t really changed since the Reagans moved out in 1967. Various governors have lived in different houses and hotel suites over the years, but the mansion was back in business when Governor Jerry Brown took up residence in 2015. Some speculate this unusual building is haunted – but you should be fine by day. Don’t miss nearby Leland Stanford Mansion – one of the official workplaces of the Governor of California.
Lawrence Argent’s Leap
The sculpture Leap (2011) is a must-see attraction. In fact, weighing 10,000lb (4,536kg) and measuring 56ft (17m) from top to toe, this colossal suspended red rabbit installation is unavoidable to anyone using Sacramento International Airport. Made from 1,400 aluminum triangles, it is frozen in a leaping position, into a suitcase on the ground. According to the creator, artist Lawrence Argent, it symbolizes the innate human desire to acquire “stuff” at a fast pace, and the fragile motions that consequence either attaining or losing said “stuff.” Some say it suggests something simpler: a short hop somewhere nice for the weekend.
Remarkable, one-of-a-kind art is something at which Sacramento excels, with murals adorning unlikely expanses throughout the city. They can be found by searching the #sacstreetart or #streetsac hashtags on Instagram. Unsurprisingly given their huge appeal, in August 2017 Sacramento held a Wide Open Walls mural festival, which brought together more than 40 local, national and international artists. They left the most astounding art in the region.
Crocker Art Museum
Crocker Art Museum is one of Sacramento’s most-prized locations, home to preeminent Californian collections plus African, Asian, European and Oceanic art. The Italianate-mansion-like gallery opened in 1885, but in 2010 the museum expanded to another connecting structure, built in a more modern style to accommodate the growing number of works. Come and spend a couple of hours here; new exhibitions appear constantly, and the permanent collection includes notable works by artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gerrit van Honthorst and Wayne Thiebaud.
California State Fair
Welcome to one of the most acclaimed summer attractions in Sacramento, which runs for 17 days until the end of July. Held at Cal Expo, the annual California State Fair is the highlight of the hottest months. The tradition, dating back to 1854, began in San Francisco as a way for the California State Legislature to showcase the best agricultural products, from flowers to livestock. Over time it grew to embrace much more, not least diverse cultures, traditions and achievements of which the state is proud. Today, you’ll find home-brew beer demos, olive-oil competitions and pie-devouring contests among the many attractions, and the finest produce is served alongside some frankly atrocious culinary creations – who’s for a deep-fried Twinkie?
As Sacramento is the farm-to-fork capital of the USA, the farmers’ markets here are something you need to experience whatever the season. The agrarian lifestyle is part of the city’s identity, and there are about 1.5m acres (607,042ha) of farms and ranches in the area. If you need a tip, scour the one held at the intersection of W and 8th streets on Sundays for delicious, locally grown seasonal crops, including succulent tomatoes and aromatic Thai lemongrass. And make a few dinner reservations while you’re in town: restaurants work wonders with the bounty.
One of the two most prominent rivers surrounding Sacramento, American River runs for 120mi (193km), starting with the melted snow pack of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is inseparable from the history of California: the Gold Rush era began with the discovery of gold at Coloma in 1848. Naturally, outdoor activities are varied and plentiful: the Memorial Trail, from Discovery Park to Folsom Lake, teems with bikers, runners and roamers. During the warmer months you can also waterski, kayak, white-water raft or fish. Meanwhile, the Effie Yeaw Nature Center is a mine of information, with books and a gift store.
Old Sacramento State Historic Park
For obvious reasons (ease of transportation) this city began on the riverbanks, and today, Old Sacramento Waterfront is a historic marvel. It served as the western terminus to the Pony Express, and handled the first transcontinental railroad and telegraph. It has endured some memorable floods through the ages, and the (consequently raised) streets are home to more than 50 historic buildings; most house shops and restaurants. Some of the more notable destinations in Old Sacramento are the Sacramento History Museum, Evangeline’s Costume Shop and Wells Fargo History Museum.
More than merely the east side of Downtown Sacramento, Midtown has become a dynamo for cultural happenings over the years. During the day, streets bustle with shoppers and periodic festival-goers (the arty annual Chalk It Up is a powerhouse of young talent drawing magic with chalk). Meanwhile, after dark, the clubs whirr into life, along with the dining establishments and bars. If you’re really in the mood for woozy fun, sign up for the oddball Sac Brew Bike, a communal bike bar crawl that gets everyone pedaling to the next pint.
California State Railroad Museum
This 50-minute round trip has family fun written all over it: chugging along the photogenic Sacramento River, pulled by a historic steam or diesel locomotive. Of course, the California State Railroad Museum has plenty of fascinating static exhibits – 21 restored locomotives and trains (some dating from the mid-19th century), railroad memorabilia and interactive re-enactments – but the idea of a spring journey following the levees of the river, listening to the words of the all-volunteer, fully trained crews, has people’s hearts aflutter: ah, the giddy pleasure of travel from another age.
Sutter’s Fort Historic Park
If you want to know how Sacramento was shaped, you need to spend time at Sutter’s Fort. It’s named after one John Sutter, who founded settlements in California (then Mexican land) that drew European traders, trappers and settlers, and made him rich. What is now the city grew from his frontier trading post, begun in 1841: an adobe-walled European-style fort. The Gold Rush did nothing for him, rendering him bankrupt as people migrated to Colma. But this site – named a National Historic Landmark in 1961 – brims with history, and addresses the painful issue of First Peoples and their treatment.
McKinley Rose Garden
As the name makes clear, everything’s coming up roses within the garden of the spectacular 30-acre (12ha) McKinley Park in East Sacramento: a celebrated backdrop for wedding photos and fashion shoots. The growing season, April to November, is a whirl of volunteers pruning, deadheading and fertilizing the 1,200 specimens. In 2012, a major renovation brought new irrigation systems and roses. There’s also a Butterfly Habitat Garde, while butterfly-friendly blooms keep the place aflutter with colorful visitors.
All aboard for a very special dinner. Docked at the Old Sacramento Waterfront is a 285ft (87m) paddle steamboat turned restaurant and hotel: Delta King, christened in 1927, traveled between San Francisco and Sacramento while sibling ship, Delta Queen, worked the Mississippi. In WWII, both were drafted into the US Navy, then Delta Queen took the engines of Delta King for spares. Bought by a family in Old Sacramento and renovated, the King is a photo-worthy attraction – and serves a damn fine seafood linguini.
“Never grow up” is the message at this fine theme park for children, families – anyone, essentially, who adored story time as a child. Attractions (known as playsets) at Fairytale Town are typified by Mary’s Little Lambs – a little schoolhouse home to two Southdown sheep – and The Three Billy Goats Gruff, a tale brought to life by the presence of two Nigerian dwarf goats and a pygmy goat. From the Giant’s Foot from Jack and the Beanstalk to The Little Engine That Could, your little ones will leave with many stories to tell.
Old Sugar Mill
They built the Old Sugar Mill in 1934 as a sugar-beet refinery. Refurbished in 2000, it reopened as a winery in 2005: new and aesthetically pleasing with exposed-brick walls and bucolic decor. Just 15 minutes from Downtown Sacramento, it’s also a wine-tasting powerhouse hosting 14 Northern California wineries under one roof, including Todd Taylor and the small-production Elevation Ten. Depending on the time of year, you can expect them to lay on music, food and picnics too.
UC Davis Arboretum
Get your nature fix 20 minutes or so from Sacramento at the Davis Arboretum, part of the University of California, Davis Campus. There are 100 acres (40ha) of greenery to wander, along with a small flowing creek; find suggested loop trails online to maximize your time. The garden is brimful of wildlife such as frogs, birds and even otters. There are also diverse plant collections from around the world – California, Australia, the Mediterranean – and you can attend absorbing family weekend programs, as well as buying specimens for your own garden.
This historic theater opened more than a century ago as the Empress Theatre. Down the line it was rechristened the Crest Theatre and remodeled along art-deco lines. Shut in the 1980s, it had new life breathed into it a decade and a half later, as a venue for niche films, live performances and lectures. Today, it hosts events such as the Sacramento French Film Festival, the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival, the Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Sacramento International Film Festival.
Nick Dauk contributed additional reporting to this article.
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