A Guide to Sacramento's Architectural Landmarks

Historic Tower bridge leading towards the state capitol in Sacramento, California.
Historic Tower bridge leading towards the state capitol in Sacramento, California. | © trekandshoot / Alamy Stock Photo
Gwen Purdom

Devastated by a series of floods in the mid-19th century, Sacramento made a big move. City officials voted to lift the fledgling city above the floodplain and, using thousands of wagon-loads of earth, they did (there’s still evidence of the restructuring in basements and under boardwalks).

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The new capital city of California had been raised to a new level, literally, but also on the growing nation’s stage. Accordingly, Sacramento got to work building an urban environment that could handle both the flood of Gold Rush hopefuls and the gravity of government business. Some of the city’s most historic structures that are still standing today, date back to those early efforts, while other Sacramento landmarks rose in the years of progress since.

Tower Bridge

The dramatic vertical lift bridge that connects downtown with West Sacramento was completed in 1935 and soon established itself as one of Sacramento’s signature sites. Designed in the Streamline Moderne style and built by the Department of Public Works, the Tower Bridge was recognized with a national award from the American Institute of Steel Construction in 1936 as the most beautiful bridge built in the previous year. Its industrial beauty shines on today—now coated in gold paint as a nod to Sacramento’s ties to the Gold Rush instead of its original silver—as drivers and pedestrians enjoy its one-of-a-kind expanse daily.

Sacramento Ziggurat

Sacramento architect Edwin Kado looked to the ancient ziggurats of Mesopotamia for inspiration when he designed the unique office building that opened on the banks of the Sacramento River in 1997. The Ziggurat, as it’s known around the city, was built for The Money Store, and today houses the California Department of General Services. But there’s nothing general about the building’s unusual perpendicular lines and pyramid-like shape. Though it’s only been around a couple decades, the Ziggurat’s distinctive profile is essential Sacramento.

California State Capitol

California’s imposing Capitol building is an impressive Neoclassical anchor for downtown Sacramento. The structure, completed in 1874, has served as the state’s seat of government for more than a century. The city hasn’t always been the capital of California, but it’s lived up to the role, right down to the regal dome that tops the Capitol building. Inside the Capitol walls, features like a stained glass interpretation of the state seal and intricate mosaic tile floors make the building even more of a must-see for architecture and history buffs.

Elks Tower

In 1926, the Sacramento Elks had outgrown their meeting spaces. The organization erected a 14-story brick and steel tower at the corner of Sacramento’s 11th and J Streets instead. In the years since, Elks Tower has been a popular destination for weddings and events with its restored ballroom and ornate interior details. At one time, it was the city’s tallest building. In 2016, the building owner proposed a plan to turn parts of the tower into a luxury casino and swanky vintage card room, but legal obstacles have gotten in the way of that proposal moving forward.

Old Sacramento

Old Sacramento, Sacramento, CA, USA

The stretch of Firehouse Alley that’s home to Old Sacramento is lined with historic buildings given new life in recent decades. When workers first started leaving the city’s original 19th-century waterfront business district, the area fell into disrepair. But a redevelopment plan in the 1960s kicked off efforts to restore the neighborhood to its former glory. Today, Old Sacramento’s 28 acres are crowded with charming historic buildings, museums like the California State Railroad Museum, shops, and restaurants.

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