Sacramento, Discovered: California's Capital Shines Bright
California’s capital city is often overshadowed by the Golden State’s metropolitan giants, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. But in the last decade, as the tech sector flees the high cost of living of the Bay Area nearby, Sacramento has come into its own with a burgeoning art and culinary scene, a deeper pride in its historic roots, and investment in powerhouse infrastructure. Here’s why Sacramento now should compete with the bigger players as a base for your next California vacation.
San Francisco has Fisherman’s Wharf, but Sacramento’s tribute to the past was protected first. Rebuilt after fires and floods of the 1850s and restored in the 1960s, Old Sacramento was the first historic district to be designated in the West. Visitors here today find 53 restored Gold Rush-era storefronts, many of which hold little museums that simulate the hardware stores, pharmacies, and other businesses that made these streets bustle once, plus cute boutiques and restaurants. It is best to leave the car behind and explore on foot along the wooden sidewalks (there are also horse-drawn carriage rides, for those so inclined). The focal point of the district is the California State Railroad Museum, which pays homage to the original Western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad—check out 19 steam engines that date from 1862 to 1944; in the summer months, one chugs along the riverbank, hauling passengers.
Often overshadowed by the food centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sacramento has roots deep in the Central Valley soil, allowing it to build a thriving cooking culture crafted around the area’s rich choice of California-grown produce. Often the fare is inventive, like the Grange Restaurant and Bar's pumpkin seed pesto soup, or its locally sourced Niman Ranch ribeye with smoked oyster butter. Also of note: Kru for Japanese fare with an international twist or Cafeteria 15L (pictured above) for brunch and bottomless mimosas.
While other major Californian cities are known for their raging club scenes, Sacramento’s nightlife tends to be more personal and low-key. Which is ok with us. You’ll still find places were you can play a game of giant Jenga with a cold one in hand (Coin-Op Game Room) and cocktail bars that will transport you to the 1920s (Ten Ten Room). The craft beer scene is alive and well in the downtown and midtown neighborhoods, and being so close to the Napa Valley wine region comes with its obvious perks.
The annual Wide Open Walls mural festival has transformed Sacramento’s downtown and midtown neighborhoods into an open-air art gallery that rivals San Francisco’s Mission District. Only in its second year, the 2017 festival featured Sacramento artists alongside those from as far as Spain, New Zealand, and China. Required viewing: the digital glitch-inspired mural at 2020 I Street and the blue-eyed beauty at 2131 Capitol Avenue.
Established in 1839 as the first non-Native American settlement in California’s Central Valley, the construction of Sutter’s Fort’s sawmill led to the discovery of gold that catapulted California to statehood. Today Sutter’s Fort has been restored to its 1846 appearance and is a California Historical Landmark as well as a National Historic Landmark. In the heart of Midtown, Sutter’s Fort is a nugget of local and state history, much like San Diego’s Spanish missions.
California is blessed with architectural high-water marks. San Diego’s Balboa Park and San Francisco’s Presidio come to mind, but so should the often overlooked California State Capitol. Built in 1869, it bears a stylistic resemblance to the nation’s capitol in Washington. Except the California State Capitol grounds are friendlier, including a rose garden dedicated to international peace, a park populated with trees from all over the world, and the California State Capitol Museum.
Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum can hold its own against the best museums in the state. Partly incorporating Judge Edwin B. Crocker’s 1872 Italianate mansion, the museum is known for its esteemed collection of Californian art, European Master drawings, and international ceramics. Among a rotating arsenal of temporary exhibits, pieces like Thomas Hill’s massive 1871 Great Canyon of the Sierras, Yosemite expand on a theme of the West's natural beauty—and ambitions—and are fixtures for repeat visitors.
Los Angeles may be the city of stars, but Sacramento’s state-of-the-art Golden One Center Arena is drawing world famous acts like Paul McCartney and John Mayer to the capital city. Unveiled in late 2016, the arena was designed to be more of a cultural anchor than your typical arena—large art displays can be found throughout the space and concessions are largely locally sourced. The arena’s sleek exterior design is stamped with a leaf pattern that inspired by Sacramento’s reputation as the City of Trees and serves as the canvas for a popular Wide Open Walls mural of Lady Gaga.
Arguably the best thing about California’s big cities is the ability to easily slip away from them into the great outdoors. Lake Tahoe is a famously beautiful high-altitude alpine getaway that splits the border between California and Nevada and is only a two-hour drive from Sacramento. It makes a great day trip option for those who want to use Sacramento as a base for statewide explorations, burying their toes in Tahoe's sand in the summer or hitting its snowy slopes in the winter.