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A Capital Idea: Reconsider Sacramento

An in depth look at California's state capital. Includes attractions, events, restaurants, shopping, lodging and some vineyards thrown in for good measure.

By and large, the state capitals of the Lower 48 states are not places that lure many leisure visitors, Boston is certainly the exception. In most capitals, lobbyists, business travelers and politicos swarm, sure, but ordinary travelers, with or without families, do not visit these places often enough, in my opinion. This is true especially if you're talking about Sacramento, whose qualities were a big surprise to me after hearing so little about it when people began to rave of California's wonders.

Sometimes, your friends' advice can be wrong, especially if they shoot in and out of a place quickly on business, not taking time to smell the jasmine in bloom, taste the almonds or sip the wine. Sacramento, I can now say, is the most attractive big-city state capital in the Western 48. (There are many little-town capitals that are very pretty, Annapolis being a prime example, but Sacramento's metropolitan area consists of nearly 1.9 million souls. For Eastern 48 big-city capitals, Boston gets my vote for most attractive.)

By "attractive," I don't mean just in physical appearance, but in amenities, ambiance and attitude. I was surprised by the magnificent rows of trees (they call Sacramento a "city of trees"), the well-scrubbed downtown and government area, and the careful waterfront development. But I was equally impressed by the wide variety of cultural attractions available, from all kinds of music to plenty of art displays, from outdoor sports activities to ballet, opera and theater.

Only for people staying at a participating hotel, the city tourist office gives away a Sacramento Gold Card, which allows you discounts at several restaurants, attractions and retailers. Your card expires at midnight on the day you check out of your hotel. Some examples of savings: Twofers for bike rental, admission to State History Museum, Rail Museum, Crocker Museum, IMAX Theater, children's theme park, zoo, Sutter's Fort, and 10% discounts or similar at five restaurants, four shops and more. Get the card when checking in at a participating hotel, such as the Delta King (see below). There are 18 participating hotels in the Downtown area, including the three listed in Lodgings, below.


Check out the world-renowned Sacramento Jazz Jubilee (tel. 916/372-5277; from May 26 to 29, with more than 100 bands from around the world. On June 10 is the 4th Annual Grape Escape (tel. 916/808-7777;, with 50 participating wineries. From August 11 ¿ September 4, try the 153rd California State Fair (tel. 916/263-3000; September 1 through 4 sees the Gold Rush Days (tel. 916/808-7777; in Old Sacramento, with people in period costumes, cars banned, horses adored.

Old Sacramento

This is where tourists hang out, sure, but locals show up all the time, too. On 28 riverfront (the Sacramento) acres, the complex recreates the Gold Rush days of the 1860s, with a boat cruise, a riverboat hotel, a great railroad museum, and dozens of shops and restaurants. More info at 916/442-7644 or

Your first destination, if you like trains, must be the California State Railroad Museum (tel. 916/445-6645;, which has more than 20 restored locomotives and railroad cars and a lot more, as well as a 20-minute film in the theater there. I liked especially the sleeping car that rocks gently as you inhale a little smell of engine smoke and listen to the clickety-click of the wheels. Admission of $8 (less for kids) includes the nearby recreated Central Pacific Railroad Passenger Station. For an additional $8 (less for kids) on weekends you can take a steam-powered excursion train hourly from April through September, 11 to 5, as well as special holiday departures on selected weekends October through December.

For fun walking tours, try Hysterical Walk (tel. 916/441-2527;, which has themes on a humorous note or a ghost tour, among others. Getting around on a bike is easy and healthy, rentals from Bike Sacramento (tel. 916/444-0200;


In addition to the usual features of a prosperous city (zoo, science center, a dozen museums), consider the following:

Sutter's Fort (tel. 916/445-4422;, a recreation of John (nee Johann) Sutter's encampment in the mid 1850s, is a worthwhile destination, especially if you go on its Living History Days (5 times a year), Demonstration Days (17 days) or during the Summer Interpretive Program, which takes place daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. There are also School Participation Days on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school year, when children and accompanying adults dress up in period clothing and learn how things were done back then. Admission $4 regular, $6 on special days mentioned, includes self-guided Audio Tour.

The California Museum of History, Women & the Arts (tel. 916/653-7524; (a new name, and perhaps about to be changed again) has several remarkable exhibits, a current one "presented by" the state's first lady Maria Shriver on California's "remarkable women" being a big hit (through May 2007). Permanent exhibits of note include the Latino experience and one on Japanese-American internment camps. From September this year, there will be a big exhibit of Hearst Castle items, said to have never before been removed from that imposing site. Admission $5, less for seniors and children.

Because the state has no governor's residence, it is using the Leland Stanford Mansion (tel. 916/324-0575; as a place to hold receptions for visiting pooh-bahs, and we poor peasants can check it out, too. Guided tours are the only way to see the marvelous Victorian interiors, with many original pieces from the state's first governor's home. You can visit even while preparations are being made for a gubernatorial conference, as I did, but when a really big VIP comes, they close the place down.

Touring the State Capitol (tel. 916/324-0333 or 800/777-0369; means, mostly, glancing at the "historic" (meaning unused) former offices of the governor, treasurer, etc. You can also see the outside of the present governor's office in the modern annex to the old (1869) Capitol itself.

Crocker Art Museum (tel. 916/264-5423;, the first in the West (1855), is in an old mansion (with modern annex) and has a fine display of Western art, but forget about the Asian Room. Admission $6, less for seniors, students, children. Free on Sundays from 10 to 1.

A fun way of getting around is the River Otter Water Taxi (tel. 916/446-7704;, which operates between Old Sacramento and a couple of restaurants upstream. Cost is $6, less for children. From April through October. For little kids, Fairytale Town (tel. 916/264-5233; might be fun, with story telling, puppet shows and more. Admission is $4.

The Lesser Known Wine Road

Just 20 minutes south of Sacramento is the Clarksburg Appellation district, where Bogle (tel. 916/744-1139; is one of the better known vineyards, producing seven good varietals from Cab to Zin. Another ten minutes south brings you to Lodi (tel. 209/365-0621;, where you can taste from a selection of 125 Lodi wines at their Wine & Visitor Center. At another 15 vineyards, you can taste individual producers' wines, and at Vino Piazza (tel. 800/939-2566;, at least 14 boutique wineries show off some 75 wines at one place.


If you want to stay right in Old Sacramento, there is no place better than the Delta King Hotel (tel. 916/444-5464 or 800/825-5464;, an old (1927) riverboat in which the owners converted 88 staterooms into 44, modernizing them with air-conditioning, nice bathrooms and TV. Rooms from $149 to $179, $20 more for riverside cabins, continental breakfast included. Packages start from $209 per couple. The hotel boasts a restaurant, a lounge, and a theater, and hosts a wide variety of events, including Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre, a Wine School, and more. Be sure to ask for you Gold Card as you check in. The hotel offers a twofer for lunch with it.

For an elegant bed and breakfast inn, try Amber House (tel. 916/444-8085 or 800/755-6526;, just eight blocks from the capitol, with full "gourmet" breakfast, evening beverages, and whirlpool baths for two. Rates for two begin from $159 per night. Ask for your Gold Card when checking in.

On the three or four days per week Governor Schwarzenegger is in town to preside over California (he jets up from his Pacific Palisades home in a private jet), he stays in the Hyatt Regency (tel. 800/HYATT CA;, just across the street from his office in the Capitol. With 500 rooms, you may be able to get in. (California is one of 5 states which do not have official residences for their governors, the former such here now being in private hands.) Ask for your Gold Card when checking in. You may get something like a free appetizer with a meal if you have it.

Dining Out

Among the city's hundreds of restaurants, a few stand out from my visit. At the Esquire Grill (tel. 916/448-8900;, try to dine on the patio for your American-style meal. Lucca (tel. 916/669-5300; for authentic Italian cuisine, again with a lovely patio. At Paragary's Bar & Oven Midtown (tel. 916/457-5146;, you can listen to three waterfalls to calm your spirit before eating, again on the patio if possible.

In Old Sacramento, two restaurants afford river views. The Rio City Caf¿ (tel. 916/442-8226; offers California cuisine, while you watch the Tower Bridge raise and lower its automobile span for tall boats passing by. Next door is Joe's Crab Shack (tel. 916/553-4249), trying hard to look like a dump but pleasant inside. Best of all is The Firehouse (tel. 916/442-4772; in an 1853 building, with outstanding cuisine and a marvelous garden courtyard. Governor "Ahnuld" has eaten here, and so have many other celebrities and politicos, the latter also hanging out at Esquire and Lucca, locals say.


In addition to the many cute shops in Old Sacramento and the variety of stores downtown, there is Arden Fair (tel. 916/920-1167;, a large mall off I-80 and US 50, anchored by Nordstrom and said to contain 165 specialty stores.


For more information, contact the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 916/808-7777;

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