As a nerdy kid who grew up in California, I first visited Sacramento as part of a live government class in the summer after 6th grade. Not to disparage my wonderful classmates from that experience, but I found Sacramento even more fun to visit with my wife for a long weekend.
Table of contents: ()
- When to visit Sacramento
- Places to Visit in Sacramento
- Restaurants and Adult Beverages in Sacramento
When to visit Sacramento
Sacramento is the capital of California and sits in the Central Valley. It can get quite hot (as in over 100°F) in the summer so we planned our trip for January when the temperatures in the Central Valley can be quite pleasant. As with much of California, you are more likely to see rain in January and February so if you come at this time of you you should have some indoor sites in mind.
Places to Visit in Sacramento
California State Capitol
Sacramento is home to a stately capitol building. Standing five stories tall, this example of neoclassical architecture affords visitors the opportunity to explore not just its façade, but also the inner workings of its government. Free tours of the capitol draw in more than a million visitors a year.
California’s capital moved to Sacramento temporarily in 1852 and permanently in 1854. While the cities of Oakland, San Jose, Berkeley, and Monterey have all made bids since then to be the center of government for the 31st state, it has remained in Sacramento. Construction started on the capitol building in 1860 and finished fourteen years later.
The California State Capitol is a must-see for history buffs and anyone interested in government and politics. The building is a National Historic Landmark. Tours are free but are only available on weekdays from 10 am to 4 pm.
Crocker Art Museum
If you’re an art lover, you won’t want to miss the Crocker Art Museum, the oldest public art museum in the western United States (1885). The museum features everything from European masterpieces to contemporary California art. The museum is housed in the old Victorian-style mansion of E. B. Crocker as well as a modern wing that opened in 2010 and greatly increased the area for displaying the collection.
In California history, we talk about the “Big Four” who funded the Central Pacific Railroad – Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington, Mark Hopkins Jr., and Charles Crocker. The Central Pacific Railroad was the western part of the transcontinental railroad and made each of the men quite wealthy. E. B. Crocker was the older brother of Charles Crocker, a civil engineering graduate from Rensselaer Institute in Troy, NY (me too), a justice on the California Supreme Court, and the legal counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad.
He may not be counted as one of the Big Four, but Crocker did OK for himself. He made millions. After he suffered a stroke in 1869 and retired. He and his family traveled around Europe where he collected art. He brought home literally box cars full of art that he both collected and commissioned. This became the start of the extensive collection of the Crocker Art Museum. Only a small fraction of their collection is on display at any one time. The museum features both classical art, especially art from the time of Crocker, as well as more modern art.
Entrance to the museum is $15 for adults. There is a senior discount… and they let you define what senior means. I highly recommend the free docent tours. I enjoyed the museum easily twice as much because of an hour-long tour with our amiable and knowledgeable guide.
The museum is open Wednesday, Friday – Sunday 10 am – 5 pm, and Thursday 10 am – 9 pm.
Old Sacramento is a historic district located just west of the capital. It is home to a variety of historic buildings, museums, shops, restaurants, and the historic riverboat the Delta King. The area was first settled in the 1840s and was the original commercial and governmental center of the city. Today, it is a popular tourist destination known for its preserved Gold Rush-era architecture and lively atmosphere. Visitors can take a stroll down the streets, visit the California State Railroad Museum, and shop at the many boutiques and specialty stores.
There are things that I love about Old Sacramento like the California Railroad Museum (below) although, truth be told, our relationship is a bit complicated. I would like it more if it had a few more interesting art galleries and shops and fewer tattoo parlors. There are some quirky stores like Cerealism which serves cold cereal and had a line out the door. This would have appealed to my 6th-grade self.
Old Town Sacramento is home to several annual events, including the Gold Rush Days, which celebrates the city’s history with reenactments, and the Sacramento Music Festival, which features live music and food.
Sutter’s Fort is a California State Historic Park located not far from downtown. It is mostly a reconstruction of the original fort, which was built in 1839 by John Sutter, a Swiss-born American pioneer. The fort was one of the first non-indigenous settlements in the Central Valley of California, and it played a significant role in the early history of California. The California Gold Rush was started when one of Sutter’s employees, John W. Marshall, was working to build a sawmill in the foothills of the Sierra.
The original fort was built by John Sutter as a base for his agricultural and trading operations in the region. It served as a hub for trade and commerce, and it was also a center for political and social activity. Many important figures of California’s early history, including James Marshall and John C. Fremont, passed through the fort.
The original fort was destroyed by fire in 1848, but it was later reconstructed. Today, the reconstructed fort serves as a museum and interpretive center, offering visitors a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived and worked there in the early days of California. Visitors can explore the adobe buildings, including the blacksmith shop, the carpenter shop, the kitchen, and the one surviving original building.
The fort has several exhibits that highlight the history of the fort and its inhabitants, including the life of John Sutter, the California Gold Rush, the role of Native Americans in the early history of California, and the development of the agricultural industry in the region.
The park has recently updated its information about Sutter and his very questionable dealings with his Native American neighbors. Basically, Sutter was the neighbor from hell. He thought the local people we just a resource for him to use and when a tribe would not work with and for him, he on more than one occasion started his own personal war with them. I am pretty sure that part was not in my 4th-grade history textbook.
Note to non-Californians. Those of us who grew up in California studied California History in 4th grade. We all made our model of a California Mission at that age… or perhaps our father did. As a bonus, 4th graders and their parents can get free entrance into 19 different state parks with the California State Park Adventure Pass. It does not include Sutter’s fort but it does allow free entrance to the California State Railroad Museum below.
Sutter’s Fort is open to visitors year-round. Visitors can take guided tours of the fort, or explore on their own. There are also educational programs and special events held at the fort throughout the year.
California State Railroad Museum
For my money, the California State Railroad Museum is the best railroad museum in the United States… or at least the best that I have seen.
The California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento is a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the transcontinental railroad and the role it played in California. The museum boasts original locomotives, including the “Gov. Stanford” which was named after Leland Stanford, one of the “Big Four” I mentioned above. The museum also has the first locomotive of the Southern Pacific Railroad named after Collis Potter Huntington.
The collection includes various rail cars, including a Pullman car, a refrigerated car, a private rail car, and a dining car. The museum also displays custom china from various train lines and has a mail car that shows how mobile post offices worked in American history.
The museum offers an optional guided tour, a 22-minute film about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and various hands-on exhibits for kids.
The first time we visited the museum we were with my kids when my son was 5 and in a Thomas the Tank Engine phase. He wore his engineer hat and brought his wooden train whistle. I have visited again with adults only and enjoyed it just as much.
The California State Railroad Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day). Admission for adults is $12, for youths is $6 (ages 6-17), and for children (ages 5 and under) is free.
The California Museum is a museum that focuses on the people who built and populate California. It makes a special effort to focus on different nationalities that might have been underrepresented in that aforementioned 4th-grade history textbook. The Unity Center at the California Museum celebrates the diversity of California’s people, customs, and cultures. It was created in 1999 in response to hate crimes and its interactive multimedia exhibits showcase leaders in California’s civil rights history.
There is a permanent exhibit on California women called “Women Inspire”, as well as exhibits on California Indians and the California Missions. I thought I knew about the history of discrimination faced by Asian Americans including the Asian Exclusion laws but had not heard about terrible events like the Watsonville Riots when gangs of white men attacked Filipino farmworkers for 5 days in 1930.
The museum is also the home of the official California Hall of Fame which celebrates athletes, activists, actors, scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and other Californians of note.
Sacramento River Cats
One disadvantage of visiting Sacramento in January is that you can’t take in a minor-league baseball game with the Sacramento River Cats. The River Cats are based in West Sacramento. The team is affiliated with the San Francisco Giants and is a member of the Triple-A West league. The team plays its home games at Sutter Health Park. The season runs from April to September.
The River Cats were established in 2000 and began as the Triple-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. The team changed its affiliation to the San Francisco Giants in 2015. The River Cats have been one of the most successful minor league teams in recent years.
Part of the fun of minor league baseball is what the players lack in skill compared to their major league counterparts, the team makes up for with fun promotions and special events, including fireworks nights, giveaways, and theme nights. Picture kids racing around the bases between innings and other simple entertainment.
Sutter Health Park includes a playground, a picnic area, and a variety of food and drink options. The stadium has a capacity of 14,014 seats, making it one of the largest minor league stadiums in the country.
Restaurants and Adult Beverages in Sacramento
Burgers and Brew – West Sacramento
Burgers and Brew is located in a historic building that used to be a firehouse in West Sacramento. The restaurant has preserved many of the original features of the firehouse, such as the old roll-up doors and an old fire engine. The building was built in the early 1900s and it served as the firehouse for West Sacramento for many years. After the fire department moved out, the building was used for a variety of purposes, including as a community center and a storage facility.
When Burgers and Brew opened in the building, the owners decided to preserve as much of the original character of the firehouse as possible, while also updating it to meet the needs of a modern restaurant. The result is a unique and inviting space that combines the old and the new and creates a one-of-a-kind dining experience.
This is as the name says a burger and brew kind of place. Order a burger, skip the fish sandwich and if you do order a salad, get the dressing on the side.
?Monday – Saturday: 11 am – 10 pm
Sunday: 11 am – 9 pm
317 3rd St, West Sacramento, CA 95605
The Underground Tasting Room
Across the street from the California State Railroad Museum is a wine-tasting room called the Underground Tasting Room. If you are doing an adults-only trip you might be able to skip the cereal as a dessert spot and taste some wines from Fenton Herriott Vineyards in nearby Placerville (formerly Hangtown). I won’t say it was my favorite of the many many California vineyards, but you don’t know until you try it.
Monday – Wednesday: closed
Thursday: 3-7 pm
Friday-Sunday 1-8 pm
Urban Roots Brewing and Smokehouse
The Urban Roots Brewing and Smokehouse is the kind of restaurant and brewery that left us asking why we don’t have something this great at home. Urban Roots has multiple indoor and outdoor spaces. When we were there, they were hosting a wedding reception in the back barrel room and still had room for dozens of other groups inside and out, with another back patio completely empty.
I counted house made 21 beers on tap and 2 ciders. The beer menu included several IPAs, a Pilsner, Lagers, a Saison, and a few Stouts. Joan tried the BBA (Bourbon Barrell aged) What’s Up Danger which was a Belgian strong dark ale and the Mellowwood Doppelbock and enjoyed them both.
Then there is the food. Urban Roots is a smokehouse and you can get BBQ meats a La Carte $8-16 and side sides $8 as well as sandwiches, burgers, and salads. Joan got the Pulled Pork Sandwich which was piled high with onion rings and slaw and I got a brat. We shared a serving of Burnt End Beans.
Tuesday – Thursday: 11 am to 9 pm
Friday – Saturday: 11 am to 10 pm
Sunday: 11 am to 9 pm
*Last call for food/beer is 30 minutes before closing time
1322 V St. Sacramento, CA 95818
High Water Brewing
High Water Brewing in east Sacramento has 36 taps and some pretty good live music Friday nights, based on our experience. They don’t have a kitchen but did have a food truck parked out back. The Lodi location apparently has a full kitchen. When we went to the Sac location, there was a vegan food truck out front, which didn’t seem to have many selections.
Joan was not a big fan of the Moma’s Boy, Aphotic Imperial Porter, but she liked the Campfire Stout and the Paykes American Irish Red Ale. The Paykes, according to their beer menu was a “Collaboration done with The Pikeys, a Celtic/Punk/Irish band from Sacramento, CA”.
High Water is in an industrial building but has a nice indoor and outdoor space with board games that you can play while you drink. We were a tad concerned that where we parked on the street around the corner seemed to have an abundance of broken windshield glass on the street.
Monday: Friday: 4 pm – 10 pm
Saturday: 12 pm – 10 pm
Sunday: 1 pm – 7 pm
1210 66th St B, Sacramento, CA 95819
Tree House Cafe
The Tree House Cafe in West Sacramento is a small coffee shop with an equally small food menu, but they make a good breakfast burrito. They have a few chairs inside and then some outdoor seating.
Tuesday: 6 am–?6?pm
Wednesday – Friday: 7?am?–?4 pm
Saturday – Sunday: 8 am?–?4 pm
630 3rd Street, West Sacramento, CA 95605
If you lived in California between 1960 and 2006 you may remember Tower Records which was based out of Sacramento and its iconic tower sign. That sign came from the Tower Theatre in Sacramento. Right next to the Tower Theatre is another Sacramento institution that is the Tower Cafe. This large cafe with an even larger outdoor garden patio is popular for lunch and for brunch. If you come for brunch on Sunday, plan on waiting for a bit.
We went for a Sunday brunch and enjoyed the colorful restaurant, the service, and the breakfast fare. We had French Toast and Blueberry Corn Pancakes. Yum!
Monday & Tuesday: 8 am – 3 pm
Wednesday, Thursday & Sunday: 8 am – 9 pm
Friday & Saturday: 8 am – 10 pm
1518 Broadway Sacramento, CA 95818
We stayed in a fun and funky AirBnb in West Sacramento which was decorated with art paying homage to Freda Kahlo. It was a great place to stay in an interesting neighborhood and I would definitely stay there again… maybe when we come back to see a Rivercats game.
I should mention though… that Sacramento has a long history with railroads. Not only was it the terminus of the Central Pacific Railroad, but the first railroad in the state started here, the Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852. That being said, I enjoy my railroads better in museums and in history, than half a block away and coming every hour during the night. The host did provide earplugs which I appreciated.
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