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The mannequin was impressive — meticulously costumed as a dining car steward, and eerily lifelike. Then it started to speak.
“Ask me anything you’d like,” he said.
As I came to realize that he was, in fact, a real person, I surveyed his office space: the Cochiti, a restored dining car from the early 20th century, glistening with authentic railroad china. With anecdotes and facts, he satiated my curiosity, which was ricocheting at childlike levels. It’s no surprise then that the California State Railroad Museum, boasting 21 restored locomotives and various exhibits, has been one of Old Sacramento’s favorite visitor attractions since it opened in 1976. Generations of children and history buffs alike have stepped onboard the trains and conversed with in-character docents, traveling as far back as the 1850s. Though there is plenty for families to explore throughout California’s capital city, Old Sacramento is a great place to start, with attractions that are still looking fresh.
Old Sacramento gives the Disney treatment to the Gold Rush — the historic buildings and streets are welcoming and well maintained, even having received a recent facelift by Tourism Cares. Revitalization work done by the nonprofit included the construction of new wooden trash bins to line the area’s streets and the painting of the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, a replica of a one-room schoolhouse found throughout the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills in the late 1800s. Families can visit the popular field trip location free of charge and even rent the structure for birthdays and reunions. More recreations and museums to visit include the Wells Fargo History Museum, the Huntington & Hopkins Hardware, the California Military Museum and the Sacramento History Museum. Other highlights include horse-drawn carriage rides, specialty shops selling curios and candy stores filled with old-fashioned wooden barrels brimming with saltwater taffy.
To really understand California’s past, go beneath the surface on a one-hour-long Old Sacramento Underground Tour. Underneath the main streets, nearly 20 feet underground, are exposed retaining walls and rooms bearing excavated relics of the 1800s: glass perfume cases of all sizes, beer bottles of several shapes and colors, hair brushes belonging to madams and broken pots used for Chinese food. Sacramento’s successful street-rising project, which began in the 1860s as a result of repeated flooding, is a subject sure to entrance the young ones, and the docents do a great job of supplementing the tour with facts and quirky anecdotes.
To make the most of their time traveling, some families will want to stay at the Delta King. The riverboat traveled the Sacramento River, between Sacramento and San Francisco, from 1927 to 1940, but is now docked on the Sacramento River as a full-time hotel. Offering two theaters, two restaurants and guestrooms featuring river views, free Wi-Fi access, flat-screen televisions and a complimentary full breakfast, the riverboat provides a unique and comfortable stay.
Old Sacramento is not the only part of the city with family-friendly activities. A visit to the State Capitol building bridges the gap between past and present California. Public tours are guided and free of charge. The surrounding Capitol Park boasts hundreds of labeled plants from around the world, offering a crash course on why Sacramento is considered the “City of Trees.”
Less expected might be the city’s art offerings. The Crocker Art Museum, a Victorian- mansion-turned-gallery founded in 1885, is one of the first art museums in the U.S. In October 2010, it underwent a $100 million, 125,000-square-foot expansion, encompassing a cafe, more gallery space and facilities for children. The Story Trail program takes kids on a journey to works in the museum’s permanent collection through the “Birdy’s Museum Adventure” storybook, which is available at the entrance. The Crocker also offers a selection of Family Programs, including age-appropriate studio art classes, gallery adventures, concerts and more. Tot Land, for kids up to 5 years old, provides learning games, books, an arts-and-crafts table, puzzles and a wall-size interactive touch screen. It’s just one more example of how the city, rich with engaging options, is a golden vacation choice for youngsters.
What to Do:
California State Capitolwww.capitolmuseum.ca.gov
California State Railroad Museumwww.csrmf.org
Crocker Art Museumwww.crockerartmuseum.org
Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museumwww.scoe.net/oldsacschoolhouse
Old Sacramento Underground Tourswww.historicoldsac.org
When to Go:Some activities, such as the Old Sacramento Walking Tours, are available seasonally: from spring to the end of year. During Labor Day weekend, Old Sacramento travels back in time with re-enactments and entertainment for Gold Rush Days. The California State Railroad Museum offers its excursion train ride along the the Sacramento River from April to September. The California State Fair, which offers deals for kids, is also held annually in July. Summer can get hot, though, so opt for water activities on both the Sacramento and American rivers.
Getting There:Sacramento International Airport recently completed Central Terminal B, a $1.1 billion complex that provides a more streamlined user experience. The airport’s two terminals service 12 airlines and 30 direct flights from North American destinations, including Denver; Seattle; Portland; Orange County, Calif.; Phoenix and Boise.
Where to Stay:
The Citizen Hotel926 J Street916-492-4460www.jdvhotels.com/hotels/sacramento/citizen
Delta King1000 Front St.916-444-5464 www.deltaking.com
Hyatt Regency Sacramento1209 L Street916-443-1234www.sacramento.hyatt.com
Le Rivage Hotel4800 Riverside Boulevard916-443-8400www.lerivagehotel.com
Where to Eat:
Carol’s RestaurantFor breakfast in West Sacramento, look no further than this diner, known for its biscuits and gravy and well-priced children’s menu.www.carolsrestaurant.net
Wicked West Pizza & BBQImagine Chuck E. Cheese’s with organic ingredients and homemade everything and you’ll get this gourmet pizza place and arcade. www.wickedwestpizza.com
Paesano’sIf kids can play with their food — they’re given pizza dough while waiting — then parents can surely share a pitcher of sangria at this lively local’s spot.www.paesanos.biz