Sacramento, California's, role in the gold rush of the mid-1840s gave the city its nostalgic charm, but that's just a part of this capital city's appeal. Although historic Old Sacramento re-creates the city's gilded history, modern Sacramento's high-rises, high-tech industry and burgeoning art scene reflect its lively contemporary style.
Sacramento's weather is pleasant most of the year, except the hot and dry dog days of summer. That fact, together with the city's location at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, creates plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Activities include white-water rafting and kayaking on the American River, bicycling and running on the spectacular American River Parkway, and boating and fishing on nearby Folsom Lake.
Part of a large interior California valley, Sacramento is bordered on the west by the Sacramento River, on the north by the American River and on the east by the Sierra foothills. It's a flat city with no tall landmarks.
Downtown is laid out in a grid pattern. Old Sacramento is located west of Interstate 5 and east of the Sacramento River. First Street (also known as Front Street) runs north-south along the western edge of downtown, parallel and adjacent to the Sacramento River. Numbered streets (Second Street, Third Street, etc.) run north-south and increase as you head east (away from the Sacramento River). Lettered streets run east-west, with B Street at the north end of downtown and W Street at the southern end, just north of Highway 50. The state Capitol is at 11th Street, between L and N streets. Most of the city's downtown attractions are clustered on or around J Street. Midtown, a smaller area east of downtown, is home to many restaurants and Sutter's Fort. It begins just east of the Capitol, at approximately 16th Street, and extends east to 29th Street.
For centuries, the area where Sacramento now sits was populated by the Nisenan, Miwok, Shonommey and Maidu Indians. They lived undisturbed for thousands of years before a smallpox epidemic made their tribes vulnerable. Around 1808, the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga discovered the valley and named it Sacramento (the Spanish word for sacrament).
The City of Sacramento dates back to 1839, when Swiss immigrant John Sutter received a Mexican land grant of about 48,000 acres/19,000 hectares and founded a trading post called New Helvetia, now known as Sutter's Fort. In 1848, at the same time Sutter's settlement was establishing a foothold in the region, gold was discovered by Sutter's employee, James Marshall, near the south fork of the American River. The California gold rush was on. More than a half million immigrants from around the world descended on the town. Sacramento fed, clothed and supplied the gold seekers, and the community profited immensely. Although it was devastated by fires and floods, the city was named the state capital in 1854 and became the final stop on the Pony Express delivery service.
The city also gave birth to the transcontinental railroad. The gold rush helped make Sacramento the headquarters for some of the most influential men in the Old West. Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins—the "Big Four"—along with Theodore Judah, charted the route. Today, you can visit the hardware store where they discussed their plans. The completion of the route in 1869 linked Sacramento with the rest of the country.
With the railroad and the Sacramento Valley's fertile fields, the area became a major produce supplier, especially after the invention of refrigerated boxcars that carried perishable goods to distant markets. Fruit canning also became an important industry. Tomatoes were the principal crop and remain so today.
The prosperity in the surrounding valley exacerbated the decay of downtown Sacramento. By the mid-20th century, downtown's west end (including Old Sacramento) had become a skid row. City leaders developed a plan to reverse the trend, and eventually more than 100 buildings in the neighborhood were renovated. Today, the restored buildings of Old Sacramento are a state historic park and one of the city's top tourist attractions. Like other parts of northern California, Sacramento is also home to a cluster of high-tech companies.
The city's most popular attraction is Old Sacramento. This district is packed with historic buildings, as well as interesting shops and restaurants. Be prepared to spend several hours strolling the wooden boardwalks and cobblestoned streets (wear comfortable shoes). If your feet get tired, hitch a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
The California State Railroad Museum, located in Old Sacramento, has an impressive collection of restored locomotives. The museum also offers seasonal short trips aboard a steam train. The nearby Crocker Art Museum has a stately collection that includes California, European and Asian art. Art lovers should ask at the museum about the many local artists who show their work in galleries around town.
The California State Capitol is located downtown, just east of Old Sacramento. The Capitol is surrounded by a 40-acre/16-hectare park, which is worth a stroll. The garden includes the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial and an outstanding rose garden, as well as trees and plants from around the world.
Other worthwhile downtown sites include the California State Indian Museum, devoted to Native American culture; Sutter's Fort, the city's original site; and The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts, with imaginative interactive exhibits that tell the story of California since statehood.
South of downtown in Land Park are the lovely Sacramento Zoo, Fairytale Town (a fantasy-inspired playground) and Funderland (a minipark with children's rides). McKinley Park has a beautiful rose garden (east of downtown, best in June). Nature enthusiasts may also want to visit the Effie Yeaw Center, near the American River, to look for wild turkeys, herons, deer and other wildlife.
Sacramento isn't known for its nightlife, but there are still plenty of fun places to go after dark. Many of the restaurants in Old Sacramento and the rest of the city have live entertainment at least twice a week. Where there is no live music, there's often a DJ, who may be playing anything from salsa to country and swing. (Many clubs feature a different kind of music each night.) Cover charges are generally nonexistent or very reasonable. Clubs usually close 1-2 am and many late-night establishments aren't open Sunday nights.
Sacramento offers a wide variety of ethnic restaurants; many of them use fresh, seasonal California ingredients to create an interesting form of fusion cuisine. A lot of them emphasize light, health-conscious dishes. Many restaurants have patios to take advantage of the city's consistently fine weather. (Take along a sweater if you plan to eat outside at night.)
Downtown—which includes Old Sacramento, Midtown and the area around the state Capitol—is packed with good places to eat. J and K streets, known as "restaurant row," have dozens of ethnic and fine restaurants to choose from. You'll also find restaurant clusters in Fair Oaks, Arden, Folsom, Roseville and along Garden Highway (by the Sacramento River, north of Old Sacramento).
Don't forget to try the local and regional wines: Napa Valley labels are prominent, of course, but the local Foothill Winery and others produce comparable vintages.
General dining times are 7-11 am for breakfast, 11:30 am-2:30 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm for dinner. Many restaurants are closed on Sunday, so call ahead or make a reservation before going.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$9, $$ = US$9-$15, $$$ = US$16-$25, $$$$ = more than US$25.
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