As someone who grew up in San Francisco, Sacramento was always the midway stopping point for my family on our way to Lake Tahoe. It wasn’t until moving here last year that I got to really explore the city and all it has to offer. From the rich Gold Rush history to the Central Valley charm, this is an under-the-radar Californian city that is worth visiting. Here’s what should be on your Sacramento itinerary.
When To Go To Sacramento
Sacramento is unbearably hot during the summertime (think 90s and above with dry heat), while the winters are rainy and cold. The best time to go is in the late spring or mid-fall, when the temperatures are mild and the trees are blooming or changing color (seriously the fall foliage in the Central Valley is breathtaking).
Capitol Building Museum
The moment you step into this historical building, you can feel the history in the hallowed halls. The museum showcases highlights like the original governor’s office (complete with a wood-burning stove) and aerial views of the senate and assembly floors (and possibly catch a glimpse of politicians at work). Head to the basement for free one-hour tours that start on the hour (9am-5pm daily). If you visit during the weekdays, you can eat in the basement cafeteria among the politicians and their staff. After exploring the inside, head outdoors to Capitol Park, where you can wander the spacious grounds, and depending on the season see the trees in bloom. Admission is free.
This iconic landmark sits at the end of the Capitol Mall, and cannot be missed with its bright yellow hue. It’s a working drawbridge, that connects downtown to West Sacramento. Walk on the pathway that winds along the American River to get some scenic views of the bridge. Get up close and personal to the architectural detail by walking over the bridge. Fun fact: the bridge is closed down every year for the Tower Bridge Dinner that celebrates Visit Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Celebration with locally sourced dishes served to diners at one long table.
Afterwards, walk over to Old Sacramento, which feels like time-traveling back to the late 1800s, when the city wasn’t more than a boom town for those seeking gold in the nearby hills. Yes this area is touristy, but there are shops like Munchies that are worth stopping in for salt water taffy (and free samples), as well as the Old Wells Fargo Bank Museum that has plenty of memorabilia from Sacramento in its early days. The Delta King, a docked riverboat turned restaurant/hotel is also worth checking out. The nearby California State Train Museum is a great spot to learn about the history of the railroad with interactive exhibits.
End the day in this historic neighborhood, which is close to downtown, but feels a world away with its quiet tree-lined streets. Check out the Dragon House, a residential home that showcases thousands of mosaic tiles in the shapes of dragons and other beasts on its exterior. Afterward, head to nearby Franklin Boulevard, where you grab a 50/50 (half ice cream, half fruit freeze) at the iconic Gunther’s Ice Cream and wander around the scenic neighborhood, admiring the homes with enviable front lawns.
Make your way to one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, which has experienced rapid growth and revitalization in the past decade. Stop first for a bit of history at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, where you can learn about early settlers lives here in Sacramento. Across the pond, on the same property, don’t miss the equally informative State Indian Museum, which gives insight into the lives of Native Americans who called this land home long before anyone else did. Admission is $5 for adults for each museum. Afterward, walk around the wide tree-lined streets (see firsthand why it’s called the City of Trees) and admire the historical homes that line the blocks.
For more architectural eye-candy, head to the east part of Sacramento, where some of the city’s wealthiest residents live. Keep your eye out for the Blue House that was featured in the movie Lady Bird that’s located near the corner of 44th and M. The Blue House is located in the Fab Forties, which is a stretch of blocks that are filled with beautiful homes and are known for impressive Halloween and Christmas decorations. Head over to McKinley Park, which has a stunning rose garden (also featured in Lady Bird), and has a spacious lawn for lounging and prime people-watching.
End your day at this landmark theater that has been showing local films since it was built in the late 30s. There are smaller theaters with wooden seats, but the main theater is spacious and has comfortable modern seating that makes sitting for a two-hour feature bearable. Movies shown at the theater are mostly independent and art house films. The snack bar offers the usual suspects, along with beer and wine. After a show, go next door to the Tower Cafe, which features a menu with global dishes, eclectic decor, and a bakery with rows of mouthwatering desserts on display.
Immerse yourself in the history of the Golden State with this educational museum that features permanent exhibits like the California Hall of Fame, which highlights individuals who have made their mark in numerous fields including science, education, business, sports and the arts. Other notable signature exhibits include California’s Remarkable Women, California Indians, and Uprooted! Japanese Americans During World War II. If you have a Bank of America card, entry is free on the first full weekend of every month, otherwise entrance is $9. Plan on spending 1.5-2 hours visiting all the exhibits.
If you have an extra day, take a day trip to one of these nearby locations that are within an hour or two of the city, including the charming Gold Rush town of Sutter Creek and Nevada City.
Related: Where to Eat in Sacramento
Where To Stay In Sacramento
The best place to stay in California’s capitol city is near all the action in downtown, where you can find plenty of mid-range to luxury hotels. Be aware of any major conventions that happen in the Sacramento Convention Center, since hotels can be booked up way in advance.
Situated in the middle of downtown, this reasonably-priced motel is a great value. Lot of popular sights nearby, including the Capitol Mall, which is a ten minute walk. Amenities include an outdoor pool, 24-hour business center, and a restaurant/bar. Free breakfast is included.
Located steps from the Capitol Building, this mid-range hotel allows you to be in the center of all the action. Rooms are spotless and boast sleek modern decor. A complementary breakfast is served in the light-filled atrium in the middle of the property. Nearby sights include California Museum and the trendy Midtown neighborhood.
For a unique lodging experience, this docked riverboat-turned-hotel is as Sacramento as you can get. It’s located right in Old Sacramento on the American River, under the glow of the Tower Bridge. The hotel has two restaurants on board, and a cooked-to-order breakfast is included in your stay. Choose from either river or city views from your stateroom.