If we consider the size of the United States, driving for 2 or 3 hours by car does not seem so long. For this reason, after visiting and shopping in San Francisco, visit the capital of California, Sacramento is not too much of a stretch and is a great opportunity.
In this city, we were attracted by the western atmosphere in Old Town, the history of the Gold Rush, the pleasant lifestyle, the regality of its Capitol Building, its museums and many other points of interest. When visiting the San Francisco area, Yosemite or Lake Tahoe don’t forget to also consider California’s capital. So let’s find out what are the best things to do in Sacramento and we’ll include some extra tips for visiting the city.
- Brief History of the City
- Best time to visit Sacramento
- Things to Do in Sacramento
- Attending an NBA Game: The Sacramento Kings
- Recommended Tours
- Events in Sacramento
- Where to Eat
- Where to Stay
- Location and Directions
Brief History of the City
Sac, as it is affectionately called, is located in a valley about an hour and a half northeast of San Francisco. The two rivers that pass through Sacramento have played an important commercial role and consequently to the growth of the city.
These rivers are the Sacramento River, which flows into the San Francisco Bay, and the American River, a tributary. Sacramento played an important role as a railway station during the period of the “Gold Rush“, from 1848 to 1855, a particularly significant period in history for this area. Later, from 1860 to 1861, Sacramento was the terminal of the Pony Express, the famous postal service that became well-known thanks to Western movies.
Best time to visit Sacramento
The city and the surrounding area are characterized by hot summers and a mild and wetter climate during the rest of the year. December and January tend to be foggy and, speaking of fog, we would like to mention the phenomenon called tule fog, which consists of a thin low mist that is formed as a result of significant rainfall especially from late autumn to early spring.
If you want some more general information about the weather in California, take a look at our in-depth analysis of the climate in California.
Things to Do in Sacramento
With a camera, comfortable shoes and notes on hand, we are ready to explore Sacramento, the sixth-largest city in California. This is our list of the top things to do in Sacramento:
We start the tour from the most famous area of the city, the Old Sacramento State Historic Park, an area that includes 8 blocks of Downtown Sacramento. In this area, we will focus on 2nd Street and Front Street.
What characterizes this neighborhood is the Victorian architecture dating back to the era of the Gold Rush with multi-story buildings, large arched entrances, windows with iron balconies, and covered walkways that create the atmosphere of the 19th century.
We walk by shops and restaurants and we notice memorials in honor of the founders of the city and California and others dedicated to transportation such as the transcontinental railroad and Pony Express that were intrinsically connected to Sacramento and the entire area. If you are not in a hurry, it’s worth it to spend at least a few hours here in Old Town.
As always, when visiting a new place, it is best to walk as much as possible, but there are also carriage rides, river tours, and special tours during certain times of the year to meet ghosts (October), to immerse yourself in the history of the Gold Rush (March-October) and to enter underground tunnels (April-December) to discover what the street level was like more than a hundred years ago before repeated flooding led to the decision to raise the street level to the current level.
At 925 Front Street, the tiny Eagle Theatre is a reconstruction of the first theater in California built in 1849 that was later destroyed by a flood. Admission is free and I suggest that you inquire in Old Town about the hours of operation of the theater. Periodically there are shows and programs related to the history of Old Sacramento and its simple wooden buildings, that take you back in time.
Near Old Town, on the waterfront along the Sacramento River, there is a steamboat docked called Delta King (1000 Front St). This steamboat has various functions; it offers accommodations, food and entertainment. The rooms, equipped with wi-fi and breakfast included in the price, which varies according to the room and the season.
Of course, the restaurants on the waterfront have a view of the river. On the Delta King, there is the Delta Bar & Grill, open for lunch and dinner. On Thursday evenings you can enjoy Irish music, while on weekends you can listen to live music. The Pilothouse, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offers brunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Suspects Mystery Dinner Theater is a fun option (which is becoming more and more popular in the world) that combines dinner and entertainment. The show is a mystery to solve and the goal is to find the murderer. In this theater, however, there are other performances of various kinds as well. The steamboat is an ideal location for weddings and there are also eight rooms for private events. To park nearby, you will have to use the valet service that costs $25.
Best Museums in Sacramento
We turn our attention towards the mainland, where we will explore two museums of the Old Town dedicated to transportation that we highly recommend. The California State Railroad Museum (125 I St.) exhibits locomotives, carriages, objects and images that have made the history of trains. Among various options the museum offers, it is possible to have an experience aboard an old train with a 45-minute ride along the Sacramento River on Tuesdays at 11:00 am or 1:00 pm from February to April and in October. The train departs from Central Pacific Railroad in Old Sacramento (on Front Street between J St and K St). Tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for children aged 6 to 17 and are purchased at 10:30 am on the day of the train ride.
The California Automobile Museum (2200 Front St.) is a shining display of cars from various eras, an exciting place for anyone, especially car enthusiasts, where exhibitions and events are also organized. If you are looking for a souvenir of the visit, you can stop at the gift shop. The museum is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with last admission at 4:00 pm and it is closed on Tuesdays; in July and August, it is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Tickets cost $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, students and military, and $5 for children aged 5 to 17.
The Wells Fargo History Museum (1000 2nd St.) is devoted to the services of the famous bank since its origins in 1852 to the world of finance, transport and communications via Pony Express or telegraph, but also steam ships and railways, although what many of us have in mind are the warm golden carriages pulled by six horses carrying gold, documents and valuables, which are the symbol of the banking company.
Inside the museum we find objects, documents, photographs, exhibitions and even a carriage, a popular attraction that people often photograph. Here too there is an interactive section where you can have fun sending messages by telegraph or dressing like a Wells Fargo messenger! The museum is open every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $6 for children between the ages of 6 and 17.
But if you have some time left, why not visit two other museums? The Sacramento History Museum (101 I St) is a replica of the 1854 town hall; it is an interesting museum where you can deepen your knowledge of the history of the city and the Gold Rush. Exhibitions, objects, demonstrations and interactive activities take place in the museum open every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with last admission at 4:30 pm. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for children aged 6 to 17.
Finally, the Schoolhouse Museum (120p Front St) is a replica of a traditional 19th-century school that offers tours, activities and events. It has free admission and is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and Sundays from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm. For more information about Sacramento and the surrounding area, the Sacramento Visitor Center (1002 2nd St) is an excellent reference point. When you arrive, you can park at Old Sacramento Garage (200 I St) for $1.50 for 30 minutes and $13 for 24 hours. History, beautiful buildings, the promenade on the river, shopping and good food are what makes Old Sacramento worth visiting. It is the focal point of the city that introduces us to the roots of Sacramento.
Downtown Sacramento is home to three other museums. If you love art, we recommend the Crocker Art Museum (216 O St.). Its imposing white building, however interesting it may be from an architectural point of view, does not let you get a sense of the interior and the artwork, which includes Californian art, from the Gold Rush to modern times with the precious addition of art collections from around the world. One of the largest ceramics exhibitions in the United States is also located here. Operating hours are Monday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, and there are extended hours until 9:00 pm on Thursdays. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and college students and $6 for children from 6 to 17 years old.
The California Museum, a short distance from the State Capitol (1020 O St), tells the rich history of California through a combination of art, culture and exhibits. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sundays from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The cost is $19 for adults, $7.50 for students, seniors 65 and older, and $6.50 for children 6 to 17 years old. We conclude this art tour with the State Indian Museum (26th & K St), where we find exhibits of objects and photos of Native Americans of California. Native American handmade items can be found at the museum store. This museum is open every day from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm at a cost of $5 for adults and $3 for children aged 6 to 17.
Historical Buildings and Attractions
Outside Old Sacramento, but still downtown, we move to the area where the State Capitol (10th & L St), the building that is a symbol of the state government of California, is the main landmark. Sacramento’s majestic Capitol Building is also built in the Neoclassical style, with the characteristic white color, the dome, the colonnades and the stairs. In the museum inside, you can immerse yourself in the rich historical past of this land among paintings, sculptures and flags of California. The building can be visited from Monday to Friday from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm and on weekends from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Tours are available from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. On the ground floor, you can’t miss the gift shop.
Around the State Capitol there is the Capitol Park, a beautiful park with trees and flowers. We especially recommend that you go to the Rose Garden. The park is also the appropriate location for some memorials and, of course, the view of the State Capitol from here is stunning. Public parking is available around Capitol Park. The park marks the beginning of Capitol Mall, a tree-lined avenue that is also the main artery of the city that connects the State Capitol to West Sacramento via the Sacramento River. At 400 Capitol Mall, there is another location of the Wells Fargo Center. It is in the tallest building in the city, which is 426.5 ft tall.
While still on the subject of historical buildings, next we will head to the Governor’s Mansion (1526 H St), the governor’s splendid white Victorian villa built in 1877. Inside there are 30 rooms on 3 floors. The building became uninhabited starting in 1967, but in 2015, it became the official residence of the Governor and is now surrounded by a garden with flowers and plants. The mansion is on the Sacramento Register of Historic and Cultural Resources for its historical and architectural significance. Since it is no longer open to visitors, it can only be observed from the outside.
In Midtown, one attraction we want to mention is Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park (2701 L St). Although it is a replica, it harkens back to the times of the Gold Rush and the first pioneers in California. You can see objects belonging to John Sutter (founder of Fort Sutter and Sacramento), James Marshall (a worker at John Sutter’s mill and a gold miner) and some pioneers who arrived in California from Missouri and were helped by Sutter. The trade & gift store, open from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, sells books, handicrafts and collectibles. (open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm – last admission sold at 4.30 pm). The cost is $5 for adults and $3 for children 6 to 17 years old.
Tower Bridge and West Sacramento
At the end of the Capital Mall, we arrive at the Tower Bridge (342 L. St.), the yellow bridge for pedestrians and cars that crosses the Sacramento River. It was built in 1935 and its design emphasizes horizontal curves and lines. This impressive bridge is 738 ft long, 52 ft wide, 160 ft high and the road is 98 ft above the water. We are excited to cross it and as we move away from downtown, within 5 minutes we arrive in West Sacramento, a town across the river. On the riverbanks, the pyramid shape of The Ziggurat is immediately visible (707 3rd St).
It is the headquarters of the California Department of General Services but the real reason to see it is that we just wanted to take a closer look at its peculiar shape. The building is 157 ft tall and in front of the entrance, there is a round concrete sculpture resting on a circular base with the state seal with the inscription The Great Seal of the State of California, the exclamation Eureka and other symbols of the state, such as the goddess Minerva, the bear and grapes.
One of the most beautiful and largest cathedrals west of the Mississippi River is here in downtown Sacramento; it is the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (1017 11th St) dating back to 1886. We can’t help but express our awe even from the outside, before even entering, as we look at the structure built in the Renaissance style with a dome and three slender spires.
The Victorian-style interior has many decorations and paintings on the windows. Above the altar, we immediately notice the crucifix. There is a marble octagonal baptismal font with decorative mosaics. Due to its size, funeral ceremonies of the governors of California were held here. This church is certainly worth visiting.
The Sacramento Zoo, located further south, at 3930 West Land Park Drive in the Land Park neighborhood, is the place that brings together young and old. Here endemic, rare and exotic species such as jaguars, lynxes, giraffes, monkeys, red kangaroos and red pandas are housed, cared for and preserved. Open all year round from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, but in November, December and January, the zoo opens at 10:00 am instead. (Adults $14.95, seniors $13.95, children 2 to 11 year old $9.95).
Attending an NBA Game: The Sacramento Kings
Sacramento is a city where you can make your dream of attending an NBA game live come true. The Sacramento Kings play at the Golden 1 Center (500 David J. Stern Walk) in the heart of downtown, so why not enjoy the unique experience of a basketball game?
Thanks to a special discount code you will also have the opportunity to save $10 on the ticket price. Click on the link below to find out if there are any games scheduled during your visit to the city.
Enter the TRAVELINUSA code to get $10 discount on a minimum purchase of $100
We want to talk about the excursion on board the Sacramento River Train (100 N. Harbor Blvd-W. Sacramento and 341 Industrial Way-Woodland. The tour on a diesel-powered train, can be made from either location.) The tour, which takes 3 hours, goes through farms and landscapes and returns to the point of departure. Wine and beer-related events are held but other popular activities are “train robbery” and a “murder case” to solve. Drinks, snacks and light meals are served on board the train since it is not possible to bring your own food. Dogs are allowed only in the open carriages with a maximum of five dogs in total.
The American River Bike Trail that follows the sinuous curves of the American River north of Sacramento (known as the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail) is “officially” a 32-mile bike route. First, go to Old Town Riverfront where you can rent a bike if you don’t have your own. The trail formally begins at the nearby Discovery Park (1600 Garden Hwy) and ends at Beal’s Point in Folsom Lake State Park further west.
Most of the route runs through slightly wooded areas with spectacular views of the American River, with light traffic. The trail is not too demanding, since it is practically flat and there is a slight incline only in the last 4 miles. You can access the route from most of the parks along the American River Parkway and parks in Folsom.
As we are visiting the various attractions, we are tempted to take a break and go shopping especially while visiting Old Sacramento. There are plenty of small shops where you can shop in or just take a look. Among the things sold in the shops are souvenirs, gifts, jewelry, Christmas decorations, photographs and sporting goods. Don’t forget to visit the characteristic general store or trading post. Shops usually open at 10:00 am and close early in the evening. Each one is managed independently and has its own operating hours.
We particularly liked the Huntington Hopkins & Co. Hardware Store (111 I St) that recreates the atmosphere of a small 19th-century hardware store with tools and machinery of that time period. While it is an actual store, it also has an exhibition that is a sort of museum open Thursday to Sunday from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. Another great place for shopping is, Arden Fair (1689 Arden Way), a classic shopping center, open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm and Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Events in Sacramento
Various events take place during the year, some of which we want to mention here. In March, Old Sacramento hosts the St. Patrick Day Parade, with Irish dancers, bagpipe musicians, drum bands and costumed characters. The event is free. Cesar Chavez Park (910 I St.) hosts the Sactown Nachos Festival in August, where you can listen to live music and shop among the stalls. Admission costs $10 and part of the proceeds are donated to a charity.
Various events take place at the California Automobile Museum (2200 Front St.), for example, the Sacramento Donut Festival which takes place in September when you can enjoy the famous doughnuts. There is also a competition where a jury of visitors votes for the best doughnut. The $26 admission ticket also includes a visit to the Automobile Museum.
Every 3rd Monday of the month, the California Automobile Museum (2200 Front St.) organizes the Downtown Sunday Drives. During this event, visitors can purchase the museum admission ticket and ride in exciting vintage cars. Each month a different model is chosen. Theater of Lights is a Christmas celebration with a multitude of sounds, colors and lights that create a pleasant Christmas atmosphere.
Where to Eat
You shouldn’t leave the city without tasting the local cuisine and we would like to suggest some restaurants. In Old Sacramento, the Rio City Café (1110 Front St.) is a restaurant with a friendly atmosphere and a view of the river. You can come here for brunch, lunch and dinner and enjoy cheap California cuisine made with local ingredients that give extra flavor. Celebrities, politicians and athletes come here occasionally.
In midtown, Paragary’s (1401 28th St) offers dinner and brunch (weekend only) at medium-high prices. You can eat on the lovely patio with waterfalls, a fireplace and olive trees. The design of the rooms combines modern elements with more traditional ones. The restaurant offers dishes such as pasta, salad, meat and fish prepared according to contemporary American cuisine using products from the Sacramento region. Try the lemon semifreddo with meringue, strawberries and pistachio and also the cinnamon roll with maple glaze. Business-casual clothing is recommended.
In Natomas, a neighborhood in Sacramento, we recommend the Black Bear Diner (2700 El Centro Rd.) with its wooden furniture and wooden bear statues. The restaurant, with medium-high prices, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers popular dishes such as pancakes, waffles, barbeque ribs, grilled salmon, pasta with pesto sauce and grilled chicken, tomatoes and burgers with cheese and bacon. Try the triple chocolate cake and bread pudding with cream, vanilla and pecan sauce.
Where to Stay
In case you are planning an overnight stay in Sacramento, we would like to recommend some accommodations. In downtown, the Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel (1230 J St) is a short walk from the State Capitol and is also near Old Sacramento. The rooms and suites, overlooking the city, have mini-fridges, tea and coffee-making facilities. There is a fitness center, heated outdoor pool, restaurant and parking. The property is pet-friendly.
There is a beautiful, refined Victorian house dating back to 1885 which houses the HI Sacramento Hostel (925 H St). It offers lower prices and is within walking distance of Old Town Sacramento, the Sacramento River and the State Capitol. As is the case in all hostels, most of the rooms are shared and have shared restrooms, but there are also private rooms, one of which has its own bathroom. The property offers free wi-fi, on-site parking, a meeting space, a spacious kitchen, a dining room, an outdoor patio with a fountain and a grill and tables with umbrellas.
The Larkspur Landing Sacramento (555 Howe Ave) is a 20-minute drive away from the State Capitol. It has a classic style suite with full kitchen and wi-fi and breakfast. The property has a front desk and a 24-hour business center, wi-fi in common areas, meeting space, fitness center and laundry. The hotel is pet-friendly.
The Hilton Garden Inn (2540 Ventura Oaks Way) is located in Natomas, a mainly residential neighborhood, where the city airport and Sleep Train Arena, home of the NBA’s Sacramento King, are located. Classic style rooms and suites are equipped with microwave, mini-fridge, coffee maker and free wi-fi. The hotel has a restaurant for breakfast and dinner, 24-hour business center, a meeting room, an outdoor swimming pool, a fitness room and laundry service.
Location and Directions
Sacramento can be reached via San Francisco International Airport (Hwy 101), or you can also fly to the Sacramento International Airport (6900 Airport Blvd). If you are traveling to Sacramento by car (or rental car), you can reach the city via I-80, which connects Sacramento to San Francisco and Reno, Nevada. The Sacramento Valley Station is at 401 I Street and the Greyhound bus station is at 420 Richards Boulevard. And let’s not forget that visiting the city by bicycle is a pleasant and healthy option.