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Sacramento is one of those capitals we forget. It falls into the same category as Albany or Tallahassee in the sense that it has to compete with major tourist attraction cities casting impossibly long shadows. When we think of California we think Los Angeles and Hollywood, San Diego and its beaches or San Francisco and the Golden Gate. We want coastline, palm trees, and perfect weather — that’s our definition of California. But what about the small city northeast of the Bay Area? Is there anything up there besides government buildings? Our answer is a definitive “yes”.
Sacramento may not be the typical California city, but it might just be the best place to understand California’s roots. Why did the state become a settler destination? Who was there before? What were the hardships and setbacks? What was the promise of life in California? How did this far-off dusty land develop into one of the most powerful economies in the world? These are the kinds of questions that interest tourists in Sacramento. They’re curious about the state’s history and for them, a trip back in time in Sacramento’s Old Town beats out waiting in line at Disneyland any day.
With that in mind, here are our picks for the top thing to do in Sacramento.
1. Spend an afternoon in Old Sacramento
A 28-acre space located in the heart of the city, Old Sacramento is truly a wonder. It looks like a movie set from an old western film, apart from the fact that the stories and immense detail remind you it’s all real. With fifty-three 19th-century buildings making up the neighborhood, visitors can explore museums, visit old school houses, dine in old restaurants and saloons, and even explore a classic riverboat from 1927 docked on the bank of the Sacramento River.
2. Hop on a train at the California State Railroad Museum
It may seem hard to imagine now, but 19th and early 20th-century California depended heavily on the railroad, acting as a lifeline from the wild frontier back to the civilized world. Nowhere in California better explains that lifeline than the California State Railroad Museum. You can even hop on a restored train to take you on a ride through the Sacramento area with a guide explaining the significance of old historical sites.
3. Stroll through Capital Park
Get a guided tour of the capitol building and museum to see where the decisions are made for one of the largest economies in the world. The museum is an excellent place to see how the past and future of California intersect. You can also learn about how gold and safety from sea invasion made Sacramento an ideal choice as the state’s capital.
4. Hop in the car for a day trip to Lake Tahoe
If all the museums and history get a little dry, Lake Tahoe is an excellent way to mix in some adventure. Just a two-hour drive northeast of Sacramento, Lake Tahoe is one of California’s (and Nevada’s) most beautiful landmarks. A trip in the summer means swimming, paddle boarding and boat rides at sunset. A trip in the winter means some of the West’s best skiing and a selection of cozy vacation rentals in South Lake Tahoe. Either way, you’ll be out in the great outdoors taking in the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas.
5. Go wine tasting in Napa Valley
Another day trip that has to be on the list is Napa Valley. Just an hour southwest of Sacramento you can hop in the car and be wine tasting in some of the state’s most famous wineries in no time. You could even book an Airbnb or a room at a wine resort for the night.
6. Wander the Crocker Art Museum
Why not compliment your day of wine tasting with a trip to one of California’s best art museums. Home to over 15,000 pieces, you’ll be happy to get lost (and escape the summer heat) by wandering the museum’s halls.
7. Plan an adventure in a national forest
Sacramento is an ideal location for launching expeditions into the wilderness of Northern California’s national forests. With El Dorado to the east, Tahoe to the northeast and Mendocino to the northwest, you have plenty of forests to choose from. Pack camping supplies and spend a couple of nights in the forest hiking and swimming in the rivers. It’s far from the palm trees and movie stars. It’s a rugged, beautiful landscape that distances you from any city worries you might have. These outdoor adventures are what Northern California does best.
8. See where it all began at Sutter’s Fort
The city of Sacramento started as a fortress designed to protect the crops of a Swiss settler by the name of John Sutter. With access to the Sacramento River and gold country, the settlement became an ideal location for newly-arrived settlers to begin. The fort still stands today and visitors can explore its grounds and imagine what life would have looked like for a pioneer seeking a brighter future.