Sacramento Rising

The queen of California’s Central Valley has Old West charm and modern-day panache.

The city of Sacramento sprang from the water way that shares its name. 

Andrew Zarivny / Shutterstock

Does anybody know what first brought people to Sacramento?” tour guide Lisa Praxel asks a group she is escorting through the historic waterfront area of California’s capital.

“Gold!” comes a shout.

“Wrong!” Praxel replies. “The river.”

Seems a bit early in the day for trick questions. But when you’re visiting Sacramento, you have to give the mighty river its due. The town sprang from the banks of the water way that shares its name, and without the 382-mile river that meanders south from the shadow of Mount Shasta to Suisun Bay, Sacramento surely would not exist as the city we know today. This hopping metropolis is the seat of government for the country’s most populous state and, happily for the visitor, a rewarding destination with streets steeped in history, world-class museums, and a farm-fresh food scene.

A good place to start your exploration is the lively area known as Old Sacramento, which harks back to the city’s days as a rough-and-ready outpost of the Old West. Beyond the staged shoot-’em-ups and corseted saloon girls, there await some serious—and seriously fun—tours and attractions. The Underground Tour explores dimly lighted spaces that remained after buildings and sidewalks were elevated in response to floods so severe that Governor Leland Stanford had to ride a rowboat to his 1862 inauguration. The California State Railroad Museum is a train enthusiast’s wonderland.

East of Old Sacramento, the gleaming white state capitol rises like a multitiered wedding cake. At first glance, this circa 1860s neoclassical landmark radiates sheer grandeur, with its graceful portico, Corinthian columns, and 220-foot dome. But the Capitol Tour reveals a few not-so-stately surprises. Artist Don Bachardy’s 1984 official portrait of then-and-now governor Jerry Brown draws quizzical stares for its abstract, half-finished appearance—looking like it was painted with “spilled ketchup and soy sauce,” the critics sniffed. The bronze grizzly bear that former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger installed outside his office stands guard in the same spot. In the state senate and assembly chambers, comic relief appears in the detailed ceilings where distorted figures called grotesques stick out their tongues at the speakers’ rostrums. From the public galleries, visitors can watch the political action on the floor.

However, if spirited debate starts to sound like gaseous rhetoric, fresh air awaits in 40-acre Capitol Park, a lovely urban forest with sky-grazing deodar cedars and coast redwoods, where pink camellias and white magnolias unfurl in late winter and spring. It’s poignant to see one of those blossoms—furtively plucked, most likely—placed in the hand of a bronze soldier at the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In the years before the capitol was built, back when Mexico still ruled California, Swiss immigrant John Sutter set out to fulfill his utopian dream of an agricultural empire headquartered on a hilltop inland from the flood-prone river. By the 1850s both Sutter’s dream and his fort lay in ruins. But the reconstructed compound at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Midtown is a living museum that vividly re-creates the daily life of the era. Historical interpreters such as Ralph Bonds, who traces his bloodline to rope-twirling Mexican vaqueros, explain that girls who knew how to braid hair were highly valued for making lariats. Diana Almendariz, a cultural interpreter of mixed American Indian descent, shakes a woven bowl to sift acorn flour with the deft hand of someone who learned at her grandmother’s knee. One of the most popular exhibits is also one of the tiniest—the wooden doll that 8-year-old Donner Party survivor Patty Reed carried across the Sierra Nevada throughout her family’s nightmarish ordeal. If you want to join the festivities for the Sutter’s Fort 175th anniversary, schedule your visit for this August.

Sacramento attractions may be rooted in the past, but they’re not stuck there. The venerable Crocker Art Museum, which dates to horse-and-buggy days, opened a $100 million addition in 2010 that tripled its size. The fine collection of contemporary California works includes Wayne Thiebaud’s Pies, Pies, Pies. To enjoy one of the museum’s most popular pieces, climb the curved oak staircase to Charles Christian Nahl’s Sunday Morning in the Mines. This large-scale painting depicts virtue and vice in a gold-mining camp.

These days, gourmets are reveling in Sacramento’s dining options. “In the last five years, the restaurant scene has exploded,” says Darrell Corti, Sacramento’s food and wine maven par excellence, also co-owner of the well-known Corti Brothers specialty market. The new dining ethos is farm to fork. You can see what the fuss is all about at locavore haunts such as Magpie Café in the R Street corridor, where the crispy pork belly confit is made from heritage-breed guinea hogs that are fattened on grass and clover a short drive from the restaurant. At downtown’s elegant Ella Dining Room and Bar, sturgeon—seared to caramelized perfection and wading in a smoky broth with fennel and cranberry beans—comes from a sustainable freshwater farm just outside town.

Sacramento’s tasting rooms also benefit from proximity to the grape-growing regions that surround the city. Revolution Wines, both urban winery and bistro, sources zinfandel grapes from Amador County, in the Sierra foothills. The grapes that go into the aromatic pinot grigio at the Downtown & Vine tasting room hail from Clarksburg, on the Sacramento River just 20 minutes from downtown.

Don’t forget that in this city, everything comes back to the river, which, as it happens, is a lovely place to end a day of sightseeing. Grab a table on the deck of the Delta King, the restored riverboat permanently moored in Old Sacramento, and watch the setting sun illuminate the golden spires of Tower Bridge.

This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.