California State Capitol, Sacramento, CA
California State Capitol, Sacramento, CA

Sacramento, California, is one of those cities you don’t hear much about, and when you do it’s often a mixed review. But the city actually has some worthwhile sites and, as the capitol of the most populous state in the US, surprisingly rich culture.

While exploring various neighborhoods in Sacramento on a layover earlier this week, I discovered a pleasant two-mile walking route. Although the basic walk is pretty much a straight shot from the Sacramento river eastward, there are lots of spots to meander off path and explore the best of what California’s capitol has to offer.

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This walk begins in its historic-turned-touristic Old Sac, then heads east to Sacramento’s downtown business center and the State Capitol, and finally ends in midtown Sacramento — a hip, artsy, independent core with some of the best dining and shopping options in the city.

Stop 1: Old Sacramento (Old Sac)

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Old Sac is a free California state historic park, and admittedly very touristy. However, it’s worth a brief visit if only to see the great Old West gold rush architecture and stop in one or all of the old-styled candy stores filled with salt water taffy, hard candies, and large wooden barrels.

Inside Candy Heaven, one of Old Sac several old-school candy shops. You get unlimited free samples of candy while shopping.  There are empty barrels for the trash as you taste-test the many flavors of salt water taffy from Root Beer Float to Chicken and Waffles.
Interior of Candy Heaven, one of Old Sac’s several old-school candy shops. You get unlimited free samples of any blue-labeled candy while shopping. There are empty barrels for the trash as you taste-test the many flavors of salt water taffy from Root Beer Float to Chicken and Waffles.
Candy Barrel is another old-fashioned candy store in Old Sacramento.
Candy Barrel is another old-fashioned candy store in Old Sacramento.
An interesting note I found out while talking to one of the candy store employees — all of the stores purchase their salt water taffy from Taffy Town, which is based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Still a fun stop even if not authentically Sacramento.
An interesting fact I found out while talking to one of the candy store employees — all of the stores import their salt water taffy from Taffy Town, a Salt Lake City candy company and Utah staple. Still, it’s a fun stop even if not super authentic to Sacramento.

One thing to note: many of the shops and museums in Old Sac close early, including the California State Railroad Museum, which is its biggest and best attraction (besides candy). When I arrived a little after five, half of the buildings were already locked up for the night including the railroad museum. However, I have been to the museum on previous trips and its extensive collection of trains from the 19th and 20th centuries is definitely worth checking out if you have the time. $10 adults/$5 kids /under 5 free

Back side of the California State Railroad Museum, showing a historic railway turntable and train garage.
Back side of the California State Railroad Museum, showing a historic railway turntable and train garage.

Stop 2: Downtown Sacramento

After you’re done exploring Old Sac, head east toward downtown Sacramento and the California State Capitol. It’s a bit tricky leaving Old Sac on foot because it is completely cut off from the rest of modern Sacramento by The 5 (or I-5 for non-Californians). The two best options are to either walk to the south end of Old Sac until you see the gold bridge crossing the water at Capitol Mall and turn left, or walk up K Street by taking the tunnel-like pedestrian passageway beneath Interstate-5.

The corner of Capitol Mall and Front St/Neasham Cir — one of the ways to enter/exit Old Sac on foot. Old Sac is just north of the bridge (to the right and out of view in this photo).
The corner of Capitol Mall and Front St/Neasham Cir — one of the ways to enter/exit Old Sac on foot. Old Sac is just north of the bridge (to the right and out of view in this photo).
Entrance to downtown via a pedestrian passageway that goes under the 5 bridge and pops up in a mall.
Entrance to downtown via a pedestrian passageway that goes under The 5 freeway and pops up in a mall called Downtown Plaza Sacramento. The area surrounding the mall is currently undergoing a major construction project for an entertainment and sports center that currently makes the short walk feel a little abandoned and sketchy after dark.

At the heart of downtown Sacramento is the California State Capitol. So whichever route you take, start making your way there as directly or indirectly as you want. If you’re in the mood for a snack, I recommend Estelle’s Patisserie on 8th and J Street for some sweet French pastries or savory sandwiches. In general, food in downtown will be better than anything you’ll find in Old Sac because it is catering to businessmen, politicians, and other repeat customers where only the strong restaurants survive (as opposed to one-time tourists).

Stop 3: California State Capitol and Museum

California State Capitol
California State Capitol

The California State Capitol was modeled after the United States Capitol in Washington DC, albeit on a much smaller scale. It’s a beautiful building inside and out, and is filled with interesting history. Free tours are available daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. Advance booking is not required unless you are in a group of ten or more. The tours generally last about 45 minutes, but can go longer or shorter depending on the mood of the guide and crowd. My guide, Bill, was extremely knowledgable about the history and art of the building and how it evolved over the years. All tours begin in the basement at the statue of the boy Christopher Columbus, to be replaced with a statue of Ronald Reagan in the near future. 

Meeting spot in the basement of the capitol for all tours, which begin daily on the hour from 9:00am - 4:00pm.  It's easy to find. Just follow arrows and signs for State Capitol Museum.
Meeting spot in the basement of the capitol for all tours, which begin daily on the hour from 9:00am – 4:00pm. It’s easy to find. Just follow arrows and signs for State Capitol Museum.
The California State Capitol was almost demolish din the 1970s and replaced by the buildings rendered here.  Luckily, in a last minute decision the state capitol was instead restored to it's original historic beauty.
The California State Capitol was almost demolished in the 1970s and replaced by the buildings rendered here. Luckily, in a last minute decision the state capitol was instead restored to it’s original historic beauty.
View of the interior dome of the CA state capitol, which sits 100 feet lower at it's peak below the peak of the exterior dome.
View of the interior dome of the CA state capitol, whose peak sits 100 feet lower than the peak of the exterior dome. Up until WWII, any visitor was allowed to go up inside the two domes to the exterior parapet for views of the city.
An interesting original lamp from the late 19th century that was fitted for both gas and electric lighting. The gas and wires were encased in the same tube. Amazing the capitol never burned down.
An interesting original lamp from the late 19th century that was fitted for both gas and electric lighting. The gas and wires were encased in the same tube. Amazing the capitol never burned down.
View from the capitol looking down Capitol Mall and toward Old Sacramento.
View from the capitol looking down Capitol Mall and toward Old Sacramento.

Stop 4: Mid-town Sacramento

After checking out the California State Capitol Museum, continue heading east toward mid-town. Going through the capitol grounds is ideal for the shady, park-like respite it offers.

The capitol grounds are filled with trees and vegetation that are local to various different spots in California. Many of them are identified with posted placards.  Here you can see the Capitol peaking up behind a giant orange tree.
The capitol grounds are filled with trees and vegetation that are local to various different spots in California. Many of them are identified with posted placards. Here you can see the capitol building peaking up behind a giant orange tree.
The rose garden is at the eastern tip of the capitol grounds and smells wonderful when in bloom.
A rose garden is at the eastern tip of the capitol grounds and smells wonderful when in bloom.

After leaving the Capitol grounds, you’ll walk a few blocks through historic Victorian homes interspersed with newer architecture and shops. Once you cross 20th Street, you’ll be in the heart of Mid-town, also known as the Grid. This is probably the best spot to shop and eat like a local. It has an artsy, independent vibe, and a smaller city feel than the business downtown a mile away. I recommend trying Rick’s Dessert Diner on J and 24th Street.

Rick's Dessert Diner has a fun 50s diner vibe, and 100s of sweet treats to choose from.
Rick’s Dessert Diner has a fun 50s diner vibe, and 100s of sweet treats to choose from.
Midtown Sacramento has a smaller-city vibe, than downtown Sac just a few blocks west.  It's filled with art galleries, thrift stores, independent shops and boutiques, and mom and pop restaurants.
Midtown Sacramento has a smaller-city vibe, than downtown Sac just a few blocks west. It’s filled with art galleries, thrift stores, independent shops and boutiques, and mom and pop restaurants.

This is where the walking tour ends. A short half mile extension could be a quick stop by Sutters Fort State Historic Park on 28th and L St. It’s a comparatively mediocre attraction, but could be fun for kids, history buffs, or those who have never seen frontier-life reenacted.

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 — Laura Rowley

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Written by Laura Rowley

I am an artist, flight attendant, and travel blogger.

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