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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Laura Rowley