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Photograph: Andreas Hub via Visit California Sacramento

The best things to do in Sacramento right now

There's more than just politics at the California capital; the best things to do in Sacramento include awesome vintage shops, breweries and trails

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
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Sacramento’s got it going on: The revitalized downtown core now boasts a spiffy, newish sports arena that’s 100 percent solar powered, fresh, local and organic farmers markets and trendy restaurants that make good use of that produce as well as a gorgeous setting of trees (it’s known as the City of Trees, although don’t talk to residents about that during allergy season) and a ton of fascinating history readily displayed at the city's top museums. Oh, and you know, just being the capital of the world’s seventh largest economy. Ready for a quick tour of 30 super-fun things to do there? Read on. 

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Best things to do in Sacramento

Besides touring the inside of the Capitol Building (which you should do), make sure to visit the surrounding city park that houses an astounding variety of trees from all over the world. Each tree is labeled, so you can geek out on all the varieties of palm, redwood and citrus trees (often with countless pieces of fruit hanging from the branches). Covering 40 acres and spanning 12 city blocks, it is considered one of the most beautiful state capitol grounds in the US. Highlights include the World Peace Rose Garden, the Camellia Grove and a California native plants section. There are also monuments and points of interest, such as a Vietnam War memorial. 

Craft breweries
Photograph: Courtesy Track 7

2. Craft breweries

Beer is serious business in Sacramento, and the 80+ craft breweries in the region offer something for everyone’s taste, from hoppy saisons and creative sours to classic double IPAs and coffee stouts. But you’ll notice the locals drinking lots of hazy IPAs—try one for yourself at Track 7’s Curtis Park taproom, named for the proximity to the old Western Pacific railroad lines. We also love the Bee Line Honey Blonde Ale. If you want to team housemade beers with smoky BBQ, try the Urban Roots Brewery & Smokehouse, and who can resist the allure of the Big Sexy Brewing Company with live music on Friday nights?

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Ignore the kitschy souvenir shops and soak up the old-timey atmosphere of this historic part of town. Developed during the Gold Rush of the late 1840s, Old Sacramento takes you back to those pioneer days with covered plank sidewalks, cobblestone streets and more than 50 historic buildings, including original landmarks like the schoolhouse and Eagle Theatre. While you’re in the area, peek at the bright yellow Tower Bridge and maybe catch it when the middle span rises to let a tall vessel pass underneath, then grab a drink at O’Mally’s Irish Pub and wander through the eight rooms on two floors of Evangeline’s Costume Mansion with themed apparel and novelty gifts.

Located just blocks from Old Sacramento and the Golden 1 Center, the Crocker Art Museum is the ideal stop during a day spent out in the city center. This art museum in the west is split between two very different buildings — the Italian-style mansion from 1872 and an attached, light-filled contemporary museum. The collections similarly are yin-yangish, with gold-framed old-world ‘European masters’ paintings, as well as modern art, international ceramics and a robust collection of Asian, African and Oceanic art. The Crocker also hosts a premier collection of Californian art, including from Sacramento’s beloved Wayne Thiebaud. Don’t miss his 1962 painting ‘Boston Cremes’ — the colorful rows of tantalizing creme pies are painted with such thick impasto you could almost taste the ‘frosting.’

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Originally built in 1856, the Leland Stanford Mansion was home to, you guessed it, Leland Stanford, the former governor and co-founder of Stanford University, and served as a governor’s mansion for each governor 1903-1967. Guided tours of the 19,000-square-foot Victorian mansion offer a glimpse into the refurbished rooms ‘frozen’ at 1872. Ronald Reagan was the last California governor to live on the premises; he, Nancy and children only lasted four months in which she called a ‘firetrap’ before fleeing to a home in the city’s Fabulous Forties neighborhood. If you’re in a rush, you can also admire the architecture, including the striking curves of the main staircase, from the outside.

Local wineries
Photograph: Courtesy Revolution Wines

6. Local wineries

Sacramento may be surrounded by wine country (Napa, Lodi, Amador County and El Dorado County are just a short drive away), but the city has its own full-scale winery right in Midtown. Grab a seat at the bar, try a flight and check out the happy hour menu. Revolution Winery & Kitchen also serves vino by the glass, small bites and a full lunch and dinner menu. There are many other options. Try Voluptuary & Lucid Wines making small batch organic and natural wine, or the zero-carbon Acheson Wine Company, which eschews bottles in favor of refilling their labeled swing-top bottle from 5-gallon kegs at the tasting room.

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Vic’s Ice Cream will make you wonder if you’ve gone back in time to an ice cream parlor in the 1940s. This Land Park neighborhood landmark specializes in house-made ice cream, a welcome treat during Sacramento’s sweltering summers. Try the sweet sherbets, pies, bon bons and cakes, or grab a stool at the bar and have an unfussy hot dog or a sandwich with the soup of the day. Ice cream flavors are seasonal here, like Spring and Fall’s signature Jik Jak flavor, which owner Craig Rutledge told Sacramento News & Reviews is a ‘light chocolate with cinnamon, malt, almonds and fudge marbling. No one else makes that.’

The Delta King, docked at Old Town, is a historic paddlewheel riverboat built in 1927, and you can sleep overnight in one of its eight private rooms that were originally staterooms converted to a more boutique hotel chamber. You can sleep with a river view or a city view—or pay extra for both in the luxury Captain’s Quarters suite with a wrap-around veranda on the top deck. Or just dine in the Pilot House Restaurant or the Delta Bar & Grill without an overnight stay. Before boarding, we recommend Joe’s Crab Shack, just steps away on the waterfront. Oh and wait, before you go to Joe’s, stop by Danny’s Mini Donuts for little rounds of sugary beauty made hot on the spot!

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There are two ways to see Broadway shows in Sacramento, both through the nonprofit Broadway Sacramento. One is Broadway at Music Circus, a theater-in-the-round that sits on the site of a 1951 canvas tent. It’s the largest, continually operating such musical theater in the US. The theater is now called the UC Davis Health Pavilion, which doesn’t sound as much fun without the 'circus' in it. The other option is Broadway On Tour, which imports shows to perform at the equally fun-sounding SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center. Broadway on Tour is the area’s largest performing arts event.

Sacramento straddles two meandering rivers, the American and the Sacramento, and the American River Parkway spans 23 miles and covers 4,800 acres of trails to bike and walk. It also offers more than a dozen places to access the river to put in a kayak, to swim, or to fish. You can even follow the parkway all the way from Sacramento to the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area; stop by to see salmon on the fish ladder (seasonally) at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery. Start at the most western point of the parkway, Sacramento’s Discovery Park, to follow the Jedidiah Smith Memorial Trail along the American River or just jump on at any of the parks along the route.

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Little Saigon
Photograph: Courtesy Pegasus Bakery & Cafe

11. Little Saigon

Designating a stretch of Stockton Boulevard as Little Saigon in 2010 resulted in businesses and communities coming together to celebrate a rich and diverse heritage. This empowered community includes every variety of business, as well as restaurants serving up delicious Vietnamese fare. Try crispy egg tarts at Pegasus Bakery and Cafe, salty fish and chicken fried rice at Lollibowl, tofu stuffed jalapeños at the vegan-friendly takeaway shop Huong Sen Tofu or a pork belly banh mi sandwich at Thanh Huong Restaurant and Bakery. Admit it, your mouth is watering, and you’re ready to spend the day sampling the fare in this fun neighborhood.

If you’re looking for artisan products and Belgian waffles, check out the very hip Midtown Farmers Market that takes place every Saturday, year-round, weather permitting. Located on 20th Street between J and L streets and on K Street between 19th and 21st streets, the market showcases more than 60 vendors from across the region, all selling organic fruits, herbs, baked goods and more. From the Dutchman’s Stroopwafels, which bakes the national cookie of the Netherlands live on a food bike, to wood and resin art from Awkwood Things, there’s plenty to keep you occupied—and there’s often live music to accompany your basket filling.

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In the city’s Historic City Cemetery, you can 'visit' some of the earliest residents, including at least one Donner Party survivor as well as the folks held within 'bone boxes' with remains relocated from the older New Helvetia cemetery. It’s fascinating to poke around the lush gardens and beautiful statuary, but a tour gives the best information. Try a nighttime lantern tour near Halloween, or the infrequently offered Kids Tour, which has compelling information without gruesome details. Themed, ticketed tours, such as Drugs in the Old West or the Victorian Symbolism tour that unlocks 'codes' on the gravestones, are offered monthly.

Sacramento shows its deep love of street art with its Wide Open Walls Mural Festival. The result? More than 80 permanent works created during the festival and 250 temporary works created at local events. The festival brings artists from around the world to paint new murals every August. Just check the mural map online and then stroll the streets of Downtown and Midtown Sacramento to catch amazing art. Some standouts include the Laurelin Gilmore mural of rabbits and flowers at 1236 C St., a bright gardenscape by Raphael Delgado at 2820 R St., the enormous 15-story Johnny Cash mural by Shepard Fairey at 1121 15th St., or the Starfighter mural by Christina Angelina at 1120 7th St., which local legend says depicts Lady Gaga as Joan of Arc.

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The Downtown Commons area has plenty of dining and shopping in its pedestrian-only walkways, and if the fun can’t stop you can stay at the Kimpton The Sawyer boutique hotel, a 16 story mixed-use tower. Entertainment at DOCO includes The Punch Bowl Social where you can bowl, throw darts and play shuffleboard, a movie theater and—of course—all the action at the Golden 1 Center. There are nearly two dozen restaurants to pick from as well as a slew of shops and amenities such as the free weekly Yoga on the Green, as well as an eyecatching 18ft Jeff Koons sculpture, erected for a controversial $8 million without giving local artists a shot.

Sacramento is home to several coffee roasteries, but Temple Coffee Roasters is the grandmother of them all. Sustainable, “farm-to-cup” coffee means close relationships with the coffee growers and a meticulous process of choosing and roasting beans. All the hard work has paid off — Temple has won various awards. You can try it for yourself at one of six locations in Sacramento; don’t miss the floor made out of a gazillion pennies in the location at 22nd and K streets, which could be your Instagram ‘gold.’ Temple also gets high praise from tea lovers with a strong selection of black, green, oolong and white teas and tisanes.

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When you feel like having some downtime, head over to Two Rivers Cider Company. The microcider pub offers 13 regularly offered core ciders, as well as limited release and rotating taps. In the permanent showcase you’ll find the Bone Dry, a Crisp, clean, effervescent apple, and the Chilly Willy, a dry apple paired with spicy chili, as well as fruits that make the apple step aside, like huckleberry and pomegranate. Come to the tasting room when food vendors are on hand (check the online schedule) or take some prepackaged cider cans home. Either way, you’ll drink the expertise of the founder’s research trips to Europe to learn the trade and continue to experiment.

Warehouse Artist Lofts
Photograph: Courtesy Old Gold

18. Warehouse Artist Lofts

Check out the Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL) building in the revitalized Historic R Street District for a great example of creative reuse of an old National Register listed building close to public transit. The 100-year-old warehouse now houses artists’ lofts and studio space as well as a public market on the bottom floor. Grab lunch and sit outside before browsing the shops, including Old Gold for vintage clothes and gifts made by local artists. Other market businesses include Fish Face Poke Bar, Camellia Coffee Roasters, Kechmara Designs, MediumRare Records & Collectibles, Magpie Alchemy and Bottle and Barlow. There’s also a First Friday event in the district where some residents open their studios to the public.

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You love your trains and you love your cars—and here in Sacramento you can walk between two museums featuring these beloved modes of transport. All we need is an airplane hangar and we can call it a day. The California State Railroad Museum honestly is fun even for those who might not ...think themselves interested? With more than 225,000 square feet of exhibit space, the trains are parked inside. You can climb aboard some of these behemoths, including a sleeper car with dozing dummies and a mechanism that keeps the train gently rocking to give you a simulated experience. For those who love culinary things, there’s a display of branded china from the various rail lines. And for the short individuals with zero attention span who can’t read a plaque, there’s a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine play area. 

The Gallery of Governors inside the state house is a fun painted tour of every California governor since 1879. While many consist of formal portraits of white men in their dark suits, their watch chain dangling from a pocket, Jerry Brown’s 1984 portrait by abstract artist Don Bachardy is a welcome departure from those stiff gentlemen, as is Arnold Schwarznegger’s 2014 photorealist painting by Gottfried Helnwein. It’s fun reading the placards, too, such as the one explaining how Milton Latham was only governor for five days in 1860. The portraits are all hanging in the corridors of the state house, which is free to enter. While there, check out the Capitol Museum with its free 1½ hour tours.

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It might not technically be in Sacramento, but we feel it's close enough to be included. Effie Yeaw Nature Center is made up of low rolling hills on the banks of the bubbling American River. In addition to the Maidu village (an outdoor display of local Native American culture, including a grinding rock), the park offers nature talks with resident animal experts on weekends and is home to plenty of hiking trails that lead down to the river where, in fall months, you may see salmon returning to spawn. No matter the season, you’re sure to spot deer, woodpeckers and wild turkeys. Keep an eye open for the rattlesnakes that occasionally lounge in the sun on the trails.

Local bookstores
Photograph: Courtesy Capital Books

22. Local bookstores

There are many wonderful indie bookstores in Sacramento; we love Capital Books with its cellar level 'Another Universe' section devoted to sci fi/fantasy and horror books, manga, toys and games, replete with an eerie blue-lit area with the Xenomorph Queen from the movie Aliens. There’s a Harry Potter room under the stairs, and on the attic level there’s a lounge with unforgettable flamingo wallpaper. The bookstore’s next to the historic 1912 Crest Theatre, which means large author events can host overflow audiences one door over. We also appreciate Avid Reader, Time Tested Books, Beers Books and Underground Books, to name just a few of the thriving choices.

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Sacramento’s a river town, which means flooding...which means vestiges of the original city sit 10 feet below the current city. In 1862, the city was so profoundly flooded that streets and buildings were jacked up to get out of the waters. On this guided tour, you’ll see some of those abandoned underground spaces (said to be haunted? Yep) and see how people would climb ladders to move between the two street levels. There’s a general tour, but you can also do an adults-only Underground After Hours tour which covers saloons, gambling halls and brothels.

If you grew up in this area, you’ve already seen Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park on a field trip, but for out of town visitors, this restored fort built by John Sutter with forced labor from First Nations people provides an interesting look at California’s history 1839-49 (the discovery of gold largely spelled the decline of the fort). In recent years, state park rangers are working to better narrate Sutter’s and other settlers’ crimes and provide less of a glossing over of the traumatic history (to wit, check out the State Indian Museum just steps away). The fort is a walled structure with housing chambers, a blacksmith, a loom room, a bakery, and other areas where volunteers provide costumed interpretation. Donner Party survivor Patty Reed’s doll is on display here.

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25. Handle District

In this business improvement district Midtown, several blocks hold some of the city’s trendiest places to eat, drink and shop, encompassed by 18th, 19th, and L streets and Capitol Avenue. Look for the bright advertising mural for Old Soul Co. and head to the alley for their house-roasted coffee, have a beer at Fieldwork, pair a glass of wine with a cheese board at The Rind, and indulge in the city’s best chocolate at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates.

Not far from Sutter’s Fort is the State Indian Museum State Historic Park, which opened in 1940 to illustrate three themed areas of Native American life: nature, spirit and family. Photographs of elders adorn the walls, and exhibits include some of the smallest handwoven baskets in the world—as small as 1 millimeter—a canoe created out of a redwood log, ceremonial regalia, and some tools for hunting and fishing that are more than 2,400 years old. There’s an exhibit on Ishi, a media sensation at the turn of the century as the last member of the Yahi tribe whose other members had all been killed. At the museum, you try your hand at traditional skills like making holes in shells to create beads or grinding acorns with mortar and pestle. The museum store has a host of Native-made jewelry, carvings and other handcrafted items.

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You need an appointment to visit this free, fascinating view of quackery on display, collected by the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society. See a diorama of a turn of the century doctor’s office, a claustrophobia-inducing iron lung from the 1950s (essentially a tube in which people were inserted who needed help with respiration, often those who suffered from polio), amputation kits from the Civil War, a 12-bladed scarificator for 'bleeding cures,' an electro-prostate device, 'deafness oil,' and much more, including a library of antiquated textbooks. Check out chapters from Kellogg’s The Man Masterpiece and The Ladies’ Guide, then dip into the riveting prose of Flint’s Examination of Urine. These medical oddities are of interest to medical professionals as well as history buffs.

We’re happy to end this list on a 'low note' with this amazing German restaurant offering specialty meats’ sausages prepared at Block Butcher Bar, giant pretzels, duck fat fries and other such expected fare, along with vegan offerings like fried mushroom nuggets. The draft biers and ciders will make you feel welkommen, as will the cocktails, weekend brunch, happy hour and Motown music every Monday. Ready to go? Ja, bitte!

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Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Tow
Photograph: Courtesy Sacramento Zoo

29. Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Tow

For the short ones or the ones that are 'short at heart,' there’s a glorious hat trick of fun all in walking distance of each other: the Sacramento Zoo, the wonderfully vintage Fairytale Town next door, and the aptly-named Funderland Amusement Park. At the Zoo, visit a plethora of fascinating animals—we love the flamingos when you first enter. There’s also a reptile house and a Conservation Carousel with offbeat creatures to ride, like a dung beetle. Fairytale Town is a storybook themed park with 26 playsets such as Jack and Jill Hill, Owl’s Treehouse and the beloved Crooked Mile. There are also animals such as Peter Rabbit and his sisters and the Three Little (Kunekune) Pigs and several gardens to explore and even water plants. Finally, Funderland has offered small-sized rides since 1946, such as the Flying Dragon Roller Coaster, Crazy Teacups and Backroads Buggies. 

One of Sacramento’s vintage stores, Scout Living is any mid-century modern lover’s dream. From Danish modern pieces to vinyl and vintage clothing, this shop’s collection is eye candy for anyone who loves design. Need a set of vintage fondue forks or a red Eames lounge chair? This antique and design collective brings together dealers from the area who cull the best finds for you. There’s even merch, like the ‘Sacramentote’ bag and several t-shirt designs.

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