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The Sacramento bridge and waterfront still lit up at sunrise
Photograph: Flickr/Kelly Huston/CC

The best things to do on the Old Sacramento Waterfront

Explore Sac from the Gold Rush to today with our guide to the best things to do on the Old Sacramento Waterfront

By Garrick Ramirez
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Minutes from Sacramento’s sleek, modern Golden 1 arena, you can stroll a riverfront Old West town lined with wooden sidewalks and 19th century brick buildings. California's state capital is home to the largest concentration of Gold Rush-era buildings in the nation, most of which are set along the eastern banks of the Sacramento River in the Old Sacramento Waterfront neighborhood. This atmospheric area immerses visitors in a time when Sacramento was a Gold Rush commercial hub and served as the West Coast endpoint for the Pony Express and Transcontinental Railroad. Today, its historic 19th century buildings house contemporary shops, bars, and restaurants with nods to SacTown’s rollicking past. Heres’ what to see and do in Old Sacramento.

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Old Sacramento Waterfront guide

Historic storefronts in Old Sacramento
Photograph: Flickr/Ken Lund/CC

1. Old Sacramento State Historic Park

Blocked off to street traffic, this corner of the Old Sacramento Waterfront relives the days when the Pony Express and first Transcontinental Railroad rolled through town. Run your hand against the exterior walls of the historic Eagle Theater, a replica of the original 1849 structure. Like many buildings of the time, it was constructed of canvas and wood salvaged from ships, earning Sacramento the early title of tent city. Other notable buildings include the 1855 Huntington-Hopkins Hardware store, opened by Big Four railroad magnates Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, which today stocks fun trinkets from the era.

A paddle wheel boat in the delta at night
Photograph: Flickr/Stephen Curtin/CC

2. Delta King

A historic riverboat that once shuttled travelers from SF to Sacramento is now a waterfront hotel and dining destination. Docked at the edge of Old Sacramento on the Sacramento River, this grand 1927 riverboat welcomes guests to explore its ornate interiors and spend the night in one of the shipshape rooms. Yet, you needn’t be an overnight guest to enjoy the two restaurants on board. The Pilothouse is fine dining, while the Delta Bar & Grill offers more casual fare including happy hour cocktails and an exceptional American Kobe burger.

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The steam engine of a vintage train
Photograph: Flickr/Udo S/CC

3. California State Railroad Museum

Set within the Old Sacramento Historic State Park, the museum’s nondescript exterior hides one of the region’s most thrilling museums with immersive displays that transport you to the glamourous, pre-ridesharing-app days of rail travel. Its cavernous, hangar-sized interior features over 40 magnificent engines and railcars including the house-sized Southern Pacific Railroad Cab Forward No. 4294, and a rocking sleeping car that simulates a night journey. Don’t miss the top floor’s impressive display of toy trains which zip around a mini countryside of towns, bridges, and tunnels.

The outside of the brick museum with a wooden sign
Photograph: Flickr/J. Stephen Conn/CC

4. Sacramento History Museum & Underground Tour

After a series of devastating floods in the 1850s and 1860s, the early town of Sacramento raised its street level up to 20 feet. Led by costumed docents, you can explore the hollow sidewalks and dark, subterranean spaces left behind. Your tour ticket also gets you into the museum; the exhibits take guests from Sacramento’s booming Gold Rush past—the third floor features half a million dollars worth of gold—to its shift to an agricultural hub in the early 20th century.

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5. Milk House Shakes

Milk House Shakes was born when fervent milkshake enthusiast Kelly Boyles nabbed first place in a local entrepreneurial contest that awarded her the start-up funds for her first storefront. Her menu includes six presidential-themed shakes—Boyle’s also a history buff who opened her shop on Honest Abe’s birthday—made with ice cream from local fave Vic’s. Highlights include the Jimmy Carter, made with peanut butter and chocolate, and Boyle’s favorite, the Abraham Lincoln, made with Oreos.

The Firehouse Restaurant
Photograph: Courtesy Firehouse Restaurant

6. The Firehouse Restaurant

Housed in an 1853 former firehouse, this special occasion, fine dining spot has been dishing up elegance since 1960. The stately dining room hung with museum-worthy framed artworks sets the stage for dishes such as herb-crusted rack of lamb and a vintage Burgundy pulled from the 15,000 bottle wine cellar. Service is a first-class affair, and its historic charm has made it a popular wedding destination. If weather permits, nab a seat on the outdoor courtyard with gurgling fountain.

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The striped awning with an antique canon as part of the Fanny Ann's storefront
Photograph: Flickr/Rojer/CC

7. Fanny Ann's Saloon

Named for the famous 1842 Sacramento steamship that served in the Civil War, this old-timey saloon is crammed with a museum’s worth of bric-a-brac hanging from its ceilings and walls (some of it supposedly rescued from the original boat). There’s a good selection of local beers, as well as a smattering of pinball machines on multiple floors. A tiny downstairs kitchen cranks out burgers, wings, and other pub grub staples including a signature Jiffy Burger topped with peanut butter and bacon.

The inside of a building with the Brooks sign just outside
Photograph: Flickr/Mark Brooks/CC

8. Brook's Novelty Antiques

While much of Old Sac proffers in Gold Rush romance, Brook’s is a timewarp to a pre-iTunes era when record stores were an essential element of every neighborhood. Situated on Firehouse Alley, this hidden gem delivers with bins of jazz, soul, and classic rock. There’s also a small collection of vintage Americana including jukeboxes, pinball, and slot machines.

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9. River City Saloon

Step back in time at this old western saloon with punched tin ceiling, sawdust floors, and bordello-red wallpaper modeled on the bar’s original 1870s appearance. Whether or not the Shanghaiing tales are true, the raucous bar stirs its guests with stiff drinks, free peanuts, and weekend karaoke. Plus, there’s a locally brewed sarsaparilla for teetotalers.

The wall of the costume shop hung with hats and costumes
Photograph: Flickr/glengould/CC

10. Evangeline's Costume Mansion

It’s Halloween all-year-long at this goth palace filled with every costume and accessory imaginable. Wander the many themed rooms spread across two buildings like the 1852 Lady Adams Building—built of brick ballast from a ship of the same name—and the showstopping, three-story Howard House built in the mid 1860s. Explore the latter with the shop’s Murder & Mayhem scavenger hunt which sends participants throughout the manor learning about the most notorious muders in history.

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11. Tamaleria Alma

With a minuscule footprint inside SacTown Sports Bar, husband-and-wife team and former tortilla factory owners Andy and Lola Madri crank out hearty, handmade tamales alongside their son Anthony. Tucked inside fresh masa, the soulful tamales feature stew-like fillings such as green chile cheese and the best-selling Hatch red chile with pulled pork.

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