Be a Tourist in Your Own Town
Jordan Venema, Sacramento Magazine
Jan. 31, 2018
No need to pack an overnight bag. Check out some of our own great sights, eats and drinks, for tourists and the rest of us, too.
One of the many takeaways from “The Chronicles of Narnia” is that adventure could be lying anywhere, even just around the corner. Sure, the characters in C.S. Lewis’ beloved series had a magical wardrobe to explore, but every city has its hidden gems waiting to be discovered. From alleyways to underground, Sacramento has a side that’s often overlooked and underappreciated, especially by many who call the River City home. It’s also got the tried and true, right-out-in-plain-sight attractions that have helped create our region’s identity.
Why do we find it so much easier to tour a new city than our own hometown? Has ennui settled in over the years, or have our daily habits and patterns tricked us into believing that we’ve seen everything the city has to offer? We might concede that Sacramento has its things to do, but we’ve either been there, done that or we’ll get around to it someday never.
To tour a city properly, you need only to see it with fresh eyes. So if you call Sacramento home, consider a shift in perspective, or maybe just turn around: New murals are changing the city’s landscape, and renovated buildings have opened windows simultaneously to the past and the future. This city has a story to tell, and if you take the time to find it, you might see Sacramento in a new light. You don’t even have to travel through a wardrobe to find it.
Sacramento is home to the largest concentration of buildings dating back to the Gold Rush era in the United States. As such, you’ll find it almost impossible to pick a starting point when touring Sacramento from a historical perspective. Sutter’s Fort would be an obvious choice, as would Old Sacramento, but then the Capitol building, beyond its historic significance, continues to be central to Sacramento’s living history.
Visually speaking, architecture is an obvious avenue to exploring the past, but a good foundation for any historical tour of Sacramento has to begin underground.
Sacramento Historic City Cemetery
1000 Broadway; (916) 448-0811;
In 1849, John Sutter Jr. donated 10 acres to establish the cemetery, not coincidentally, at the highest point in Sacramento. The founding of Sacramento was a continual struggle against flooding (more on that later), and stagnant waters led to the 1850 cholera epidemic, which killed 1,500 from a population of roughly 6,800. Somewhere in the city cemetery is a mass grave for those victims, though the exact site is unknown. There is at least one known grave of a victim of the epidemic, however. William Hamilton, the son of Alexander Hamilton, came to California in 1849 searching for gold. He died in 1850 of what he called “mountain fever” and now rests (after two exhumations) in Hamilton Square within the cemetery.
Thanks to preservation eff orts of the Old City Cemetery Committee, the cemetery is not just a walk through Sacramento’s early history but a blooming example of Victorian garden landscaping. It may sound macabre, but why not plan a picnic date and meet at the cemetery gates? The committee offers private tours, though a map of notable gravestones can be downloaded on its website.
In addition to notable Sacramentans from the past, including Edwin B. Crocker and John Sutter Jr., the city cemetery is the final resting place of many city and state politicians, a Union and Confederate general, and even a surviving member of the infamous Donner Party.
Sacramento History Museum’s Underground Tour
101 I St.; (916) 808-7059
Old Sac has the oldest and largest concentration of historic buildings in the city, but its authenticity is sometimes lost among the novelty shops that locals consider tourist traps. One way to truly get the historic flavor is to go underground.
Sacramento History Museum (itself worth a visit) offers an underground tour that gives a glimpse of Sacramento’s underbelly, literally and figuratively.
Following disastrous floods between 1850 and 1861, Sacramento raised a 21/2-mile stretch of buildings more than 20 feet to avoid future flooding. The tour winds beneath two blocks of Old Sacramento, offering a view of the engineering feat that took 13 years to complete effectively. Guides in period dress offer firsthand accounts of historic Sacramento figures, so each tour is unique to its guide.
Tour guide and Sacramento resident Ruby Sketchley admits she used to avoid Old Sacramento until she took the tour four years ago.
“It was fascinating,” she says. “I had no idea. You definitely feel a connection to your city when you learn its history.”
TWO GREAT MUSEUMS
Home to the California Hall of Fame and exhibits on California missions and Native Americans, this museum’s current gem is Uprooted, which tells the story of the Japanese-American experience during World War II. Pro tip: Bank of America members get in free the first full weekend of the month. Otherwise, general admission is $9.
1020 O St.; (916) 653-7524
CALIFORNIA AUTOMOBILE MUSEUM
Who doesn’t like old, one-of-a-kind cars? This museum showcases a collection of more than 150 automobiles dating back as far as 1885. There isn’t a dud in the place, but Malcolm Forbes’ grass-green 1987 Lamborghini Countach 5000 SQV is a dream. Appropriately enough, $10 general admission includes free parking.
2200 Front St.; (916) 442-6802
Sacramento History Museum recently introduced Gold Fever, an immersive roleplaying tour. Attendees are assigned historic figures and given a bag of gold to barter with merchants; they also roll dice to determine the likelihood of dying from cholera. A bundle package of $20 gains admission to the museum and both tours.
While in Old Sacramento, stop by the Wells Fargo History Museum (1000 Second St.). It’s free, and you’ll learn a thing or two.
California State Railroad Museum
125 I St.; (916) 323-9280
Above ground, the world-class California State Railroad Museum is the largest of its kind in North America, boasting 19 steam locomotives and telling the story of the Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed only yards from the museum’s entrance. With more than 225,000 square feet of space for exhibits with trains kids (and adults) can climb aboard and peek inside of, storyboards detailing railroad history (such as Abraham Lincoln’s influence over the Union Pacific Railroad and the Pullman strike of 1894) and current events (highspeed rail), the museum offers a full day of entertainment and education. The museum store is a delight in itself, selling books, bags, clothing and railroad memorabilia. Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for youths and free for children 5 and younger.
Leland Stanford Mansion State Historic Park
800 N St.; (916) 324-0575
Leland Stanford Mansion was built in 1856 and named after California governor Leland Stanford (1862–63). He is said to have needed to row a boat to attend his own inauguration due to severe flooding in 1862.
The four-story, 19,000-square-foot building was built in the French Second Empire architectural style and served as the official office only for two succeeding governors until Arnold Schwarzenegger used it for his office. In 1900, Stanford’s widow donated the home to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, which used the 40-bedroom building as an orphanage until 1987.
Following a 14-year, $22 million renovation, Leland Stanford Mansion was reopened as a formal reception area for the governor, and tours are offered daily on the hour between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. This free, up-close and personal experience offers a room-by-room tour and description of the life of one of Sacramento’s most influential tycoons.
California State Capitol
10th and L streets; (916) 324-0333
By now, it should be obvious that the 1850s and ’60s were significant decades in Sacramento’s history, so it should be no surprise that construction of the California State Capitol, a neoclassical structure modeled after the U.S. Capitol, began in 1860.
The interior of the 210-foot gilded rotunda is worth a visit alone, but the Capitol’s basement museum offers a visual glimpse of the Capitol’s early offices. A free tour is also available, offering a view of the history, architecture and legislative significance of the Capitol.
TOURISTING WITH KIDS
This storybook-themed park includes 36 fairy-tale-based attractions, a petting zoo and hands-on activities for kids. Admission is $4.75 on weekdays and $5.75 on weekends.
3901 Land Park Drive; (916) 808-7462
FUNDERLAND AMUSEMENT PARK
It’s all in the name: This fun park has everything from coasters and carousels to flying planes and whirling saucers, all sized for kids. An unlimited ride wristband is $19.50, or purchase a season pass for just under $80 and keep coming back all year.
1350 17th Ave.; (916) 456-0131
From big cats to scaly lizards, the Sacramento Zoo has exhibits featuring indigenous animals from as far away as Africa and as near as the Sacramento River. Whether you’re coming for the giraffes or the popular river otter exhibit, the zoo offers a great way to enjoy wildlife while wearing out the wild in your children. General admission is $14.95.
3930 W. Land Park Drive; (916) 808-5888
Built in 1839 by John Sutter, Sutter’s Fort is a wonderfully enclosed area where kids can explore recreated scenes from life in Sacramento during the Gold Rush while interacting with park employees in period dress. If you’re fortunate, you may catch a demonstration of the loading and firing of a real musket. (Note: Adjacent to Sutter’s Fort, the State Indian Museum tells the story of native California Indians through photography and cultural artifacts while depicting three major themes: nature, spirit and family.) $3 admission for children, $5 for adults.
2701 L St.; (916) 445-4422
POWERHOUSE SCIENCE CENTER
Kids can use their imagination and hands in the design lab, or gaze at stars in the planetarium, or learn about critters and birds in the Nature Discovery Exhibit. Keep an eye out for when Powerhouse Science Center gets a major upgrade and moves into the historic PG&E Powerhouse building adjacent to Matsui Waterfront Park. Admission is $7 for children, $8 for adults. 3615 Auburn Blvd.; (916) 808-3942; powerhousesc.org
History may be a window to the past, but art can offer a view of infinite worlds. The collective work of a city’s thriving art scene reveals something about its current zeitgeist, and there’s buzz in Sacramento.
From Sacramento pop artist Wayne Thiebaud, whose work can be found in the Crocker, to a new wave of street artists who are making midtown cool, to the art galleries that participate in the Second Saturday art walks, Sacramento is finding itself on the map, and one painted in bright colors.
Wide Open Walls
A tour of Sacramento art begins at the end, so to say, with a series of murals painted in August 2017. Wide Open Walls, formerly Sacramento Mural Festival, invited artists from China, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and multiple European countries to join Sacramento and California artists in painting 40 murals throughout the city.
In its inaugural year, Wide Open Walls already has been included in Forbes Magazine’s list of the best urban mural festivals in the country, while New York’s Sold Magazine described Sacramento as possessing a must-visit, world-class streetart scene.
Wide Open Walls’ success shouldn’t come as any surprise. Nate Miller, The Sacramento Bee’s interactivity editor, has been documenting the Sacramento streetart scene since October 2016. Miller continually updates a detailed map with photos, addresses and media references to more than 680 locations of murals, graffiti and street art, and the map isn’t even exhaustive.
Jennifer Kistler-McCoy, owner of Sac Running Tours (sacrunningtours.com), offers 3- and 4-mile walking and running tours of Sacramento street art, recently focusing on murals from Wide Open Walls.
“The artists just had 10 days to do everything,” explains Kistler-McCoy, who says the biggest reaction she gets from tour goers is “Wow, Sacramento is cool.” Whether they’re residents or visitors, she says, people walk (or run) away feeling they’ve misjudged the city.
Sacramento’s murals, which can be found on nearly any block in midtown, offer a unique kind of art, since the work is naturally ephemeral, prone to demolition, weather damage and vandalism, and painted on unique canvases, sometimes with three-dimensional components.
R Street Corridor
For a mixture of art and entertainment, wander the growing artists’ hub along a six-block stretch of R and S streets. Starting at 6 p.m. on the fi rst Friday of each month, participating galleries and studios host events, performances and live music, creating a vibrant combination of art and entertainment.
More than just a home to local artists, Warehouse Artist Lofts also houses the bustling WAL Market, where local vendors sell everything from records and imported rugs to handcrafted shoes, clothing and jewelry. Well-known Sacramento artists Shaun Burner and Franceska Gámez curate and operate 1810 Gallery inside WAL, and performing artist David Garibaldi recently opened his studio across the street on the corner of R and 12th streets.
Other galleries and studios include ARTHOUSE on R (1021 R St., second floor), CASA de ESPAÑOL (1101 R St.), Beatnik Studios (723 S St.), Verge Center for the Arts (625 S St.) and Raphael Delgado Art Studio (1200 S St.).
Crocker Art Museum
216 O St.; (916) 808-7000
For a more traditional art experience, Crocker Art Museum permanently houses a curated collection of more than 15,000 works of art. In 2017, the museum received national recognition for excellence by the American Alliance of Museums, joining only 3 percent of the nation’s 33,000 museums.
The museum is “world renowned for its collection of California art and European master drawings,” says Crocker’s media relations associate, Karen Christian. “The museum also offers a diverse spectrum of exhibitions, events and programs to augment its collections, including films, concerts, studio classes, lectures, children’s activities . . . and more.”
Recent notable traveling exhibitions have included Andy Warhol and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and 2018 spring and summer exhibitions largely will focus on female artists.
The Crocker also lets its hair down one evening a month with drinks and music. Art Mix begins at 6 p.m., with drink specials, DJs or live music, and a uniquely art-themed party, from bohemia to masquerade balls.
By definition, a tour is a journey made for pleasure, and while everybody’s idea of fun is different, there’s not a night in Sacramento where there isn’t something to do. And what do most tourists ask when visiting a new town: “Where do the locals go?”
Sacramento is a veritable alphabet of outdoor festivals, from county and state fairs to burger battles, with weeks dedicated to tomatoes, bacon, bananas and the like. In October, Sac PorchFest brings musicians to local porches in midtown, while Concerts in the Park brings them to Cesar Chavez Plaza on summer Fridays. Sacramento’s Gold Rush Days brings history to life in Old Sac over Labor Day weekend. There is no shortage of cultural festivals, from the Japanese Food and Cultural Bazaar in August to the Dia de Los Muertos Souls of the City in November. This month, look for Sacramento Chocolate Salon, and early next month, Sacramento Bacon Fest. Whatever we can celebrate, chances are we’re doing it somewhere, some weekend here in town.
In many ways, a city’s culture can be counted by its theaters, and there is no shortage of venues in Sacramento. Sacramento Theatre Company (1419 H St.; sactheatre.org) is the oldest theater company in Sacramento, and in addition to producing shows year-round, it runs a highly acclaimed theater education program. California Musical Theatre (californiamusicaltheatre.com) has brought Broadway performances to Sacramento for decades with its summertime Music Circus Series at Wells Fargo Pavilion (1419 H St.) and Broadway Sacramento at the Community Center Theater (1301 L St.).
A mixture of local and Equity actors perform through Capital Stage Company (2215 J St.; capstage.org) and B Street Theatre (bstreettheatre.org), the latter of which is expected to open its new $29 million complex, the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts, in February (27th Street and Capitol Avenue).
For more screen than stage, follow the neon lights to the little big screen at the historic Crest Theatre (1013 K St.; crestsacramento.com) or Tower Theatre (2508 Land Park Drive). Since 1912, the Crest has hosted everything from symphonies to classic films within its gilded, art-deco interior, and the iconic Tower is the go-to location for current independent and foreign films, as well as some mass-market ones. (Over the holidays, there was nowhere better to see “Lady Bird,” written and directed by Sacramento native Greta Gerwig and featuring Sacramento in all its glory, than the Tower.)
From Kanye West to local singer-songwriters, and from 17,000 screaming fans in a giant arena to a dozen people enjoying an intimate performance, Sacramento has venues ranging from the state-of-the-art Golden1 Center (Fifth and J streets) to small cafes like Shine (1400 E St., shinesacramento.com).
Musical staples include Harlow’s (2708 J St.; harlows.com) and Ace of Spades (1417 R St.; aceofspadessac.com), though newcomer and all-ager Holy Diver (1517 21st St.; holydiversac.com) has entered the conversation for weekend go-tos. Even award-winning, Prohibition-style bar Shady Lady Saloon (1409 R St.; shadyladybar.com) has live music five nights a week, but the most electric and underappreciated music venue in town has to be The Torch Club (904 15th St.; torchclub.net), which has been bringing some of the best live blues performances to Sacramento since 1934.
DRINK UP! - by Marybeth Bizjak
Get your sip on at these quintessential watering holes.
BOTTLE AND BARLOW
Is it a bar or is it a barbershop? Actually, it’s both! This sleek downtown lounge serves modern takes on classic craft cocktails. After imbibing, pop into the adjoining salon for an old-fashioned straight-razor shave and a fade. 1120 R St.; bottleandbarlow.com
REVIVAL AT THE SAWYER
At this swanky rooftop lounge, you can sip a cocktail next to the pool or watch the Kings play on an ingenious TV-within-amirror mounted behind the bar. For ballers, there’s VIP bottle service, and you can make DIY cocktails at your table with the bar’s “enhancement kit” packages.
500 J St.; revivalsacramento.com
BLOCK BUTCHER BAR
This midtown bar has a dark, brooding, masculine vibe and one of the most comprehensive whiskey lists in town. Order yourself one of the rare, allocated whiskeys and pair it with a rustic sausage board. (The meats are cured on-site, of course.) 1050 20th St.; blockbutcherbar.com
This elegant, upscale restaurant has an equally upscale bar and lounge. Everything is made from scratch, including the housemade rainforest quinine tonic that goes into the G&T. Happy hour (3–6 p.m. Monday–Friday) offers awesome deals on drinks and eats. 1131 K St.; elladiningroomandbar.com
BIKE DOG BREWING CO.
One of Sacramento’s most popular breweries, West Sac-based Bike Dog, recently opened a taproom on lower Broadway. Located next door to Selland’s Market-Cafe, it offers a tap list that includes the much-loved SanDog IPA and Mosaic pale ale. 915 Broadway; bikedogbrewing.com
DE VERE’S IRISH PUB
Across the street from the state Capitol, this bar more than lives up to its billing as an Irish pub. The fixtures and furnishings were built in the old country and shipped across the Atlantic for a heavy dose of verisimilitude. Order a freshly pulled pint of Guinness or make a selection from de Vere’s extensive whiskey library. 1521 L St.; deverespub.com
CRAZY FOR COFFEE - by Marybeth Bizjak
Access to great coffee is one of the perks (get it?) of living in Sacramento. The city is home to a large and growing number of top-notch artisanal coffee roasters and cafes. There’s Temple Coffee Roasters, Insight Coffee, Identity Coffees, Old Soul Co., Naked Coffee and Chocolate Fish Coffee—all known for their exacting standards in sourcing, roasting and brewing. Other places, like The Mill in midtown, don’t roast their own but still make a mean pour-over. And San Francisco cult favorite Philz Coffee (which serves brewed coffee but no espresso drinks) recently opened an outpost on the R Street Corridor. Are we close to Peak Coffee? Apparently not; a highly anticipated newbie by the name of Camellia Coffee Roasters is set to open soon on 12th Street.