Sacramento, the Leafy, Artsy Capital of California

California's State House in Sacramento.
California’s State House in Sacramento.

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Biking on the trail by the American River in Sacramento, California. Photos by Max Hartshorne/GoNOMAD
Biking on the trail by the American River in Sacramento, California. Photos by Max Hartshorne/GoNOMAD

The few times Sacramento, California, is in the news here in the East is during the evening news when a story about the California state budget and Governor Arnold’s war with the assembly comes up once again.

Like New York’s small stepchild capital of Albany, it seems that Sac doesn’t get much respect. And nobody talks about why the city might be an excellent travel destination. But hey, we just got there!

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come visit. Because there’s no place better than this city that has to prove itself to the world and show its visitors why it deserves to be noticed and appreciated for more than just budget battles.

My summary of Sacramento? Leafy, lovely neighborhoods. First-rate gold rush history attractions about their earliest days. A population that’s into food, and sports, and biking and beer.

The Fabulous Forties, a beautiful neighborhood in Sacramento.
The Fabulous Forties, a beautiful neighborhood in Sacramento.

Oh, and hundreds of wineries all within 90 miles. Combined with the proximity to the food breadbasket of the US, Sacramento is a fun place to visit. Agriculture and local food are topics that grab a lot of attention here, that and the terrible shape of the state’s finances.

I met a woman who has to sell her home in a short-sale. She’s not at all unusual, in fact nearly the norm. Things are tough, but minds are set and things are looking up. Still, her heart has a soft spot for this leafy city:

“Sacramento comes alive in summer after the sun goes down. The sensual pleasure of warm air on bare skin while sipping a gin and tonic in one of the many boutique outdoor restaurants personifies this power-hungry town.

Stately home in the Fabulous Forties, Sacramento.
Stately home in the Fabulous Forties, Sacramento.

“A casual stroll around Capitol Park, among the mature trees flanked by the white-lit dome fills me with an intense sense of California, our Golden State: my hometown.”

Nick Leonti, a 30-something Bohemian soul who cycles to work, showed me around town. Town because at 440,000 population, it’s just barely a city.

Nick loves the Oakland A’s and Sacramento AAA River Cats baseball teams, and moved back to the city to raise his family after growing up in nearby Placerville. (More on this fun town later). With his relaxed dress and knowledge of the bar scene, he was the perfect host to show me around.

Move Over San Fran!

I got that from a lot of my contacts here; Sacramento has big plans, move over San Fran! “We’re not San Francisco,” said Nick, “But it’s an authentic experience, a real city, not a theme park town!”

As the third city on the big West Coast, Sac could use a shot in the arm. Their first African-American mayor, a youthful Kevin Johnson, once played guard for the Phoenix Suns, and now is set on increasing the power of the mayor’s office. After only a few months in office! You can’t say the guy isn’t trying!

Biking past the Bee, the newspaper of Sacramento. The office used to be a brewery.
Biking past the Bee, the newspaper of Sacramento. The office used to be a brewery.

My stay in the Golden’s State’s capital city was right downtown, at The Citizen Hotel. The Citizen was renovated from top to bottom four years ago by the Joie de Vivre hotel chain, which owns about 40 hotels around the state. The company’s head, Chip Conley, who is making big news with many of his other city hotels. was excited about the city and challenged the builders to give it a New York feel. “Wine Spectator meets Cigar Afficianado,” is one way they describe it

The hotel’s period fixtures, lovely art deco touches such as wall sconces, and a fabulous view of the golden domed state capitol made a room facing the west a plus! Mine was 334.

The hotel and restaurant staff were uniformly courteous and friendly and the downstairs restaurant, The Grange, is rated among the top eating places in the city. The chef Michael Tuohy loves to use fresh California pork — I saw a photograph of an entire pig being brought in by a farmer, as if to show proof of his devotion to locally sourced foods.

Seeing the City by Bike

We got to know the city by bicycle. And a friendly bike city it is. One of the nicest trails follows along the American River, with fields of wildflowers and a rolling terrain with very few hills.

Old Ironsides, where every band from Cake, to Tesla, to the Deftones played at least one gig.
Old Ironsides, where every band from Cake, to Tesla, to the Deftones played at least one gig.

It’s hard to believe that we’re in the city limits as we pedaled along that winding flat trail bordered by so many trees and rolling grass fields. We finally turn a corner and peer across an huge expanse of unused railyards. Oh yeah, it’s a big city, we remember

The bike I rented was a cruiser bike, no gears were needed on the flat bike paths and streets marked off just for bikes. This was indeed no San Francisco!

Time to Eat

While I was eager to see the sites, my stomach was growling, so first, I asked my bike ride host to take me to one of his favorite breakfast joints. One thing I noticed after a week was that most breakfast places in town also are beer joints at night. So taps sit politely beside espresso machines, waiting their turn.

Setting out on J Street, the city’s somewhat forlorn main drag, we quickly entered a section of town, with lots of low buildings. Later Nick would show me midtown, where the proliferation of trees provides a comforting canopy and the gorgeous well-maintained houses are all a treat for the eyes.

Breakfast at the Fox and Goose

Inside the Captain's Suite on the Dixie Queen River boat Hotel, Sacramento.
Inside the Captain’s Suite on the Dixie Queen River boat Hotel, Sacramento.

Nick’s choice for breakfast was local institution Fox and Goose, where a high-ceilinged room was decorated with lots of British ephemera and signs. But the menu was special — beside the usual omelettes and eggs, they offer “Harvest Grains,” which is a $5.75 large bowl of cracked barley and wheat, wild and brown rice, apples and raisins served with a splash of milk

Never had it before, but my heart and I loved it.

In the evenings, Fox and Goose is a nightspot; bands set up over in the corner. We passed by another Sacramento music scene hotspot: Old Ironsides. Nick said that every Sacramento band, from Cake, the Deftones, and Tesla have played at least one gig in this establishment.

We cycled on, past more stunning houses, including the former home of President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, in a section of town known as the Fabulous 40’s–in reference to the city’s numerical grid. They didn’t like the governor’s mansion so they bought a nice place in Midtown. The individuality of each house, with its own style of architecture, and the diverse roofing types make this an excellent place to house-gaze.

Then we came to a 30-mile long bike trail, right next to the lovely American River. Upstream at Coloma at Sutter’s Mill gold was discovered in the water in 1848.

Memorial to the site of Sutter's Mill, where gold was discovered in Colomba, CA.
Memorial to the site of Sutter’s Mill, where gold was discovered in Colomba, CA.

Pedaling along with the grass blowing beside us and the sound of birds, it was hard to believe we were still in the Sacramento City limits. The paved trail goes to Folsom Lake about 15 miles, and in the other direction, you can go all the way to the college town of Davis

Our trip down the path wound us from Sacramento State University about ten miles to another tourism workhorse, Old Sacramento. We strolled this four by two block area that all looks like the olden days.

Covered wooden sidewalks and wide porticoes are everywhere, we popped in and out of shops that looked like they might have looked in the 1850s. I found an excellent pair of sunglasses, the second was half price so I took the deal.

Docked permanently on the Old Sacramento waterfront is the mighty Delta King steamship, which was restored after sinking in San Francisco harbor in 1984. Today it’s a working 44-room hotel complete with a theater and a cozy restaurant. The engines no longer run, and it isn’t going anywhere for now.

Jacking Up Sacramento. Here is where a window used to be, but the building was raised up 15 feet.
Jacking Up Sacramento. Here is where a window used to be, but the building was raised up 15 feet.

Wedding parties love renting out the captain’s suite, which even includes a fake ship’s wheel and a large bedroom with living room, right up at the front of the boat.

Jacking Up Sacramento

One of the city’s legacies that makes for an interesting diversion is how after a series of catastrophic floods, in the 1860s, the entire downtown was raised up about 15-20 feet to avoid future floods

This feat of engineering involved manually jacking up hundreds of buildings along the present site of Old Sacramento and filling in below with dirt dug out of the American River.

Railroad museum in Sacramento.
Railroad museum in Sacramento.

A new tour is being readied in 2010 that will take visitors down to the original level of the city and and show how this amazing undertaking took place.

Soon you will be able to descend down to the original level of the ground and walk around in what was once the street level. Students of California history will have plenty to examine once this exhibit is launched some time in 2010.

I’ve always had a fondness for railroads, and if you share this, you’d love one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite places, the world-class California State Railroad Museum. WOW! It’s a former rail siding, so there’s plenty of room for their toys. And they come in size XXXL!

Seeing the locomotives up close with their crash-dummy-like uniformed crew is fascinating, as is the chances to chat up the conductors.

They sit inside the dining car and the mail car, and give a personal, up close dialog about the historical period, how things worked, and what life was like. It’s a combination of theater and museum. Lovely fun.

Railroad Museum

Then from this place of so many railroad related things, I walked through the sunny streets through tunnels, and then through the Westfield shopping mall.

Walking past the Grange Restaurant, on J Street in Sacramento.
Walking past the Grange Restaurant, on J Street in Sacramento.

California is lucky to be able to enjoy these shopping centers that are open air, with a cover yet with more of a lean-to than a buttoned up traditional east coast shopping mall. It’s just a little more magical feeling that breeze and seeing the sun, but still be, well, in a mall.

A room with a view of the capitol at the Citizens Hotel
A room with a view of the capitol at the Citizens Hotel

I was on my way back to the Citizen Hotel. I talked with a man who invested a lot in the project. Kip Blewett is a dyed in the wool city booster, with some exciting plans that are not pie in the sky. Sacramento, I discovered, was real about what it can and cannot do

Ideas include fixing up J Street by creating a Center for Agriculture, where a market, a museum, and a celebration of all things California grown would be located. A resource center would provide tourists with all sorts of local food and wine tours, and perhaps be somewhat like Pike St. Market in Seattle.
Dining:

Local investor and foodie Kip Blewett gave me his top list of Sacramento restaurants. He cites:

Grange, (in the Citizen Hotel) on J Street,

Eggplant Napoleon from Michaelangelo's Art Restaurant, Sacramento.
Eggplant Napoleon from Michaelangelo’s Art Restaurant, Sacramento.

Ella, 1131 K Street, two blocks from the Convention Center,

Mulvaney’s Building and Loan on 19th Sreet, and

Water Boy on Capitol Avenue as his top picks.

We also enjoyed the casual yet elegant

Michelangelo’s Italian Art Restaurant at 1725 I Street

Panning for gold in Colomba, CA.
Panning for gold in Colomba, CA.

Lodging:

Citizen Hotel, 926 J St. Sacramento 916-447-2700

And:

Bikes and Bites Rentals in Sacramento

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Max Hartshorne
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.