50 Things You Must Do In Sacramento

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Save this story—it’s a collector’s item, packed with information you need  when you wake up one morning and say, “What shall we do today?” The answer: Be a tourist in your own town.

1. Feel like a hipster (even if you’re not) during Sacramento’s Second Saturday Art Walk, a vibrant, flavorful stew of art shows, gallery receptions, street musicians, food, wine, commerce and people-watching that’s exploded in popularity in recent years, turning our city’s cow-town image on its noggin. In the unlikely event that you do encounter a bovine, it’ll be ceramic, fuchsia, with three heads and two sets of udders, and probably will cost half of what you make in a week, but would be perfect for your mantel.

2. If you do only one thing on this list, make a pilgrimage to the Capitol, Sacramento’s raison d’etre and a gleaming triumph of architecture, art and symbolism that tells the story of this great state. Or so you tell yourself. Really, you’re hoping to spot our Governator to see if he’s as short as some people say. Regardless, do try to go when the Legislature’s in session so as to witness democracy in action—or inaction, depending upon your point of view. Which brings up a point: If you’ve lost your reverence for government, California’s magnificent domed living museum—with its governors’ portraits, historic chambers, exhibits, collections and murals surrounded on the outside by the lush 40-acre Capitol Park—is the right place to start regaining it.

3. Get your Little Leaguer’s cap autographed by a rehabilitating Oakland A’s star, buy some roasted peanuts and a Merlino’s Freeze, and settle in for an evening of hometown baseball, River Cats style. Besides the fact that our Cats are the hottest thing going right now in the minor leagues (the reigning AAA and Pacific Coast League champs have held that distinction four times in the past six seasons—a modern record), there’s just something sweet about West Sac’s Raley Field and its surreal view of the Sacramento skyline, with the Tower Bridge winking back at you like a shiny new penny. (If that doesn’t grab you, there’s always Dinger the mascot and his hot-dog cannon.)

4. Stay up past midnight. Clubbing in Sacramento no longer just means 4-H, but live bands and DJs, laser shows, signature drinks, VIP lounges and beautiful people. Harlow’s, Faces, Empire, Cabana and The Park Ultra Lounge, with its see-through mirrors between the men’s and women’s restrooms—you’d think this was San Francisco, but we’re the ones too sexy for our state-worker badges.

5. Travel 30 miles south of Sacramento on Interstate 5 and find yourself in the middle of the Central Valley’s newest wine country: Lodi. Once the butt of jokes, today Lodi has a new image as a wine hot spot. Start at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, where you can learn about Lodi’s wine industry and pick up a map of area wineries or taste a sampling right there. Zins are famous in Lodi, and nowhere is that more evident than at Vino Piazza, another one-stop tasting venue where a collection of wineries have congregated under one roof.

6. It’s on most of our city’s postcards, but the Delta King riverboat is more than a pretty picture. Inside, there’s intimate live theater at Capital Stage, whodunit hilarity at Suspects Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre, fine dining at the Pilothouse Restaurant and charming staterooms for overnight stays. The ability of this renovated 1920s paddle-wheeler to stay relevant cements its place as monarch of the Sacramento River, even though it gave up cruising the Delta for a permanent spot at the docks of Old Sac.

7. Shop at locally owned boutiques and neighborhood mom and pops for a distinctive Sacramento experience that’s long on charm and short on Chinese imports. Midtown, between 16th and 29th streets, is ground zero for such dalliances; you can’t go wrong at Le Petit Paris, Privé by DV8, Pulp Papery or Bows and Arrows. And could it get any better than fourth-generation family-owned and -operated Emigh Ace Hardware on El Camino Avenue, where you go in for a couple of nails and come out believing you could trust the guy behind the counter to take charge of your remodeling project, if not your entire household?

8. Sacramento is no egotist as far as structures go; we’ve never been known for bling. But what man’s hand hath not wrought, Mother Nature did in the form of the American River Parkway, a 23-mile wildlife and recreation paradise. Whether you sunbathe at Discovery Park, fish at Ancil Hoffman Park, raft from Sunrise Bridge to River Bend Park, or bike or run all or part of the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail from Old Sacramento to Folsom, you’ll be seduced by this untamed gem in the middle of a teeming metropolitan area.

9. Vegas has nothing on us except a checkered past with the mob, and yeah, OK, the Liberace Museum and the hotel where Elvis shot a hole in his TV set. To which we say: So? We get the same kind of glitzy entertainment as Nevada’s gaming palaces at our region’s thriving Indian casinos: Jackson Rancheria in Jackson, Cache Creek in Brooks, the brand-new Red Hawk Casino in Placerville and Lincoln’s Thunder Valley, one of the most successful Indian casinos in the United States, which is constructing a 650-room resort.

10. The jury is still out on who makes the best hamburger in these parts, but do make it a point to sink your teeth into at least one, if not all, of these contenders: the Squeeze With Cheese at Squeeze Inn in South Sac and Galt, the French ground steakburger at Nationwide Freezer Meats in midtown, the Annihilator and a side order of zoom at Redrum Burger in Davis, the Superburger at Jim-Denny’s downtown, or the Hammer 2 at Willie’s at 16th and Broadway and in Carmichael. Heads up: Prepare to raid the napkin dispenser.

11. If politics in this city suck souls dry, the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, our very own Chartres, is here to save them. One of the most beautiful buildings in Sacramento, this soaring 1889 Roman Catholic structure—the largest historic cathedral west of the Mississippi—underwent an extensive renovation a few years ago and is a must-see regardless of your religious persuasion, or lack thereof. Guided tours are offered on Sundays and Wednesdays, or you can pick up a self-guided tour book at the cathedral at 11th and K streets. View the reconstructed dome, the exquisite stained glass and the 2,000-pound crucifix suspended over the altar by airplane cables; it’s awe-inspiring.

12. Ah, Sacramento, how we love our getaways. Two hours to paradise in any direction. Well, here’s one a little closer to home: an affordable, hassle-free (read: no cooking) vacation in the mountains at Camp Sacramento. Located off Highway 50 in the Eldorado National Forest a little over an hour’s drive from the capital, the city-run camp offers cabins to sleep in, three squares a day and plenty of activities for all ages—even Dutch oven cooking classes (oops, we lied, but this is fun cooking) and wine tasting for parents. A mini vacation (four days, three nights) may top out at no more than $700 for a family of four, provided you live or own property within Sacramento city limits. Higher rates apply to nonresidents.

13. It matters not if you don’t quite grasp what Robert Arneson was trying to say in his self-portrait “Overcooked”; you owe yourself a visit to the Crocker Art Museum, the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi, now undergoing an expansion to triple its size. Hurry in for The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons (ending Jan. 11), then marvel at the breadth of Buddhist belief in a variety of depictions from Jan. 31 to April 19. Be sure to duck into the museum store; the selection of art books is positively New Yorky. And bring $5 plus change for the Art-o-mat, a cigarette vending machine-turned-art dispenser. Who says owning an original work has to break the bank?

14. Pry your youngster away from Xbox hell with a trip to Fairytale Town, a whimsical wonderland that’s big on that endangered species called imagination—and has been since 1959. The 2.5-acre park, located within William Land Park across from the zoo, is filled with colorful, low-tech, storybook-inspired play sets, including King Arthur’s Castle, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe Slide, and soon, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s Yellow Brick Road (paved entirely with bricks purchased by patrons), which, when finished this year, will snake through Land Park right up to Humpty Dumpty’s main gate. The place is a precious vestige of innocence.

15. Today, it’s Hollywood that connects California to the rest of the nation. Yesteryear, it was the iron horse. For that reason, you must pay homage at the California State Railroad Museum, one of the largest and best of its kind in the world. While the Old Sac museum boasts scads of artifacts, a well-done film and lifelike dioramas, we wouldn’t blame you if you skipped straight to the 21 lovingly restored locomotives and railcars, some dating back to 1862. Go between April and September and you can catch a steam-powered excursion train for a six-mile ride along the Sacramento River.

16. Visit the prison Johnny Cash made famous—although, contrary to myth, he never actually stayed there, only performed. Folsom State Prison doesn’t offer tours, so you can’t say “howdy” to Erik Menendez. What you can do is explore the museum located at the prison’s entrance. Its artifacts will fascinate you (especially the homemade weapons fashioned by prisoners), and the volunteers are retired correctional officers who’ve got hundreds of stories if you’ve got the time.

17. Brave the rapids on a guided American River whitewater rafting voyage through Gold Rush country. Combined with a scrumptious deli lunch on the riverbank and perhaps a night of camping, this is a great way to enjoy some spectacular summertime scenery—that is, when you’re not scrambling to keep in sync with the paddlers in front of you (note to self: do more pushups) or trying in vain not to land in their laps. Just don’t give your guide any ’tude, or he or she may “accidentally” dump you into the drink. Take our word for it—it’s not like bath water.

18. Time magazine said it, and we can see it for ourselves when we look next door to the right and to the left: Sacramento is the most integrated and culturally diverse city in America. Small wonder, then, that we have celebrations representing virtually every race, color and creed. In the name of getting to know one another better, it might benefit us all to stretch our comfort zones and attend at least one festival where we don’t recognize the food. It could be the Festival de la Familia at Cal Expo, the Pacific Rim Street Fest in Old Sac, the African American Juneteenth celebration at William Land Park or any of dozens more. Doesn’t matter—bridges lead from them all.

19. Pass up that trans-fat-infused doorstop you were about to pluck from the supermarket freezer (we won’t tell) and snag yourself some real dessert. What’ll it be? A retro banana split at Vic’s or Gunther’s? A warm, crispy-edged apple fritter at Marie’s Donuts? Gargantuan gateaux at Rick’s Dessert Diner? Or a chocolate morsel fit for the gods at Ginger Elizabeth in midtown or Ciocolat in Davis? Totally worth the calories? You bet your sweet Spanx.

20. Take part in a different kind of triathlon, and one that goes down in the record books along with the biggest ball of twine. We’re talking Eppie’s Great Race, “The World’s Oldest Triathlon,” conceived by Sacramento restaurateur Eppie Johnson in 1974 and going strong ever since, due in no small part to its convivial vibe. The race along the American River, beginning at William Pond Park in Carmichael and ending at River Bend Park in Rancho Cordova, features a 5.82-mile run, a 12.5-mile cycle and a 6.35-mile paddle instead of the usual swim. It’s scheduled this year for July 18.

21. So the team’s in a rebuilding phase and Arco Arena seems destined for obsolescence. Attend a Kings game, and all of that goes poof. Sacramento’s NBA squad, just a few years ago a fierce playoff contender, may not be what it was when Peja was sinking three-pointers, but let us not forget our reputation as the league’s most vocal fans. And lest you think this is the only basketball game in town, wake up and smell the garlic fries. Our lady hoopsters, the WNBA Monarchs, give our voice boxes a workout, too.

22. Ditch your wheels and explore the Sacramento area via alternative transportation. Sacramento RiverTrain tours, starting from Woodland, are a great way to see the area’s riparian splendor, and if you go on a Great Train Robbery day, you can mix it up with a little Wild West adventure and a barbecue lunch at a park. Or try a guided Sacramento city tour on a Segway Personal Transporter with Hysterical Walks & Rides. The dollylike contraptions may be goofy-looking, but they’re a good way to avoid blisters.

23. Pay a call on the permanent residents of the City Cemetery, final resting place since 1849 of more than 25,000 pioneers, immigrants, erstwhile governors and mayors, colorful barroom brawlers and others whose stories shaped Sacramento’s and America’s histories. Among them: Capt. John A. Sutter Jr., Sacramento founder; Mark Hopkins, one of the railroad’s legendary “Big Four”; and William Stephen Hamilton, youngest son of our country’s first treasurer, Alexander Hamilton. The cemetery at Broadway and 10th Street has archives chronicling inhabitants’ tales of triumph and woe, and in late October offers evening lantern tours with costumed docents for those who dare.

24. This one should be marked “urgent” because it won’t be around for much longer, at least not at the location it’s occupied since 1947. After a turbulent 2008 concerning its future, the legendary Corti Brothers deli, gourmet grocery store and wine shop is searching for a new lease and will be vacating its Folsom Boulevard digs at May’s end. Go while you still can to inhale the funky old-timey aroma of meat, fish, coffee and floor wax, and bite into a swoon-inducing sandwich made with the best fennel salami this side of Genoa. While you’re at it, take a peek at internationally renowned owner Darrell Corti’s newsletter, an esoteric, ebullient love letter to the delicacies he’s combed the Earth to procure.

25. Visit the four-story, 44-room Leland Stanford Mansion, bought in 1861 by the railroad baron, governor, senator and university founder for whom it’s named and decorated by his wife, Jane, toward whom it’s impossible not to feel a little envy about her chandelier budget alone. But check the tour schedule before you go: The stately Victorian abode at Eighth and N streets is closed to the public when Gov. Schwarzenegger is using it to palaver with potentates.

 

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26. Peel back the layers of history unique to our region in what bookworms like to call the “jewel in the crown” of the Central Library: the Sacramento Room. Gold Rush-era diaries, menus from 1920s restaurants, your grandma’s high school yearbook, an original letter from John Sutter, and a collection of 3,000 photographs and postcards are just a few of this climate-controlled chamber’s rare contents.

27. We’re not the birthplace of the genre, nor are we even associated with any of its late, great artists. Celebrating jazz in Sacramento is a little like feting the Gold Rush in New Orleans. Yet somehow the Jazz Jubilee has played just as big a role in putting Sacramento on the map as the Kings and our movie-star guv, and thus is a necessary stamp on your local passport. With more than 100 performers from around the United States and the globe, the 36-year-old Memorial Day weekend tradition is the largest traditional jazz festival in the world, with a stylistically diverse lineup including everything from blues to zydeco. Not surprisingly, parking can be worse than an out-of-tune banjo, so take advantage of public transportation and free shuttles.

28. Slake your thirst. Our region overfloweth with options, be it a Golden Cadillac at El Dorado’s storied barbecue dive, Poor Red’s; a pint of IPA at Rubicon Brewing Company in midtown or the Sacramento Brewing Company in Town & Country Village; a pineapple mojito in the grid at Hangar 17; or a glass of white or red at trendy Crush 29 in Roseville or either of the city’s destination wine bars: 58 Degrees and L Wine Lounge. Cheers!

29. Land-locked Sacramento may be, but we still have our lakes. And great ones they are. Folsom Lake at the base of the Sierra foothills is a must for anyone crazy about boating, waterskiing, horseback riding, picnicking or fishing. Just downstream is the Sac State Aquatic Center on Lake Natoma, one of the best rowing spots in the U.S. and one of the best-kept secrets in Sacramento. You don’t have to be on a college team to take classes or rent equipment here, so grab a kayak and paddle off into the sunset. Or enroll your kids in the center’s summer camp.

30. You can’t spend time in the “City of Trees” (pardon, Paris, for stealing your rightful title) without pausing to appreciate our silent protectors. There’s no better way than to hoof around the capital city’s leafiest parks, campuses and neighborhoods on free, guided tours with the Sacramento Tree Foundation—or download a map at sactree.com for a self-guided stroll in the spring or fall. We guarantee you’ll never pass a majestic 100-foot valley oak again without getting a lump in your throat.

31. There’s nothing like 200 tons of imported dirt on the streets to put the “old” back in Old Sacramento, but that’s precisely the point of Gold Rush Days, our annual heritage Labor Day celebration. Try some gold panning, listen to old-time tunes, watch a Wild West gunfight, ride in a wagon and find yourself imagining life as a forty-niner. Best of all, it won’t cost you a single nugget.

32. Take a class. Offerings at the Learning Exchange go way beyond flower arranging and computers for dummies, which speaks volumes about our diverse and talented citizenry. Learn how to pole dance, taste olive oil, feng shui your house, make beautiful cupcakes and, if you ever get around to it, stop procrastinating. And what could be more Sacramento than the How To Get a State Job class?

33. Rent a pair of ice skates for $2 (after a $6 admission) and thread your way—gingerly —among the tottering throngs at the Westfield Downtown Plaza Ice Rink at Seventh and K streets. Sacramento’s only outdoor ice rink isn’t very big, and the ice turns slushy quickly (hence the frequent Zamboni appearances), but, absent a blanket of snow, there’s no better harbinger of the holidays, and for transplants from northern climates who get a bit weepy this time of year, it feels like a little patch of home.

34. If you don’t own a boat, then beg, borrow or steal one and lose yourself in the labyrinths and lore of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Amid these 1,000 miles of waterways interlacing Sacramento, Stockton and the San Francisco Bay, you’ll find landmarks like the Prohibition-era Ryde Hotel and bewitching hamlets like Locke, a semighost town (population 10) built by and for Chinese immigrants that today resembles a Paramount back lot. When hunger strikes, nosh at generations-old hideaways like Giusti’s and Al’s Place (aka Al the Wop’s) that decorate their ceilings with caps and dollar bills, and serve up killer steaks and characters in equal measure. It’s the perfect antidote to joyless suburbia, and it’ll make you a believer in time machines.

35. Go for the dachshund races, stay for the chemistry magic show and you just might discover why Picnic Day, a treasured UC Davis tradition since 1909, attracts crowds of up to 60,000. The annual Aggie open house, one of the largest student-run events in the nation, is set this year for April 18 in Davis.

36. Know a Craftsman when you see one? How about an Italianate? Moorish Revival? Queen Anne? A tour of the area’s greatest residential neighborhoods isn’t complete without at least a rudimentary knowledge of these historic architectural styles, but it’s absolutely necessary if you want to get to know our city on a microcosmic level. Alkali Flat, Boulevard Park, Land Park, Curtis Park, Oak Park and, of course, the Fabulous 40s of East Sacramento, where Ronald Reagan once lived (at 1341 45th St.)—each neighborhood speaks disparately about what this place was, is and wants to become.

37. Next time you hear California is a land of nuts, don’t assume it’s a put-down. You’ll see why at Sacramento’s own Blue Diamond retail store adjacent to the world’s largest and almost century-old tree-nut processing and marketing cooperative at 1701 C St. A video on the almond’s odyssey from orchard to can makes you appreciate the fact that it wasn’t born in a coat of wasabi and soy sauce—it worked hard to get that way. That won’t stop you from wolfing down samples of products whose creative flavors and staggering array of forms solve the problem of what to do with a billion-dollar crop.

38. The capital has a handful of chefs and restaurateurs who’ve achieved star status in the region and, in some cases, far beyond. You can’t know Sacramento until you’ve tasted Biba’s inspired Italian cuisine, munched your way through a Paragary’s wood-oven-fired specialty and relished the Chinese food (and the famous banana cream pie) at Frank Fat’s, where power players have been scrawling deals on cocktail napkins since 1939.

39. Dine by the river—preferably alfresco during one of Sacramento’s silky summer twilights, under one of our signature periwinkle and pink tie-dye skies. Restaurants we love range from the quirky (the Virgin Sturgeon) to the swank (Rio City Cafe), but all prove one thing: Food tastes better when intermingled with the smells of river water and speed-boat exhaust, and the sight of sunburned dining companions in Hawaiian shirts. 

40. Set aside any prejudices you may have against mullets, the smell of manure, heart attacks on sticks and overpriced beer, and just enjoy the California State Fair for what it is: a corny, wholesome, multifaceted, ridiculously fun end-of-summer tradition that turns 156 this year. Where else can you devour one of Chicken Charlie’s deep-fried White Castle burgers, buy yourself the latest as-seen-on-TV super mop, check your underwear on The Zipper, bet on the ponies with the coolest names, groove to a B-list rocker, get hypnotized and milk a cow—all in one place?

41. Don’t go to a Sacramento Capitals tennis match expecting stuffy Wimbledon, but do go. You’ll be excited by the co-ed team aspect and by tennis’s accessibility to fans. You might even get an impromptu lesson from one of our world-class players after the match at the Allstate Stadium at Roseville’s Galleria. The Capitals are the winners of six World TeamTennis championships, the latest in 2007, and regularly bring in superstars like Venus Williams and Pete Sampras. Just clear your calendar for July; it’s a short season.

42. Don’t you hate visiting zoos where half of the animals look like they’ve OD’d on Ambien? Has the Sacramento Zoo got a proposition for you: Spend the night to see some of the more nocturnal creatures in action. That’s just one of the myriad family-oriented programs and activities offered at this cherished 82-year-old Land Park institution, home of 140 native, rare and endangered species. Another is the Ice Cream Safari in July, when all-you-can-eat Baskin-Robbins and Coca-Cola products compete with the chimps for everyone’s attention.

43. Films with subtitles and cheap popcorn are not the only reasons to try to wedge our 21st-century butts into the tiny seats at the historic Crest, Guild and Tower theaters in Sacramento and the Varsity Theatre in Davis. Two of these jewels that recall the movie palaces of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s—the Crest at 1013 K St. and the Guild in Oak Park—offer plenty of other types of high- and low-brow entertainment, including lectures, concerts, comedy shows, film festivals and community events. If you’re into campy gore, it doesn’t get any better than the Trash Film Orgy at the Crest.

44. Watch self-reliance epitomized at Sutter’s Fort, the Central Valley’s first non-Indian settlement. Living History Days and Pioneer Demonstration Days let you walk a mile in John Sutter’s boots as docents in period clothing dip candles, bake bread, fire a cannon and more at the restored 1840s adobe trading post and immigrant refuge that originally was called “New Helvetia” (New Switzerland). It’s a hub of history right in midtown.

45. We all know Old Sacramento, one of America’s finest restored historical districts, is obligatory for dutiful locals with out-of-town guests and time on their hands. But why not experience it for yourself, sans Aunt Martha? Admit it: Your inner 10-year-old could spend hours guffawing over the ersatz barf at Evangeline’s, trying on Viking and vampire garb at the adjacent three-story Costume Mansion (open August through October), sampling taffy from old-fashioned barrels, taking a spin in a horse-drawn carriage and gathering ’round the stove at the Schoolhouse Museum.

46. The flipping of the calendar to October sparks a Pavlovian response in Sacramentans. Mouths begin drooling as thoughts drift to Apple Hill’s goodies made from the biblical symbol of temptation itself. To head back down Highway 50 from the burg of Camino without sampling Kids Inc.’s “walkin’ pies” or Rainbow Orchards’ apple-cider doughnuts is unthinkable.

47. Ponder the mystery of biological imperative at Gold River’s Nimbus Fish Hatchery, where salmon and steelhead trout, battered by their journey from the Pacific, embody the very meaning of perseverance as they hurl themselves up the ladder toward their destiny of death and renewal. Go in November or December, when spawning season’s in full swing and you can watch workers engaged in the egg-taking operation—and let’s hope for some more salmon this coming year. Bring nickels for the kids; buying pellets to feed the voracious young fish in the raceway ponds is the most fun they’ll have without holding a controller.

48. We may not realize how spoiled we are, but as far as much of the rest of the country is concerned, vegetables come from cans and are sort of a sickly yellow-green. Therefore, it behooves us Californians to exercise our agricultural birthright by buying farm-fresh produce at roadside stands and certified farmers markets, where the sellers also are the growers. While many Sacramento area markets are seasonal, some are open year-round, including the Sunday morning farmers market under the freeway at Eighth and W and the Saturday morning market in Davis’ Central Park, a 33-year-old tradition. If there exists a juicier peach or more succulent spear of asparagus out there, we don’t know of it.

49. Maybe we’re compensating for imminent gluttony. Whatever, the Thanksgiving Day Run To Feed the Hungry has become a Sacramento rite of passage. The valley’s largest 5K and 10K fun run, which just celebrated its 15th year, has grown to draw crowds of about 28,000 participants and raise close to $750,000 annually for Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services. 

50. All the region’s a stage—or seems like it, judging from our wealth of live performances. Professional dance, opera, symphony and theater companies showcase some of the best talent in the nation and have become deeply ingrained in the fabric of local life. We couldn’t imagine the holidays without the Sacramento Ballet’s 400 child performers in The Nutcracker or summer without California Musical Theatre’s Music Circus, a beloved tradition for more than half a century.