See This, Skip That: Sacramento

PHOTO: The Sacramento River and the downtown skyline.Getty Images
The Sacramento River and the downtown skyline.

As California’s capital, Sacramento is a hubbub of political activity. But, located just about 90 minutes inland from San Francisco, this is also a traveler draw, cradling a snapshot of the Golden State’s rich history with forward-looking movement in cuisine, the arts and healthy living.

Here are some of the many neat things to do and see in what has become California’s fifth-largest city.

Skip the Rental Car, Take a Bike The lawmakers in this town recently passed the 3-foot passing law in California, mandating that any car passing a bike give at least 3 feet of clearance. The relationship between drivers and bikers here is still a work in progress, certainly. But, fact is, Sacramento has become increasingly friendly to two-wheelers. There are more than 50 miles of paved bike trails here, making it a very family-friendly way to get around. Many businesses have also gone more bike-friendly, installing ample bicycle parking. Check out Insight Coffee Roasters downtown, which has a bike corral right on the street, and Hot Italian Pizza. You’ll find several bike-rental options around town.

Skip the Museum, Visit the Capitol Building Completed in 1874, the State Capitol is an architectural triumph surrounded by a vast green park. It’s the state’s working seat of government that also doubles as a museum, making it a real snapshot of California. The interior is marked by historic sculptures, murals and portraits, as well as gilded Corinthian columns and dozens of permanent paintings depicting California scenery. My kids and I have enjoyed the dioramas located near the Governor’s Office, which depict landmarks in each of the state’s 58 counties. Free public tours are conducted daily and on the hour, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., and the Basement Theater screens films for free throughout the day.

Come for the Food, Stay for the Commentary My friend Steve Large, a TV reporter who has lived in Sacramento for eight years, echoes many of his fellow residents when he tells me, “Sacramento has a huge farm-to-fork movement and is making national lists as one of the best places for restaurants serving fresh produce.” One of his favorite dining spots is The Kitchen, where upscale cuisine meets dinner theater. In these demonstration dinners, the chef plays the lead and the restaurant’s entire staff becomes his supporting cast. “It’s an open kitchen with a set menu and the chef talks about the food he’s preparing as you go through each course,” Large says. “Very cool.” Reservations are recommended.

Skip Dinner, Learn to Cook Sacramento is home to one of just 16 Le Cordon Bleu schools across the country. Sign up for a workshop at Bleu Ribbon Kitchen and learn from a professional chef. Classes last three to six hours and cover everything from Mexican and Italian cuisine to cake decorating to knife skills. Students take home a Bleu Ribbon apron and recipes from each class.

Don’t Gulp, Sip More and more professional roasters are making Sacramento one of the top coffee cities in the country. I’ve enjoyed several cups at Old Soul, a popular hangout known for its rich, bold brews and fresh breads; it’s open and airy inside, and there’s a quaint open-air patio in the back. My friend Large also likes Insight, housed inside an old bookstore, and Chocolate Fish, known for iced coffee concoctions.

Skip the Vineyard, Go to School Sacramento is a threshold to California wine country, surrounded by more than 200 wineries in regions like Amador, El Dorado and Lodi. But for an in-town palate lesson, sign up for the Wine Appreciation class aboard the Delta King. Offered seasonally and priced at $39, it covers restaurant wine etiquette, optimum storage temps and food pairing; sipping several wines and enjoying live music are included. This class also puts you on one of the city’s main attractions: anchored on the American River, the Delta King was a 1920s ferry that once shuttled passengers here from San Francisco and now serves as a hotel and restaurant. Plus, it’s right in the heart of Old Town, a colorful 28-acre historic district filled with shops.

Skip the Wine, Enjoy the Beer If you’re a foodie, scoping out Sacramento’s growing craft beer scene is a must. There are about 30 microbreweries in and around this city, and many are gaining fame for sourcing local ingredients to brew their brews. Sacramento also hosts a bevy of beer-inspired feasts throughout the year, including the Capitol Beer Fest in March and the California Brewer’s Festival in September.

Skip the City Tour, Go Underground Quick history lesson: in the 1860s and 1870s, in an effort to rescue itself from flooding waters, Sacramento was literally raised, leaving behind vast underground spaces and hollow sidewalks. The Sacramento History Museum hosts tours daily, from Memorial Day through Labor Day, that last about an hour and cover a half-mile marked by low ceilings and uneven pavement. ADA compliant and family friendly (though perhaps not ideal for kids younger than 5), tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for kids.

After the Zoo, Live a Fairytale My buddy Steve just became a dad for the second time and, in the hunt for kid-friendly things to do in town, loves the 14-acre Sacramento Zoo. But he calls Fairytale Town, located right across the street, “a civic treasure.” Founded more than 50 years ago, it’s home to Storybook Park, where 25 playsets bring our favorite fairytales and nursery rhymes to life. Take the kids through Sherwood Forest, past Hickory Dickory Clock, up Jack & Jill Hill, over Humpty Dumpty’s Bridge, and down the Yellow Brick Road right to Pooh’s Corner. This 2-1/2-acre park also features gardens – with dozens of rose and bamboo varieties – and even animals, with feeding opportunities in the afternoon.

Skip Feeding the Birds, Cast Them Experience birds of prey first-hand at West Coast Falconry, located in Marysville, about 45 minutes north of Sacramento. Take a one-hour introductory class that covers the history of falconry as well as the basics of casting: holding a hawk, casting it from your glove and calling it back again. You can also sign up for the Owl Encounter, and budding shutterbugs can take the Photographic Hawk Walk.

Skip Ground Level, Jump The best way to enjoy the landscapes that envelop Sacramento is from up high. Skydive Sacramento operates out of Lincoln Regional Airport, just outside the city, and offers tandem skydives from 9,000 feet or, for the adrenaline junkie, 13,000 feet above the ground. Free fall speeds can reach 120 mph! These guys have one of the best safety records in the industry. Ask about their video packages, perfect for showing off when you get back home.

Skip the Gym, Tackle the River For outdoor enthusiasts, taking on the white waters of the American River may well be a rite of passage. Launching from Camp Lotus, located about 50 miles northeast of Sacramento, companies like WET River Trips and Adventure Connection will help, offering half-day river rafting experiences tackling Category I, II and III rapids, which are suitable for beginner to intermediate rafters. Follow the South Fork of the river along the famous Chili Bar Run for a great workout, plenty of thrills and breathtaking visuals.

Skip Dessert, Pop Jelly Beans The Jelly Belly factory is a destination all its own and worth the 45-minute drive west from Sacramento. My family and I loved the free 40-minute walking Factory Tour which gives you an awesome behind-the-scenes look at the way these tiny sweet treats are made and packaged, and allows you to taste some palate-popping flavors you don’t usually find at the store (my sons recommend the booger and the pencil shavings jelly beans). Be ready for a bit of a wait, but tours do leave every 15 minutes.

Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals in Sacramento here.