Old Sacramento: Relive California’s Rich History

Riverboats tied up at the docks of Sacramento’s Old Town are a part of the vintage ambiance of this beautiful historical district. | Embassy Suites by Hilton Riverfront Promenade

Sacramento is justly renowned as the capital of California, the largest state in the union. This attractive, tree-lined and fun-filled city has plenty of worthwhile attractions that can delight visitors year-round.

While those are more than enough reasons to put Sacramento on your vacation bucket list, there is more.

This beautiful city on the Sacramento River is the center of a region with a rich history and a knack for historical preservation that simply delights tourists. The epicenter of all of this is Old Town on the riverfront, officially known as the Old Sacramento Historic District, a National Historic Landmark District. It is just a short walk from the Capitol building and worthy of your exploration no matter what brings you to Sacramento.

Filling 28 acres, this authentically restored area was the terminus of both the transcontinental railroad and the Pony Express. It was also the Golden State’s first booming business district. It became the supply center for the California gold rush and a remains a center of agricultural trade.

The riverfront now known as Old Sacramento has endured through fire and flood in its history and was finally restored to an authentic mid-19th century ambiance in the 1960s. Today, the wooden plank sidewalks and cobblestone streets are lined with shops, eateries upscale and casual, entertainment and are bustling with tourists and residents alike. Railroad tracks, trains and buildings dating over a century and lovingly restored old buildings and replica school houses can be found on its streets.

You are never far from the riverfront no matter where you are in Old Sacramento, and antique riverboats and steam tourist trains run through the area carrying happy tourists.

The crown jewel is the California State Railroad Museum. The modern museum’s main building showcases railroad history with authentic period steam locomotives, and its roundhouse and display areas are home to many giant steam and early diesel-electric locomotives, passenger cars, dining car china and even an open-to-the-public high-speed rail driver simulator that is included with admission, as is the original Central Pacific railroad shops.

There is also an extra-fare excursion train that runs along the Sacramento River on a 40-minute narrated journey that is well worth the $12 fare.

Old Sacramento at night and the Sacramento skyline are quite impressive. | Visit Sacramento

Before You Go:

Getting There:

  • Major airlines serve Sacramento International Airport (SMF), which is 11 miles from Old Sacramento, and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is about 98 miles away.
  • Amtrak operates frequent north and south service the length of California and connects to the east. Sacramento’s Amtrak station is only a block from Old Sacramento.
  • By car, Sacramento is 90 miles from San Francisco and served by Interstate 5 and Interstate 80. Lake Tahoe is 118 miles away on I-80 and is reached over the spectacular Donner Pass. Napa, gateway to the Napa Valley and nearby Sonoma wine regions, is 62 miles distant. No car is needed to explore Old Sacramento.  
  • The best choice for a cruise port is San Francisco.

Must-Sees for a Short Trip:

  • Old Town and the California State Railroad Museum
  • Capitol Park and the California Capitol Building, with free tours available
  • Crocker Art Museum
  • Sacramento Southern Railroad excursions — a 40-minute train ride along the river from Old Sacramento and back
One of the painstakingly-created historical exhibits inside the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento | Kelly B. Huston

If You Have Several Extra Days:

  • The Sacramento Zoo
  • Discovery Museum Science & Space Center
  • A Hornblower sunset or history cruise on the Sacramento River
  • Riding the Sacramento RiverTrain. Dinner trains, wine and beer trains and murder mystery rides (not the museum train)
  • Napa or Sonoma Valley wineries
  • San Francisco, 88 miles away via I-80

Ginny O’s Tips For Dressing The Simply Smart Travel Way For Exploring Old Town:

Dress casually. If you are riding a steam-powered train, wear comfortable shoes for walking on wooden plank sidewalks and cobblestone streets.

This Destination at a Glance:

Over 50 Advantage:

Fairly easy walking and many eateries and shops to browse in Old Sacramento.

Mobility Level:

Low to moderate. Old Sacramento requires easy walking on cobblestone streets.

When to Go:

Sacramento’s climate is relatively mild with hot summers and pleasant spring and fall weather. Winter can be rainy and cool. The best times are April to June or September through November. Festivals abound in May and June.

Where to Stay:

The Embassy Suites by Hilton Sacramento Riverfront Promenade is right on the river and literally just steps from Old Sacramento. Ask for a riverfront view room. The nearby Delta King Riverboat also has restaurants and hotel rooms. Other chain hotels are nearby in Sacramento.

Special Travel Interests:

History, vintage architecture and transportation. 

Jewish Sacramento

Sacramento has a lively Jewish history and a vibrant Jewish present.

Dating to the gold rush, Jews were involved in the town’s economy and civic life. Jewish merchants became suppliers to mines, miners and the growing town, and early rabbis served Jews throughout the region, including the surrounding mining towns.

Sacramento’s current Jewish population is about 25,000. Jews have a fairly extensive institutional infrastructure, including several houses of worship covering the spectrum of practices from Reform to Orthodox.  

The California State Capitol Building and its impressive Capitol Mall are a short walk from Old Sacramento. | Visit Sacramento

Each congregation has a religious school, although the Jewish community high school, Yachad, is run by the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region. There is one Jewish day school, Shalom School; a Jewish social service agency, Jewish Family Service; and Hillels for California State University, Sacramento and the University of California, Davis.

For the observant, there is a mikvah, a kosher store and a number of kosher caterers. There is a Jewish cemetery, Home of Peace, in addition to designated areas in other cemeteries. In terms of cultural events, there is a Jewish film festival, Jewish food fair and community-wide observances of Yom Hashoah, Chanukah, Israel Independence Day and other Jewish holidays. In addition to the Jewish Federation, there are local chapters of many national Jewish organizations.

Jews are involved in the economic and political life of Sacramento and are present in fairly significant numbers in a broad range of occupations. They are thoroughly involved in the social and cultural fabric of the urban area as well as the state government.

The California State Legislature meets annually and has a number of Jewish members; in addition, quite a few Jews are employed in the state civil service. The city’s proximity to high-tech companies provides jobs for local Jews and attracts itinerant Israelis.

Although anti-Semitism is not unknown in Sacramento, the community has rallied to the support of local Jewry in the past when ugly acts have occurred.  

The mayor of Sacramento is Darrell Steinberg, who is Jewish.

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.


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