The Secret Star that is Sacramento

by Russell Higham

credit: Sparky2000

Tell anybody you’re heading to California for your holidays and they’ll usually assume you’re headed either for LA or San Francisco. But, as worthy as those two great destinations are, the USA’s most populous state (and sixth largest economy in the world) has a lot more going for it than just LaLa-land and the home of Uber and Google.

Head northeast on the freeway out of San Francisco, over the Golden Gate Bridge, and in around 90 miles you’ll hit Sacramento, the state capital of California. Don’t be deceived on arrival by its laid back, almost sultry feel. This is a town on the up as a result of the hipsters and creative types who are moving here to escape San Francisco’s sky-high living costs.

It’s definitely worth planning to spend at least two or three days here whilst you’re “out west”. So what should you be doing with your time here? Here’s our guide to the secrets of Sacramento…

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Old Sac credit: Russell Higham

Sacramento was established in the gold rush days of the mid-nineteenth century. For an authentic slice of that history, visit the picturesque Old Sacramento Historic District (referred to locally as ‘Old Sac’) where fifty buildings have been renovated or reconstructed to look exactly as they did in those Wild West days. There are over 120 boutiques, restaurants, bars and museums here, including the the most visited railway-themed museum in North America, the California State Railroad Museum. Even non-train-spotters will find plenty to like in this vast space (225,000 square feet) containing beautifully restored railroad cars and locomotives that illustrate the history of the “iron horse” that originally connected California to the rest of the states. On leaving, visit one of the many old-time photograph parlours where you can get dressed up and pose in wild west costume for your very own ‘Wanted’ poster or even a set of ‘Shotgun Wedding’ pictures — perfect for fooling Facebook friends back home into thinking you’ve hurriedly tied the knot stateside. Afterwards, refuel next door at bar/restaurant Ten-22 which serves New American cuisine and has twenty-four different beers on tap including a selection of local craft varieties. Sacramento is building a reputation as a beer lover’s paradise and already has fifty-eight craft breweries in and around the city.

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credit: Russell Higham

If wine is more your tipple of choice, pack a picnic and head for the Old Sugar Mill, just twelve minutes from Downtown by car. Set in beautiful grounds and surrounded by lush vineyards, fifteen different wineries compete for your attention with tasting sessions and other vino-flavoured events. Buy a bottle (tip: Clarksburg Wine Co’s Chenin Blanc is hard to beat) and savour it in the sunshine on the manicured lawns.

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Crocker Art Museum credit: Russell Higham

Back in the city, pay a visit to the California State Capitol Musem, set in forty acres of gardens featuring trees, plants and shrubs from all over the world. This beautifully historic building has been the home of the state's legislature since 1869. Inside, you can pose next to life-size portraits and statues of some of its famous law makers and governors such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (cue Instagrammable selfie opp’s!). If this hasn’t quenched your thirst for history and culture, try Crocker Art Musem, the oldest public art museum west of the Mississippi with a fabulous collection of early Californian paintings as well as European master drawings and international ceramics. Or, if it’s Sacramento’s precious metal past that interests you, take the Gold Fever Tour at Sacramento History Museum where you can experience how if felt to be caught up in the wild chaos of the city’s Gold Rush days.

After uploading so much information to the old grey matter, why not kill off a few tired brain cells with cocktails at the Shady Lady Saloon - a fabulously cool 1920’s-style Speakeasy situated in the nightlife district of R Street. Designed to resemble a decadent bordello and staffed by achingly hip and devilishly good-looking bartenders and waitresses, Esquire magazine recently named it one of the 25 “best bars in America”. Try the ‘Basil’ or ‘Rabbit Hole’; both have authentic absinthe in them (it’s been legal in California since 2007). Afterwards, grab a white pizza at nearby Federalist Public House. This isn’t, as the name suggests, a bar but a casually on-point eatery hosed inside a shipping container with communal tables and an edgily industrial feel.

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Next day, hangover permitting, explore the Sunday Farmers Market under the 50/80 freeway at W Street, between 6th and 8th. One of the largest of its kind in California, this market, featuring food, drink, clothes, homeware and jewellery stalls is well worth devoting a couple of hours to. Be warned though: it’s almost ridiculously hip and chichi — don’t even think of attempting to come here without a transgendered chihuahua nestled in your hemp bag next to a jar of vegan yoghurt. The lively Midtown area on L Street and Capitol Avenue between 16th and 19th Street also has plenty of quirky boutiques and independent shops to prise any remaining dollars out of your wallet.

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Bloody Mary credit: Russell Higham

Reward yourself with an all-day breakfast and the strongest Bloody Mary you’ll ever taste at DeVere’s Irish Pub on L Street. It’s where locals and ex-pat’s from Britain and Ireland gather at weekends to watch satellite broadcasts of football (soccer) and rugby from the old country whilst knocking back a few brews. Round off the afternoon with a viewing of the new $8 million Jeff Koons sculpture outside the Golden 1 Center, a massive indoor arena which is home to the city’s basketball team, the Sacramento Kings.

For your final evening in Sacramento, book a table by the outdoor fountain in the garden of Lucca’s restaurant and bar at 1615 J Street, halfway between Midtown and Downtown. Its romantically Italian but not-too-cheesy setting combined with excellent Californian and Mediterranean fare is the ideal way to celebrate your stay in California’s secret star city.

Sacramento is compact by Californian standards; most attractions are walkable from Downtown or easily reached in a cab or Uber. To be close to all the action, stay at The Holiday Inn. It’s only a short stroll from ‘Old Sac’ and room rates start at just $97/night. To book, visit www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/sacramento

Virgin Atlantic fly to San Francisco from London and Manchester. Economy fares start from £456 return (including taxes and charges) at www.virginatlantic.com

For more information, go to www.visitsacramento.com

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