An old black-and-white photo at the Pilothouse restaurant showed the steamboat partly submerged, likely destined for the scrap yard.
It was our first time on a riverboat, too, and we were impressed by its heft (it doesn’t move), old-fashioned elegance and its quiet presence on the Sacramento River.
The Delta King is a landmark in Old Sacramento, where wooden sidewalks and cobblestone streets lend authenticity to historic and renovated buildings along the riverfront. From the one-room, Old Sacramento Schoolhouse to the 1800s steam locomotives at the California State Railroad Museum, this part of the city captures western history at its best.
Six museums have generous space here, so visitors get an intimate peek at the everyday life of pioneers and early residents (Sacramento History Museum) or the larger picture of “how the west was won” (California Military Museum).
The old city literally rolls up its sidewalks to show its underside. Streets and hundreds of houses were raised in the 20th century due to flooding, so a one-hour, underground tour provides a fascinating glimpse of city life in the Wild West. Archaeologists have unearthed perfume bottles from bordellos, old saloon glasses and other antiques, scattered in the dirt underneath the Wells Fargo History Museum.
More than 200 tonnes of dirt are spread on Old Sacramento streets every year for a four-day festival celebrating the city’s Wild West roots. Bluegrass pickers join hundreds of people in 1800s’ costumes for these Sacramento Gold Rush Days, which take place during the Labour Day weekend.
Old Sacramento, established in 1849, retains its charm, with more than two dozen cafés, delis, saloons and restaurants in a few blocks. Sprinkled between them are many sweet shops that sell everything from hand-shaved ices in old-fashioned cones to hand-pulled taffy.
Candy Heaven calls itself “the sweetest place on earth” and gives free samples. Fear Factor candies range from $ 2.50 (real crickets encased in sugar) to $ 14 (scorpion suckers). Mints ($ 4.50) have saucy messages: Finally Getting Married; Our Lady of Perpetual Mood Swings; and Jesus is Coming: Last Supper.
As the last Pony Express stop and the terminus of the world’s first transcontinental railroad, Sacramento celebrates its history on the grounds of the Capitol, too, with a 16-hectare park around the neoclassical white legislature building.
There are trout in a lily pond (the official state fish is a golden trout, but they’re rare, so these are rainbow); trees from all over the world; and a “world peace” rose garden. Dramatic monuments to firefighters and others killed in public service are a modern counterpoint to Civil War and other memorials.
Since the 1920s, it’s been called “Camellia Capital of the World” and to prove it, the city celebrates this delicate flower when much of the country is under snow, in late February.
Yet sunflowers give many a van Gogh introduction to Sacramento. Fly over, or drive along I-5 in summer, and you’ll be astounded by vast fields of sunflowers. They’re harvested for seed and oil in late summer; most of the U.S. seed crop is produced in the Sacramento Valley, for international sale.
The valley’s bounty is celebrated in restaurants, too, as the city becomes more of a foodie destination. The smallest café promotes local and seasonal, from goat cheese to fresh fruit.
While Napa and Sonoma get a lot of attention, the Sacramento region has more than 200 wineries and tasting rooms, outlined in a new regional wine guide. Unlike their famous counterparts to the west, many of these wineries offer free tastings.
Almost every kind of cuisine is found here, because the descendants of those gold miners stayed to farm, fish the American and Sacramento rivers, and build a thriving city from California’s first business district.
Kathleen Kenna is a freelance writer based in southern Oregon who blogs with photographer Hadi Dadashian at tripsfor2.net. Her trip was partly subsidized by the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING You can fly into Sacramento from several U.S. airports. Or fly to San Francisco, then drive an hour-and-a-half northeast to reach the city.
SLEEPING Sleep on a stationary riverboat, the Delta King, for $ 132 (inside corridor) to $ 192 (river view) or splurge on the two-level, original captain’s suite with wet bar, private deck and wraparound windows for $ 550. Full breakfast at Pilothouse included with all rates. Recent Expedia deal: $ 116. deltaking.com. Or stay downtown, where Arnold Schwarzenegger slept (when he was still governor), at the Hyatt Regency, overlooking the Capitol. The Mentalist cast stays here during shoots, too, including star Simon Baker. Fall rates start at $ 239. Until Dec. 30, use FRTIME code when booking online to get an extra night free and breakfast included. sacramento.hyatt.com.
DINING Mulvaney’s is praised by locals as the leader in establishing a regional cuisine, from California sturgeon to Niman Ranch beef. Menu changes daily to match the local harvest; salmon is house-smoked and everything from salami to squid ink pasta is house-made. Small plates, $ 17-$ 21; large plates, $ 25-$ 34. Fall special: Cinnamon-smoked quail with local pears. Open kitchen in renovated, 1893 firehouse, 1215 19th St., 916-441-6022; mulvaneysbl.com. We walked 50 blocks to try the handmade Fat Face popsicles (Kafir lime-avocado, blueberry-lemon yogurt) at Bows & Arrows, a café-art gallery-vintage clothing shop. Well worth the walk for the $ 3-popsicles, huge vegan sandwiches ($ 7-$ 11), West Coast beer (pint of draft, $ 4-$ 6) and an artsy patio. Tables are made from tree trunks. Happy hour is five hours long, 2-7 p.m. Live music some nights. 1815 19th St., 916-822-5668; bowscollective.com.
DRINKING Guide to 200+ wineries, tasting rooms: sacramentowineguide.com. Can’t beat the $ 2 draft for Monday Night Football at historic Coconut Grove in Old Sacramento. Big-screen TVs fill almost all wall space; happy hour, 3-7 p.m., Mon.-Fri., $ 3 premium beer. Great service. 106 J St.; 916-441-4222; da-coconutgrove.com. Intimate, outdoor seating is worth the wait at Rio City Café, overlooking the river. Drink California pinot noir ($ 8) under the stars and try the crab cakes ($ 13.50). 1110 Front St., 916-442-8226; riocitycafé.com.
DOING Old Sacramento underground tour, $ 10-$ 15; one hour, starting at Sacramento History Museum; historicoldsac.org or call 916-808-7059. For info on Sacramento’s 27 museums and more, visit the Old Sacramento Visitors Center, 1004 Second St.; 916-442-7644. Annual camellia festival: camelliasocietyofsacramento.org/Events.html. Events calendar: sacramento365.com.
SHOPPING Find antiques and souvenirs in Old Sacramento. Retro clothes, jewelry and more at Bows & Arrows (see above) or cool, California-designed Tees ($ 15-$ 22), iPad cases ($ 30) and bike gear at Hot Italian, a pizza and panini joint that organizes bikes & films events. 1627 16th St., 916-444-3000; hotitalian.net. Ask for the free Sacramento Gold Card at local hotels for discounts at retailers, restaurants, attractions and more.
WEB SURFING discovergold.org