A couple of days ago I visited the Capitol Building in Sacramento. There I was able to get a glimpse at the history of the city and country, but a way better place to discover the history of Sacramento is Old Sacramento, also called “Old Sac” by locals. Just a few blocks down from the capitol right at the waterfront of the Sacramento River.
Once you arrive here it’s like a travel back in time, if you mask out all the modern cars. Look at the buildings they all look like back in time, when this part was the first settlement and became Sacramento. Go closer to the piers and you will see all the old wooden docks and small cranes on the docks. Today the biggest part of the pier is occupied by the Delta King. This ship was built in 1926 and traveled on the Sacramento River until 1940. Now it serves as a restaurant, hotel and theater.
Also right at the embarcadero you can find the old passenger depot of the Central Pacific Railroad, the western half of America’s first transcontinental railroad. The building was built in 1867 as part of the transcontinental line and reconstructed in 1976 as the first phase of the California State Railroad Museum. The museum itself is just a couple blocks up north from the passenger depot. This is the largest and finest interpretive railroad museum in North America. You will see retired and restored steam and diesel locomotives and passenger cars plus antiques used in the industry. If you want you can hop aboard the Sacramento Southern Railroad for a scenic ride along the Sacramento River. Steam trains run the weekend from April through September and during the holiday season right before christmas you can ride the Polar Express. You will find more information about the museum and train rides on the museums website.
What I didn’t know was, that this part of the city was not always as glamorous as it is now. Yes it was the first settlement here and was thriving through the gold-rush area for several decades, but as the business center moved closer to the capitol and away from the riverfront, the district declined and ultimately became a slum. For a long time some proponents of slum clearance urged to completely demolish the blighted area; other advocates, conscious of the architectural heritage of the area, said that the same end could be achieved by restoring the pioneer structures and attracting new businesses. But little was done either way. With the announcement of the State Division of Highways to build a freeway through the old district, the issue come back to head. After many debates the freeway was built and as much area of the old district saved as possible. Historians started to reconstruct the old buildings and today the freeway separates Old Sacramento from the rest of the city.
There are so many museums in this area, like the already mentioned California State Railroad Museum. Here a few more, worth to be mentioned:
- Maritime Military Museum
- Sacramento History Museum
- Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum
- Wells Fargo History Museum
Right next to the Wells Fargo History Museum is the Sacramento Visitor Center. There you can see an old stagecoach and a painting which was before hanging in the capitol. During my visit I got told a “creepy” fact. Look at the painting on the wall. It looks like the two bulls at the front are always staring at you. Also look at the two outlaws on the horses. It looks like the always coming for you no matter where you stand in the room. This is pretty cool and interesting fact for me and happy that the nice man working there told me that.
Be sure to visit the Visitor Center and the Wells Fargo History Museum. For both admission is free. The Wells Fargo History Museum tells a lot about the important role of the bank in the California Gold Rush commerce. They display a lot of artifacts of that area as well as a telegraph station.
The street level of Old Sacramento was raised in the 1860s and ’70s as much as 14 feet. You can still see the original level at some spots in the city. Like the Pioneer Park and Pioneer Square (see pictures). Sacramento was the first city on the West Coast and the only one in California to raise the street level. This created a city on top of a city. Some of the old relics are still there and you can visit them today in an Underground Tour. The tour starts at the Sacramento History Museum and is about an hour-long. Unfortunately I was not able yet to take the tour, same as in Seattle.
There is also an app for that – of course. It’s a free app for Android and iPhone with a lot of facts, pictures and interesting anecdotes. The app is also perfect for self-guided tours and features a “Murder & Mayhem” tour. I was not able to try the app yet, but I will if I have enough time left.
To get more great views of Old Sacramento and especially the water front, I can highly suggest that you take a walk across the Tower Bridge and from there along the River Walk Park all the way over to the I-Street Bridge. Be careful the I-Street Bridge doesn’t seem to be used much and there is a lot of shattered glass on the stairs up to the bridge. I also wouldn’t recommend the walk at late night. There are some strange persons hanging out here. I did it anyway for some great night photos of the bridge and waterfront.
During the holiday season the city is put into christmas atmosphere and there is the “Theatre of Lights” going on right now. It’s from Thursday thru Sunday every week until christmas at 6:15pm and 7:45pm. It takes place at the end of K Street where it hits Front Street.
For more information you can visit this websites:
For parking I would recommend the Downtown Plaza Mall parking garage (see map). It’s cheaper and Old Sacramento is just a couple feet away. You will walk underneath the freeway I-5 to get into Old Sac. There is valet parking, street parking and parking areas right at Old Sacramento, but it’s very expensive to park. The price varies a little bit, but you have to pay around 1.50$ for 30 minutes parking. At the Downtown Plaza you pay 6$ if you enter before 10 am and leave after 4:30 pm, which is very likely to achieve with all the things you can do.
Special tip from me. If you park at the Downtown Plaza Mall you can park almost for free for up to three hours. For that you have to get your parking ticket validated and easiest way to do would be Starbucks. Get a coffee and you get up to three hours free parking.