Sacramento may seem like a random place to visit, but thanks to Greta Gerwig’s stunning (read: STUNNING) ode to cinema and her hometown, Lady Bird, California’s capital city is taking its turn to bask in its own deserved spotlight.
I think the best way to describe this city is that when you’re here, you feel like you’re in a vintage Instagram filter, a bygone era of Americana with modern splashes. It is simply an easy place to be. There’s that old school charm, from the architectural gems of the Fabulous Forties to the neighborhoods dotted with old neon signage (featured prominently in the movie and as you know if you’ve read this blog, are one of my favorite things) and the proximity of farms and citrus tree groves.
Beyond the capital, it is one of the top destinations for locavore cuisine, earning it the nickname of “America’s farm to fork capital.” For a city of its size, there’s every type of food you could imagine, and ingredients are so fresh due to its proximity to California’s central agriculture industry. People forget California is one of the largest farming states in the country–next time you eat those strawberries and avocados, think of us.
Eureka, I’ve found it!
Sacramento’s airport is probably one of the easiest airports to fly through. It’s open, not super busy and has a lot of local food options. Sac is also incredibly convenient to SF, Tahoe, Yosemite, Oakland/Berkeley, Gold Rush country (Auburn, Placerville), Napa and Sonoma, so flying into this area and staying for a night or two can be super cost effective for a trip out west.
If you have a car, you should definitely make a pit stop in the Arden Arcade area to a tiny little shack up the road from the mall called Chando’s Tacos. You’ll know it from the chicken and carne asada and carnitas smoking on the gigantic grill out front. Breathe it in, it’s so good. You need the mulitas in your life. Crunchy, crispy, cheesy, meaty little flat tortilla sandwiches. Muy sabroso.
Sacramento’s Downtown is very easy to figure out because it’s a square grid system with lettered streets running east to west, and numbered streets running north to south.
Before checking into wherever you’re staying, be sure the stop by the California State Capitol between L and N (M is called Capitol). Beautiful, stark white, with a gray rotunda roof, it features a museum and, of course, the portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the hall of governors. The grounds around the capitol feature beautiful rose gardens, sculptures, and because it’s California, rows of palm trees.
The Capitol Mall holds large events throughout the year (protests, free concerts and Farm to Fork festival). You can also get a direct view of the golden Tower Bridge, a defining structure in Sacramento’s skyline.
Most visitors stay downtown, and there are several boutique hotels like the Citizen and the new Sawyer hotel. The Citizen’s restaurant Grange is a great place to grab a cocktail and happy hour snacks before dinner.
Across the street at Cesar Chavez park, free concerts are held every Friday night in the summertime. Sacramento is going through a revitalization of their downtown, so there are still some sketchy characters around, be careful if walking alone at night.
K Street Corridor is a semi-pedestrian only street that has several restaurants and hot spots with the young Golden 1 Center at the 5th street end. If possible, you should try and catch an event here (maybe that’s why you’re in town). This high tech arena is home to the Sacramento Kings, and hosts many concerts and events throughout the year.
While there, be sure to say hello to Lady Gaga on the southeast side of the arena.
And while the G1C has local eats featured inside (and if you have the app, you can get food delivered to you during basketball games), a must try restaurant on K street is Empress Tavern. In the basement of the Crest theater, this seductive restaurant has incredibly rich flavor in their inventive cocktails and new American dishes. Try the bone marrow whiskey luge. Worth every calorie.
For vegetarian and vegans, Mother on K has inventive dishes such as chicken fried oyster mushrooms and (sometimes) the best vegan ramen I’ve ever eaten, if you’re looking for meatless options.
Next morning– grab a cup of joe at Temple, a hip local shop with multiple locations around the city. The Enlightenment soy tea latte is my favorite, but their take on a Thai iced tea is a perfect refreshment for the more often than not hot Sac days.
The location on K and 21st serves desserts from local favorite Ettore’s bakery and has a gorgeous penny patterned floor. The location on S street is next to the amazing food Co-op (doesn’t get more California than that).
Down the street heading south, is Sutter’s Fort. John Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who established this trade colony in pre-Sacramento, and became famous after gold was found at his mill. John Marshall’s discovery set off the California Gold Rush of 1849. Today, it’s a museum and the California State Indian Museum is located here as well. Any child educated in this state will have flashbacks to 4th grade social studies.
Head to East Sacramento, a tony neighborhood of well manicured lawns and early 20th century cottage style homes (Tudor, Craftsman, Bungalow, Revivialist) that run in the near millions. McKinley Park sits at the edge of this neighborhood and a great way to experience the local vibe is by attending a Yoga in the Park class at 9 AM on Saturdays in the Summer near the Rose Garden. It’s totally free and will give you a great sense of the community while working on inner peace.
East Sac has great eateries like Juno’s deli, La Trattoria Bohemia (Czech Italian!!!), OneSpeed and Mimosa House. There’s also Corti Brothers, probably the best specialty market in town (and their sandwiches are spectacular). Down the road is Liquidology, one of Sacramento’s premier juice purveyors. I truly believe that you should embrace California when you visit. This means juices, farmer’s markets, yoga, hybrid cars, etc. Come to the dark side. Or rather, the very sunny side.
The 19th street Saturday Farmer’s market is a great place to people watch, especially if you’re enjoying brunch at Lowbrau. This trendy German biergarten will satisfy every wurst hunger pang, sit outside on the front patio. Explore this area of Midtown which features many LBGT bars, dance clubs, quirky specialty shops and public art.
Every year, there’s a mural festival, Wide Open Walls, where artists from near and far can be seen painting huge murals on buildings throughout the city. Many galleries are open every second Saturday night for art crawls as well.
Sacramento sits on the banks of the American River, and there are biking and hiking trails abound along with waterfront dining, SUP and kayaking. It is beautiful and calming to just drive along the river, but you can also visit Old Sacramento, a replica of a gold rush town located on the riverfront. Near Downtown, it is a kitschy and touristy, but the California Railroad Museum and Delta King dinner cruise are popular attractions located in this area.
You’ve probably worked up an appetite, so head back to Midtown for a meal along L street and 18th. There’s the Rind, a wine and cheese shop-cum-cozy comfort food heaven, that has the creamiest mac and cheeses (sometimes they have lobster mac and you should get this if it’s available). Make Fish is a popular poke place that has sushi burritos and the most incredible pork belly fries you’ve ever laid your eyes on (mango! masago! sriracha mayo!). Plan B serves elevated French fare in a casual Nighthawks diner like setting. Mulvaney’s is your slam dunk farm to table classic, well prepared local meats and vegetables. Federalist serves up wood-fired pizza in shipping containers. While down there, do not miss a chance to sample some delectable chocolates/macaron ice cream sandwiches from Ginger Elizabeth confectionary.
If you still have relaxation on your mind, Asha Urban baths near Broadway offers a bathhouse, yoga, sauna experience that will completely elevate mindfulness and leave you refreshed. Quiet and unassuming, it’s the perfect escape.
Just around the corner, in Curtis Park, is one of my favorites. Pangaea Bier Cafe has an award winning burger and tons of specialty ales on tap. Maybe best of all, it’s located across the street from establishment Gunther’s ice cream (order a fruit freeze).
There are a lot of nightlife options in this part of town, back near K and 19th (the aforementioned bars, Lowbrau, Mango’s), L and 15th (Public House, Cafeteria 15L, de Vere’s Irish Pub), J Street (Jungle Bird, Red Rabbit, Harlow’s).
Wherever you end up, the end of the night must be spent at Rick’s Dessert Diner. This Sacramento institution is open until 1 AM on the weekends and serves pies, cakes, cookies, floats, brownies, shakes, anything to satisfy your inner sweet tooth. The neon pink 50s diner theme will help keep you buzzing as well.
If you can wake yourself up for an early breakfast, you must go to the most famous in town, Bacon & Butter. This is located in the cute residential neighborhood of Tahoe Park. Even if you get there before it opens at 8 AM, there will be a line. This is why you should get here as early as you can so you can fill your belly with HUGE cinnamon rolls, grilled cheese benedict, chicken and waffles, omelets galore. I suggest something light so you can have brunch later one (the grilled cheese is not light).
Sunday mornings, you can find pretty much half the city at the Downtown Farmer’s Market. This vast array of vendors from all over Northern and Central California is sensory overload. There’s a crawfish guy, and everyone should have a crawfish guy. A few blocks down is the lesser known “Asian” farmer’s market where you will be elbow to elbow with people looking for the best deals in more exotic fruits and herbs typically found in Asian cooking.
By the time you’re finished doing as locals do at the market, you may be ready to have a bite to eat (although breakfast was probably filling enough).
There are so many great options all over town for a later lunch/brunch from Paragary’s outdoor courtyard in Midtown to long standing establishment Tower Cafe, known for their eclectic menu featuring french toast made with a baguette (their Mexican hot chocolate is A+). Tower Cafe is next to the venerable Tower Theater, with its classic movie house feel, it’s so perfectly Sacramento (and this where I saw Lady Bird).
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Sacramento has a very prominent art scene. Not only flush with murals and public art, there are fine museums in and around town. Crocker Art Museum is a diverse private collection with works from Wayne Thiebaud to Rembrandt. ~ 30 minutes away in Davis is the Jan and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum, a new endowed museum on the campus of UC Davis. There are pieces from Robert Arneson, Deborah Butterfield, and other past and present faculty members of the school. Davis is a yuppie-ville within a college town, and a stroll along downtown is worth your time.
For your last meal in town, you should try some of the ethnic fare that’s offered, notably some of the best and most authentic Japanese. Sacramento area had many Japanese settlers in the early 20th century, so there is a rich culture in this area preserved through the generations. Thus, there are some really great grocery stores (Oto’s), mochi makers (Osaka-ya), bakeries (Mahoroba). If you feel in the mood for Ramen, Shoki and Ramen Ryujin both feature broths that are full of depth. Shoki has gluten free noodles, Ryujin has black garlic oil. It’s a toss up. Both are located near R street corridor, which is starting to become more developed with bars and trendy eateries (Amaro, Philz Coffee from SF).
Skool is an import from SF that is seafood and nautical themed. There’s uni flan. That’s really what you need to know. Oh, the squid ink spaghettina is phenomenal, too.
Looking for an Izakaya or robata? Binchoyaki in Midtown has grilled razor clams and oysters and it’s a treat watching them grill any number of proteins on skewers on their little binchotan. Takumi Izakaya on J has the most umami bomb miso sake clams ever.
If sushi’s more your dig, join the Kru. Located in East Sac, this new space of a longtime Sacramento favorite serves the freshest sashimi with unique flair and authentic wasabi root.
If eating to your heart’s content didn’t convince you of the great destination Sacramento can be, I don’t know what will. And we didn’t even scratch the surface (we didn’t even hit up Stockton Boulevard for Vietnamese/Chinese food) — you’ll just have to come back; next time pack your stretchy pants.
Souvenirs: Ginger Elizabeth chocolates, Preservation sriracha salt, Blue Diamond nuts
Listen to: Cake, Deftones, Tesla and Papa Roach (apparently Sactown rocks out)
Sports: Kings (NBA), Republic FC (USL), River Cats (Minor League baseball)