Whether you're a history buff or a political junkie, a sun-worshipper or a locavore foodie, we've got a surprise destination that's perfect for you: Sacramento. Sure, California's State Capital may not get as much attention in the guide books as its more glamorous cousins to the north and south. But Sacramento's been quietly making a name for itself for well over a century: this is one the oldest cities in the state (with the architecture to prove it), the seat of California's government, and a magnet for chefs, farmers, artists, and musicians. And at less than two hours from San Francisco by car or bus, it's also a convenient getaway from the bustle (and the often-chilly weather) of the Bay Area.
Check out our two-day guide to making the most of a quick trip to Sacramento, and see for yourself why California's laid-back capital should be at the top of your must-visit list.
Morning: From San Francisco, it's about an hour-and-a-half drive (or a two-hour Megabus ride) along I-80 East to Sacramento. Along the way, you'll pass through the kind of rich green hillsides that remind you of the region's agricultural history – and present. You can also catch an Amtrak train directly to Sacramento after riding BART from downtown San Francisco out to Richmond.
Afternoon: Once you arrive in the capital, head straight for HI Sacramento. You can't miss the imposing Victorian mansion, standing proudly at the corner of H and 10th Streets behind twin palm trees. The hostel has on-site parking for your car, and is also easily accessible from both the Megabus drop-off point and the Amtrak station.
Drop off the car, the bags, and anything else you've brought along, and put on your walking shoes. Or, if you'd prefer, your cycling gear: hostel guests get 10% off rentals from nearby Practical Cycle. Just three blocks from the hostel, make your first stop along downtown's K Street, known as of late simply as "the Kay." Lined with shops, bars, entertainment venues, and public art, the Kay is also the perfect spot for lunch on a traveler's budget. Load up on burritos and tostadas at Alejandro's Taqueria, wolf down a giant sandwich from Hanna's Corner Deli, or go Mediterranean at Crest Café.
Stomach full and energy replenished, head one block over to L Street, then make a left. As you walk down the street, you'll see the sunlight glistening off the cupola of California's State Capitol building in the distance.
Once you arrive at the Capitol, walk right in through the main entrance like you own the joint. If you're a California resident, in fact, you do own the place: it's here that California's state assembly and senate meet to discuss and vote on legislation as directed by the people of California. Inside, the Capitol is incredibly ornate: built in 1906 and modeled on houses of the British government, the building is full of marble sculptures, richly colored carpets, enormous chandeliers, and architectural details painted in gold-leaf. You're free to walk around the building on your own, but it's worth taking a free guided tour instead. Tours start every hour on the hour between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., and give visitors an insider's look – and knowledge – into the assembly and senate meeting rooms, the walls of governors' portraits (no, Arnold Schwarzenegger's isn't up yet, though Ronald Reagan's is), and the countless instances of California symbolism woven seamlessly into the building's décor.
Whether you tour the building solo or with a group, be sure to take your time and marvel at the truly impressive artistic touches all around you, from stained-glass interpretations of the seal of California, to hidden grizzly bears (California's state animal) in the woodwork, to the jaw-dropping glass dome above your head.
If the weather's nice once you've finished your tour (and, with well over 200 days of sunshine a year in Sacramento, chances are it will be), walk around to the back of the building and into Capitol Park. The park is home to trees from all over the world and is full of shady patches of grass where you can sit and relax a while. Just in back of Capitol Park, the World Peace Rose Garden offers a peaceful respite full of benches and blooms.
From the State Capitol, it's a quick bike ride – or about a 15-block walk through a flat, residential neighborhood – to Sutter's Fort. John Augustus Sutter built the fort, with its two-and-a-half-foot-wide, 15-foot-high walls, around 1840, and today it's the oldest restored fort in the country. Sutter's better remembered, though, for owning a saw mill in nearby Coloma: it was on the site of that mill in 1848 that a carpenter named James Marshall discovered gold, changing the history of California forever.
These days, Sutter's Fort still looks much as it did in the 1840s, and visitors can take part in activities and tours around the fort to get the full historical effect. Just next door, the State Indian Museum displays a stunning array of jewelry, headdresses, instruments, weapons, and much more once used by California Native American tribes. (Check out our guide to the best of Sacramento's small, esoteric, and unique museums for more information).
If you need a pick-me-up after touring the fort, just pick your poison a few blocks away: Rick's Dessert Diner is an institution, with a classic 1950s-style interior and cases full of homemade tiramisu, cream puffs, chocolate cakes, and much more. Just next door, Midtown's new Der Biergarten pours 30 beers on tap and has plenty of communal tables in the sunshine for making new friends and working on your tan.
From Sutter's Fort, hop on your bicycle and cruise back down L Street in the opposite direction until you reach the American River Parkway. With miles of riverside biking and walking paths, views of Old Sacramento and the permanently anchored Delta King steamboat, and plenty of trees, it's the perfect place to cool off in the hours before the sun goes down.
Evening: For dinner, check out hostel staff favorite Bangkok 12, just a few blocks from the hostel, for high-quality Thai food at traveler-friendly prices. Or, stop by one of hostel General Manager Marc Johnson's favorite dining spots. About a 20-minute walk from the hostel, Assistant General Manager Casey Maloney recommends Burgers and Brew for world-class craft beer and award-winning patties.
After dinner, make a night of it on the town. Settle into the Naked Lounge or Marilyn's on K, each just a few blocks from the hostel, to hear live music in an intimate setting. To take your night a little further off the beaten path, check out HI-Sacramento front desk associate Bryan Biebl's favorite niche nightlife spots.
Morning: Grab your complimentary breakfast in the hostel's newly refurbished kitchen, then enjoy it while sitting in the mansion's gorgeous formal dining room. If you're visiting between May and September, keep food on the brain after breakfast and head straight to the day's nearest farmer's market. The Sacramento region is one of the state's most important agricultural hubs, and Sacramento shows off its bounty with some 50 certified farmers' markets all over the city and its surroundings.
If you're visiting outside peak farming season, you can still taste another product the city's quickly becoming known for: coffee. Within a few blocks of the hostel, both Temple Coffee and Insight Coffee Roasters pour high-quality, artistically styled brews in settings that make you want to linger.
Afternoon: Immerse yourself in the history of the state's oldest incorporated city on a guided walking tour. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership offers tours for all interests, highlighting everything from the city's classic architecture, to its works of outdoor public art, to the past and evolution of commercial thoroughfare K Street. Tours cost just $10 and run year 'round, so it's easy to fill up on all the history you like!
From April through December, you can also join tours that literally show you Sacramento's underground scene. In the early 1860s, Sacramento was battered by a series of storms so fierce that the American and Sacramento Rivers, which surround the city, flooded the streets for three months, killing thousands and doing immeasurable physical damage. The city learned its lesson and soon set about flood-proofing its streets by raising them by about ten feet. The network of underground "streets" and exposed foundations left behind today make for one of the city's most popular, and spooky, walking tours.
Finish off the afternoon on a cultural note by admiring works of fine art on display at the Crocker Art Museum ($10 admission is waived on the third Sunday of each month) or the Leland Stanford Mansion museum (free admission).
Evening: Back at the hostel, head to the kitchen to cook up whatever seasonal local flavors caught your eye at the morning market. Throw them together however you'd like in the hostel's fully equipped guest kitchen, then, if it's still warm outside, set a table on the back patio for an al fresco dinner.
Wind your night down with pool, foosball, and darts in the hostel's downstairs game room, or check out one of the local live music, pub quiz, or Roller Derby nights around town. We've got lots of events posted to the hostel's events calendar, and the hostel keeps a regularly updated list of each day's activities posted in the mansion's entryway, as well.
Finding that two days in Sacramento just isn't long enough? We can't blame you! For ideas on how to extend your trip, check out our guides to art-spotting and antiquing, museum-going, and summer celebrating in the State Capital.
Stay at HI-Sacramento, housed in a beautifully restored Victorian mansion in the heart of the State Capital.