Sacramento, the capital of California, may not get the media attention of the state’s coastal cities, but it has plenty to offer as a destination on its own. And for visitors on a budget (or locals who don’t get out enough), it has a plethora of fun, free things to do and see. There’s rich history and geography to explore, from architecture to museums to the local waterways. Lots of nature to enjoy, plus scenic drives. Public art and summer concerts. For (at least) 10 of our favorite things to do in Sacramento, read on.
History. The Old Sacramento historic area is a registered national landmark and state historic park on the banks of the Sacramento River. The 28-acre district is comprised of historic buildings constructed in the mid-1800s — the California Gold Rush era. The ambiance is enhanced with wooden sidewalks, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned candy shops and even a Mississippi-style riverboat converted into a hotel. Old Sacramento offers a multitude of free attractions, such as the B.F. Hastings Building (circa 1854), which houses part of the Wells Fargo History Museum. Here, docents in period costume present the history of the company, the Gold Rush era and early Sacramento development. Don’t miss the Huntington Hopkins Hardware Store Museum and Stanford Gallery or the charming Old Sacramento Schoolhouse. Because Sacramento was the Western terminus for the legendary Pony Express mail service, you’ll also want to work in a photo op at the monument to the short-lived but fabled endeavor.
More history. The California State Capitol Museum may be the best free tour in town. The capitol’s restoration took six years and $68 million. Guided tours highlight the Senate and Assembly Chambers, along with the Rotunda, tiled hallways and ornate staircases. The California Vietnam Veterans Memorial lies in Capitol Park, and was a $2.5 million project built entirely by donations. The newest addition to the landscape of the park is the International World Peace Rose Gardens. Dedicated in May 2003, the Victorian-designed garden features more than 800 roses of many varieties, scents and colors.The California Museum, celebrating the state and the people who helped make it what it is, is one of the city’s newer institutions. Its impressive Constitution Wall is accessible by entering the courtyard. Also, the California Museum has occasional free days and free workshops. Check them out online.
Oh, Nuts! Like almonds? You’ll love the Blue Diamond Visitor Center, which introduces visitors to the largest almond processing plant in the world. A 20-minute video (available in several foreign languages), tasting and gift shop are bound to give you a new appreciation for these healthful nuts. And you’ll see why they’re so expensive!
Famous folk and flowers. The Historic City Cemetery was established in 1849 and is the last resting place for more than 20,000 early Sacramentans, including John A. Sutter Jr., Edwin and Margaret Crocker, and railroad baron Mark Hopkins. Guided and self-guided tours are available. It’s also the site of a fabulous Historic Rose Garden, featuring more than 500 antique and heritage rose varieties that can be grown in the state.
Architecture. For memorable architecture, be sure to visit the 217-foot tower and Austrian stained glass windows at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Take a free guided tour or pick up a self-guided tour book for $5 and take your own. If you like church tours, be sure to check out the Tiffany stained glass windows and rare Johnson Tracker organ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. This 1903 Norman-style church looks like a 16th Century English church and is worth a stop.
Nature. The award-winning Effie Yeaw Nature Center is a cultural and environmental education resource situated on the American River Parkway in the suburb of Carmichael. The 100-acre preserve includes interpretive trails that wander through riparian oak woodlands where you may see coyotes, deer, migratory birds, wild turkeys and raptors . Many programs for kids and families are offered, including educational workshops, interactive exhibits and guided nature walks. There’s also a replica of a Maidu Indian summer village. It’s free, but donations are welcome.In winter, also can bird-watch to your heart’s content at Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area between Sacramento and Davis on Interstate 80. Officially classified as a Globally Important Bird Area, it provides habitat for a globally significant number of waterfowl. Check website for special events.
Art. Sacramento’s vibrant local art scene is showcased in Second Saturdays, a monthly tour of various galleries and art studios. Galleries stay open late and offer free refreshments for participants. La Raza Galeria Posada is a nonprofit cultural center celebrating the art and life of Chicano/Latino and native American peoples. Located in mid-town Sacramento, La Raza displays art and culture in the organization’s store, gallery and through community education. Sacramento also is home to more than 600 pieces of public art. You’ll find it in front of city and county buildings, the Sacramento International Airport and elsewhere outdoors. For more information about public art, including guided tours, contact the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.
Waterways. Folsom Lake is the region’s largest and most popular freshwater lake, enjoyed by hikers, bikers, swimmers and picnickers and well as boaters. A popular summer pastime is floating a six-mile stretch of the American River American River between Sunset Bridge and Riverbend Park in a raft or kayak. Wear a life jacket and check with local authorities for free life jacket stations along the shore. The 32-mile American River Parkway and bike trail hug the river’s shore and have many points of access. On the Sacramento River and the adjoining public lands you’ll discover a wide variety of fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife, and a wide range of recreational opportunities. Finally, don’t forget to walk across the iconic Tower Bridge and sample River Walk Park, where you’ll find the best view of Old Sacramento and the Sacramento skyline, near Raley Field at the base of the distinctive Ziggurat Building. This site also is home of the summer concert series, “Harmony on the River,” and the Riverbank Music Festival, which takes place in late September.
Scenic drives. Napa Valley, once the producer of many different crops, is known today for its wine industry. Take a day trip to the beautiful Napa Valley, an easy drive from Sacramento. The River Road leading south of town into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is best navigated in the daylight on dry pavement. You’ll pass numerous wineries and great little towns as you wind your way toward San Francisco Bay.
Summer specials. Every summer, the city enjoys a variety of free activities geared to kids and families. They include free concerts in neighborhood parks, free days at the zoo, free fishing days and much more. If you visit in June-August, check out the summer specials.
Finally, pick up a free copy of the Sacramento Visitors Guide at the Old Sacramento Visitors Center or at your hotel, or read a digital version online. Or check out Sacramento Magazine’s list of 50 Things You Must Do in Sacramento. The Mix 96 (local radio station) has a list of “96 Free Things to Do in Sacramento.” There are lots of fun and funky possibilities.