If you’re craving a mountain escape close to San Francisco or Sacramento, consider historic and artsy Nevada City. Just a short 2.5-hour drive from the Bay Area, Nevada City will grant you all the natural beauty and fresh air you’re looking for without having to spend hours upon hours in the car.
Nevada City, CA is a town that’s equal parts historic, funky, and adventurous. Ranging from active and exciting to more relaxed activities, you are sure to have a wonderful time during your stay here. Continue reading to discover some of the best things to do in Nevada City, CA!
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WHERE IS NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIA?
Nestled in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Foothills in Northern California lies the little town of Nevada City, CA. Nevada City is about a 1-hour drive from Sacramento, CA and only an 8-minute drive from an equally as fun to explore town called Grass Valley, CA.
This is a living, breathing California Gold Rush-era town with a lot of very interesting history. Because of where Nevada City is located, this old-timey Gold Rush town has plenty of history and nearby outdoor adventure to enjoy. Not to mention, there’s plenty of wine to enjoy in this part of wine country!
THE HISTORY OF NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIA
Founded in 1849, Nevada City quickly became a successful mining camp. Men commonly pulled a pound of gold a day from Deer Creek (a whole pound, can you believe it??). The camp quickly grew and miners had plenty of moolah to spend.
Saloons and gambling houses began to line the streets, but over time, families began to arrive and neighborhoods were established. After several names, the town eventually chose to call itself Nevada (and “City” was added after the state chose (or stole) “Nevada”.
Today, the town contains many charming structures and buildings that were constructed after a fire in 1863 destroyed the business district.
HOW TO GET TO NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIA
Nevada City, CA is about 1 hour from Sacramento, CA and 2.5 hours from San Francisco, CA. These two cities conveniently have international airports you could fly into. From either SFO or SMF, simply rent a car and make your way over to Nevada City, California.
We like to rent from Hertz. Why? Well with their Hertz Gold Plus Rewards program (completely free to join), you’ll get counter-free pickup at select locations, and even mobile alerts with your exact rental car and its location before you arrive. Book your rental car with them here!
Looking for stops to make along the way? Check out Sacramento, CA and Auburn, CA (both with historical mining significance). And whenever you see a vista point, feel free to pull over to stretch your legs and snap a few photos of the gorgeous landscape!
16 BEST THINGS TO DO IN NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIA
NEVADA COUNTY NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD MUSEUM
One of the most notable things to do in Nevada City is visiting the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. During 1874-75, a major project was taking place in Nevada County–a railroad was being constructed. Known as “Never Come, Never Go”, the Nevada City Narrow Gauge Railroad would play a major role in the community.
The NCNGRR brought in a variety of essential supplies from gold to timber. It also served passengers coming to and from the area. In operation for 66 years, the railroad shut down in 1942 due in part to the closure of the gold mines. As you can probably imagine, gold was one of its most important passengers (more than $200 million worth of gold had been hauled out during its years of operation).
Today, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum preserves and celebrates this important part of Nevada County’s history, along with other local transportation histories. Visitors can even ride a historic railbus from the museum to Northern Queen Inn, a 35-minute roundtrip ride.
EXPLORE THE DOWNTOWN AREA
One of our favorite things to do in Nevada City? Simply walking around the downtown area! As soon as you set your sights on the historic street, you’ll want to stop to take a bunch of photos of Broad Street.
There’s something to see or experience at every turn, from various shops to wineries, and museums to art galleries. We particularly enjoyed all the lifestyle shops, tea shops, and vintage shops. Just like the neighboring town of Grass Valley, Nevada City is also flourishing with vintage treasures!
Don’t miss the eco-emporium called Mama Madrones. If you love old-fashioned candy head to Nevada City Chocolate Shoppe. If you are a fan of art, don’t miss the opportunity to peek into the various art galleries in town.
SEE THE VICTORIAN HOMES
If the downtown area wasn’t enough and you want to get more of a feel for life in the 1870s, take a driving tour to view some of the best-preserved homes in the Gold Country. You will see tons of towering Victorians built for mine owners and lumber barons.
A good place to start is around East Broad and Broad (past downtown). Then head to Nevada and Boulder Streets. Don’t forget the side streets!
Firehouse No. 1 is perhaps the most-photographed building in Nevada City. When you pay Nevada City a visit, be sure to keep an eye out for the building. This building is actually a museum that offers a look into the world of mining as well as the Donner Party, Nisenan, and Maidu Indians. You’ll find that it houses really interesting pioneer clothing and furnishings that you can really learn a lot of history from!
RAFTING AND KAYAKING
Nevada County is known as being a world-class white water destination with ample offerings ranging from Class I to Class V. Downtown Nevada City is only a short drive from the South Yuba, American, Bear rivers. Looking for a whitewater rafting outfitter to tour with? Check out Tributary Whitewater Tours or H2O Adventures LLC.
Nevada City is also close to the Sierra Nevada range, which offers a ton of pristine mountain lakes for recreational kayaking and canoeing.
GO WINE TASTING
More than a dozen wineries have made the foothills of Nevada County their home, joining Amador, El Dorado, Napa and Sonoma counties.
For a few great options within the historic downtown Nevada City area, check out the following tasting rooms: Nevada City Winery, Szabo Vineyards and Clavey Vineyards.
For a chance to sample wines on-site or tour some wine facilities, head out on Highway 174 towards Colfax where you’ll find Montoliva Vineyard’s Tuscan-inspired fountains and herb gardens.
VISIT THE HISTORIC CHINESE AMERICAN CEMETERY
Located at the Inn Town Campground next to the Railroad Museum is the Historic Chinese Cemetery. This historic cemetery dates back to the late 1800s and contains well-preserved artifacts.
Back in its heyday, Nevada City had a large Chinese American community located in the northern part of the Old Town, located one block east of Main Street. Chinese American miners, farmers, lumberjacks, railroad workers, merchants, and various other laborers and tradespeople inhabited the Chinese American section of Nevada City.
While there were a lot of Chinese American cemeteries throughout California, the Nevada City Chinese American Cemetery is one of the few that still has a burner for paper money and other offerings. It’s so well-preserved that parts of its original fence and gate also remain!
CATCH A MOVIE IN TOWN
Film buffs need to check out the summer Nevada City Film Festival (Sept) or the winter Wild & Scenic Film Festival (Jan). There’s also the Sunday night film series at the Nevada Theatre and Movies Under The Pines at Pioneer Park.
NEVADA CITY FARMERS MARKET
I don’t know about you, but we love visiting farmers’ markets whenever we travel. We love waking up to a morning stroll among the locals with a coffee and local pastry in hand. The Nevada City Farmers Market has been supporting local farmers, ranchers, artisans, and the community since 2008.
The Nevada City Farmers Summer Market takes place every Saturday from May to December at 8:30am to 1pm, located at Union Street, Downtown Nevada City. There is also a Winter Market that takes place on the first Saturdays of the month from January to April. Get the latest market information on the NCFM website.
EAT AT THREE FORKS BAKERY & BREWING CO.
After a long day of exploration, cool down from the heat and the sun with some refreshing beers and a pizza at Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. This spot is a friendly, small-town restaurant where visitors and locals alike come for delicious, homemade food and beer.
They specialize in wood-fired pizza, sandwiches, soup, salads, beer brewed in-house, wine, pastries, and coffee. The food here is absolutely delicious and they’re known for their almond croissants that tend to sell out early in the morning.
VISIT THE EMPIRE MINE
The Empire Mine State Historic Park is one of the oldest and richest hard rock gold mines in California. Operating from 1850 to 1956, it produced billions of dollars in gold by today’s standards. This historic site is seriously beautiful and should be seen with your own eyes!
Today, visitors will find restored buildings, lushly landscaped areas, a Cotswold-style cottage, exhibits, an illuminated mine shaft, and a blacksmith shop. They also have some really cool special events throughout the year like the Holiday Open House, Springtime at the Mine, or the Miners Picnic (which has been held for over 125 years)!
While you’re there, get a taste of what the miners ate back in the day by enjoying a Cornish Pasty–many of the Empire’s miners were Cornishmen from Cornwall, England.
The mine is located 9 minutes from downtown Nevada City and is open daily.
VISIT GRASS VALLEY, CA
Grass Valley, CA is just 7-8 minutes away from Nevada City by car. While it’s less than 10 minutes away, this town has a completely different vibe from Nevada City, but there’s no shortage of artsy-ness and historical significance.
Start with a walk down Main Street and Mill Street, and take some time to visit the art galleries, cafes, and boutiques. You’ll find so many vintage shops and antique shops, as well as modern fashion boutiques and home decor stores. Don’t miss The Shops at the Nevada County Bank.
While you’re here, don’t miss Lazy Dog Chololateria, an adorable old-fashioned candy shop. Whenever we road trip, we always have this need to buy sour belts, so we were happy to have discovered this place!
Before leaving, stop by Cake Bakery for some iced drinks before hopping back into the car for Nevada City. If you have the appetite for it, grab a cake or pastry–they are absolutely delightful.
MALAKOFF DIGGINS STATE HISTORIC PARK
Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is located close to the Empire Mine State Park. So what’s so special about this spot? Well, Malakoff Diggins preserves the controversial story of hydraulic gold mining during the California Gold Rush.
Back in the day, hydraulic miners at Malakoff Diggins blew away entire hillsides with highly pressurized water in their search for gold, leading to erosion and silt runoff in Northern California rivers. This ultimately led to the state’s first environmental law.
The park is California’s largest hydraulic mining site. Visitors can see huge cliffs carved by the forces of water, the result of washing away entire mountains in exchange for the chance to find precious metals.
ENJOY A DAY BY THE SOUTH YUBA RIVER
Head to the South Yuba River State Park at Bridgeport for a wonderful day outdoors. Bridgeport offers interpretive history programs, docent tours, gold panning demonstrations, and much more.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day by the river or an exciting day panning for gold, there’s something to do here for every member of the family! You can even explore hidden swimming holes or hike amongst the trees and wildflowers.
For an easy family-friendly 2.5-mile hike, check out the Bridgeport Buttermilk Bend Trail, a popular wildflower hike from March to May. This trail also has lots of access to swimming holes!
With its gushing waters, deep emerald swimming holes, and forested natural beauty, South Yuba River State Park is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking to get out in nature.
Pro Tip: Summers can get pretty busy at South Yuba River SP, so if you want to avoid the crowds, visit during weekdays or early evenings.
RIVERHILL FARM BERRY U-PICK
Riverhill Farm features more than 40 varieties of seasonally available fruits and vegetables as well as flowers and the chance to pick your own berries! The farmstand is open from 3-6pm on Wednesdays and occasionally 9 – 11am Sunday mornings for U-pick berries during berry season. Learn more on their website.
ENJOY A SUMMER EVENT IN THE CITY
Nevada City and the surrounding area are buzzing with family-friendly events all summer long. Check out local events like Movies Under the Pines, California Worldfest, First Friday Art Walk, Nevada County Fair, Nevada City Summer Nights, Grass Valley Thursday Night Market, and Nevada City Film Festival.
If you’re visiting during the summer season, I recommend you check out the Nevada City events calendar before you arrive!
WHERE TO STAY IN NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIA
Looking to call it a night around Nevada City, CA? Broad Street Inn is one of the best options in Nevada City, CA.
Looking for more of a glamping experience? Inn Town Campground offers tent cabins perfect for glamping, as well as RV and tent sites.
The Holbrooke Hotel is a little gem of a place to stay in Grass Valley, which is only 7-8 minutes away from Nevada City by car.
We hope you enjoyed this post and found some fun activities to partake in at Nevada City, CA. With all there is to see and do, it’s hard not to fall in love with this place!